By Theodore N. Beitchman
It’s hard to know if college basketball on TV made Billy Packer.
Or if it was the other way around.
Packer died the other day in North Carolina at the age of 82, and he was appropriately celebrated as a great hoops announcer, especially when he was paired with Al McGuire.
Packer started broadcasting games in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1972, back when the ACC was by far the best conference in the country.
He was so good that NBC hired him in 1975, then he was hired by CBS when it got the rights to the Final Four in 1982.
So Packer was the voice of March Madness, the sport’s highest-profile event. for 33 years until 2008, when he retired.
And, as good as he was. he could also be a prickly egotist.
Which I found out in 1985, when I met him at the Final Four in Lexington, Ky.
You may remember that was the year of The Perfect Game, Villanova’s 66-64 upset of defending national champ Georgetown.
I was working at Sports Illustrated and co-hosted an after-dinner forum the night before the Cats-Hoyas final game.
There were 300 advertisers in the audience, and Packer was really on his game.
“There’s no way Villanova is going to win this game,” Packer declared to the crowd.
To which I responded:
“Nine-and-a-half is way too high of a line.”
Nova had lost both regular season games to Georgetown, that is true, but one was an OT loss and the other was also tight.
That was my logic.
“Who cares what the line is … gambling isn’t even legal.”
Which, as they say, is a distinction without a difference.
Or a non-denial denial.
In other words, if you don’t have a good on-point response change the subject.
Villanova played a perfect game, shooting 79% from the field, with Ed Pinckney playing Patrick Ewing to a stand-off.
The Cats won 66-64, and it’s considered the second greatest upset in NCAA title history.
After NC State’s 54-52 victory over Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma.
So, it’s about midnight in the Hyatt lobby in Lexington after Villanova’s win, and Rollie Massimino, the Cats coach, spots me and races over.
“I hear Packer thought we never had a shot,” the disheveled coach said. “But you thought we did,”
That was close enough.
Lots of the advertisers spotted me and said Packer should apologize for being so wrong.
That wasn’t his nature.
He was a great announcer with a conceit to match his talent.
He could also could be a highly divisive figure with a reputation as being too brusque as a color commentator and stingy with praise to the players and coaches.
As the Washington Post obit pointed out:
Writing in Salon in 2008, sports journalist King Kaufman described Mr. Packer as “grumpy, imperious” and often seen as too much of a booster for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes Mr. Packer’s alma mater, Wake Forest University, where he played point guard in the 1960s.
As George Mason made a stunning run to the Final Four in 2006, Mr. Packer received backlash for having said the tournament should not have let in as many mid-major teams.
In 1996, after referring to Georgetown guard Allen Iverson as “a tough monkey” during a game broadcast, Packer said he “meant no offense” and “was not apologizing” because, he claimed, his remark was not related to Iverson being Black.
But Mr. Packer sent an apology to a pair of female Duke students in 2000 after they accused him of making sexist comments when they were checking credentials before a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Mr. Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades” and “analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game.”
In response to detractors, Mr. Packer once replied that he was “often wrong, but never in doubt.”