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Friday, August 15, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Painful path from hospital to anchor desk

His right leg was swelling so rapidly it looked as if it belonged to an NFL lineman, but 6 o'clock was closing in and Steve Bunin had a sportscast to do.

If most of us were feeling that kind of pain, we would have called in sick. Heck, we would have called in dead, and that's exactly the direction Bunin was headed.

But Bunin went to work that night in 2001 and dragged his leg around the station like Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series. Even as the swelling worsened, Bunin did the show, then limped to his car and drove to the hospital.

He had less than five hours before his next sportscast and he figured a hefty shot of antibiotics get him back on the set for the 11 o'clock show.

Time is tyrannical in TV sports. There is always another show to produce and, like the good quarterbacks who have the clocks in their heads and know just how much time they have in the pocket, a good sportscaster knows how to pace himself from one sportscast to the next.

But most days don't include a trip to the ER. And most clocks don't consider a dangerous skin infection called cellulitis. Bunin, who was working for a small station in Lansing, Mich., was listening to the clock as the nurse inserted the intravenous needle.

Less than five hours to showtime. What was he supposed to do?

The clock was ticking and he had stories to tell. So Bunin left the hospital, promising to return after the newscast. He went back to WLAJ, and did the 11 o'clock with an IV stuck in his arm.

Every so often, when he stretched the arm across the news desk, the needle would peek from under his shirt.. Even Walter Cronkite would have taken this night off.

Later, Bunin would learn that his devotion to his job had almost cost him his leg. He returned to the hospital after the late-night news; when doctors reexamined his leg, they seriously debated amputation.

And how did the station reward him? Less than a year later it let him go, deciding sports wasn't important after already cutting his air time to one minute a night. Such is the nature of his business.

But this is a story of perseverance. It's about trusting in your talent even when some talentless bosses don't. It's about not feeling sorry for yourself and fighting through pain and misfortune.

Bunin, who was a Mariners bat boy in 1990, will become an anchor for ESPN this month.

He has survived two near-death experiences. He has bounced from stations in Binghamton, N.Y., and Flagstaff, Ariz., to Lansing and Battle Creek, Mich.

Nothing about Bunin's rise to ESPN has been textbook. There have been many times when any stiff breeze seemed capable of scattering his dreams. He has spent months at a time unemployed, filling in the blanks by substitute teaching on Mercer Island and acting as a volunteer assistant high-school basketball coach.

He has paid his dues. He has risked his life for this opportunity.

Several months after his bout in Lansing with cellulitis, Bunin began suffering internal bleeding. Still in his 20s and still feeling a bit immortal, he ignored the bleeding as long as he could, until his father Alan, a Mercer Island physician, ordered him to the hospital.

He was diagnosed with bleeding in the lining of his stomach. If he hadn't listened to his father, he would have bled to death. He spent six days in the hospital.

"I guess you could say I bled for that station," he said.

Last September, after the death of a close friend, he almost quit on his dream. The idea of making a living in sports seemed frivolous compared to watching a friend die from brain cancer.

But he didn't quit. Even after his 16-year-old friend Ari Grashin died last September, something in Ari's unquenchable spirit pushed Bunin through his grief.

I couldn't be happier that Bunin has been called up to the big leagues. He's where he belongs. I've known him for more than a decade and call him a friend. I've watched his work. I know how good he is. I know how lucky ESPN is to have him.

He is one of those old-school guys who used to sit alone with his tape recorder in the 300 level of the Kingdome and practice his play-by-play, just hoping he could be half as good as Dave Niehaus.

"It didn't quite happen the way I thought it would," Bunin, 29, said. "But life doesn't work that way. And now I'm not sure I'd want it any other way."

If his rise in the business had gone smoothly he never would have met Ari. And if he hadn't met Ari he might not have learned the perspective he needed to land on ESPN. During his interview with the network last month, he talked often about the lessons learned from his young friend.

He has survived the troughs and peaks that are a necessary part of grieving. And later this month, when he sits in the most famous anchor chair in sports, Bunin will be remembering his friend and the broadcast will feel as if he's just talking sports with Ari.

"I'll be thinking about the journey," he said. "About the disappointments and the job rejections and the 400 tapes I sent out and never got a call back. I'll also be thinking about the people who helped me, who kept me in the business when there were times I felt like I couldn't handle anything.

"I think I'm going to feel a lot of satisfaction. And most of all I'm going to know Ari will be happy knowing I'm sitting there."

He'll be thinking about all he endured to get there and about the 16-year-old boy whose spirit is immortal.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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