Odd Man In

Keith Olbermann helped turn ESPN's 'Sports Center' into the big show it is. How he ended up its top competitor on Fox highlights the games that life plays.

June 03, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

To be Keith Olbermann these days is to live your life as one giant plot point out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

In sports arenas and on billboards across the country looms the disembodied head of Olbermann, the wise-cracking anchor of Fox Sports News' nightly broadcast. Accompanied by some Olbermann bon mot or another, it floats there to draw fan attention to Fox and away from ESPN, Olbermann's former employer.

For the bespectacled Olbermann, it calls to mind a major metaphor out of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby": a pair of eyes with glasses on a billboard in Long Island in the 1920s used as ad for an optician.

"Now, every time I see my own face, I think of this judging pair of eyes that sees all, in every ballpark," Olbermann chuckles. "All of a sudden, I'm this never-sleeps, Argus-kind of monitor of behavior: If you go to a ballpark, I'm watching you. I never even blink. It's an experience everyone should have for a day, because you go through the gamut of emotions. It is surreal."

If seeing your head on the boards of a hockey rink in Pittsburgh or filling an on-deck circle in Portland is weird, try seeing your life played out on a weekly television series. One that's not your own, that is.

That's just another aspect of life for Olbermann these days. ABC's new comedy-drama "Sports Night," a critically acclaimed but low-rated show about life on the set of a cable sports news program, has eerily reminded Olbermann of things that happened during the days when he was helping redefine the genre at ESPN's "SportsCenter."

Aaron Sorkin, "Sports Night's" creator and executive producer, admits to having borrowed many themes and concepts from "SportsCenter." And now he's asked Olbermann to do a cameo next season.

"If I do this cameo, it will be like a third level of reality," said Olbermann. "My life as seen through my mirror from my book and translated through this guy and I act on the show.

"That's very strange," he says. "It's almost like Hitchcock appearing in his films."

Even Hitchcock might have had trouble devising the plot twists and turns that Olbermann's career has taken over the past two years. In short, he has bounced from cult-hero status at "SportsCenter" to disillusioned host of a prime-time news show specially created for him on MSNBC to a happy resurrection in sports news with Fox. Beginning this weekend, that job that includes a major plum -- anchoring the broadcast channel's Major League Baseball coverage. (Olbermann's host of Fox Saturday Baseball at 1 p.m. on Channels 45 and 5.)

"It's not unfamiliar territory," said Olbermann, a baseball historian. "If they said, `Hey, we've had enough of [football pre-game host Terry] Bradshaw on the football show, and we want to replace him, that would be a departure. That would be a train wreck."

Olbermann, who worked his way up the ranks doing time on at local stations in Boston and Los Angeles, started his long, strange trip in network entertainment at ESPN in 1992. Teamed with Dan Patrick, he helped make the nightly 11 p.m. "SportsCenter" one of the hippest hours on television.

With Olbermann playing the self-described "demented guy living in the basement" to partner Patrick's dry, straight-man routine, the pair boosted what they jokingly called "The Big Show" to unparalleled critical and ratings heights. Their sportscast was named the fifth best show in all of television for 1995 by TV Guide.

But Olbermann, privately described by some former colleagues as temperamental, regularly clashed with ESPN management on a number of issues. The last straw came in the summer of 1997, when Olbermann made an unsanctioned appearance on "The Daily Show," a Comedy Central program hosted by another ESPN expatriate, Craig Kilborn.

During a bit on the show, Kilborn (who now hosts CBS' "Late, Late Show") asked: "What's the most godforsaken place on the East Coast?" to which Olbermann, with a smirk, responded, "Bristol, Connecticut." That's the town where ESPN has its headquarters.

"I have yet to get a fruit basket from Kilborn saying, "Thank you for making my career and here's a percentage of the CBS deal,' " Olbermann says jokingly. "I mean, that put him on the map."

Whatever that quip did for Kilborn's career, it didn't help Olbermann's -- at least immediately. ESPN suspended him for two weeks. By the time he returned, he says, he believed that while "SportsCenter" was perfect, its surroundings and ESPN management were not.

So, Olbermann -- who does not drive and chafed at having to live in Bristol, where lifestyle options are somewhat limited -- approached ESPN management about restructuring his deal. He wanted to do just the Sunday show, and be permitted to free-lance for other outlets. The idea was rejected, and instead the company let him out of his contract altogether.

Forgive his insecure immodesty, but Olbermann thinks that decision was a crucial one for ESPN. As he sees it, the network not only weakened its own franchise product, but opened the door to competition.

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