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'No better place to be' than ESPN for Long Island's Kevin Connors

Sportscenter host Kevin Connors grew up in Rockville Centre and played basketball at South Side High School.

Kevin Connors during the Top Rank Boxing weigh-in

Kevin Connors during the Top Rank Boxing weigh-in on Dec. 7, 2018. Photo Credit: ESPN Images/Ben Solomon

You never know when Long Island roots will show on “SportsCenter.” Sometimes it requires listening carefully.

Consider the night of Jan. 5, when Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman made a game-winning buzzer-beater against visiting Northeastern, landing the Pride at No. 2 on that night’s top plays list. But that only was the start.

Co-anchor John Anderson said on the air to his partner, Kevin Connors, “If only you and your ex-girlfriend could have been there to see that in person.”

To which Connors replied, “Oh, Mary Totman, I used to drag her to that gym.”

Thus did a former South Side High and William and Mary women’s soccer player improbably land on “SportsCenter,” squeezed between a Wright-Foreman bank shot and a Zion Williamson dunk.

And thus did Connors slyly give props to his hometown of Rockville Centre from an increasingly visible perch on sports television’s biggest news-anchor stage, following two “SportsCenter” fixtures from Long Island, Steve Levy and Linda Cohn.

Asked about it two weeks later, Connors said that when he saw Hofstra in the highlights package, he mentioned to Anderson during a break that he used to take his high school girlfriend to Long Island Surf USBL games there in the 1990s. (It actually was in the Pride’s previous gym, near the current one.)

“What a romantic guy I am,” he said, laughing. “I’m bringing her to watch professional basketball games at Hofstra University. To her credit, she came along with me. But it brought back memories . . . That was a fun moment.”

Connors, 43, is having plenty of professional fun at ESPN, hosting “SportsCenter” regularly as well as boxing coverage and doing college basketball play-by-play, among other things.

He takes none of it for granted. “On my five-year anniversary of my first day, I did a Sunday 11 p.m. show with Steve Levy and I’m like, if you would have told me this five years ago, I’m not sure I would have believed you.”

The journey began in a sports-obsessed family that included two brothers and featured intense games of Nerf basketball at home and eventually a second-team All-County basketball nod at South Side.

He went on to play for four years at Ithaca College, where his career path turned to media.

“I can remember growing up and at the dinner table we’d have the TV on and Marv Albert’s doing the local news for WNBC,” Connors said. “He does the 6 o’clock news, goes to Madison Square Garden to do a Knicks game or whatever and he’s back to do the 11.

“That was just so, like, wait a minute: You can make a living out of doing this? So I think being in the New York demographic sort of provided me the idea that this is possible.”

Connors landed a TV job out of college at Regional News Network, covering the Hudson Valley and working for Brian Kenny, a fellow former Newsday paper boy and fellow future ESPN host. But after 7 ½ years there, he grew antsy.

“For me it was easy getting the first job and brutally difficult getting the next job,” he said. “Although I was in the New York area, I couldn’t get arrested.”

Then he got a tip that Kevin Burkhardt was leaving WCBS radio for SNY. He landed that job, which led to TV work on Channel 2, which in 2008 led to an audition at ESPN. He got the job minutes before he had to deliver a radio update.

“That 3:15 update must have been the most excited update in the history of radio,” he said.

Now a decade in, he said, “I’m not telling you there have been no frustrations along the way, because that’s not true. But 10 years in there’s no better place to be – period.”

He said working alongside Levy and the late Stuart Scott were a particular thrill. Levy was a fan from Day One.

“I thought he was extremely polished immediately, and that is very, very hard to do in our industry and our place,” said Levy, an alumnus of Bellmore JFK High School. “His likability is off the charts. I hope that comes across on television, because everybody in the building knows it.”

Connors does not have a stereotypical New York-area look, sound or vibe. Levy good-naturedly kidded about him being a Bills fan, and about seeming more Middle America than southern Nassau County.

“Sometimes I wish I was more the New Yorker’s New Yorker,” Connors said, adding he loves it when Levy or Cohn let Long Island show in their voices. “But look, I grew up on Long Island and I worked in New York City, and that was great. I remember thinking, man, this is amazing, I’m at Channel 2!”

Now he is at a much bigger channel than that.

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