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The Big Picture: Ex-Penn Stater gets war story for ESPN

Thursday, April 03, 2003

This was Lisa Salters, reporting live over the telephone yesterday from Qatar. "I'm packing. I'm coming home. I'm very happy about that."

So very happy, after 3 1/2 weeks on war assignment for -- say what? -- ESPN, that she repeated this theme three times in a 17-minute conversation.

That's up there on the Happy Scale.

Orange level, I believe.

What was a former Penn State women's basketball player (circa 1986-87) and Anthony Dorsett's cousin and a sports reporter doing in a place like the middle of a war?

The Worldwide Leader in Sports decided to cover, well, other stuff. That's why it hired Salters from ABC News a couple of years ago, bringing her newshound abilities to the toys and games department. Before she went on a two-week vacation to Brazil, the ESPN bosses called her up in Los Angeles and informed her that they were sending her to something completely different from the Rae Carruth trial or that Ohio U. basketball player with the diabetic-blind mother.

Fear not for Salters, who survived Rene Portland as a walk-on and the record-setting fact that she remains Penn State's shortest player ever, at 5 feet 2. She braved bullets as a street TV reporter in Baltimore. She covered for ABC famine and civil wars in Rwanda and Somalia. "People with machine guns walking the streets," she recalled. "It was like 'Mad Max.' I think I was in more danger there."

On this war assignment, she mostly reported from the confines of Centcom, the Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar (which today, I believe, is pronounced like that old Gabe Kaplan sitcom, "Welcome Back Qatar"). She stayed in a hotel. She drove to work each day in a car.

Then, the past six days, she and the ESPN crew stayed on the USS O'Kane and Constellation in the Persian Gulf off the Kuwait coast, working on stories, sleeping in the sailors' cramped quarters (she was in the women's berth), eating the same food. ... Ack. I'm getting sick just writing about it.

Yet it all made for some interesting TV tales, interspersed among the slam-dunk highlights and separated-shoulder news.

"Obviously, we're a sports network, so we're not going to be covering the war like another network would be," Salters said. "We were looking for good sports stories that were in this part of the world. One guy in charge of the Tomahawk launchings ... was an Olympic rower and wants to try to qualify again. Another guy I just spoke to [Tuesday] on the Constellation was invited to an NFL workout. Stories like that."

She filed reports almost daily from a war where one particular story held gravity for the sports network and a former college basketball player: the fitness and athleticism of women trained to take part in this combat.

The war held a personal place for Salters as well. Her nephew, Billy Massey from Washington, D.C., is deployed with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She hasn't heard from him. As a journalist, she is prohibited from unauthorized contact, too. She said softly, "I'm assuming by now he's up in Iraq."

Yes, fellow war correspondents have razzed her and the crew. What's a sports network doing here? Are you covering tank races?

"I think after the first week we were here and we were having much more success getting stories than they were, they shut up real quick. The military was very good to us. They would call when they found people in their ranks who had sports backgrounds. The mainstream media isn't getting that kind of access here at Central Command."

ESPN was well received by the military. Wherever Salters and the crew went, they were surrounded: Glad to have you. What did So-and-So State do in the NCAAs? Did you hear anything about that motocross race ...? "I had to say, 'Look, we're ESPN, but we don't know every competition that's going on. But I can find out for you.' And I did.

"What I found is just how pervasive sports is in our society. To hear how their team is doing, they were thrilled. It was something to take their mind off what they were doing during war."

She has an uncle in Ambridge. She has a close relationship with her Dorsett cousin, the son of Tony playing for the Raiders. She has family back in King of Prussia, Pa., and, of course, "They're happy that I'm coming hame." So is she.

"I mean, I would cover another war if I was asked," Salters said. "But I would hope there wouldn't be another war to cover."

Remote note

Andy Van Slyke, formerly of the Pirates, is trying out this week on Fox Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show Period." With John Kruk vacating the crazy set for the Phillies broadcast booth, the rest of the dudes welcomed Van Slyke on April Fools' Day by forcing him to rub lotion on a 400-pound man.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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