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What: "Then and Now."

Where: ESPN, Tuesday, 4 p.m.

ESPN, never shy about promoting itself, will devote 32 hours over the next four months to celebrating its 25th birthday. Or, in other words, drawing attention to itself.

The cable network kicks off what it is calling the ESPN25 project with this 90-minute special that looks back at sports over the last 25 years. There are probably people at ESPN who don't realize that sports existed before ESPN.

Maybe that's good. The producers had enough trouble trying to fit 25 years into 90 minutes. Right off the bat, viewers are greeted with two-second snippets, highlights and sound bites of dizzying proportions.

It's as if a teenager with a very short attention span did the editing. ESPN should realize there are still viewers who appreciate good, in-depth storytelling, a la Bud Greenspan.

To be fair, the special does have its moments. There are parts where the pace lessens and there is some breathing room. Also, Dan Patrick does a nice job as the host.

Patrick's interviews with Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene about the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers are high points. Another is Patrick getting Joe Montana and Dwight Clark to re-create "the Catch" of January 1982.

But this is an ESPN production, so much of it is self-serving. Such as the segment on the effect of highlights. Got to get in a plug for "SportsCenter." However, not everyone raves about highlights.

Says Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly: "For all the great things ESPN has brought to sport, one of the awful things it's brought to me is the culture of highlights. You can see players changing what they're going to do, thinking they're going to be on ESPN."

Maybe the best part of the special comes near the end, when a number of celebrities read passages from sportswriters describing some of the most memorable moments of the last 25 years.

Just to show ESPN doesn't have the market cornered on self-promotion, it should be noted that Ben Affleck reads The Times' Chris Dufresne's description of Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" against Miami in 1984. And Billy Crystal reads what the late Jim Murray wrote after Kirk Gibson's home run in 1988.

There is good pacing in the segment. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for too many other parts.

-- Larry Stewart

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