If ESPN’s just been any part of your life the past 25 years, you’re bound to know Kenny Mayne.
You probably didn’t know he was a college quarterback at UNLV, later to be offered a three-year deal by the Seattle Seahawks until they realized a horrible injury to his right ankle never really healed.
But you may well know he’s on the way out at ESPN after 27 years and the mere fact he’s leaving is enough to tempt one into writing something universal and perhaps not true; something like, “The sports highlight as we have known and loved it has died,” because Mayne’s departure makes it feel like it has.
In a first-person story Mayne wrote for the Los Angeles Times, he explained how ESPN, having used him as feature-producing stringer, not long after he’d sent a purposely comical letter asking if the network would ever hire him full time, wound up offering exactly that on April Fools Day, 1994.
It was no joke, Mayne took the job, then went about becoming an absolute star in 1997 when he took over for the seemingly irreplaceable Keith Olbermann on SportsCenter, alongside Dan Patrick. That is, unless you watched RPM Tonight, the long gone all-things racing show Mayne made great fun for gear-heads and non-gear-heads alike. If you watched that, maybe he was already a star.
“Offbeat Mayne gets key slot on SportsCenter,” read the Baltimore Sun headline, back when big newspapers could still print money and used some of it to hire reporters to cover sports media the same way they might cover a team. And, the thing about it, if you’ve forgotten, it really was big news.
Olbermann and Patrick’s version of SportsCenter — “The Big Show” — had taken over the world.
They may have been the last to know it, but they’d become more famous than most of the athletes whose highlights they presented and, more than that, deserved to be because they’d entirely re-invented the medium. They were fantastic and hilarious writers and performers of scripts they’d written on the fly, right up to the moment they went on the air.
Mayne, on SportsCenter, performed the impossible.
Like Van Halen getting a hold of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” or Hendrix grabbing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” he actually improved upon what Olbermann left behind.
He might not have been as smart or historically grounded, but he was outrageously funny, hugely entertaining, entirely hilarious; dryly understated or outrageously overstated, either one, it didn’t matter
Recently, Mayne had returned to SportsCenter with more regularity than viewers had been allowed to enjoy for years and it was fabulous.
Finding vintage clips of him in his SportsCenter salad days is surprisingly difficult. Still, Google up “Kenny Mayne Yahtzee” and you’ll get the idea.
There’s a podcast called “The Press Box” hosted by a couple of writers, Bryan Curtis and David Shoemaker. It’s the kind of podcast that discusses things like Mayne’s departure.
It was already understood Mayne was not upset with ESPN; that he had explained ESPN was open to keeping him at roughly 40 percent of his previous salary and that Mayne he made it clear that he got it, no hard feelings. But in a world in which Mayne was only worth 40 percent of what he’d once been, he was choosing not to work at ESPN any longer.
A couple minutes into the discussion, Curtis said something really smart.
“We’re really mourning two things,” he said. “It sucks that he’s not going to be on ESPN any more. It also sucks that ESPN isn’t set up any more that it’s a showcase for Kenny Mayne.”
Once there was Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott, Craig Kilborn, Rich Eisen and Chris Berman, before Berman became Mr. NFL and you might actually find him anchoring SportsCenter.
They caught you up, gave you everything you’d missed that day at work, with your family, whatever put you out of sports touch, and they were dynamite in the studio, hilarious without being mean or overbearing, over-serious or over-everything but themselves.
Now it’s the network of conjecture and overtalk, a la Steven A. Smith, Max Kellerman and their imitators limited to one sport on shows like NFL Live and The Jump; as well as the network of the tiniest pieces of actual news, served up by the likes of Adam Shefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, who, despite being fabulous reporters — they break big news, too — are so frequently used to provide fuel to shouting matches of no consequence that only pretend to be relevant.
The fun, such that there’s any, is left to the late night anchors who, still, thank goodness, deliver an hour that, sort of, gives us what we used to get from the legends.
Neil Everett, Stan Verrett, John Anderson, now that Mayne’s leaving, are left to fight the good fight, left to give us scores and highlights with panache and class, style and humor.
Mayne was the best of them, the link to a different time and a glorious past; the driest, the funniest, occasionally the most outrageous, the best.
Sticking around to fulfill his contract, his last show is Tuesday and there should be guests.
“Viewer discretion is advised,” Mayne Tweeted.
No doubt, it will be endorsed by Fred McGriff.