Smile Politely

Billy Packer is Weird, and the Best Commentator in College Basketball

“What I didn’t want to do, and made clear to CBS, is to have any of that take attention away from the games or players — it isn’t about Billy Packer.”

False modesty? That’s up to you to decide.

“They had to move in a direction for their future. And it made a lot of sense to me. This is good for both parties.”

Could this possibly be true? Well, even a paid court side seat for the Final Four gets old after a while. (I think. I’d be interested in finding out for myself.) Besides, Billy Packer is not a sports fan. That’s just one of many, many weird aspects of the man.

Michael Hiestand writes:

Packer is pretty difficult to categorize. He’s never learned to type or use the Internet. He’s never had a cellphone. He famously thinks TV ratings are bogus. He hired a psychic to find the murder weapon in the O.J. Simpson case and used to play golf backward, hitting from green to tee. He once stacked his collected Picasso ceramics in Plexiglas under a plywood board — and used it as a work desk.

Increasing vilification — perhaps a product of that Internet thing — may have led CBS to retire Billy Packer after 34 years of calling the National Title game. But whether retirement is good, whether his critics are apt, I think it’s hard to support the contention that Billy Packer is a dick.

Old curmudgeon? Perhaps. But frankly, I prefer the wisdom of curmudgeonly old timers* to nascent new wave naïve newbs. It’s a bit shocking that Billy, like Senator McCain, is incapable of using the Internets. But understanding the history of basketball — the foundation of the game — does not require mad SQLs. What Billy Packer does bring to the game is an insight rarely matched at the speed of play: He sees things other people don’t see.

It’s the sine qua non of sports analysis, yet, almost no one has the gift. Hiestand quotes Hall of Fame Coach Jim Calhoun, a two-time national champion who listens to Packer’s analysis “to pick things up” from him.

Let’s look at the arguments against Billy Packer:

  • he talks too much
  • he called Allen Iverson a “tough little monkey”
  • he has an ACC bias
  • he has a major-conference bias
  • he’s a sexist pig
  • he called a Final Four game “over” in the first half
  • he accused Frank Williams of “playing like a dog”

It’s a long list of indictments — and all from the last decade of his 34-year run. So let’s imagine his malfeasance also made entrée pre-information age. Any early misdemeanors likely resemble those listed — although oafish buffoons seem to become increasingly arrogant with time, so maybe his boners were less frequent in the more forgiving 70s and 80s.

Oops, I said “boner.” Well, that reminds me of another Packerism frequently cited by his critics. Billy told fellow Tarheel Charlie Rose (also a fellow ex-college basketball player) he wouldn’t trust Rose to not fag out if given a gopher job at the Final Four. The gay sports world didn’t seem to mind, much. But a lot of others protested, too much.

Even the great Keith Olbermann got it wrong when Packer refused to apologize or backtrack from the “fag out” comment. Olbermann couldn’t credit Packer’s claim of an older usage. That seems queer to me. Olbermann’s brand identity is waxing fustian on the Faustian. His grandiloquent periphrasticisms rival any of today’s most cunning linguists. He, of all people, should get the reference. But like a lot of lesser lexicographers, Keith can’t ken the cant. Oh well.

An interesting parallel: Olbermann considered the Lewinsky affair blown out of proportion. (Sorry.) I agree. I also contend that Bill Clinton never had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, because I learned in 8th grade Health and 10th grade Biology that “sexual” refers to the conjoining of reproductive organs between male and female members of a species. Furthermore, I can readily imagine nerdy yokel Billy Clinton pretending to smoke a joint among savvier, worldlier blue-bloods at college — just to fit in. Sometimes people aren’t lying, even if it sounds stupid.

Packer’s egregious, one might say enormous, or even throbbing boner is the sexist piggery. The indictment is true, and the judgment is fair. On this occasion, Billy just looked stupid.

The rest of the list? It’s all true, too.

It’s true that Packer said it; and it’s True, what Packer said. Homer Illini fans may hate Packer for naysaying His Royal Frankness, but it was lower-case frankness that held sway that day. Illini fans capable of perceiving and speaking truth know that Frank Williams often played like a dog. He also drank a lot of alcohol.

I know that for a fact because I served it to him.

Years later, Frank came to the realization — like a lot of people — that his ennui stemmed from chronic depression, a medical condition which, left undiagnosed, can kill a professional athletic career faster than you can say Anterior Cruciate Ligament.

(It took me an hour to find an attributable source for the above remark. The original link was here: and if you really want to read the story, you can pay for it here.)

Packer takes heat for every unfavorable call he makes. So, over 34 years, he took a lot of heat. Another example: The Carolina fan base hates him for correctly determining that Tyler Hansbrough’s nose was not the victim of a well-executed conspiracy.

But seriously, who wants spin in their sports analysis? If your great thrill in life comes from watching television talking heads tell you that you didn’t see what you just saw, there’s an entire other arena of public discourse to fulfill your needs — and it’s arguably even more important than college basketball.

Sleazeballs in the press pretended to support Billy’s hip-shooting, while nonetheless shilling for the poor, downtrodden, enfeebled advertising industry. Nevertheless, calling it as you see it, despite the encroachment of Political Correctness, is still popular among the laity. Straight-shooters are popular with Joe public. But because they take sides, and express opinions, straight-shooters engender a lot of debate, and debasement.

For clarity, I’ll bring the analysis to a local level. And because this column is, in theory, about basketball — I’ll choose examples from the world of basketball.

On the local basketball scene, two individuals stand out when the term “straight-shooter” comes up. They are, coincidentally, our two school superintendents. Preston Williams coached the Urbana Tigers when I was in school. (He also taught a world history course which I took. I confess a fervent admiration for the man.)

Williams took a hard stance on discipline. When the time came, he practiced what he preached: One of my classmates — a Division 1 recruit — got caught with a beer, and Williams kicked him off the team. Everybody got hurt, of course. The dream season died. The full-ride scholarship disappeared. A lot of people thought a suspension would have been better. But it would be hard to argue that Preston Williams did not stand firm on his principles.

Arthur Culver took a hard stance, too. When his son got benched for cussing out his 8th grade coach, Culver fired the coach. Unlike Williams, I’ve never met Arthur Culver. Nor have I been in attendance for any of the regular prayer meetings he inflicts on the staff of Unit 4 schools. But in five years, he’s gained a reputation as one of the curviest shooters in town.

End result? People like Preston Williams, and are glad to have him around. People distrust Arthur Culver, and some even volunteer to help him pack his bags.

Ethical relativism, you see, is like Instant Karma. It’s going to get you. So speak directly (and of course, smile politely).

Too much of the time, otherwise rational people support the malignant acts of their friends simply because the malfeasors are their friends. Loyalty blinds the individual from recognizing the malfeasance of his mates. I don’t tolerate it. I speak out against my friend’s misdemeanor. It’s the only way to be a good friend. Or perhaps it’s the only way to be a worthwhile friend. I’ve divorced myself from some pretty good friends because of their ethical infidelities. Riding a high-horse leads to bruising falls.

But whatever injuries I’ve sustained — whatever hypocritical comeuppance I may face in the future — I’ll never renounce the position that Speaking My Mind, and its cohort Seeking The Truth, are the highest heights to which a man can aspire.

If there were an afterlife, I suspect Saint Peter, Satan, Bob Eubanks, or whomever it is that meets us at the gate, would ask one question. It has to do with how much we learned in life, and how much we contributed to the learning.

All my heroes are outspoken. A lot of them are unpopular, or at the least have powerful enemies. If Galileo, for example, hadn’t stood up for Truth, we’d all still be living on a flat earth.

The forum is unimportant. I want straight talk in every aspect of life. Because I like college basketball so much, I want the people in the college basketball discussion to be enlightened, and earnest, in their contributions. I don’t want Billy Packer to be replaced by an appeasing, non-controversial, advertising agency darling.

Thing is, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. We’ve taken Billy Packer for granted. We’ve even kicked him in the ribs a few times.

It’s an old story.

For years, Chicago Cubs telecasts were famous for the lovable drunk Harry Caray. And while Harry was among the first play-by-play men to gain notoriety for criticizing the home team, he was more famous for slurring, and singing off-key.

What we all failed to notice is that demure, if dapper, Steve Stone was the true gem in the booth. The color commentator should be more interesting, and more colorful, than the play-by-play guy. Right? Well, as hard as it might be to outshine Harry Caray, that’s what Stoney did. And he did it quietly, which is an even more impressive feat.

Stone was so forthright, so accurate in his assessment of Cubs play and players that he was fired. The Cubs, given their tradition, should be the MLB team least vulnerable to Homerism. But the organization caved. So Ron Santo persists in the announcers box, where he says only good things about the team, and complains about any calls that don’t go their way (although he really mostly just says “yeah” or “yep,” and I dare you to count the number of times he does when you next tune in 720 AM).

Wikipedia sums it up:

Highly regarded as a broadcaster, Stone refused a contract extension as the Cubs color-man after the 2004 season amid a controversy involving Cubs players who felt he was being overly critical of their performance. Even so, he was a fan favorite. This was apparent at the Cubs’ last home game of 2004, when, after the game had ended and all the players had left the field, nearly everyone left in the stadium looked up to the broadcast booth and chanted “Stoney! Stoney!” for several minutes. One reason he was so well-liked was his ability to accurately predict what might happen in various game situations, explaining to the audience why the strategy or pitch would be successful prior to the play. A famous example of this was him expressing “I wouldn’t pitch to this guy” in a 2004 game mere seconds before the batter Adam Dunn hit a home run off Cubs pitcher Mike Remlinger to give the Reds the lead.

Stone expressed frustration with Cubs manager Dusty Baker for not controlling his players. At one point during the 2004 season, Kent Mercker called the broadcast booth from the bullpen during a game to complain about comments made, and he also confronted Stone in a hotel lobby. Among the comments that reportedly irked Mercker were Chip Caray’s praise of Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt. It was also reported that Mercker and left fielder Moisés Alou yelled and shouted at Stone on a team charter plane to an away game in 2004, and that Alou tried to have Stone and Caray banned from the team charter flights.

On September 30, 2004, in the wake of a 12-inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds that all but buried the Cubs, Stone lit into the team. “The truth of this situation is [this is] an extremely talented bunch of guys who want to look at all directions except where they should really look, and kind of make excuses for what happened…This team should have won the wild-card [playoff berth] by six, seven games. No doubt about it.”

The comments stunned manager Baker, and were a factor in Stone’s resignation as a Cub broadcaster the following month.

Steve Stone is weird, too. He’s a restaurateur. He’s a ladies man. He won a Cy Young award. He’s Jewish. He’s a walking encyclopedia of statistics. It’s an unusual combination.

Maybe it’s the weirdness that makes him, like Billy Packer, a superior analyst. Maybe freakish qualities imbue the bearer with an introspection unavailable to the average Joe.

We need more, not fewer, Steve Stones, Billy Packers, and yes, even Keith Olbermen (sic) in our sports analyses. It’s so much more interesting than listening to a sports guy who only knows about sports. It’s so much more enlightening than listening to a guy who only tells the good news. And there’s no time like the present, because on one point Billy Packer was dead wrong: College basketball is not broken, and it is not doomed.

Yes, it may be worse than it was before the market correction that led non-readers straight to The League, or some league. As a higher-ed snob, I find it unpractical to force all the best basketball players in our nation to spend any time in post-secondary school. What if they can’t read?

The professional game has never been good, and although it’s achieved greater parity than ever before, it will never achieve the greatness of the college game, for one reason: There can be no Cinderella in a game of millionaires.

*By the way, not all old coots are living in the past — look at this one:

1750 posts this site

Posted: Today 3:54 PM
Re: Fellow oldtimers, what a difference a half a century makes
What is with this “fellow old timers” crap? Johnny Kerr and I crap on your half century. Give me 60+ years and counting. At 83, I can still get to BB and FB games, though not the upper deck so much….

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