by Mike Waggoner, Buffalo Sports Page

Yes, I know it’s been awhile since I wrote one of these, but let’s just say there’s been some extra time on my hands, and this seemed like a timely story.

A world without live sports has been a tough pill to swallow. Silly to go any further than that, as it’s plainly obvious that although we don’t need sports to stay alive, they do serve a purpose. As a lot of people here in Buffalo would agree, even though this isn’t a mecca for NBA followers, ESPN’s “Last Dance”, the documentary series detailing the Chicago Bulls dynasty, has been nothing short of entertaining. It has to be the most candid we’ve ever seen Michael Jordan.

For anyone who began their TV careers like myself, as production assistants on Sportscenter out of college, this series has been extra memorable the past few Sundays. Talk about nostalgia. The creative time-machine-style of how it plays out really hits home. That period I always referred to as “media graduate school”. If we were fortunate enough, we received our Masters in Sports TV, although all of us graduated in different amounts of time, if at all. The flashbacks of that tape-heavy, pre-digital, pre-internet world ESPN was then is fascinating this many years later.

Wags’ Claim to Fame

If you asked any of us, we all would most likely have one “claim to fame” game or event that we were assigned to for night’s Sportscenter. It could have been a 20-inning extra inning roller coaster baseball game, Brett Favre’s 4 touchdown MNF performance after his father died, Wayne Gretzky’s game when he broke Gordie Howe’s all-time goal record, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic final race, or any of Tiger Woods’s countless dramatic Sundays. The list is endless.

For me, I was lucky enough to hit the jackpot — Michael Jordan’s Flu Game in the 1997 NBA Finals. Again, lucky enough. You don’t really know what is going to happen in any game. How you get it was a mix of who was scheduled when, and what duties were needed when on what show. A production assistant could perform a whole bunch of assignments on Sportscenter — from graphics, to running teleprompter, to the majority of us who were assigned to watch games and cut highlights. Probably 99 out of 100 games were NOT all that special, but you were asked to make them special, and rightly so. That’s what made Sportscenter, well, Sportscenter.

The Flu Game

June 11, 1997, 4 days before my 24th birthday, although I didn’t realize it, I wouldn’t have to worry about how special the game was. I entered screening (the room where all games and events were watched by PA’s) at about 4pm. As I approached the desk where PA assignments were given, then Highlight Supervisor Charlie Moynihan said “Wags… you, me, and Boo Ya on the NBA game tonight.” Bulls at Jazz. NBA Finals. Game 5. We all knew Michael Jordan was already reported to be suffering from flu-like symptoms at that point, so there was an added story line already built in. A mix of excitement and nerves developing in yours truly.

To be handed the big game that day was no doubt a privilege and honor, especially looking back on working with Stuart Scott. I would not consider myself the best of PA’s, although I clearly was seasoned enough to do a good job. I also was passed over for promotion enough to maybe screw it up, at least that’s what goes through your head sometimes. I did have a small advantage on this night. It was a Wednesday, during the summer, which meant ESPN had a double-header of MLB before Sportscenter could go on the air. Crazy to think that America did not see the highlights of MJ’s flu game until 1:30am or so in the morning on the East Coast. It was a different world 20 years ago, no more evident than in today’s sports news cycle.

So what this meant was I could essentially watch the entire game, or at least most of it, and be in close contact with Stuart, as Charlie and myself put the highlight together. Normally, when Sportscenter would begin at 11pm et, this highlight would be airing as soon as the game concluded, which would have been most likely during the 11pm hour at some point. Any highlight in this situation would require what we referred to as a “babysitter”, which would be a PA who would take over watching the game, logging it, and communicating any must-haves in the highlight, while the PA assigned to the game worked with the editor building the entire highlight package from the first shot forward in the edit bay.

A Boo-Ya Biggie

As I mentioned, it did ease the pressure by not having the time urgency on a normal night, but this was a big game nonetheless (obviously). You add to that, Stuart’s relationship with Michael Jordan, both UNC graduates. You knew he would “bring it” on the highlight read, but was expecting us to do our part on our end. I do remember Stuart called down to me on the phone as I watched the game to make sure a few shots were included, and also came into the edit room as the editor and I worked, so when the highlight ran, it wouldn’t be the first time he was seeing it. I believe the shot-sheet was about 10 pages (4 “stacked” shot descriptions fit on each page of a panel-like shot sheet, which meant nearly 40 plays.) You had to deliver an accurate, but basic shot-sheet for Stu, which would properly set him up so he could apply his one-of-a-kind style.

What made this process most memorable was the drama unfolding in this game as we were watching, but we were working at a fast pace, trying to stay focused. The game spoke for itself, no need to be extra creative. Stu handled that like only Stu could. I think we succeeded in delivering a highlight that represented MJ’s famous Flu game, and it goes down as one of Jordan’s most memorable performances, in a game many people felt he wouldn’t be able to play in, let alone finish. Once the night was finished, and I entered my tapes into the library system, and re-typed my log into the epic NESBIT computer system, probably getting home around 4am. Business as usual. I probably Thursday was assigned the Brewers-Marlins match-up the next night.

If you asked any production assistant from that era, one of the most rewarding experiences for any of us would be going to a bar or restaurant nearby, after a 10-hour PA shift, to watch the highlight you just put together, on the TV’s, whether voiced by Dan Patrick, Keith Olberman, John Buccigross, Karl Ravech, Linda Cohn, Steve Levy, Rich Eisen, Stuart, or anyone else. Your game basically, and your work being broadcast to millions. Many of us did 100’s, some even 1000’s of these. It was the late Robin Williams who once said “if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there.” I think if you were in Bristol at ESPN in the 90’s, in the midst of the chaos of what it was like in the center of ESPN’s highlight screening area, you’ll never forget being there.

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