By Dan Shanoff
In the offices of ESPN’s “Around the Horn” -- self-described on the day it was launched, 10 years ago this week, as “the show of competitive banter” -- there is a list.
I like to imagine that it is known as The List. It captures the entire history of the show: The career “record” of every participant.
There is Woody Paige, of course, the foundational “lovable and slightly wacky uncle.” There are the lifers, like Tim Cowlishaw and Bill Plaschke. There are the younger voices who accelerated the show’s growth, like Michael Smith and JA Adande. There is the beloved Boston contingent -- Bob Ryan and Jackie MacMullen. There is a record of Jay Mariotti and of the energizing talent who most benefited from the vacuum left by his exile, Bomani Jones. There are the folks who have ducked in and out over the years. Mark Cuban is on there, from his terrific performance. There is that most notable of all entries: “Lil Wayne: 1-0.”
And if you start and the top and stick with it all the way down to the very bottom -- keep going... no, keep going... -- you find this:
Dan Shanoff: 0-4.
When “Around the Horn” launched in early November 2002, I knew I wanted to be on the show. I didn’t exactly know how that would happen. It was kind of like when George Costanza pronounced that he could be the TV analyst for the New York Yankees. I actually found an old, boosterish email I sent to then-host Max Kellerman from the day after the show launched.
At the time, I was writing regularly for ESPN.com’s Page 2, but I knew I had a daily ESPN.com column launching in January of 2003 that fit with Horn’s (and PTI’s) ethos of daily quick-hit punditry. Was it such a leap that I could join the show? It certainly seemed that way, although I maintained this absurd notion straight out of “The Secret” that if I thought about it enough, maybe something would happen.
In February 2003, I opened my email to find a note from Kellerman:
Dan - I'm sitting at my desk just now and my producer... is at his desk, which faces mine. We're preparing for today's show, surfing the net. He suddenly says "whoever does this Daily Quickie does a great job. They get it." I told him you were a fan of the show, and that you emailed me to let me know, and he asked if I would drop you a note to let you know how much we liked your stuff. [The] Coordinating Producer [Bill Wolff]...wants to know if you're any good on T.V. If so, we'd like to have you on sometime. Where are you based?
The Coordinating Producer wants to know if you’re any good on T.V. If so...
I had never been on TV before, so when I answered affirmatively, it was not quite the truth. But I figured I would be good on TV -- the truth as a construct was not something that was proven, but merely yet to be proved.
Fast-forward 15 months. It is Thursday, May 20, 2004, and I am on the train from New York to DC to make my “Around the Horn” debut the next day. This is what I wrote at the time: “Down deep, I’m nervous. But down deep, I’m also confident I can DO this. 24 hours from now, when I’m on the train on the way home, we’ll see.”
Through the fits and starts that led to that moment, I tried to bridge the gap between “Are you any good on TV” and “I should be good on TV.” I set up a video camera in my apartment and used the show’s actual debate topics, looking into the lens and doing my best to find a voice. Was it “nebbishy Jewish guy?” Was it “confident Harvard MBA?” Was it the “bitchy knowingness” of my ESPN.com column?
Regardless, the next day, whether I was “good” or not became subordinate to simply -- finally -- getting the at-bat. “Are you any good on TV” would go from the theoretical to the actual.
I was on with regulars Paige, Mariotti and Cowlishaw. They were welcoming, but not without some good-natured on-air hazing. Running an octave higher than the rest of them, I appreciated Paige calling me “Topo Gigio” (a squeaky mouse character on Italian TV in the early 1960s).
Years later, I have such fond memories of the experience. It was so exciting, all of it. Sitting with producers as they contemplated the show’s rundown of topics. Thinking about what I would say in support of my arguments. Climbing onto Tony Kornheiser’s chair on the PTI set while the crew helped me with my make-up, earpiece and microphone. Taking a second, just before going on the air, to take in this moment I had wanted so badly for myself. Hearing the show’s lead-in music in my earpiece, with then-producer Bill Wolff -- who was more responsible than anyone for making this a reality -- whispering confidently over top of it: “Funfunfunfunfun....”
At the time of course, I felt differently: “I was not good,” I wrote in some post-show notes to myself. “I KNOW I was not good.”
“My points were herky-jerky and I was, at best a marginal participant in the ‘argument.’ I would say that the biggest thing that threw me off -- the thing you ‘can’t practice for,’ as the sports analogy might be -- was the speed of the argument.”
The whole “points” system is a gag -- a terrific metaphor to try to qualitatively quantify good (and bad) points made in a sports argument. The show’s signature “mute button,” of course, is brilliant -- as is the notion of eliminating panelists as the show progresses; it is a variation on catharsis for fans to see host Tony Reali, our representative, dictate terms to mouthy pundits.
To the extent that someone has to “win,” I think everyone on the show really wanted to see me win that first time out. That I didn’t is probably the gap between being “any good on TV” and actually being “good.”
Of my four appearances on the show, two moments stand out most.
The first is what truly might be judged the worst prediction in the history of televised sports punditry. I was on the show heading into the 2004 NBA Finals, and we made our predictions for the series between the Lakers and Pistons. I made an impassioned argument for a Lakers sweep. The Pistons, of course, memorably demolished the Lakers in five games.
The second came nearly 250 miles from the “Around the Horn” set in D.C. It is a vision of me standing on Broadway and 10th Street in New York City, fumbling with a newly bought pack of cigarettes. I don’t smoke, but after the hazing over my high-octave presentation on the first show, I decided it would be a short-cut to a more sonorous tone if I tried smoking. It was awful, and I was awful at it -- in the end, there was no getting around my signature lilt.
“Around The Horn” used to open with Kellerman -- then Reali, before the conceit was phased out -- proclaiming “These four things I know are true.” In that spirit, these four things I know are true about “Around The Horn”:
- The team of producers and crew, originally founded by Bill Wolff (who I'm indebted for taking the original leap of faith on me), now led by Aaron Solomon (equally supportive) and overseen by Erik Rydholm (on my personal Rushmore of professional admiration), are incredible, not just talented show runners but genuinely nice people. I didn’t fully appreciate how hard it is to produce a daily TV show until I crawled inside.
- Tony Reali is the most skilled on-air talent at the network. He was a fill-in host when Kellerman had a contractual dispute, and he turned Max (who was and remains a talent) into Wally Pipp, and in the process has made the show entirely his, with ever-increasing ratings to prove it. Wrangling the fast-moving conversation is not easy -- Reali makes it look easy.
- The show is better than it has ever been. When it first debuted, it got bludgeoned for its “why are you shouting at me?” vibe, which was more a function of blustery participants than the show conceit. But since then, it has steadily become more controlled and the level of discourse has improved along with it. Bringing in smart talent like Jones and, as recently as last week, Pablo Torre, will only help. In a great development, the regionalism of the show’s premise has been subsumed by the digitally facilitated universalism of smart sports analysis.
- I am extremely proud of my career 0-4 record. In at least one way, it is among my greatest personal achievements. Leaping over the “never been on TV” to “being a bonafide TV pundit” chasm was something I desperately wanted a decade ago, and buried in a box in my basement are the tapes of the shows to prove it really happened. Maybe someday I’ll get around to digitizing them and putting a few “greatest hits” onto YouTube.
Happy 10th anniversary to the Around the Horn crew. I am grateful to have been a small, winless, high-pitched and currently erstwhile piece of the show’s history. Here’s to another 10 years.
Dan Shanoff is the founder of Quickish and erstwhile panelist on ESPN's "Around the Horn," celebrating its 10th anniversary today. Follow him on Twitter at @danshanoff and reach him via email at dan-at-quickish-dot-com.