Joie de Vivre: Bill Raftery

Tonight is the NIT Championship game at Madison Square Garden; tonight is one of the worst nights of the year.

Now, in strictly basketball terms, the NIT Championship game is rarely worth watching. The game usually pits a team that just missed the NCAA Tournament with one that didn’t really have a chance for much of the conference season, and that mold pretty much holds true this year, with Dayton playing North Carolina. Even as a Duke fan, I have very little invested in the Tar Heels’ tilt with the Flyers. If UNC wins, it will have to hang the ignominious “NIT Champion” banner; if it loses, it couldn’t even win the NIT. I don’t really care.

But I will watch the game, for the only reason there ever really exists to watch the NIT Championship: It is the last college basketball game Bill Raftery announces every year.

Being a broadcast analyst requires a difficult balancing act between the roles of expert and friend.* Sharp analytical individuals such as Ron Jaworski and Billy Packer can lose the audience if they don’t make the material accessible (in Jaworski’s case) or if they hammer every point home in self-aggrandizing and curmudgeonly fashion (in Packer’s). At the same time, analysts who are brought in largely to be entertaining (Dick Vitale of course, but also Dennis Miller, Tony Kornheiser, Tony Siragusa, and an intoxicated Rick Sutcliffe) generally do more harm than good, turning off the game’s real fans.

*It should be noted that the majority of analysts fill neither of these roles. I’m looking your way, Joe!

Nobody straddles those lines better than Bill Raftery. The former coach of Seton Hall, Raftery knows the ins and outs of the Big East like no other announcer today. Although he spends most of his time in the Big East, he doesn’t feel compelled to bring it up during Big 12 broadcasts. He can break down a game in simple and accessible terms without resorting to clichés or (shot fake!) redundancies. Of course, Raftery is also far more entertaining than any other announcer working today in any sport—because he weaves a yarn better than anyone, because he’s quicker with one-liners than anyone,* and because he has better chemistry with seemingly all of his broadcast partners—be it Sean McDonough and Jay Bilas, Ron Franklin** and Fran Fraschilla, or Verne Lundquist—than anyone. He describes the game uniquely in a more vivid fashion than any other analyst, with a collection of catch phrases that I find myself using more and more each season, whether it’s a kiss off the glass, getting the puppies set for a three, or leaving some lingerie on the deck when you take it to the tin. Perhaps what’s best about Raftery’s catch phrases is his unwillingness to overuse them. He reserves “Onions!” for only the biggest of shots, and his “nickel-dimers” always are cheap fouls on the perimeter.***

*One of the best one-liners came before the sixth overtime of the UConn-Syracuse epic last season: When ESPN showed the line score of the first five overtimes, Raftery panned, “Looks like my front nine!”

**According to his Twitter, tonight is also Ron Franklin’s final college basketball broadcast. I said it early in the season and I stick by it: Watching the Big 12 is different when Ron Franklin isn’t manning the mike.

***You can make a case Raftery does force his “mantaman defense” call at the beginning of games, especially when a team opens in a zone (with “mantaman principles”). But I just find this funny.

Raftery’s affection for the sport and its practitioners permeates his analysis without venturing into hucksterism. His enthusiasm is genuine without ever seeming like a crutch. And when he says otherwise clichés like “You gotta feel for the kid” or “Nobody lost this game,” you can’t help but feel he means it in a way most other announcers don’t.

That’s why tonight, I won’t be rooting for Dayton or for Carolina. I’ll be pulling for Raftery, and that way, I know I’ll win.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] Four) presents us with passionate and knowledgeable announcers that are actually fun to listen to. There’s Raftery, of course, but also Bilas and Gus and McDonough and Fran Fraschilla and Doris Burke, who might just be the […]

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