The plan for March 11 was to go live for two or three minutes, not for a full show. ESPN carried an NBA doubleheader, so “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt headed to the studio in Bristol, Connecticut, to anchor a short “fill segment” between the games.
Before long, he found himself behind the desk during an unprecedented night in American history.
“A trainer from the Thunder came sprinting onto the floor at 8 o’clock Eastern time in Oklahoma City and said, ‘Stop the game,’ and that essentially stopped everything in our country,” Van Pelt said.
That’s no exaggeration. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the new coronavirus minutes before his teammates were supposed to tip off against the Thunder, the ensuing domino effect marked a turning point in the country’s view of the pandemic. The Jazz-Thunder game was postponed, then the NBA suspended its season. Every other major sport did the same the following day, and soon schools were closing and major events were called off.
Van Pelt, the Montgomery County native and University of Maryland alumnus who’s been one of ESPN’s leading personalities for the better part of two decades, stood at the precipice of all this — in the important but unenviable position of anchoring the network’s coverage of the sports world going dark.
Since then, Van Pelt’s usual late-night editions of “SportsCenter” have responded to the barren sports landscape with new features like the “Senior Night” segment and a generous helping of honesty with his viewers.
“I think people’s inability to cope with the boredom — and they’re at their wit’s end two weeks in — well, you better find more wit to be at the end of,” Van Pelt, 49, said in an interview. “There’s so much more of this to come. And I say that for myself. I have no idea how we’re going to keep doing shows.”
Sports world gone dark
As the impact the pandemic was about to have on the sports world became clearer, Van Pelt calmly directed traffic on the “SportsCenter” set, asking questions as he thought of them to national basketball reporter Adrian Wojnarowski and Thunder reporter Royce Young. No commercial breaks for more than an hour.
Van Pelt credited his producers for ensuring he was never put in a helpless position where he didn’t know what was coming next.
“It felt a bit like one of those old-timey kind of cartoons, where Bugs Bunny is asleep and Bugs is walking on the edge of a skyscraper and should step off the edge, but as he’s going to step off, like, here comes a beam. Know what I mean?” Van Pelt said. “They kept putting a beam in front of me to walk on.”
In the weeks since, sports coverage around the U.S. has been pretty uniform: cancellations, postponements, reports of when leagues think they might be able to return. Van Pelt interviewed Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred on March 25, the night before what would have been the sport’s opening day.
Although much of it revolved around how baseball might fit in a condensed season later this year, Van Pelt didn’t let other topics fall through the cracks: He made sure to ask the commissioner about the currently-unreleased report on the 2018 Boston Red Sox and their alleged, illicit sign-stealing.
Van Pelt hasn’t had to change his approach to the job. He remains measured, never hysterical. But in terms of content, no one knows what the sports news landscape will look like a month from now.
“If it does reach a point where we’re out of ammo, I guess they’ll let someone else come in and take a crack at it for a while just to give us a mental break or something,” Van Pelt said. “But it’s only a couple weeks in. We can figure some stuff out.”
Closure for senior athletes
With March Madness and some high school tournaments canceled and plenty of spring sports seasons shot as well, many college and high school seniors’ athletic careers ended without warning.
Van Pelt’s mind turned to those athletes for whom everything jolted to a halt; he wanted to recognize them somehow on “SportsCenter.” Soon he learned that ESPN social media employees were discussing a similar idea. It led to the launch of “Senior Night.”
That Friday, Van Pelt asked his Twitter followers to submit amateur athletes’ stories, videos and photos with the hashtag #SeniorNight. More than 1,000 replies had poured in after three hours; ESPN later said it surpassed 10,000 submissions in the first two weeks.
There was the occasional haughty response reminding him that sports weren’t important during a deadly pandemic. They didn’t slow the project down.
“People’s seasons have just ended and they’re not gonna have any closure at all. So what can we do for people to just acknowledge that?” Van Pelt said. “Two things can be true at once. We can all understand in the grand scheme that it’s not the worst thing in the world. Everyone gets that.”
In each Van Pelt-anchored show since March 15, they’ve run the “Senior Night” segment and spotlighted athletes from at least a dozen sports. For some, having their photos and achievements appear on national TV was a thrill they never could have expected. And Van Pelt considers it among the most gratifying things he and his crew have ever done.
Some local examples included a high school pitcher from Maryland named Magnus Dunn, a George Mason baseball captain, seniors on the Navy men’s lacrosse team and Terrapins guard Anthony Cowan.
Known for his unabashed school pride, Van Pelt attended some Maryland games last season and had Cowan in mind when brainstorming what the segment would look like. Cowan did have his senior day, which he commemorated by leading the Terrapins to a win and a share of the Big Ten title.
“Even as perfect as that picture was, that perfect ending,” Van Pelt said on air, “the reason for this segment is even if you got a proper celebration, having it end out of nowhere is the one thing that none of us can do a thing about.”
Bringing ‘SportsCenter’ home
Van Pelt’s roots are in the D.C. area: Born in Brookeville, Maryland, he attended Sherwood High School and headed to College Park from there. The University of Maryland has a nationally-ranked journalism program, but Van Pelt will gladly point out that that wasn’t his major.
“I take great pride in the fact that I couldn’t get into the journalism school when I went there, and now I’m on the board of visitors,” Van Pelt said. “I love to tell the kids that, and I tell them that just to point out that ‘If I can make it, anyone can,’ kind of a deal. Because that’s absolutely true.”
Later this year, he plans to make the District his full-time home again. He reached an agreement with ESPN to move his editions of “SportsCenter” to a studio where the network also shoots the debate show “Pardon the Interruption,” within the ABC News bureau near Farragut North. Van Pelt wanted to be closer to his aging mother. In straightforward terms, he called it moving home.
He aims to be settled in by late August or early September. That’s partly to coincide with football season — whether football starts on schedule is a question for another day — but more importantly so he and wife Stephanie can make sure their three children, 6-year-old Lila, 4-year-old Sam and 2-year-old Charlie, can start on time at a new school.
For now, Van Pelt and his family are practicing social distancing like the rest of us, staying at home and looking after the kids — who are at the age where they’re learning “not to bite people,” he said. Because Van Pelt still must leave home for work, he lends a hand with daily tasks like taking care of shopping or picking up dinner while he’s already out.
In Bristol, ESPN is working with the most bare-bones crew it can so that not too many people are in the room at a time.
“It’s completely abnormal,” Van Pelt said, “because there’s no one there and what we had to cover is not obviously what we’ve typically had.
“Not one thing feels normal. Not one thing.”