NC State’s Terry Gannon left basketball, embraced broadcasting

NC State's Terry Gannon helps cut down the nets following the Wolfpack's ACC tournament Championship game win in 1983.
NC State's Terry Gannon helps cut down the nets following the Wolfpack's ACC tournament Championship game win in 1983. 1983 News & Observer archive photo

Maybe the four years of tap dancing classes as a youth, punctuated by recitals and shows, had a more profound effect than Terry Gannon realized. “This will be good for you, kid,” he recalls being told by his father, Jim, a high school basketball coach. “It will be good for your coordination.” The teacher was Gannon’s mother, Mary Fran, a 30-year tap dancing instructor.

Being quick on his feet likely did advance Gannon’s playing career. The 6-1 guard from Joliet, Illinois, got enough open looks to set an ACC record for 3-point accuracy in a season, hitting 58.9 percent of his 90 tries from a shortened, experimental distance (17 feet, nine inches) for N.C. State’s 1983 national championship squad. He was more than a standstill shooter, earning sufficient trips to the line to rank second all-time among Wolfpack players in career free throw accuracy (.854).

Gannon, a two-time Academic All-American, also possesses a nimble mind, and after earning a degree in history in 1985 began a transformation into perhaps the most versatile announcer in TV sports. With his warm, authoritative voice and understated manner, he’s covered a dazzling array of sports, earning him recognition on one Website as “the man who knows every game.” Most closely associated with golf and figure skating, Gannon recently signed a five-year contract extension with NBC and the Golf Channel. He already is slated to broadcast from next year’s Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, Korea.

Last week the school announced it would induct the entire '83 team into the N.C. State Athletic Hall of Fame in September 2018.

Originally intent on becoming a basketball coach, Gannon served for a season as a graduate assistant on Jim Valvano’s staff at Raleigh. Then, with a shot at playing in Europe, he turned to his former coach for advice. They made an appointment to talk, but when Gannon arrived at Valvano’s campus office the coach was on the phone. As Gannon recalls with practiced ease, Valvano barely paused from his telephonic conversation to impatiently inquire, “Terry, what do you want?”

“I’m here to talk about my life,” Gannon responded. “Remember, we were going to sort out…”

Valvano quickly cut to the heart of the matter, dismissing Gannon’s playing prospects. “You’re short, you’re slow, you’re white, and you can’t jump,” he said. “What are you going to be, Walt Frazier?” Frazier, a Hall of Fame guard from Southern Illinois who starred for the New York Knicks, happened to be one of Gannon’s heroes.

The tete-a-tete with Valvano “took about 30 seconds,” Gannon says. When the meeting concluded, the younger man charted a new course. “It was because of him that I went into what I’m doing. Big picture-wise, basketball was part of his life he taught to his players. But it shouldn’t be your entire life, it shouldn’t consume you.”

Terry Gannon (Photo courtsey of NC State Athletics Department) Photo courtsey of NC State Athletics Department Photo courtsey of NC State Athletics Department

Reflecting that outlook, Valvano had multiple entrepreneurial interests. These were criticized as unseemly for a coach at a state institution, not to mention a source of distraction from his main job. But that outside portfolio proved handy for Gannon, who appeared on Valvano’s TV and radio shows. Gannon began doing regionally televised basketball games in 1986, and soon became a regular basketball game analyst.

As the nineties dawned, the former high school baseball player – he kept a picture of Chicago’s Wrigley Field in his Reynolds Coliseum locker – became the play-by-play announcer for the Charlotte Knights. In 1991 he contracted with ABC to do college basketball and its iconic weekly “Wide World of Sports,” covering an array of arcane pursuits like “ski flying.”

Once, he fielded an unsolicited phone call on a Monday about broadcasting a North Carolina-Georgia Tech football game, and was prepared and persuasively knowledgeable by Saturday. “It’s that split where you either go, I’m not prepared to do this, or why not? And the why-not part comes from being around him,” he says of Valvano, calling that receptivity to the unknown “the ultimate gift.”

Later in Gannon’s career he was given a similar but surely more daunting challenge: to travel to Toyko the following week to host a figure skating event, a sport he had not followed. He took that request in stride too, and is now a fixture on NBC broadcasts of the sport. Just last month he was in Helsinki, Finland, for the World Figure Skating Championships.

“At the beginning, you go with what you know and stay away from what you don’t,” he explains of taking on an unfamiliar sport. Drawing from his college playing days, when he didn’t get a start until his junior year, Gannon went on, “It’s like coming off the bench at the beginning of the game. The first few minutes you come in and break a sweat before you start firing up 3-pointers.”

Gannon delves into each new sport with scholarly zeal, approaching it “as if it was a history project.” He immediately learns the sport’s idiosyncratic language, a key to sounding authentic to listening enthusiasts. He surveys the rules, reads important books on the sport, familiarizes himself with key figures from its past and with the backgrounds of significant contemporary competitors.

The 53-year-old married father of two has never bothered to count how many countries his job has taken him to, leaving him armed with tales of visiting historic sites from Parisian catacombs to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to St. Petersburg, Russia, his favorite city. Nor can Gannon list all the sports he’s covered, which include everything from Little League baseball to the NBA and WNBA, mountain biking to gymnastics, skiing to horse racing, track and field to judo. He’s done a soccer World Cup; rowing, kayaking and canoeing at the 2012 Summer Games in London; golf at the 2016 Games at Rio.

N.C. State coach Jim Valvano embraces sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles moments after Charles had dunked a shot to give N.C. State the win over Houston on April 5, 1983 in the NCAA final at Albuquerque. 1983 AP FILE PHOTO

Perhaps his greatest challenge was broadcasting three Tour de France bicycle races. “Here’s what the Tour de France is: it’s a Super Bowl that moves every day for three weeks,” he says. Around the race – which he calls “the most incredible event that I’ve ever been a part of” – swirls controlled “madness” punctuated by good wine and food, bruising media scrums, and a dash after each day’s race stage to set up “in a different city, village, town or mountaintop.”

Most everywhere Gannon travels, particularly in this country, he’s also reminded daily of the happy, inspirational shadow of his basketball past. Recently, changing planes at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the Los Angeles-area resident tweeted his pleasure at getting to eat some North Carolina barbecue. “Then the airport responds to me, ‘Hey, just so you know, you were open and Whitt should have passed you the ball on that last play,’” Gannon recounts with a laugh. “This was my first conversation with an airport. It was better than with most people.”

What did happen in Albuquerque in 1983 was Dereck Whittenburg shot an airball, and Lorenzo Charles caught and dunked the ball as time expired, still the ultimate buzzerbeater in NCAA championship game history. Improbable victory secured, Valvano ran zanily about the court, a dash he replicated after the Wolfpack won the ’87 ACC title.

At Maryland’s Capital Centre, Coach V gravitated to a familiar face, a TV reporter stationed on the sideline under a basket, where he enveloped Terry Gannon – clinging to a live mic and his newfound broadcast professionalism – in a lingering, bouncing, joyous embrace.