I wonder if Billy Packer annoyed his teammates 50 years ago when he played basketball at Wake Forest College, as it was known at the time. He’s so skilled at annoying people that he must have been doing it for a long time.
Maybe it started on December 7, 1959, when Sports Illustrated, in its annual college basketball preseason edition, referred to Packer as a “brilliant newcomer” on the Wake Forest team. That would be heady stuff for a college kid to read about himself – the kind of stuff that might contribute to some ego management problems in later life.
Still, Packer lived up to his billing during his college career. In 1962, with Packer starring at point guard, Wake Forest reached the NCAA Final Four. They lost to Ohio State, 84-68, in the semi-final game. Cincinnati edged UCLA, 72-70 in the other semi-final game and earned the right to play Ohio State for the NCAA championship.
In those days, the semi-finals losers played each other in a so-called consolation game before the championship matchup. Packer and Wake Forest beat UCLA, 82-80, in that contest. It was UCLA’s first trip to the Final Four under Coach John Wooden, a legend in the making in 1962. And it would be a long time before UCLA lost again in the Final Four. Starting in 1965, Wooden’s UCLA teams won nine straight NCAA basketball titles.
After listening for so many years to Packer’s know-it-all commentary as a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports, I’m surprised he hasn’t claimed that he offered some advice to Wooden after that 1962 consolation game that started him on the path to greatness.
For 27 years, Packer has been telling us all about his brilliance. But he won’t be doing it next season. A few days ago, CBS announced that his contract is not being renewed for the coming season.
That’s fine with me. I certainly won’t miss him.
There are several sportscasters – such as college basketball commentators Len Elmore and Bill Raftery and Major League baseball commentator Joe Morgan – whose broadcasts I enjoy. These guys convey their knowledge and passion for the game without trying to convince viewers of their omnipotent brilliance.
During his tenure with CBS, however, Packer epitomized the type of sportscaster that, in my opinion, has taken much of the pleasure out of watching a sports event. Packer and some of his loquacious, second-guessing colleagues seem obsessed with getting inside the heads of everybody within earshot. Every movement by every player, every decision by every coach or manager, every close call by every referee or umpire is thrashed out and analyzed and ultimately criticized ad infinitum. As far as these guys are concerned, the games aren’t played to decide who is going to win. The games are played so you, the viewer, will be awed by the sportscasters’ dazzling intellect.
Five minutes of listening to Packer’s pontifications will convince you that he always believes he’s the smartest guy in the building. Tim McCarver, a broadcaster for Fox’s Major League Baseball telecasts, is another motor-mouthed know-it-all who is in love with the sound of his own voice. And don’t get me started about ESPN’s Dick Vitale, whose loud witless enthusiasm and constant braying of his uniquely weird and awful basketball patois – “Dipsy-do dunkeroo, bay-bee, he’s a true diaper dandy!” and “The emotion, bay-bee, the emotion!” – can send me lunging for the mute button on my remote.
The remarkable thing about Packer is that, for such a smart guy, he makes an awful lot of mistakes. And he never, ever admits it, even if his mistake is ludicrously obvious to a few million TV viewers. I could give you many examples, but I’ll confine myself to one: the closing minutes of the Duke-North Carolina basketball game in March 2007.
Like all Duke-Carolina games, this one was fiercely fought to the end. After a missed free throw, UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough and Duke’s Gerald Henderson went up after the rebound. The ball came Hansbrough’s way. Henderson broke Hansbrough’s nose with a vicious forearm blow.
Only Henderson knows what was in his mind when he landed that stunning blow on Hansbrough’s face. But after carefully reviewing the tape, the referees decided that Henderson had committed a flagrant foul and ejected him from the game.
Repeated replays of the video showed that Henderson made his violent lunge toward Hansbrough after the ball had caromed away from him. Maybe Henderson had no intention of striking Hansbrough and his lunge was only adrenaline-fueled frustration. But the basketball was beyond Henderson’s reach, and he had no reason other than frustration to make such a powerful forearm swipe in Hansbrough’s direction. It was an emotional, out-of-control action and he broke a guy’s nose. And that’s a flagrant foul.
But from the moment blood spurted from Hansbrough’s broken nose, Packer defended Henderson. It was an amazing denial of reality in the face of clearly contradictory evidence. Yet Packer insisted for the rest of the game that he was right and the referees were wrong. I’m sure CBS officials got some outraged phone calls and e-mails after that game.
Caulton Tudor, one of my favorite sports columnists who writes for the News and Observer of Raleigh, wrote a recent column about Packer’s departure from CBS in which he recalled a quote by the late Al McGuire.
In some ways, McGuire was everything that Packer is not. He was personable and funny, he didn’t take himself too seriously, and he’d won an NCAA championship. McGuire’s quote about Packer was this: “The poor guy is so serious about basketball that he can't have any fun with it. He's like a Catholic nun with her rosary and all these Baptists down here are about the Lord's Prayer. It's all life or death. There's no in-between with Billy. If it's on his mind, it jumps out of his mouth. But, bless his heart, his mind is just as fast as his mouth.”
Tudor, a smart, insightful and experienced columnist, praised Packer’s work at CBS. But as I said, it’ll be a relief to me not to have to listen to him this coming winter.