Friday, March 26, 1999


Packer's knowledge separates him from rest

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Billy Packer has done all right for a guy who took the job as a temp.

        “I was hired week to week,” he said of his beginnings in national broadcasting. “As the (NCAA) tournament went on, they kept bringing me back.”

        And back, and back.

        That was 25 years ago. Packer ended up doing his first Final Four for NBC. He's done every one since, . including Saturday and Monday with Jim Nantz for CBS.

        “The first one I did was significant, because it ended up being John Wooden's last game,” Packer said. “I worked with Curt Gowdy. When they told me I'd be working with Curt Gowdy, I thought I'd be driving the car.”

        That's a bit of an exaggeration. Packer had been working Atlantic Coast Conference games for a North Carolina regional network, so he had some broadcast experience.

        And he had a lot of basketball experience. In 1962, Packer was a point guard on the only Wake Forest team that ever made the Final Four.

        “I remember leaving San Diego thinking what a thrill it had been,” he said. “I never thought 25 years later I would have done all 25.”

        But back then, he also never thought he or college basketball would get so big.

        Packer has been part of that. He and partner Al McGuire were one of the most memorable analyst duos in TV history.

        “McGuire had this off-the-wall, "What did he mean by that?' approach,” said Dick Enberg, their partner at the time.

        Packer would rein in McGuire and make him explain just what it was he meant. The back-and-forth between the two was great fun.

        Packer came over to CBS when the network got the NCAA Tournament in 1982.

        “You've got to remember, when I went over to CBS, nobody wanted the tournament,” Packer said.

        While a lot has been made about the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana championship game that featured Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as increasing the popularity of the college game, Packer disagrees.

        “That was one of poorest final games in terms of quality of play that we've had,” Packer said.

        Packer said college basketball was about to bloom anyway.

        “In my estimation, two things led to the growth of college basketball,” he said. “In 1975, they decided to let multiple teams in and seeded them. That, more than anything, gave it balance. Before that, you had one team from each conference, and they kept them in their geographic region.

        “The other thing was in the late '60s, allowing black athletes to play at schools all over the country.”

        Basketball history is Packer's strength.

        “He uses his knowledge of history and connects it to the present,” Nantz said. “I'm shocked more announcers don't do that.”

        Packer isn't nearly the best-known college basketball analyst on TV. Dick Vitale surpasses him tenfold. You don't see Packer look-alike or sound-alike contests the night before games he does.

        But you know that if Packer's doing a game, it's a big game.

        Packer, judging from the calls I get from readers, doesn't evoke a lot of emotion one way or another. But you can't argue with his work ethic. Even during the first round — when he's doing four games in one day — he's as prepared for the 16th seed as he is for the first.

        “He's very good,” Nantz said. “He knows the game and he works hard at what he does.”

        Packer is a coach's son. His father, Tony, coached at Lehigh. That may explain Packer's X-and-O approach to broadcasting. Vitale shouts “Oh, baby!” after an alley-oop dunk; Packer explains how the back screen was used to get the dunker open.

        The best thing about Packer is that he knows the game and the tournament are bigger than he is.

        “I think the unknown is what makes it great,” he said. “That's why I think it will remain vibrant forever.”

        ONE QUESTION: Dave, the Xavier fan, wants to know why Channel 9 — the station that airs XU games — was the only local station not in Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinal game with Clemson.

        Don't know, Dave. Maybe for the same reason the station killed its sports report at 5:30.

        John Fay covers TV/radio sports for The Enquirer. He can be reached at 768-8445.