Keith Olbermann plays small ball in first ESPN2 show

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Image Credit: ESPN Olbermann

He began his new show with a little Jack Paar reference and finished with his Edward R. Murrow sign off, but in between, it was — for better and for worse — the old Keith Olbermann. (And most likely, the Keith Olbermann ESPN intended to hire.) Olbermann wrapped himself in the banner of the Worldwide Leader, reminiscing through archived video clips of his younger days and poking fun of his first go-around at ESPN2 by donning the same infamous jacket he wore back in 1993 and updating his nose-cutting “welcome to the end of my career” remark for embattled Jets coach Rex Ryan.

“As I was saying…” Olbermann began during the opening moments of his eponymous 11 p.m. show, a quick homage to Paar’s return to the Tonight Show in 1960 after his battles with NBC’s brass. In a somewhat odd choice, Olbermann then dug deep into the controversy that is dominating the sports world… Ryan’s decision to play quarterback Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of an exhibition game, in which he subsequently was injured. No? That’s not the top story by you? It’s actually not the top story here in New York either. But for Olbermann, it was part of a bigger, more important story: the latest sign that journalism is dying, if not already dead. He targeted Daily News reporter Manish Mehta for basically inventing the news — rather than doing any real reporting — that Ryan’s job is now in jeopardy as a result of Sanchez’s injury. It was the perfect opportunity for Olbermann to be the crusader that he loves to be, and to his credit, he also flicked ESPN’s Michael Wilbon (but oddly enough, not tonight’s guest Tony Kornheiser) for parroting the Rex-must-go line on Pardon the Interruption. But when Olbermann finally got around to saying, “Good evening from Times Square. There was a point to all that,” he’d been beating that drum — loudly — for 14 minutes!

Fellow ESPN prodigal son Jason Whitlock joined Olbermann for the second segment to discuss the Jets media circus and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Whitlock commented that he’s disappointed by the lack of “collective bond” between the current generation of black athletes and the black community. Today’s professional athletes, he claimed, are rogue brands unwilling to help the communities that produced them. It was pointed criticism, but also convenient (for ESPN) that Whitlock didn’t name names.

Olbermann dipped into nostalgia for a segment called “This Week in Keith History,” a random clip of him hosting an old SportsCenter, and he showcased his old form for “Keith Lights,” in which heĀ tried out his latest bon mots over the day’s sports highlights. He then resurrected his Worst Person gimmick, organ music and all, and crowned Astros owner Jim Crane for turning a huge profit on a losing ballclub.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was the next guest, and the two discussed Cuban’s verbal broadsides against MLB — which has so-far denied the outspoken billionaire membership to its exclusive club. It was a little cozy — Shark Tank premieres on Sept. 20 on ABC! — and I would’ve liked to have seen Olbermann press Cuban a little harder when the conversation shifted to PEDs in professional basketball. (Cuban’s quick dismissal sounded so much like the old-fashioned baseball conventional wisdom that too much weight-lifting would ruin your swing.)

At some point, Olbermann pulled his old black jacket over his three-piece suit. (I assume this is part of his penance for coming back. ESPN might have even put it in his contract.) He made a touching tribute to his late third-grade teacherĀ  — and his own success — did some more sports highlights, and then signed off with Murrow’s signature farewell, “Good night and good luck.”

It will be interesting to see where Olbermann fits in. One has to think the show’s audience overlaps heavily with that of people who simply want the raw highlights over on ESPN at that hour, as well as slightly with those who are loyal to Jon Stewart. Olbermann sidestepped politics last night, for the most part, but his segments were about issues bigger than the game: the failures of media, the role and responsibilities of minorities in sport. In July, Olbermann promised “a sports cast with my stamp on it,” and his is a voice worth hearing. Like Howard Cosell more than a generation ago, Olbermann can be eloquent and provocative. Like Cosell, Olbermann can be narcissistic and polarizing. Last night was a safe first show — a ribbon-cutting, if you will — and I expect Olbermann’s voice will grow stronger as he tests his new boundaries. Because safe might be the one thing Olbermann can’t be if it wants to really succeed.

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