When the sports world came to a standstill last month in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Eddie Olczyk knew he couldn’t just sit back and ride out the pandemic at his home.
So, he called NBC Sports Chicago senior vice president and general manager Kevin Cross and pitched the idea of the station potentially holding a telethon.
“I said, ‘Listen, Eddie, you got me at hello. I think it’s a great idea,” Cross said Tuesday in a phone interview. “As a station, [we had] been doing things to try to help the community as well. We put together a promo that got all of our talent together and told everybody to be strong and ... we were looking at what else we could do and when Edzo came with this idea, we ran with it.”
In partnership with United Way of Metro Chicago and Chicago Community Trust, NBC Sports Chicago is hosting the “Be Chicago: Together We Can” telethon Wednesday, which will benefit the community COVID-19 Response Fund and honor front-line workers.
The four-hour TV event, which begins at 7 p.m., will feature several celebrated Chicago athletes — like Horace Grant, A.J. Pierzynski and Brian Urlacher — and exclusive music performances by Chicago, Brett Eldredge and the Plain White T’s.
There will be segments on the 1990s Bulls, 2005 White Sox and 2010 Blackhawks, with some players from each team discussing their favorite memories. Tim Anderson, Coby White and Tarik Cohen will also team up for a segment where the three young stars will discuss how their professional and personal lives have been affected by the pandemic and how this experience has changed their lives.
Fans without cable can tune in to the event on the MyTeams by NBC Sports app.
“People need a release,” said David Kaplan, who is co-hosting the event with Olczyk. “And I think tomorrow night will give [that release to] people. They understand what we’re all fighting against, but they’re also going to have a lot of fun.”
But the night’s focus isn’t all on sports.
The telethon will also include “Hero segments,” where nominated front-line workers will meet their favorite Chicago athletes via Zoom video conferencing.
Kaplan got to be on the call with one Lutheran General Hospital nurse who helped COVID-19 patients and their families. The nurse was surprised to learn his favorite athlete, Jon Lester, was also on the call.
We won’t give away too many spoilers, but Lester promised to give the nurse a once-in-a-lifetime experience at Wrigley Field when baseball returns.
“It was an emotionally charged moment,” Kaplan said. “And yeah, it’s cool to have all these celebrities on the thing .... but those are the moments people are going to get tears and go, ‘That’s amazing.’”
Most of the programming will be pre-taped and the interviews featured all took place via video conferencing calls from the individual’s own homes.
“We didn’t want to do something where we’re telling people to stay at home but we’re leaving our homes,” Cross said, “because that would be kind of hypocritical.”
There is one exception, however. Kaplan said he met up with Olczyk in the former Blackhawks forward’s backyard to shoot the opener, though he promised the camera crew wore masks and there was a tape measurer on the ground to make sure Kaplan and Olczyk remained at least six feet apart.
Viewers can donate by texting “Help4ChiCovid” to 41444 or visit NBCSportsChicago.com/BeChicago. All proceeds will go to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund, which has raised more than $25 million for the region’s most vulnerable residents.
NBC Sports Chicago’s goal is to “raise the most amount of money we possibly can.”
“We’re in sports and part of being in sports just by the very nature of that business is you’re used to keeping score,” said Cross, who also said NBC and Comcast have already made “sizable” donations to the fund. “And I think it’s important to keep score but I’ve told the folks don’t worry about the score, just do the best you can to reach the most amount of people.”