Usha Negandhi’s ambitions for her sons were somewhat stereotypical. She hoped they’d become business owners or maybe lawyers. She signed them up for baseball, basketball, football and any other organized sport, because, as she says, “I wanted to know where they were and what they were doing.”
Now, millions know where her youngest son, Kevin, is every weekday morning: at the anchor desk for ESPN’s SportsCenter, the network’s signature daily sports news program. He sits beside co-anchor Hannah Storm, holding his own with a host of ex-jock analysts.
The Phoenixville native has been in the coveted 9-to-noon weekday slot since stepping up from the weekend broadcast in May 2011, when predecessor Josh Elliott was tapped for Good Morning America. He charges into the day’s sports news with the unbridled passion typical of a Philadelphia sports fan: “Gooood morning. This is SportsCenter.”
It’s a long way from the sandlots and hardwoods of Phoenixville, where his mom would schlep him to older brother Vimal’s youth baseball and basketball games. There, Kevin would get pressed into service as batboy or ball boy. By age 14, he knew where he wanted to be.
“When you think of the great franchise shows in the history of TV, SportsCenter is the upper, upper echelon,” says Storm, who’s also enjoyed stints on CBS, ABC and CNN. “It’s an elite franchise show.”
When Action News sports director Gary Papa died in 2009, the local buzz was that Negandhi would take over his mentor’s slot. “They were rumors,” Negandhi says now. “I was flattered, but when the rumor first came to me, I was a little upset by the timing. Gary had just passed.”
The fact that Negandhi is the first Indian-American to anchor a national sports program is not lost on the loquacious Temple University graduate. “I get Facebook messages from so many kids of Indian descent talking about how this is such a cool thing. It’s a great honor.”
Negandhi relates the story of a 14-year-old kid who got into an argument with his mother about his ambitions to be a sports broadcaster. “The mom said, ‘There are no Indians out there in sports,’” Negandhi says. “He literally went to the TV, turned on SportsCenter and I popped on.”
Nonetheless, the road to ESPN was somewhat circuitous. Older brother Vimal, a sports counselor, relates how his younger brother was always mock-broadcasting pickup games, imitating Harry Kalas’ signature “That ball’s outta here, Michael Jack Schmidt!”
When he was 8 and 9, Kevin would prep for Eagles games by memorizing stats from the Sunday Inquirer sports section. “Sitting there, watching football with my dad, I made sure I knew what was going on,” Negandhi says.
Kevin Negandhi first thought about being an architect, but a building-construction course didn’t quite work out. “I thought it was the worst class ever,” he recalls.
His epiphany came a few months later, as he was watching a college basketball game on TV. “They profiled the player at the free-throw line. They said he wanted to become an announcer, and he was going to school for communications,” Negandhi recalls. “At that moment, it just clicked.”
But getting the family to buy into his dream wasn’t easy. “When I pitched the idea to my parents, they thought it was a phase,” he says. “My dad thought I was going to go into business. My mom said, ‘You’re going to be an attorney—the way you can debate and argue.’”
At Temple, Negandhi did just about every kind of internship or part-time job imaginable. “I had no time for school,” he laughs.
One of those internships was at Action News, where he came under Papa’s wing. The list of his broadcasting influences—all people he worked with at one time or another—includes former Action News anchors Phil Andrews and Scott Palmer, current Action News executive sports producer Mark Meany, former Channel 17 sports reporter Mike Dardis, and WFAN New York reporter Sweeny Murti, an Indian-American who was on-air at WIP when Negandhi interned there. “I’m forever indebted to guys like that,” he says.
Negandhi also got to work with legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas. “Anytime I had a question, he’d just sit there and talk to me about it,” Negandhi says.
But envisioning their son on TV was a stretch for two parents from Mumbai. “There was no Sanjay Gupta, there was no Aditi Roy who was local,” Negandhi says.
Relatives gave him the “whatever” whenever he shared his ambition. “It pushed me,” he says. “I was the only one that believed I could do this.” Then, NBC 10 sports reporter and former Eagle Vai Sikahema—a native of Tonga—gave Negandhi’s parents a pep talk. “That’s when they realized that this was not a phase,” he says.
Negandhi recalls the promise he made his mother when he was in college. “Mom, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but if I do this business, I’m going to be in your living room every day no matter what,” he told her. “I may not be able to see you, but you’ll be able to see me.”
After Temple, Negandhi turned down a weekend gig doing Fox 29’s High School Sports Show to be a sports anchor at an ABC affiliate in Kirksville, Mo., a city about the size of Phoenixville 160 northwest of St. Louis. “My first time on TV, I’m on the set anchoring, and they do this big introduction,” Negandhi says. “I’m sweating nonstop, and I look into the camera and there’s my prompter going backwards. I had to ad-lib the first three minutes.”
About a year later, he was in Sarasota, Fla., when he met Maury Gostfrand, an agent who represents dozens of broadcasters, including ex-Phillies player John Kruk and former Yankees manager Joe Torre. “He and I got on the phone, and he said, ‘Give me three months. If I can get you a job in three months, great. If not, we move on,’” Negandhi recalls.
Negandhi got the ESPN tryout within three months, landing an anchor slot on ESPN News in 2006. His energy captivated Gostfrand. “He jumped off the screen,” says Gostfrand. “He’s very natural, witty and easy to listen to.”
ESPN executive producer Mark Gross was on the receiving end of Negandhi’s audition. “We were impressed with his writing, his energy on the air, the quality of how he reads highlights, his sensitivity to difficult news stories,” Gross says.
And Negandhi is still a Philly sports fan. At ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters, his cubicle is filled with Phillies swag, along with bobbleheads of Donovan McNabb, Ryan Howard and other local sports luminaries. “No he doesn’t keep it in check at all,” says co-anchor Storm. “He tries to, and it’s such a joke.”
While in Sarasota, Negandhi met another person who changed his life: cub reporter Monica Buchanan. Today, they’re married, and she’s one of the top on-air reporters in Connecticut.
An admitted Wawa-holic, Negandhi still carries a torch for his home region, and he’s kept tabs on downtown Phoenixville’s continuing revitalization. “I go back once a month, and it just blows me away,” he says.
He even has a favorite local restaurant. “My mom’s house.”
And daily, he delivers on the promise he made to his mother years ago. “Every morning, she sends me an email saying, ‘Thanks for visiting my house,’” he says. “It’s really, really cool.”