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In a business built on ego and schtick, ESPN sportscaster John Saunders stood out as a man who allowed others to be the focus of attention.Joe Faraoni/The Associated Press

At the conclusion of ESPN's SportsCenter highlights show on Wednesday night, the camera showed the darkened set of The Sports Reporters, a lone spotlight shining on an empty host's chair.

Each Sunday, the chair was filled by John Saunders, a versatile, amiable and urbane broadcaster who was one of the most familiar faces in American television sports.

The network announced the death of Mr. Saunders, at 61, earlier in the day. No cause was given, though he had a number of health problems, including diabetes. His family said in a statement that "John wasn't feeling well physically in recent days." His sudden death also brought renewed attention to his forthcoming memoir, which details a lifelong struggle with depression.

The Toronto-born broadcaster was hired as an anchor for ESPN's SportsCenter in 1986. In three decades with the network, he worked as a play-by-play caller for college basketball, as well as anchoring studio coverage for hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs, baseball's World Series, and college basketball's Final Four. He was the on-air and on-field host to the postgame trophy presentation for college football's national championship.

In 1995, he was hired to handle play-by-play calls for the expansion Toronto Raptors, serving as the television voice of the National Basketball Association franchise for six seasons.

His sudden death deeply affected his colleagues at ESPN, including television personality Stephen A. Smith, who considered Mr. Saunders a mentor and who broke down on air. Fellow broadcaster Hannah Storm struggled to maintain her composure when announcing the news of his death live on SportsCenter from Rio de Janeiro, where she was covering the Olympics.

In a statement, ESPN president John Skipper praised the late broadcaster's "friendly, informative style," which "has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades."

His charity work was cited in tributes, although less notice was paid to his important role as a black broadcaster in an industry in which he was considered a pioneer. Just days before his death, he served on a panel at a conference in Washington, D.C., of the National Association of Black Journalists, an advocacy group that is the largest organization of journalists of colour in the United States.

With his calm demeanour and crooked grin – an "understated smile," in the description of his ebullient colleague Chris Berman – Mr. Saunders became an avuncular figure on television over the years. In a business where ego and schtick can build a career, Mr. Saunders was content to let others be the focus of attention.

His accomplishments were all the more impressive considering that he launched his career at small radio stations in Ontario.

John Peterson Saunders was born at Grace Hospital in Toronto to Jacqueline (née Courtney) and Bernard Saunders on Feb. 2, 1955. He grew up in Châteauguay, a Montreal suburb, where he played football and hockey, including a stint on a junior-B team with his younger brother, Bernie, under the tutelage of a young coach named Jacques Demers, who would go on to win the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens before being named to the Canadian Senate.

The Saunders brothers went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. Bernie, a forward, became a top scorer for the university team before going on to play 10 games with the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL. John Saunders skated in only two games on defence for the univerity team, the Broncos, before transferring to Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now University), in Toronto. He starred with the school's Rams hockey team for two seasons and graduated with a psychology degree in 1977. He was inducted into Ryerson's Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.

While still in college, he filed news and sports reports to radio station CHOO in Ajax, Ont., where he also spun country records and, on Sundays, rolled tapes of paid religious programs. In 1978, he became news director at CKNS, a two-year-old station in Espanola, near the northern shore of Georgian Bay. (The station's final two call letters stood for North Shore.) He soon after moved to television at CKNY-TV in North Bay and then to ATV in Moncton, N.B.

After two years as the sports anchor for CityPulse in Toronto, he was spotted by a corporate headhunter and recruited for WMAR-TV in Baltimore as sports anchor. He handled three daily broadcasts and served as host of Baltimore Colts preseason football games and a baseball pregame program called Orioles on Deck.

At ESPN, he hosted Rendez-Vous '87, a two-game hockey showdown between NHL all-stars and the Soviet national team. In addition to his work on hockey, football and basketball games, he also contributed to ABC's Wide World of Sports.

In December, 2001, he became host of The Sports Reporters, a Sunday morning roundtable show in which journalists discussed hot topics of the day. He served as a calm, rational figure amid sometimes outrageously opinionated colleagues. His signature was a minute-long editorial known as the "Parting Shot," which he delivered in a measured, authoritative tone.

In 1996, he criticized CBS commentator Billy Packer for referring to college basketball star Allen Iverson as a "tough monkey." He acknowledged Mr. Packer was referring to the athlete's tenacity, but did so by using a slur without being sensitive to "the many African Americans who have been treated as second-class citizens in every day of their lives."

A serious broadcaster, Mr. Saunders was not above having fun when circumstances permitted. In 1989, he and SportsCenter co-host Chris Berman aired a show in which they managed to work 23 Bob Dylan song references into their broadcast as a tribute to the singer, who was performing at an amusement park near their studio in Bristol, Conn.

Though his move to the United States brought him fame and riches beyond what he could have achieved in Canada, he remained wary of his adopted land.

"Everybody feels they need a gun and you never know who is carrying one," he told Ken McKee of the Toronto Star in 1992. "The police have so much power. It bothers me that racism is so prevalent."

He was not without humour about his identity. On Twitter, the sports broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who is white, recalled the time he told Mr. Saunders about having been mistaken for him. An incredulous Mr. Saunders deadpanned, "But you're not Canadian!"

A close friend of basketball coach and broadcaster Jim Valvano, who died of bone cancer in 1993, Mr. Saunders served as a founding board member of the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

Mr. Saunders, a resident of the riverside village of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., leaves his wife, Wanda Saunders, as well as daughters Aleah and Jenna, and brother Bernie.

His memoir, titled Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair, is scheduled to be released in April by Da Capo Press. The book, which took five years to complete and is co-written with John U. Bacon, is billed as a candid and revealing look at the broadcaster's depression.

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