With Unitas, other 49 choices, ESPN leaves itself wide-open

MEDIA WATCH

June 11, 1999|By Milton Kent

When Mike Antonoro, the ESPN senior producer in charge of the "SportsCentury" project, was told that the ranking of Colts legend Johnny Unitas as the 32nd-greatest athlete of the 20th century might strike Baltimoreans as too low, he could only muster a weary chuckle of resignation.

"Well, he's ahead of Mickey Mantle," said Antonoro. "There are lots of people in New York that think [ antle] should have been ranked a lot higher than 37th. That's always going to be a tough call. Who do you rank and where?"

Through the yearlong "Sports- Century" endeavor -- rumored to have a budget into the millions -- ESPN has sought to mark the greatest sporting achievements of the previous 99 years in a number of ways, including daily one-minute recollections of notable events occurring on that day, "SportsCenters" for each decade and shows to honor great coaches, teams and dynasties.

But no part of "SportsCentury" has drawn more commentary than the weekly countdown that marks the 50 greatest athletes as voted by a panel of sports figures and journalists.

If it isn't controversy over ranking Secretariat as an athlete, it's a flap about whether O. J. Simpson's notoriety for his trial on two murder counts should eliminate him from consideration, not to mention the rankings themselves.

What may salve the wounds of the disaffected are the half-hour programs that introduce each person on the list, such as this week's Unitas effort, a marvelous telling of the life and times of one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

The show, airing tonight at 10: 30, begins, correctly enough, with the 1958 league championship game between the victorious Colts and the New York Giants. The 23-17 overtime classic not only defined Unitas as a courageous leader, but also seared the NFL into the nation's consciousness.

"That game put football on the map. That made it the Sunday institution, and Johnny Unitas was that game," said Antonoro.

The show, which includes interviews with Unitas and a number of his former teammates and other figures, chronicles his beginnings in his hometown of Pittsburgh as a child whose father died at a young age, through his attempt to catch on with the Steelers and his remarkable Colts career.

To strike a proper balance, there are also references to Unitas' chilly relationship with former Colts coach Don Shula, the sad end to his playing days and his post-career financial struggles. By the program's end, Unitas is seen as neither an overly mythical or tragic figure, but a human one.

The show will be re-aired on ESPN, Sunday at 8 a.m., 12: 30 p.m. and midnight, with another airing next Wednesday at 12: 30 a.m., and next Friday at 4: 30 p.m., with a presentation on ESPN2 next Thursday at 9: 30 p.m.

Just wondering

After listening to "Sports Junkies," here are three words for WJFK (1300 AM) general manager Ken Stevens: Are you serious?

Around the dial

The scene for the Stanley Cup finals shifts from Dallas to Buffalo and so does the telecaster, as ESPN takes over for Games 3 and 4. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement will call the action, with Darren Pang and Brian Engblom serving as reporters from ice side. John Saunders and Barry Melrose will anchor the "Quest for the Cup" pre-game show and between-periods segments from Buffalo, starting tomorrow at 7: 30 p.m.

If Indiana wins tonight's sixth game of the NBA Eastern Conference championships (Channel 11, 9 p.m.), the seventh game would air Sunday night, with "NBA Showtime" commencing at 7 p.m.

Speaking of NBC, we've just about given up hope that they'll do the right thing and put the score and clock on the screen at all times, but it's not too much to ask that tip-offs for 9 p.m. starts take place closer to 9 and not 9: 20.

The nation gets three looks at the Orioles, who meet the Braves in Atlanta, and one can only hope -- after Wednesday night's tiff -- they'll be on their best behavior. Besides Channel 13, tonight's game airs on TBS. Tomorrow afternoon's Fox game (Channel 45, 1: 15 p.m.) will find Orioles manager Ray Miller wearing a microphone, though his remarks will be screened and aired on tape delay. On Sunday, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller will call the game for ESPN at 8 p.m.

The College World Series gets under way today with an ESPN doubleheader, as Alabama meets Oklahoma State at 3: 30 and Miami takes on Rice at 7: 30, with Harold Reynolds, Gary Miller and Mike Patrick doing the broadcast honors. CBS (Channel 13) will get tomorrow's Florida State-Texas A&M game at 1: 30, and former Oriole Joe Carter makes his network broadcast analyst debut.

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