BRISTOL, Conn. — Chris Berman wasn’t sure what he was getting into.

It was 1979 and Berman had been offered a job at ESPN, a one-month-old cable TV start-up with a novel idea: air sports 24 hours a day. On one hand, the 24-year-old aspiring broadcaster thought, the company had just launched, and its concept was unproven. On the other hand, Berman figured, he could get more tape in one night hosting a 30-minute show on ESPN than he would in a week as a sports anchor at Channel 30, where he worked at the time. And surely there were other sports fanatics like himself spread across the country who would watch a 24-hour sports network enough to keep it afloat.

He took the job.

“We weren’t really sure it was gonna make it, but we thought it would make it enough,” Berman, now a legendary ESPN anchor, remembered 40 years later. “Define enough? I couldn’t define it.”

Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of ESPN’s first telecast, an edition of SportsCenter taped from the network’s Bristol studios. To recognize the occasion, ESPN held an in-house celebration Friday, featuring a state-of-the-company address from President Jimmy Pitaro, a visit from NBA rookie Zion Williamson, the unveiling of an on-site company museum, and a panel featuring past and present ESPN personalities Berman, Robin Roberts, Bob Ley, Dan Patrick, Mike Tirico and Suzy Kolber. It was Tirico’s first time back on campus since leaving ESPN in 2016 and Patrick’s second time back since departing in 2007.

Afterward, 10 employees who had worked at ESPN since at least 1980, along with founder Bill Rasmussen and the recently retired Ley, gathered for a screening of a SportsCenter special that aired on ESPN2 later Friday night, featuring 40 behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the network’s first four decades.

The screening was held in Building 13, a 10-year-old “technology center” that Berman struggled to pick out among the 23 buildings that now form ESPN’s sprawling campus.

“When I started, there was only one building,” Berman said. “It was called ESPN.”

Of the 10 old-timers in attendance at the screening, most were off-air types, who may be well known around the company but not necessarily to the general public.

The group included Rod Lane, now associate director of engineering, who had been working at a television station in Lexington, Ky., in 1979 when a cable company he’d never heard of hired him to help produce 21 baseball broadcasts in seven days in Wichita, Kan. It was ESPN, looking to store up on content before going on air for the first time.

Soon after, ESPN offered Lane a full-time job. And though it was no easy decision whether to move north to work for a start-up network with an unproven model, he and his wife took the risk.

“I talked to my dad, and he said, ‘Well, make your mistakes while you’re young,’ ” Lane recalled. “He said, ‘It may be a mistake, but you can recover from it,’ and you never know what you’re gonna find out.’ ”

And 40 years later?

“It was not a mistake.”

Also at the screening was Ken Boudreau, ESPN’s senior director of media assets and the closest thing the company has to an official historian. Boudreau, who plans to retire at the end of the year after 40 years at the network, had been working at a local television station in 1979 when he first heard of ESPN and interviewed three times at the network before finally landing a gig as a studio technician. Now, he maintains a spreadsheet tracking the start dates of long-time ESPN employees and curates a collection of network artifacts, including hats, microphone flags, old sets and millions of rolls of tape.

“I just had the passion for preserving our story,” said Boudreau, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter in Simsbury, “so it can continue to be told year after year.”

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©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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