After teaming up for Thursday night’s Verizon Center doubleheader on CBS, Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery have called a total of 539 NCAA tournament games, over a combined 60 seasons. And yet they recently finished atop the NCAA announcer ratings at USA Today’s Game On — a blog compiled by and for sports fans of a different generation.
Over coffee and toast Thursday morning, the two men – Lundquist 72, and Raftery 69 – discussed their off-court friendship, their different cultural tastes, and how they’ve stayed relevant to viewers a quarter of their age.
Lundquist drinks Johnny Walker Black; Raftery prefers Bud Light or Coors Light. (Although “I sometimes have a little vodka out of the gate just to prep up the legs, that kind of thing,” he said.”) Lundquist said the highlight of his recent seven-week cruise to Australia and New Zealand was seeing La Boheme in Sydney; Raftery skipped the opera during his honeymoon in Florence in favor of another bottle of wine.
Lundquist is partial to Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak; Raftery taught his grandkids Tammy Wynette lyrics. Lundquist has friends in the New York Philharmonic and National Symphony; Raftery met Stephen Stills in a New York club and convinced the rock guitarist to do a 45-minute set.
Lundquist invites bassoon professors to group dinners; Raftery listens to the Dave Matthews Band.
“I’m being cultured by being an associate of his, you know what I mean?” Raftery said.
“If things had broken right, I would have been a conductor,” Lundquist says. “If I could come back, absolutely, that’s what I’d do.”
“That’s the difference between us,” Raftery joked. “Here’s the culture in my family: my brother’s a bagpiper.”
While their friendship is year-round, they don’t employ the teenager’s method.
“I’m not a big texter,” Raftery admitted.
“Only ‘Billy, where the hell are you!’ “ Lundquist agreed.
“I usually call,” Raftery said.
“I have to do it this way,” Lundquist said, miming a two-handed peck.
“He needs a shot clock on his texts,” Raftery noted.
“That’s quite true,” Lundquist said.
Lundquist and Raftery – who regularly finish each other’s sentences – both said that the best part of the tournament is their 30-minute casual gab sessions with a small group of players from the victorious teams between tournament rounds.
They don’t want sob stories – “that Johnny’s grandmother made chicken noodle soup in the fourth grade for the whole class,” as Lundquist put it – but they look for clues to make an unknown roster more compelling to a casual audience.
And when it works, the moment sticks with them. For example, when Memphis’s D.J. Stephens told them last week about the times he considered dropping out of school, and the gratification he achieved by sticking with it.
“If you looked at this kid you’d say ah, he’s just another player. So what he can dunk?” Raftery said. “The tendency of the public is ‘ah, he’s another basketball player, a hired hand,’ whatever they want to say.”
“And I think the challenge that Bill and I both have is to convey those stories in the context of the telecast,” Lundquist said. “Because we do, we live in a world that is so cynical. It just is. And our first inclination – I fight this all the time – is that he’s got 87 sideburns and hair that’s red, and how can he possibly be a productive citizen? And it gives us, at an older age, a chance to reconnect with these kids and to tell their stories in — I don’t want to say a grandfatherly way — but in a generationally distant manner.”
Which is why Lundquist places so much value on Raftery’s ability to connect with teenagers in a authentic way.
“He has the greatest interactions with college students of anybody I’ve ever seen,” Lundquist said. “I call him the mayor of college basketball, and it’s real, and there’s nothing that’s planned about it. And the students have a genuine affection for him. I think Bill’s affection for the people and the game is as natural as he is.”
When Raftery walks through arenas, 20-somethings scream out his catch phrases at him – ‘Onions!’ prominent among them. The term means “guts,” if you will, and was a spontaneous creation during an NBA broadcast years ago.
“You know, it’s funny; how do you describe somebody reaching back [inside themselves] without being sexually explicit?” Raftery asked. “Everybody’s connotation is that means [you know what]; yes it probably does. But it’s more about the kid’s makeup, and what words do you use? In my little cocoon of a head — he stepped up, he reached inside of him, he consummated the deal.”
Both men wish ardently to avoid becoming a broadcasting caricature – “you get to feel like a schmuck after a while,” Raftery said when asked about his “man-to-man!!” call that leads off the broadcast. But Lundquist, who has resisted trademark calls, said that Raftery shouldn’t worry about extra onions.
“We don’t use it that often,” Lundquist said. “It’s not like every great play. This sounds ridiculous, but Bill’s very judicious in his use of onions. He really is. He uses the phrase when it’s called for.”
(Lundquist, by the way, has never used ‘onions’ himself.
“That’d be a hell of a moment,” he joked. “You’ll know we’ve gone too far.”
“He does have a favorite phrase,” Raftery pointed out. “I’ll say ‘Would you like one more?’ and he’ll say ‘I don’t mind if I do.’ “)
Raftery is famous for closing down watering holes. He says the reputation is undeserved. But this week, when Lundquist arrived in town, Raftery prevailed upon his partner to come out and meet his party. He promised it was a block away. Lundquist said it turned out to be five.
“And I say, I have something to discuss with you, ” Lundquist recalled “Your definition of one block equals your understand of last call.”
My friends are fond of describing the first two days of the NCAA tournament as the best moment on the U.S. sports calendar. Lundquist, who has covered about everything in that discussion, said it’s certainly in the top five.
“For sure,” he said. “Because, to me, it’s a national celebration, that a college bowl game is not. That’s a regional celebration, with superficial things that attach themselves on, and the same thing is true of almost any sporting event. The great attraction for the NCAA tournament is the potential that exists each year for a Florida Gulf Coast University to shine.”
“It’s all George Mason’s fault,” said Raftery, who, with Lundquist, called the Patriots’ Verizon Center victory over U-Conn. seven years ago. “Every October 15 now, every school thinks they have a chance. Bob Rotella, who’s one of the great sports psychologists – schools don’t need him any more. My point is that there’s hope….And we’re as excited when [the tournament] starts as they are on October 15.”
When I told my Twitter followers whom I was meeting for breakfast, dozens expressed jealousy. One requested I ask Lundquist and Raftery to serve as her surrogate grandfather. Both men avoid Twitter, but they know they’ve connected with a different generation.
“I think the audience has grown up with us,” Lundquist said. “And I think it’s not that we’re hip, because we certainly aren’t. But I think we have an appreciation of the culture of the next generation, and the generation beyond that.”
“I think sports can’t be defined by generations,” Raftery said. “I think [younger] generations, they feel comfortable with us and we feel comfortable with them. I think they know we like what we’re doing, and I think there’s that kind of connection. But we don’t go into the game thinking about that. It’s just trying to do the best job we can.”
Being Uncle Verne
And so, yes, college kids he’s never met call Lundquist “Uncle Verne,” just the way they call Raftery “Raff,” a nickname you wouldn’t typically bestow on a senior citizen. Why is that, exactly?
“This gets into self-aggrandizement a little more than I want to,” Lundquist began. “I think it’s because of the comfort factor. I think the people who are regular viewers of games that Bill and I do come to expect that they are going to get an explanation of why one team is beating the other, or not. But along the way, they’re also going to hear a couple of stories. They’ll hear us interact with each other with warmth, with obvious friendship, without cynicism and sarcasm. And what comes through the broadcast is that these two guys really like each other. I do think the ‘Uncle Verne’ comes out. That’s a term of affection, and I take it as such. I take it as an indication from the person who’s hollering that that they feel comfortable enough, in a faux way, to refer to us as family, you know?”
“We enjoy one another, on and off the floor,” Raftery said. “I think it’s a mutual respect, and people seem to like it. I don’t know how or why. But we enjoy it, too.”