Back Where She Belongs

WINNING SEASON: Tina Cervasio has found her niche in front of the camera covering sports for the MSG Network.

WINNING SEASON: Tina Cervasio has found her niche in front of the camera covering sports for the MSG Network.

When Tina Cervasio was looking for work outside of Jersey, the people she met wanted to take the Jersey out of her. A fresh graduate from the University of Maryland, the Nutley native had been trained as a TV broadcast journalist. She was willing to move anywhere, but station directors from Kansas City, Missouri, to Pocatello, Idaho, told her the same thing: You’re too New York.

“They would ask me to change my name, to change the color of my hair, to change my mannerisms, and I would say ‘yes, yes, yes,’ because I needed a job so much,” Cervasio says. “I even went to dialect class to try to get rid of my subliminal Jersey accent.” In the end, none of that was enough to get hired by the small-market stations. Which worked out just fine.

Cervasio, 35, is currently a host and announcer on the MSG Network, working as sideline reporter for the New York Knicks and the New Jersey-based New York Red Bulls, conducting locker-room interviews, and hosting a weekly Fans’ Most Wanted program.

“I figured if I was such a Jersey girl, I should start looking for jobs in the New Jersey-New York area,” she says. So she started working for different cable outlets, covering arena football for CN8, providing reports for NBC affiliates, doing sideline NFL radio reporting, and working on the production side. “I was getting my on-air work any way I could, just to get on the air. A lot of agents would tell me I wasn’t focused enough, and I’d say, ‘Look, I’m just trying to live.’ I just wanted to do as much as I could, and meet as many people as I could, and get as much experience as I could.”

Eventually, she settled into a full-time gig at Time Warner Cable, where she covered sports and news in Staten Island, which eventually led to WFAN radio and a weekend sports anchor position at CBS2 in New York at the age of 28. After that, Cervasio served a two-year stint as a field reporter at the New England Sports Network, before returning to New Jersey in 2008. “All those small cities, like Yakima, Washington, and little towns in Texas and Georgia thought I didn’t belong,” she says. “And now I’m thinking, ‘that’s right, I’m too New York!’ And I’m working at the number one television market in the United States, thank you very much.

Cervasio remembers always loving sports, but her passion crystallized at the age of 11, when her father took her to the Rose Bowl as part of a trip to see his old friend, former NFL player and actor Ed Marinaro. “Tina was a bit starry-eyed,” Joe Cervasio says. “The spectacular pageantry of the day, I think it really got her excited and into the idea of sports broadcasting. It sort of put that twinkle in her eye.”

The Cervasios were—and still are—a football family. Joe’s best friend and Tina’s godfather, John Senesky, was a legendary football coach at Belleville High School, which continues to play a rivalry game against Nutley every Thanksgiving. (Tina was assigned to cover the game for MSG in 2008. “They didn’t even realize my connection there,” she says.)

“Football is my first love, but when I’m covering a sport, it is my favorite sport.”

“Football is my first love, but when I’m covering a sport, it is my favorite sport.”

Joe took Tina to other sporting events around the area. She remembers being at the basketball game at Belleville High School when local star Jennifer Apicella scored her 1,000th point. “I mean, people talk about their idols being Michael Jordan or Reggie Jackson, but this girl had an influence on me. It didn’t have to be watching home runs at Yankee Stadium; it was the simple moments in sports that captivated me and kind of got me drawn in for life.”

Cervasio was never a close follower of the Yankees—that devotion is reserved for Giants football—and, as a student in Maryland, she cheered for the Orioles. But Cervasio’s roots in Yankee territory still made life complicated when she was covering the Boston Red Sox for the New England Sports Network. “I was never really a huge Yankees fan, but forget it, when I went up to Boston, I was the devil,” she says.

Still, she worked hard and eventually won over most of her viewers. “It took a year to convince them,” she says. “I mean, shoot, I want the Red Sox to win because it makes my job more fun! It’s miserable to interview the players after they lose.” Fortunately for her (if not for her husband, a huge Yankees fan), the Red Sox won the World Series her second year there—at the end of her second marathon season of covering nearly all of the team’s 162 regular season games and, in 2007, fourteen playoff games.

Then she received an offer from MSG and was happy to make her way back home to her family—and to once again live in the same state as her husband, Kevin McKearney, a Monmouth County native who works for the New Jersey Nets. The two met when he worked in public relations for the New Jersey Red Dogs arena football team, and she was an unpaid sideline reporter. Since then, she says, “sports has defined our marriage.” Not only do Tina and Kevin jointly deal with her busy travel schedule and occasionally sit side-by-side during Knicks-Nets games, but they incorporate sports into much of their home life, regularly golfing and attending games during their time off. Their Christmas card after the 2007 baseball season was a picture of the two of them standing between the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox World Series trophies, he in a Yankees hat, with the words, “Let there be peace on earth.”

Being in Jersey also means Cervasio can spend more time with her parents, sister, and cousins, and in-laws. “The nature of my job was so intense, and I was missing everything,” she says. “My family and my home are so important to me. I love being here because this is where I’m from.”

She seamlessly fit into the MSG team. “It was so neat to be accepted by the fans immediately,” she says. “I grew up going to the Garden, whether for the circus or Big East basketball or the Knicks. I was one of them here.”

Her role has also allowed her to learn from some of the best announcers in sports journalism, including Al Trautwig and Mike Breen, with whom she regularly works during Knicks games. “It’s like getting a doctorate, being tutored by these people,” she says.

Breen, for example, helped her focus her reports from the sideline or locker room. “He said, ‘give me one thought, one fact, and the fans at home will remember everything you say,’” she says.

She also credits Trautwig with simplifying her reporting (“He’s so eloquent, it blows me away,” she says), though he insists she is a natural. “She came to work at MSG, which can be a complicated place, and she’s really found a comfort zone,” he says. “I think my mentoring may have lasted 30 seconds. She just took the ball and ran with it. She’s a real pro. I admire that, and [it is]what women have to do in this business to succeed. She has a way of talking about the team with knowledge, and she gets the human side. She’s a great teammate.”

Starting as a female sports journalist and aspiring to follow the footsteps of Hannah Storm, Linda Cohn, Lesley Visser, and other broadcasters, Cervasio says she used to get bogged down in statistics, thinking that was the way she needed to prove herself. “I learned, that’s not my role,” she says. “I have to tell stories. It’s emotion and style more than numbers. My job is to take things into a different dimension.” To prepare for that, she reads newspapers, visits sports blogs, checks players’ Twitter accounts, goes to practices and shoot-arounds, and talks to assistant coaches. “They are a great source of information, because they will break down plays, explain sets, and give honest assessments of players. With those pieces of information, I have dozens of in-game sideline reports ready to go.”

Over the course of her career, Cervasio has devoted herself not just to the major sports, such as basketball and baseball, but to everything from lacrosse to women’s hockey. “Football is my first love, but when I’m covering a sport, it is my favorite sport,” she says. “I Tivo it, I get into all of the different storylines. I don’t take it down a notch by any means, just because the fan base is different. For the people watching, this is their team, and there’s still that passion.”

The pinnacle of her career, she says, was calling the men’s and women’s gymnastics play-by-play at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece, with former Olympic gold medalist Peter Vidmar as her analyst. She met Nadia Comaneci, whom she idolized as a child, and called it live as American Carly Patterson won the all-around gold. “Here I am in Greece, where the Olympics originated, covering a sport that meant so much to me, and people at home are listening to me call the gold medal,” she says. “It was the perfect storm of every dream coming true.”

As Cervasio prepares to ratchet up with Red Bulls’ soccer, there’s anticipation that the Knicks will sign a major free agent in the off-season. “I’m optimistic about the future of the Knicks,” she says. “Remember, my first year in Boston, [the Red Sox] didn’t even make the playoffs, and then they won the World Series.”

Even if the Knicks were to land superstar LeBron James, it would be unlikely to faze Cervasio. She says she still gets more fired up by chance encounters with retired players, such as Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, or John Starks. “I’m still in awe of them, because they’re who I grew up watching. With LeBron, I’m not star struck, I’m focused. When I see him, it’s about getting an interview, a quote, getting him to answer a question that will enhance a report.” She adds,“Knicks fans are hanging on every word LeBron says these days, I’ve got to give the fans something.”

Cervasio says her Jersey pride is unwavering, though she’s not a fan of the depiction of the state in the Real Housewives of New Jersey. But the Sopranos? “That’s my childhood, as far as the Italian family goes,” she says. “Macaroni on Sundays, that’s how we grew up. I love it.” She raves about Wildwood Crest and Cape May, rides New Jersey Transit, grabs a bite at the Park West Diner on Route 46, dines out on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair, and celebrates milestones with her husband at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse in Edgewater.

She hopes to be working for MSG, and living in Jersey, for the long haul. “I’m so lucky to be home, doing what I love to do,” she says. “Everything just feels right when I’m here”.

Meal Ticket

Danilo Gallinari of the New York Knicks and Tina Cervasio.

Danilo Gallinari of the New York Knicks and Tina Cervasio.

Along with sports, dining out is one of Tina Cervasio’s passions. Here are a few of her local picks.

Montclair: Mexicali Rose. I love the authenticity of the atmosphere and food. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my parents took me on vacation to Puerto Vallarta. And you can’t beat the unlimited chips and salsa they keep bringing to the table.

Hoboken/ Morristown / Totowa: Sushi Lounge.
I first discovered Sushi Lounge years ago when I would take the PATH from Hoboken to Manhattan for work. It was right there, and I would meet my friends or sister for dinner all the time. Then my best friend moved to Morristown, and we always make plans to meet there. Now, there’s one on Route 46 in Totowa near my home, and the Zen atmosphere is great. The food is so fresh. The sashimi melts in your mouth.  I actually prefer the nights when it’s not as crowded. Plus, when the weather’s warm it’s unbelievable. When you sit outside, you have no idea you’re on Route 46—it feels more like you’re at a sushi restaurant in South Beach. Well, almost.

Edgewater: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse. It just opened when my sister moved to a complex across the way. We are there whenever we get a chance.  My husband’s a big steak guy, and he rates their steak very high.  I switch it up, and love the herb-crusted tuna.  The whole wine bar ambiance, and sweeping view of the New York City skyline is also very romantic. We spent our last Valentine’s Day there, as well as my birthday.

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