The presence long synonymous with March’s biggest games has been absent from the telecasts for seven years. Before that, from 1975 through 2008, Billy Packer was a Final Four fixture. So, does Packer miss the role of lead game analyst, especially now that the 2015 season nears its climax?
“No,” he says emphatically. “I don’t miss it a bit. I actually never really got a big kick out of announcing.” The satisfaction was in preparing, Packer says, then leading viewers to fresh insights. “That was more thrilling to me than announcing the game.”
At age 75, the Charlotte resident is involved in real estate, including his Olde Beau golf course in Roaring Gap, N.C., and other business ventures. Packer revels in occasional legal battles with the state of North Carolina over rules he thinks unjust. The son of a coach and the point guard on Wake Forest’s 1962 Final Four team, the only one in school history, also remains an avid student of basketball.
But Packer, one of the most distinctive voices in the history of sports television and a 1993 Sports Emmy winner, no longer broadcasts his views. “He was and remains the best there ever was,” says ACC and CBS analyst Dan Bonner, who studied Packer’s work in the 80s as a young broadcaster. “When he retired, I thought college basketball lost its most eloquent spokesman.”
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No pulled punches
Like it or not, we’re poorer without Packer’s knack for explaining what will happen before it does. We miss his forthrightness, particularly amid a cautious chorus of fired coaches moonlighting between jobs; retired players seeking fresh career paths; and professional kibitzers more comfortable with the NBA.
Pulled punches and theatrical schtick were never Packer’s style. The self-described “wiseguy” drew attention with opinionated commentary. His aspirations to be an attorney were thwarted by a lack of funds after graduating Wake, but his love of what he calls “lawyering” helped him prosecute basketball cases with an advocate’s zeal.
Packer’s outspokenness led detractors to collate a rich catalog of complaints, amended each time he stepped anew on someone’s toes. Ripping the cantankerous and unrepentant Packer grew routine among fans and hip media members.
“Over the years we haven’t had an announcer that received as many complaints to us as Billy Packer did,” says Ken Haines, president and CEO of Raycom Sports, a syndicator of ACC and other broadcasts. Funny thing about the complaints, though. “He was one of the most accurate we’ve ever had in terms of describing what was expected in the game; 95 percent of the time he was exactly right,” Haines says. No wonder Packer worked ACC games from 1972 until his career concluded.
Few aspects of the game eluded Packer’s brusque scrutiny. He challenged officials’ calls before that became common on college telecasts. He critiqued coaching strategies, team performances and the judgment of the NCAA tournament selection committee with equal fervor. “Every time I watched a game that Billy Packer was doing, I learned something,” says the thoughtful Bonner. “I learned something about basketball or strategy or one of the players or some bit of history of the school or of the conference or college basketball.”
But, especially if you had a rooting interest, sooner or later Packer was sure to anger you. (He claims he was never a fan, even as a child.) Such reactions were fine with him, a point of pride. “The losing team is pissed,” Packer explains of angry fans. “You basically were, in their mind, rooting against their team because you were saying more positive things about the other guy. Well, the other guy won.”
Over the decades a few Packer comments wandered to the edge of prejudice, and he apologized. Usually he irked listeners by aggressively advancing competition-related arguments, then firmly – some said inflexibly – defending his words.
“I don’t want to brag that I was right,” he says. “On the other hand, I said what I thought at the time was a statement that should be made, so you stand by it. You either live with it, or don’t. (Former vice president) Dick Chaney said they would welcome us with open arms (in Iraq) and, well, he was full of ----. But you made the statement, now you’ve got to live with it.”
That ownership applied in the case of Packer’s last public drubbing for a frank remark, made when North Carolina fell behind Kansas 38-12 in the 2008 Final Four. “This game is over,” Packer intoned in vintage fashion. The statement arose from a courtside “feeling” he got from the Tar Heels and the game’s first-half flow. “To watch it on TV, you couldn’t tell,” he recalls.
Broadcast partner Jim Nance, doubtless reflecting the concerns of TV executives anxious to retain viewers, grabbed Packer’s leg during a timeout and asked, “Billy, do you realize what you said?” Packer replied with typical candor: “Yeah, I realize what I said. Carolina hasn’t come prepared to play this game properly and they’re making no adjustments to change either their attitude or the way they’re playing. This game is over.” UNC rallied, but lost by 18.
By that point, however, Packer had soured on modern college basketball. He took to broadcasting ACC games when “Sail With the Pilot” was the league’s unofficial anthem, and freshmen nationwide were ineligible for varsity competition. His career spanned what he calls a “golden era,” from David Thompson’s greatness at N.C. State and John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty to Duke’s rise under Mike Krzyzewski. Then came a rising tide of players leaving early in droves, and starting in 2006, one-and-done players cycling through the college ranks.
“What people don’t understand is that the game has deteriorated greatly because there are no more great junior and senior players,” Packer says. Low scoring reflects that state of affairs. “There’s no comparison between a freshman who has potential and a guy that’s played within a system for a major coach.”
He much prefers the interwoven excellence of this year’s veteran Virginia squad to most of its contemporary counterparts, even if the Cavs didn’t score much. “That’s beautiful basketball,” Packer says. “People don’t appreciate that because they’re watching ESPN and 90 percent of what is shown is some kind of dunks.”
Packer has no qualms about being old-fashioned. He readily volunteers he has no computer, no e-mail, no Twitter account. He has a cell phone, but only to be used for emergencies.
Not surprisingly, then, he is not about to usher Kentucky’s current squad into the game’s historical elite even if it posts a 40-0 championship season. “Come on, give me a break,” Packer says. “It’s not even worth discussing.” He scoffs at the notion Kentucky could match up with the UCLA teams of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton, or the undefeated, senior-laden Indiana team of 1975.
Packer does consider the 2015 Wildcats the best squad of the one-and-done era. Yet he’s no admirer of coach John Calipari’s program. Earlier this season, Calipari said his goal for the season was to see eight of his players get drafted. “How did we get from what used to be the objective of a college coach, to that?” Packer wonders disdainfully. That’s one Packer stand most fans will surely embrace.