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‘Sports Xtra’ evolves with new host Tina Cervasio and remains piece of NY sports media

Tina Cervasio, Fox5 News lead sports anchor &

Tina Cervasio, Fox5 News lead sports anchor & reporter, and host of Sports Xtra, at Fox5 News Studios in Manhattan on Feb. 25, 2018. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman

The Rolodex sits on a shelf above Lou Albanese’s computer, a trove that would have been invaluable in the 1980s but is an artifact today, full of people retired, dead or at least no longer answering their phones at outdated area codes.

But Albanese keeps it around because it belonged to Bill Mazer and thus is part of the historical thread that connects 46 years of New York sports media history, from the premiere of “Sports Extra” in 1972 to the “Sports Xtra” of 2018.

As an intern under Mazer in 1984, the producer today and a part of the program in every decade between, Albanese is the human thread that bridges the eras.

But as much as the early years meant to him — and to many fellow nostalgic Baby Boomers — he knows the 21st-century version cannot be what is was in the 20th, when highlights and news still were fresh at 10:30 Sunday night.

“It can never be like it was in the ’70s; I don’t think it can be what it was in the ’90s,” said Albanese, 55, who grew up in Elmont and played football with Vinny Testaverde at Sewanhaka High School. “Younger people get highlights on the phone, so highlights can’t be the answer.”

The idea is to keep the New York sports institution relevant by being different, the latest example being its new host. On Feb. 11, Fox5 announced that Tina Cervasio would become the first woman to be the official host, succeeding Duke Castiglione, who left for a job in Boston.

Cervasio, a popular, familiar sports media figure who covered both the Red Sox for NESN in Boston and the Knicks for MSG, grew up in New Jersey watching the show. So she knew both the history and the challenge of moving beyond it.

“When I got this job I did go on YouTube, and it was amazing how much people had put up there of the old shows,” she said while preparing for the Feb. 25 program at Fox5’s Upper East Side studios. “That was really neat to see.”

She studied Mazer’s conversational style, which she found not as “broadcast-y as some broadcasters had gotten in the ’80s, with the shtick. He had a newsman approach.”

After Mazer’s 19-year run ended in 1991 – when the show briefly was cancelled – Tom McDonald was the lead host for a decade. Cervasio found his personalized features compelling.

Now it is her turn. She always has wanted to do an interview-oriented show, and what she liked best in her times on the Red Sox and Knicks was profiling players away from their lockers.

“What I found is that I could take a player on an off day, in his civvies, sit him in a chair out by the pool or at lunch and do interviews about their life and perspective,” she said. “My passion is humanizing them.”

One of her favorite recent sitdowns was with the Knicks’ Enes Kanter, who is a Muslim, when she filled in on the Christmas Eve show, an interview that delved into the cultural and religious aspects of the holiday season.

The Feb. 25 show included a five-minute interview recorded with Mets manager Mickey Callaway during her visit to Florida and an in-studio chat with Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark.

Erika Wachter, a reporter for the show, added feature pieces on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s helmet designs and Islanders forward Anders Lee’s charity event.

“What we’re trying to do is get more personality driven, to bring you the athletes more than just talking about games, but talking about what they’re doing as people,” Albanese said. “There are so many scores, so many highlights, so much talk, you want to humanize the players.”

When Mazer, who died in 2013, and co-host Lee Leonard premiered “Sports Extra,” it was groundbreaking – a chance to see extensive highlights of that day’s Jets and Giants games rather than snippets on the local news.

And that generation never has forgotten. Wachter, who has been with Fox5 for two years, feels it every time she reports a story and tells people what show she is representing.

“You just hear everyone saying, ‘Oh, Bill Mazer!’” she said. “Right away, that’s the first thing. It makes me realize how special the role is, who sat in this room before us, who has been here and laid the path and how much we’ve evolved.”

“Evolved” is the key word, because even the youngest original fans now are approaching retirement age.

Cervasio said she is ready for that task. When in Florida she introduced herself to every Met and Yankee she could, planting the seed for future interviews.

She also is Fox5’s lead sports anchor, so four days a week she is up early and on “Good Day New York,” a show with a history of its own dating to 1988.

None of this is easy, given an array of other information sources unimaginable in 1972. But as Mazer’s Rolodex suggests, personal connections always matter.

“It was amazing; he knew everybody,” Albanese, drawing out the syllables of “everybody” for emphasis. He recalled Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda leaving a throng of reporters before Game 2 of the 1988 World Series to come on with Mazer, and of Mazer introducing Albanese to Joe DiMaggio.

That was the sort of thing news director Byron Harmon was looking for when he hired Cervasio.

“No. 1, she has relationships with the players,” Albanese said. “More important, No. 2, she has a great way when she interviews you to get things out of you. Mazer had a way where he would pull things out of you. She has that great gift. Not everybody has it.”

Albanese said he never will get rid of Mazer’s Rolodex, which he called the late host’s “pride and joy.” Albanese feels that way about the show itself.

“It’s been longer than my marriage, it’s been longer than my kids have been born,” he said. “So, yeah, it’s my baby, and it’s important.”

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