By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Billy Packer has never been beloved the way John Madden is. Packer's never been as smooth as Doug Collins or Joe Morgan. Packer is the polar opposite of college basketball's other iconic analyst, Dick Vitale. There were times earlier in his career when Packer was criticized for being racially insensitive. As recently as 2000 he made a crude and arrogant remark to a couple of Duke co-eds who were simply doing their jobs. As recently as March Packer took his usual position, lobbying for the interests of college basketball's Goliaths at the expense of the game's Davids. And his opinions on most issues relating to professional basketball were, at best, unenlightened.
Yet nobody has been as good at explaining and analyzing a college basketball game, which is why CBS parting company with Packer yesterday after 27 years is such a stunner. He'd worked every Final Four broadcast since 1975. His very presence at a game lifted its importance and made it a bigger event than if someone else was calling it. Louisville Coach Rick Pitino nailed it when he said, "I think Billy has given the most professional accounting of [college] basketball in the history of our game as a commentator."
Between the sidelines, Packer has been the most complete critic of all, a very tough but ultimately fair grader. You knew he loved college basketball but he didn't come to the microphone with pom-poms. When it came to X's and O's, timeouts, strategies, philosophies, what coaches should do next, Packer was a bit Hubie Brown, an insider who simplified every situation for the viewer with authority.
When it was time to weigh in with a tough opinion that might offend someone's sensibilities, Packer was a bit Howard Cosell, bold and unconcerned with any possible consequences. Packer certainly hasn't been great fun on the air, like Bill Raftery. And when it comes to social issues he's usually awkward, probably because what he cares about above everything else is the game. That's why Pitino's characterization of Packer giving a "professional accounting" is perfect.
I'd gladly put up with all of Packer's agendas and his affiliations because when he sat to call a game he threw himself into it and made the experience better for anybody who cared about the game, if less so the three-ring circus that has come to surround college basketball.
That he wasn't a warm and fuzzy creature probably shouldn't count against Packer ultimately, though there have been times when Packer created his own messes that became national controversies and turned a lot of consumers of college basketball against him. I was pointedly critical of Packer in the early 1990s when like a great many white sportscasters, usually calling college football and basketball games, he resorted to the laziest analysis possible, depicting black players as physically superior and white players as intellectually superior. The implication, of course, was that all black players were physically gifted yet intellectually challenged.
This discussion heated to the boiling point in the late 1980s as on-air language was first examined closely and Packer was at the center of the examination. But if the best thing that can result from criticism is change, the dialogue was worth it. As annoyed with Packer as I was initially, I came to admire him for changing not just his language, but his thought. It was a dramatic change, too. Some broadcasters, fearing for their jobs, simply settled for more politically correct language. Packer went much further.
Several times when groups including black coaches and black journalists put together panels to talk about stereotyping in the media, Packer showed up and took a grilling. I remember one afternoon/evening in Chicago--if memory serves me it was at Jesse Jackson's PUSH headquarters in Hyde Park, when Packer sat with a few black sportswriters and Jackson, and we went at it. We'd ask Packer if he understood that not all black players were great athletes and not all white players were brilliant and I wasn't sure he got it, that he understood why these depictions were offensive, not to mention inaccurate.
Packer, no matter how confrontational the setting was, never left one of those sessions early. He'd stay and engage, sometimes deep into the night. I didn't know until many years later that Packer, as a young man, publicly and privately railed against segregated basketball games in the South and as a teenager went to see and/or play against the top black high school and college players in the mid-Atlantic despite the fact that white kids were sternly warned not to do so.
I remember Packer taking notes at one of those sessions, walking out late one night and saying essentially, "I'm not going to be guilty of this anymore." And very quickly the language that so offended many of us was eliminated from his analysis. Not reduced, not lessened . . . gone. More than 12 years ago in this space I marveled that Packer had called Syracuse's Lawrence Moten (who is black) "one of the most sophisticated players in recent years in college basketball." I about died. Fairness became the rule with Packer when it came to race, not the exception. It's why John Thompson, among others, defended Packer's new record when he called Georgetown's Allen Iverson "a tough monkey" during a broadcast.
Personally, I'd grown much more annoyed with Packer's recent crusades against mid-major college basketball teams, particularly in light of George Mason's run to the Final Four in 2006, and his refusal to note the incredible advantage in resources enjoyed by the big-time basketball powers. But I'm certainly not ready to agree with the SportingNews.com critic, Dan Shanoff, who wrote that Packer "wasn't just a curmudgeon; he was joyless, which made listening to him excruciating. His ouster is a great day for college hoops fans."
I like listening to Packer, even with his warts, and I cannot believe one of the other networks won't snatch him up, if Packer still wants to do games. There's plenty of room for Vitale and the people who love his style, for Raftery, for Len Elmore, Jay Bilas and for Clark Kellogg, who will leave the CBS studio to work with Jim Nantz. Kellogg, a friend, seems particularly ready to expand game analysis, if he wants, to include a broader social and professional hoops perspective that Packer doesn't have. (That Kellogg won't be nearly as biased toward the ACC -- Packer played at Wake Forest -- will be welcomed, too.)
Still, it's difficult, maybe even impossible, to believe that we've heard the last of or from a man who has made such an impactful noise for one-third of a century.