John Saunders, a familiar face for fans of ESPN, has died. He was 61.
Saunders hosted studio and play-by-play programming on the sports network for 30 years, covering college football, basketball and the National Hockey League in addition to anchoring SportsCenter. He was also host of “The Sports Reporters.”
A native of Canada, Saunders was an all-star defenseman in the junior hockey leagues of Montreal. He played at Western Michigan and Ryerson Polytechnical in Toronto before becoming one of the most popular broadcasters of his time. Saunders joined ESPN in 1986 to anchor SportsCenter, but would become a regular voice on college basketball and the fledgling WNBA, as well as hosting ESPN’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs from 1993 to 2004. Saunders also covered the World Series and the Major League Baseball All Star Game.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of John Saunders,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “As the studio host of the ‘NBA Shotaround,’ a play-by-play announcer for nationally televised NBA and WNBA games, and one of the Toronto Raptors’ first television voices, John was a vital member of the NBA family for more than two decades and was a friendly and familiar face to our players and fans.”
Dick Vitale, a longtime colleague of Saunders, said his friend “represented everything that was good in a human being.” Saunders was also known for his work with the Jimmy V Foundation, named after the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, which has distributed more than $130 million in cancer research grants.
ESPN President John Skipper released a statement: “John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades. He was one of the most significant and influential members of ESPN, as a colleague and mentor, and he will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this extremely difficult time.”
Saunders, who was found dead Wednesay in New York, had spoken publicly about his battles with depression. He recently co-wrote a book with John U. Bacon called “Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope” about his mental challenges. It is scheduled to be released in April 2017. According to a description of the book, Saunders “confesses his constant battle with depression and how it nearly cost him his life.” The book “welcomes readers into the heart of his desperate struggle against depression; from insights into the illness’ root causes to the nature of modern treatments, from both a medical and cultural perspective.”
Saunders is survived by his wife, Wanda, and daughters Aleah and Jenna.