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John Saunders, the Original Voice of the Raptors, Never Forgot Where He Came From

A proud Canadian, Saunders is remembered for his kindness as much as his talent. We talked to his former on-air partner Leo Rautins and basketball writer Michael Grange about the broadcaster who made an impact on both sides of the border.
Screengrab via YouTube

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Leo Rautins doesn't remember all the details from his first Toronto Raptors broadcast with John Saunders, but he does recall a particular moment before the duo came on the air. On any ordinary sports broadcast, the television cameras will open with a single shot of the play-by-play announcer, before moving to a wider shot to include the colour commentator. On their first day of work together, Saunders saw this detail in the television script and told the producers that he and Rautins were a team, and so they would come on the air together on a single shot.


"You got a good taste of who he was right then and there," Rautins said.

Saunders passed away last Wednesday at the age of 61, survived by his wife Wanda and his two daughters Aleah and Jenna. There's been an outpouring of appreciation of Saunders since, not just for his brilliance as a broadcaster but as a mentor to many people in the industry. On Friday, a Canadian flag was hung outside the ESPN campus in memory of Saunders. A photo was tweeted out by Adnan Virk, the fifth Canadian anchor hired by ESPN.

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Born in Ajax, Ontario, Saunders joined ESPN's SportsCenter crew in 1986 and provided coverage for the Stanley Cup Finals, the World Series, college football and college basketball. In 2001, after the passing of Dick Schaap, Saunders took over as the host of the iconic Sunday morning show The Sports Reporters. Arguably the most accomplished Canadian-born sportscaster, Saunders landed his first major television role as City TV's main sports anchor in 1980.

Michael Grange, a writer and broadcaster for Sportsnet, remembers it well. Growing up, Saunders on City TV was one of the few outlets to consume local sports coverage. "He had this kind of cool, in a jazz club kind of way," Grange said. "He was a little reserved, had a little smile behind the voice, and you almost got the sense he was working on two levels. There was information he was presenting in an expert way and then just a sense of distance where he said, 'Hey, look, this is not all that serious. It's supposed to be fun. It's kind of funny that we're all taking it so seriously.'" For career day in grade eight, Grange—who knew he wanted to work in sports—convinced City TV to allow him to tour their Queen Street East building in Toronto. He remembers meeting Saunders and sitting at his desk.


In 1995, by the time the Raptors joined the NBA as an expansion franchise, Saunders made his home in New York and had plenty on his schedule working for ESPN. When the Raptors offered him a chance to be the play-by-play man for their local broadcasts, Saunders might not have had any incentive financially and for his career progression to take the job, but according to Rautins, who was a color commentator for the Raptors, Saunders took the job because he loved the opportunity, and because he understood what it meant to be the first play-by-play announcer for an NBA franchise in Toronto.

"He was a proud Canadian," Rautins said.

I can't believe my brother is gone! RIP John prayers w/u & your wonderful family! A road trip w/out me?? Love u — Leo Rautins (@LeoRautins)August 10, 2016

In a write-up for the Washington Post after Saunders' passing, John Feinstein said Saunders' eyes always lit up when the subject of hockey came up (Saunders went to Western Michigan University and played two games as a defenceman before transferring to Ryerson in Toronto. His brother, Bernie, was a forward on the team and played 10 games with the Quebec Nordiques in the NHL).

"He brought up Canada any chance he could," Rautins continued. "Even though it was difficult in terms of his schedule, he tried to prioritize it and do as many games as possible. It meant a great deal to him."

From a viewer's perspective, it also brought immediate credibility to the franchise. "It was the perfect bridge of Toronto stepping out to the basketball world but being ushered there by a very respected face and voice," Grange said.


When Rautins and Saunders would walk into NBA arenas on the road, the reaction from general managers, coaches and even players were all the same when they saw Saunders. Everyone always stopped and had time to chat with him. Opposing coaches would make time for Rautins and Saunders to chat before the game, as if it was a national broadcast. "It gave our team a certain cache to have somebody of his magnitude," Rautins said. "Quite honestly, I don't think it was promoted or appreciated enough. John was a pioneer. He opened doors and set the tone for so many broadcasters. I thought a bigger deal should have been made about who we had on the broadcast."

Outside of being a remarkable sportscaster, Saunders always made time for other people, a point echoed by many of his colleagues since his passing. It was no different with Rautins, who credits Saunders for mentoring him about the in's and out's of being on a broadcast. Don't plan what you say, just say it. That was one piece of advice Saunders gave to Rautins. It's never as good or as bad as you think it is, he would tell Rautins on occasion. Saunders summed it up for Rautins once: "What's the worst that can happen? You screw up. So what? Everyone does."

Aside from his mentorship, Saunders was also a founding member of the board of directors of the Jimmy V Foundation, established after the passing of Jim Valvano—a close friend of Saunders'—in 1993 after an almost year-long battle with metastatic cancer. Saunders was also an advocate for juvenile diabetes search. "A lot of people take interest in others, but many times it's because of self interest, whereas John took an interest in others because he cared about others," Gerry Matalon, a former ESPN executive and close friend, told The Sporting News.


John Saunders at the 2016 CFP National Championship football game. The versatile Saunders provided coverage on a number of sports for ESPN. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"John was all about everyone else," Rautins said. "He was such a giving and generous person. His family was a priority. His daughters, his wife, his extended family. He took care of everybody. John was never one to hold back. If he could help, he would do what he could. Anybody that's worked with him would talk about that immediately. He made it about you. He made it easy. That's who John was. That's what he was all about. He was a very, very special person."

Saunders also dealt with his own issues. A completed biography, co-authored with John U. Bacon, is scheduled for release next April. Titled Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair to Hope, it explores Saunders' lifelong struggle with depression. (VICE Sports reached out to Bacon for an interview, but he gracefully declined out of respect to John's family at present time).

Saunders' tenure with the Raptors ended in 2001, but he remained close friends with Rautins. The two spoke just a week before his passing. They had made plans to meet up this summer to catch up, but their schedules never lined up. Toward the end of our conversations, Rautins talked about how Saunders never approached his job with an ego, to the point where he would downplay their profession altogether.

Rautins would point out to Saunders that he was one of the best to do it, to which Saunders would respond: "What do we do? All we do is talk about what other people do."

He might not have wanted all the attention, but we'll be talking about John Saunders and what he did for a long time after his passing.