Some view them as prima donnas. Some marvel at how they can’t get over grudges against ESPN. Some consider them immensely talented and transformative figures in sports media.
There was evidence of all that Thursday as Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann reunited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the debut of “The Big Show.” That's what Patrick and Olbermann called the late-night “SportsCenter” they hosted for a large chunk of 1992 till 1997. They built up a large following with their way of taking viewers wryly through highlights. And they were happy to do the unheard of: poke fun at star athletes, and even their ESPN bosses.
But in a wide-ranging discussion at New York’s Paley Center, their yarns and recollections -- some hilarious, some poignant -- about their days together in Bristol weren’t the most interesting part.
It was their personalities together. Who were these guys? Except for a brief moment, Olbermann hardly seemed like the tempestuous guy who just got canned from Current TV and filed a blistering lawsuit against the network. And Patrick seemed as devoid of ego as an eighth grader unable to get a date.
Being around each other seemingly transforms them. They’re like brothers with genuine love for each other.
Olbermann is the more outgoing older one, the valedictorian, the star athlete, the one everyone can’t get enough of. Yet, he still looks to his younger brother for affirmation. Without that approval, it doesn’t matter how many fans he has.
Patrick has so much respect for his older brother, he’s happy to defer to him, willing to hand over the stage. He’s more secure and fine with playing second fiddle because he has confidence in himself.
(In reality, Patrick is slightly older than Olbermann.)
The wonderful chemistry they shared on air clearly wasn’t just for the cameras. As they brought entertainment into sportscasts with their sarcasm and repartee, Olbermann said they were “two kids having fun, trying to make the other one laugh.”
Now, 15 years after the “SportsCenter” tag team ended, they can’t say enough good things about each other. On Thursday, Patrick said when asked by people about working for Olbermann with his penchant for angering management and colleagues, he would tell them: “He’s the best teammate I ever had. And they were always shocked at that.”
Patrick offered some melodrama, albeit telling and heartfelt. You find out what someone is really like in “battle” and Olbermann is who you want to be in a foxhole with, he said.
“On the air, we (had) each other’s backs,” said Olbermann.
“I trusted him and I knew he trusted me,” said Patrick.
Evidence of their teamwork came one memorable night when Patrick’s microphone wasn’t working. As if it were planned, Olbermann reached over and attached his mike to Patrick’s lapel. When Patrick was done with his highlights, Olbermann wryly waved for it back.
A glitch became a stitch.
The two had such affection for one another, they would -- get this -- share. Imagine that at ESPN. The catchphrases “SportsCenter” anchors establish in pop culture are personal and valuable.
One day reading the wires, Patrick came across an intriguing name of a NASCAR driver: Dick Trickle. “I went, that’s my kind of race car driver,” he said.
Going forward, when mentioning NASCAR races, he’d cite the winner and always mention how Trickle did. On the night of the 1996 Daytona 500, Patrick may have said: “Dale Jarrett captured the checkered flag. Dick Trickle finished 43rd.”
It became a hit. But Patrick gave Olbermann permission to use it. Both agreed NASCAR results could not be reported without Trickle’s performance.
Unintentionally, Olbermann helped make Patrick a movie star. Olbermann turned down a role in Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore.” Patrick later saw Sandler at an NBA game and volunteered. He's now a regular in Sandler productions.
When Olbermann briefly moved to ESPN2 and “The Big Show” was split up, Patrick was distraught and had a difficult time warming to replacements. “I went through a funk,” he said. He thought Olbermann was “abandoning ship (and) management wanted to do this.”
Patrick said there were two defining moments at ESPN where his appreciation for Olbermann was secured. One was the failed microphone incident. The other was more serious and well-chronicled in the recently published ESPN oral history.
There are different sides to the story. But Olbermann and Patrick maintain management was not happy that they carved out their own identity by branding their version of “SportsCenter” as “The Big Show.”
(The origin was Olbermann joining ESPN from a local station in Los Angeles. His sports reports there were four minutes. He was now part of an hour-long show. During one commercial break, the worn-out Olbermann turned to Patrick and said it was a “big f*ck*ng show.”)
ESPN executives called the two into a meeting and railed against them, wanting the “SportsCenter” brand to take precedence. Olbermann pushed back.
Patrick was scared he wouldn’t have a job. He had kids. But as they walked out, Olbermann said: “F*ck ‘em.” Since then, irreverence hasn’t always worked for Olbermann at places like Fox, MSNBC and Current. Yet, somehow Patrick was comforted by his take.
Both Olbermann and Patrick say they were sort of in a cocoon in ESPN’s Connecticut studios. So, it took some time for them to realize how popular their show had become.
Their departures from ESPN have been the subject of some fascination. Olbermann was not happy in rural Connecticut, but says he was nonetheless emotional about leaving. So much so, he proposed to ESPN executive Howard Katz that they work out an arrangement where, for minimal pay, he would still do “The Big Show” on Sundays. No go. (Olbermann said his departure was actually amiable, but matters got worse in the wake of it.)
Patrick left years later after 18 at ESPN. He felt he had given his all to the company and it wasn’t “reciprocated.”
He's long wanted a call from ESPN just saying “we handled this poorly” -- but says, “I won’t get that call.” Part of him, though, hopes it doesn’t come because he competes against the channel with his popular radio show simulcast on TV and work at NBC.
Olbermann, for his part, is unemployed at the moment. A fitting metaphor: he showed up Thursday in a sweater, jeans and glowing Nikes after attending a baseball game. Patrick wore a suit.
As the revealing evening wrapped, there was a disappointing you-can-never-go-home-again backdrop. The likelihood of the two joining up on another ventire seems slim. They did for a while at NBC Sports. And, there were conversations about pairing up at the MLB Network, but any future gambit will never equal the appointment viewing of “The Big Show.”
“I’ll work with him anytime, anywhere,” Olbermann said of Patrick.
His track record indicates he wouldn't say that about anyone else. But that’s the kind of loyalty and good feeling true brothers have for each other.