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For sports fans, it's impossible to imagine a world without ESPN's "SportsCenter."

On Thursday at 4 p.m. MDT, "SportsCenter" will air its 50,000th show. Sports fans in their 30s and older can't remember a time when it wasn't the go-to show for sports reports and highlights.

But it wasn't always so. When it debuted on Sept. 6, 1979, ESPN was still airing tractor pulls. It wouldn't air its first live college football game for another five years, when BYU beat then-No. 3 Pitt to open its 1984 national championship run.

And it was years after that before ESPN became the Worldwide Leader In Sports.

"When we first got there," said former "SportsCenter" anchor Charley Steiner (1988-2002), "ESPN was just this sports cable station. It was a mom-and-pop store that was turned into this four-letter icon."

Watching the show and the network today makes Steiner feel like "Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future.' You talk about 18 hours of 'SportsCenter' a day — we didn't have 18 hours a week. We had three, 30-minute shows. No re-airs. It is so mind-boggling to think back where we were when I got there in '88 to where 'SportsCenter' is now."

Along the way, the show grew and changed as technology made it possible to get highlights from seemingly every game, everywhere, in a matter of minutes. The anchors changed. The show took on a personality of its own almost accidentally.

"They always talk about 'SportsCenter' attitude and all," Steiner said. "We had no attitude. We were a bunch of guys trying to figure this thing out."

There are lots of sports shows and lots of ways to see sports highlights today, but "SportsCenter" remains an icon.

"It's still the place," said current "SportsCenter" anchor Scott Van Pelt. "In a landscape where you can go a million different places to find things out — on your phone, on your iPad, whatever — I think it's still home for sports fans. And that's the way I treat it when I'm out there."

Not just viewers, but athletes pay close attention.

"It makes me laugh," said Van Pelt. "Professional athletes still get bummed out when they're No. 3 in the Top 10 and some Little Leaguer trumps them. You'll get a text, like, 'How am I not in the top plays?' "

ESPN is nothing if not self-promotional, but not for this milestone. "We're going to keep it reasonably low-key," said executive producer/senior vice president Mark Gross.

There will be a tribute to Tom Mees from his pal Chris Berman. Mees anchored thousands of early episodes before he drowned in 1996. "But that will really be it," Gross said.

And then they'll get to work on Episode 50,001.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

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