GLENDALE, Ariz. — A lone streamer was tangled on his left foot as Jim Nantz stepped through the confetti, off the hardwood court and out of the stadium. His tie was still knotted and the adrenaline still pumping.
Outside under the desert sky, Nantz, the face and voice of some of America’s biggest sporting events, spotted Mark Wolff, CBS’s coordinating producer, and hugged his friend.
“It’s the worst close game I’ve ever been a part of,” Nantz said with a half-smile, still processing the NCAA national championship game that had ended just minutes earlier. In his backpack was a bracket he filled out a month earlier, in which he’d penciled in North Carolina and Gonzaga making the final, correctly predicting the Tar Heels would win it all. And on his phone was a stream of text messages that had been pouring in. One from Fred Couples, the golfer and Nantz’s college roommate, read: “Jimmy, the refs are ruining this game.”
But Nantz remained as upbeat as ever. Even as social media and talk radio sharpened their knives, upset with officiating that slowed the game’s flow, he wouldn’t let the difficult game ruin his night just as he wouldn’t let it spoil the broadcast. For Nantz, the azaleas are always blooming, and the magnolias are always majestic.
“I’m looking at the world through a very positive prism,” he says.
In the middle of a week that is the envy of every sportscaster and most sports fans — Final Four, followed immediately by the Masters — Nantz remains a relic of sorts as broadcasting has turned into a showcase of provocateurs who are rewarded for being loud, edgy and contrarian. Even as the world around him — in sports, in media, in politics, in general — is becoming increasingly cynical, one of its signature voices and storytellers is a hopeless romantic. He is a man coated in permanent varnish. But as some viewers appreciate gravitas and polish, others decry pretense and schlock. Deadspin likens him to a “smarmy greeting card,” and once used the headline, “Jim Nantz, you suck goddammit.”
“I think the first thing people wonder is if it’s real,” said his friend Mike Francesa, the New York radio host. “I think people can be very much critical of his kind of style now. But you know what? He’s never let that bother him. I give him great credit for that. He’s always been exactly who he’s wanted to be.”
Francesa was there at the beginning. Nantz was an unknown sports anchor in Salt Lake City when he was invited to New York for a CBS tryout in 1985.
“He just blew everybody away with his audition,” said Ed Goren, an executive producer there at the time who later became head of Fox Sports. “The guy was 25, 26 and smooth as could be. It was a pretty easy decision to offer him the job.”
In the years that followed, he’d become one of the most recognizable broadcasters, and now with legends retiring or slowing down, Nantz, at 57, is already a dean of sorts of American sports broadcasting.
He lives a charmed life these days, for sure. He has a house at Pebble Beach. He has a beautiful wife and three children, a seven-figure gig in perhaps the most high-profile job in the business, his own wine company and friends who include presidents and celebrities.
President George H.W. Bush called him “one of the nicest and most generous people we know.” “Don’t let the smooth looks and demeanor deceive you: Jim Nantz will delight in beating you to a pulp,” the former president said in an email via his publicist. “Even if you used to be President.”
A generation of sports fandom has been soiled by cheats, by Lance and by Bonds, by the billions of dollars fueling both amateur and professional sports, by the distance that’s grown between the kid in the stands and the one on the playing field. Nantz’s work doesn’t always hint at this, but he’s not naïve to it.
“The sentimentality that people see and hear in my commentary and sometimes ridicule, parody or just don’t like — that’s okay,” he said. “We’re all wired differently. I think about that a lot. I can’t explain it. That’s just what runs through my blood. It’s just the way I look at the world. It’s not any kind of attempt to create synthetic drama. It’s just what’s really in my heart.”
Nantz walked into the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday a full three hours before tip-off and found his seat at midcourt. He began rehearsing the night’s national anthem presentation and starting lineups for the national semifinal games. “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise to honor America,” he said to the empty seats and handful of security guards spread across the arena. It would be the only part of the evening that would be plotted out ahead of time.
“I don’t like scripts,” he says. “I’d rather stumble through it and get my point across.”
His goal is to be ready for anything, to know every story line and every obstacle that might present itself. Sometimes this is easier than others. Nantz, Grant Hill and Bill Raftery opened this year’s tournament in Indianapolis. In the second half of their first game, a $2 fuse blew on press row.
“The monitors go out; we can’t hear the producer; they can’t hear us, everything goes dark,” said Hill, the former player and TNT analyst. “I’m like, ‘Oh, crap!’ ”
Nantz began calling for the lone working microphone — which was in the hands of sideline reporter across the court — and when the crew came back from a commercial, the three men were huddled together, Nantz holding a stick microphone that they’d all share.
“I think we’re gonna need some Listerine later,” Raftery said.
Three weeks later outside Phoenix, the night’s first Final Four game came off without a hitch, and Gonzaga advanced to the national title game. For the CBS crew, when North Carolina and Oregon took the court for the late game, the action was again the focal point.
At one point, though, Nantz made some corners of the social-media world wince when he made mention of the academic fraud scandal at North Carolina. “They’ve had to live with all of this, all the swirling innuendo with what went on there with the academic fraud allegations,” he said on-air.
A New York Post headline the next day read, “Jim Nantz’s NCAA whitewashing enables scandal and disgrace,” but the broadcaster was unmoved by any negative reaction. He felt some simply misconstrued what he was saying. “I thought we had a good exchange,” he’d explain later. “Of course, people hear what they want to hear. I did not mean the scandal was innuendo. I meant they faced negative recruiting and others were saying they were going on probation or something.”
A brief moment on that voice. It’s deep and hypnotic, a sailboat bobbing on the current. The tones and undulations can soothe and comfort, an auditory lazy river for the viewer.
“If he was a radio station, it would be the easy-listening station,” Goren said.
Hearing it, Raftery says, is akin to “when Walter Cronkite used to come on. He was the voice of reason on TV for the public. There’s a comfort people have.”
On the Sunday morning before the national championship game, that voice could be heard on the grounds of a posh resort in Scottsdale. At the Final Four, there’s no time for golf and Masters prep, but he tries to squeeze in as much family time as possible in what amounts to a three-week work trip with wife and kids in tow.
Nantz married Courtney, his second wife, in 2012. He proposed to her at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The pair walked to Walker’s Point, where, as a gift to the 41st president, Nantz and a friend had installed an 800-square-foot putting green called “41 National.” He stashed an engagement ring in one of the holes and kept waiting for Courtney to sink a 10-foot putt.
When it came time to picking a wedding venue, Nantz knew what he wanted: the seventh hole at Pebble Beach.
“When I was dating Courtney, the first time I ever took her out there, for whatever reason a rainbow was draped right over our heads,” Nantz recalled. “It was just the most magnificent, vibrant rainbow. It spoke to me, I felt like it was — I get carried away, but I took it as a sign that fortified my feelings. It felt like a message.”
So they got married on the seventh hole. The weather was perfect. Arnold Palmer was there. The saxophonist Kenny G played. A flock of seagulls soared along the horizon as the two exchanged vows. They moved into their new home that same day, and Nantz later turned his back yard into a half-scale replica of the seventh hole, from tee box to green, with Sunday pin placements, bunkers and the exact topography. A host of golfers have hit balls there, from Palmer to Nick Faldo to Phil Mickelson.
Finley is 3, and their son Jameson is 1. His oldest daughter, Caroline, is 23, the product of his first marriage. After 26 years, he divorced in 2009. Some of the details were reported by the Connecticut Post and showed that even in a contentious separation, Nantz remained sentimental.
“The trial over, Lorrie Nantz stood in the lobby of the courthouse sobbing,” the paper reported. “Stepping from the elevator, her husband saw her standing there alone and walked over and put his arms around her. Together they stood, arms wrapped around each other, sobbing.”
The previous year, Nantz had lost his father, also named Jim, whose 13-year battle with Alzheimer’s Nantz chronicled in a memoir called, “Always By My Side.” Nantz feels the loss every day, and he’s completely earnest when he says he wants to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, directing most of his charity work to the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Houston Methodist.
Even now, Nantz opens each broadcast with the familiar greeting that he considers a tribute to his dad: “Hello, friends!”
People who know Nantz insist he doesn’t change when the red light comes on. He tells stories. He talks history. He shares memories.
“I try to talk openly from how I feel,” he says. “People may not agree with it. It may sound foreign to them. That’s an uncomfortable position for some people, to be sentimental, nostalgic — it’s all kind of the same. I don’t know how to explain it. I think right now, nobody believes anybody. There’s so much distrust; it’s terrible.”
He especially likes traditions: walking the empty golf course on the Wednesday afternoon before the Masters, or watching the ceremonial tee shot the next morning.
At the stadium Monday, he prepared to call his 16th basketball game in a month-long stretch. He slipped on a pink tie, knowing that one recent tradition would not take place that night. The past several years, he had given his tie to a player whose character he admired, someone who represented the game well. Last year, a local news crew witnessed the exchange and asked Nantz about the gesture, leading some to conclude he was seeking attention.
“I don’t like the narrative that a lot of people tried to attach to it,” he said. “Everyone became an expert on what that moment represented — the snarkier, the better.”
This year, Nantz decided he’d pen a letter to one player and put the tie in the mail a few weeks after the game.
The night’s championship game was sloppy but the broadcast was clean. The CBS crew struggled at times to find a rhythm in a game that had none. With the score remaining close, drama and intrigue overcame bad shooting and zealous officiating, and the Tar Heels were able to redeem last year’s heartbreaker.
“The confetti is gonna fall for North Carolina,” Nantz said as time expired.“They’re not going to be denied this time.”
Afterward, it was time for Nantz’s personal tradition unlike any other. At midcourt, he stood behind his daughter Caroline as the opening notes of “One Shining Moment” boomed through the stadium.
Father and daughter watched the video together for the first time when Caroline was 12 years old. It has become “our special moment,” Nantz said. He rested his chin atop her head and his hands on her shoulders — One shining moment, there frozen in time — giving an extra squeeze at the end.
If the national title game is a geyser of excitement, the Masters is a Roman fountain, each captivating in its own way. Monday marked Nantz’s 294th NCAA tournament game and his 27th championship. Waiting at the other end of the week was his 32nd consecutive Masters.
Nantz woke up early Tuesday morning. After going off the air Monday night, Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, told him the network would be announcing big news the next day: His NFL broadcasting partner Phil Simms would be replaced next season by Tony Romo. At the hotel, Nantz had no time to catch his breath or relive the previous night’s drama. He gathered his family, checked out of the hotel and boarded a private jet for a 10 a.m. departure.
When he landed in Augusta, Ga., in the afternoon, he was scheduled to report immediately to Augusta National Golf Club, where he’d interview Tiger Woods in Butler Cabin.
He enjoys the long-form storytelling golf provides, the beauty of the sport, and the challenge he feels when he climbs into the box above the 18th green.
“The voices of my youth had this amazing ability to just grab your attention and I was totally enraptured by everything they said. I was hanging on every word,” he said. “There was a romance to all of this.”
Nantz feels no shame in his positive prism. If anything, he’s sad when others see it differently. Suffice it to say, even if the landscape continues to change all around him, Nantz wouldn’t even know how to follow suit.
“Let me put it this way,” Bush said, “if there were more Jim Nantzes today, watching sports would be a lot more interesting and entertaining. There are many talented people in that industry, and many who are friends. But among his peers, Jim is singularly unique.”