Longtime ESPN Host John Saunders Dies at 61

PHOTO: John Saunders poses on the set of "The Sports Reporters" in Bristol, Conn., May 12, 2013.PlayJoe Faraoni/ESPN Images/AP Photo
WATCH Beloved Sports Broadcaster John Saunders Dies

John Saunders, one of the familiar on-air faces of ESPN for nearly 30 years, has died. He was 61.

Saunders hosted studio and play-by-play programming. He covered college football, basketball and the NHL for the network, in addition to anchoring SportsCenter. He was also host of The Sports Reporters.

Born in 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 prominent broadcasters of his time.

Saunders was a founding member of The V Foundation for Cancer Research and served on its board of directors.

"John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades," John Skipper, president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, said in a statement. "His wide range of accomplishments across numerous sports and championship events is among the most impressive this industry has ever seen. More importantly, John was a beloved and devoted family man who cared deeply about people and causes, as evidenced by his long-standing efforts as a passionate board member for The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

"He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family, as a colleague and mentor, and he will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this extremely difficult time."

Saunders joined ESPN in December 1986 to anchor SportsCenter. He also became a regular voice on college basketball and the WNBA and hosted ESPN's coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs from 1993 to 2004. He also worked on coverage of the World Series and Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of John Saunders," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "As the studio host of NBA Shootaround, 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.

"His achievements in journalism are matched only by his commitment to his community, particularly his service as a founding member of the V Foundation. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Wanda, their two daughters, Aleah and Jenna, and the entire Saunders family during this difficult time."

Dick Vitale, a longtime colleague of Saunders, said his friend "represented everything that was good in a human being."

"He was all about family and helping people," Vitale said. "He was as good as it gets and he had deep loyalty and love for others. His work with The V Foundation was so special -- he loved Jimmy V and poured his heart and soul into the cause. He was always willing to share and give, and he played a vital role in the success of helping so many. I can't believe this stunning and horrible news. He will be forever in our thoughts."

Other on-air colleagues of Saunders at ESPN took to social media to express their sorrow.

Western Michigan honored Saunders, as well.

Saunders' survivors include his wife, Wanda, and daughters Aleah and Jenna.

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