MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Time and its passage can be unforgiving for a kid who grew up and older an avid sports fan. For in that time, so many meaningful and influential pieces of our growth begin to disappear piece by piece, one day at a time, with the disappearances coming more frequently than they ever seemed to before.

Billy Packer was part of so many of our lives, not through being an outstanding player and then assistant coach for Wake Forest, but through calling games on television from where he reached us and taught us so much about the game of college basketball.

Beginning in 1971, it was Jim Thacker and Billy Packer doing two or three games a week, including Saturday afternoons, on the Jefferson-Pilot (later Raycom) Atlantic Coast Conference Network, and the two were quickly recognized as the best basketball broadcast team in the country, Thacker calling the play-by-play in his rich voice and Packer telling us what we saw and why with an insight and an approach that had never been heard before on a college basketball telecast.

It was as though Packer was teaching Basketball 101 every time he went on the air.

People outside of our little ACC neck of the woods noticed, and Packer would soon land the analyst gig on NBC for its Saturday game of the week, working with play-by-play legend Dick Enberg and later being joined by the great Al McGuire to form one of the greatest three-man sports broadcast teams in history along with Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell on “Monday Night Football.”

From there, Packer would go to CBS for 27 years and, all told, worked 34 Final Four broadcasts with his final one being 2008.

The game that helped Packer be noticed nationally and likely landed him the NBC gig was the brainchild of the University of Maryland’s enterprising sports marketing director Russ Potts in the summer of 1972.

Potts was a promotions genius and, along with Terps head coach Lefty Driesell, came up with many groundbreakers in trying to build Maryland into “the UCLA of the East,” including what became the traditional “Midnight Madness” nationwide.

This time the Potts idea was to play a college basketball game on the day of the Super Bowl, Potts rightly figuring that with a noon start the basketball game would capture the attention of all the tuned-in sports fans waiting for the Super Bowl to start.

Potts was spot on, as an estimated 25 million viewers watched the game played on Jan. 14, 1973 between second-ranked Maryland and third-ranked North Carolina State, won 87-85 on a tip-in right before the buzzer by the Wolfpack’s emerging star, sophomore guard David Thompson, who finished with 37 points.

C.D. Chesley, whose North Carolina-based company produced ACC games, worked with the Hughes Sports Network to carry the 1973 Maryland-N.C. State game on 145 stations nationally, more than the 120 stations rival sports promoter Eddie Einhorn, who owned the TVS Network, signed up for the 1968 prime time matchup between UCLA’s Lew Alcindor and Houston’s Elvin Hayes at the Astrodome.

“Obviously you had these two teams that became as great a rivalry as the league or any conference has ever had, culminating with what I think is the greatest game I ever saw,” Packer said of the 1974 ACC tournament final between Maryland and N.C. State, won in Greensboro, N.C., by the Wolfpack, 103-100 in overtime.

Packer worked the Super Bowl Sunday game as the analyst along with legendary Ray Scott, who was brought in by Chesley to do play-by-play, while Thacker was used as the sideline reporter.

“It was expanded beyond the regular ACC network,” Packer said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, “but it wasn’t national television. It was not sold to a network … I think the game between Maryland and N.C. State really started a golden era of college basketball.”

When Packer teamed with Enberg and McGuire at NBC in the late ‘70s, that broadcast and, in particular, that three-man team, became basketball’s first When the Beatles Come to Town well before Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls did. When Packer, McGuire and Enberg came to your campus it was the big deal, a far bigger deal than, but the forerunner to ESPN’s College GameDay.

The three would come to town a couple of days before the games and would hold lectures on the respective campuses that played to overflow crowds each week. It was a major happening for the college’s students, then played over into the Saturday broadcast.

McGuire was a New Yorker, the streetwise poet of the team with his “Seashells and balloons,” while Packer was the brass tacks, with the understated and professional Enberg making if flow with his dignified calm and timely, “Oh, my!” accentuating it all so beautifully. It was symphony by the hardwoods each week across America.

“I was a great outside shooter,” Packer once said in explaining a player’s jump shot.

“Yeah, Billy,” McGuire replied, “too bad the game’s played indoors.”

Packer was a fine player before entering coaching and then broadcasting, averaging 14 points as a 5-foot-9 senior guard on the 1962 Wake Forest team that reached the Final Four under coach Bones McKinney, who also became a member of the Jefferson-Pilot ACC network team.

But it was in broadcasting that Packer made his name and his reputation, both coming well earned. He knew his business, he knew the game and he was always fair. In fact, he once set a record when all eight of the ACC schools’ fan bases thought he hated their team the most.

That would include the Maryland fans, who turned on Packer the night the Terps won the 2002 national championship, beating Indiana 64-52, as Packer remarked that it was one of the most poorly played title games he had ever witnessed.

Maryland fans were outraged, even though their team had just won the national championship, but Packer was right. It was a horribly-played game; he just had the honesty to say it out loud on the national broadcast.

Billy Packer was always willing to speak his honest opinion; he spoke the truth, and there are millions of basketball fans who grew up watching him and committing his every insight to memory over the span of four decades who are grateful to him for it.

He will remain a true basketball legend and a significant part of some of the best times of our lives.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT