Bill Raftery Holds Court

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What's left to be said about Bill Raftery? We've come to a general consensus. It rarely gets better than when a game is in his comfortable care. The paintbrush he uses is so distinct yet remarkably simple. At 79 he slides with grace and humor and wit around the edge of the hardwood.

After last year's national championship game we wrote about him being sharp as ever around the edges. If he were a player his game would be one of quick instincts and a willingness to play his position but defer to the point guard at the end of games, though he says his best ability is finding a great restaurant with a good bartender on the road.

Perhaps it's all a bit simpler than all of that. Perhaps the thing that matters — the only thing that matters — is how much damn fun it is to share a game with him. There's a winking knowingness we all embrace, striking a deep chord allowing us to have a little more joy for those two hours.

In an industry giving out soaring contracts to the person people most want to sit and have a beer with during the game, Raftery actually feels like he is in your living room. A trick venerable broadcasters learn by being a regular part of their viewers' annual traditions.

"I feel like I'm out there to enjoy and hope that the people enjoy what I'm seeing," he told The Big Lead. "It's the same thrill and kick every year. I don't feel like it's work but I do feel that I owe it to everybody involved in the game to do the best I can. I do think part of the enjoyment is watching what these kids do and what they're capable of doing."

Raftery is mayoral. It started by knowing how to work a room but he's already worked all the rooms worth working. There's a fun uncle vibe, the kind the family takes orbit around. There's never any drop of unnecessary intensity or overzealous criticism. All wrapped up in someone with deft timing themselves wrapped in what they call the greatest youthful experience possible.

"To see [the players] at their best moment in many cases and in many cases their last moment where the vast majority it'll be the last official game they may play in," he said. "It breaks their heart. It's so meaningful to them. They're unabashed about shedding tears or hugging or consoling one of their teammates. It's a special time in their life and I think that that brings you into their life a little bit."

There is a finality to this year's broadcast, his last Final Four with Jim Nantz, his partner for eight years and teammate for 38 years overall at CBS. Raftery said that he was blessed to have Verne Lundquist so many years, meaning he's been down this road before. Together with Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson, he and Nantz have called their share of remarkable Final Four moments and been close to rock-solid in their presentation. It's the capstone on arguably the most impactful television presentation on the dial across all of sports in terms of a three-week fastbreak.

"I know [Nantz] is in a really good place because I hear him talking with his kids and I think that was the biggest part of this, that he wants to be part of watching them enjoy their growth," Raftery said. "I think the decision was made easier knowing he's going to have quality time at home. His first two games and studio, I did with him and we've had a friendship since from different seats. Getting to know him, getting to be around him and see how much he cares for the kids playing is what I've enjoyed. I think the best part are the dinners after a game or between the sites. Those are the most enjoyable moments because everyone's just Jim, Tracy, Grant, just natural."

Bill Raftery, Bill Self
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Onions. Double order. A little kiss. A big ticker. Send it in. He could have his own eBaum's World era soundboard. They are tidy and memorable and economical. At his best he sounds like a peak era SportsCenter anchor doing highlights in a live game. Catchphrase can be reductive because why blame someone for creating something everyone wants to hear so much and giving it to them on occasion? The mind reels trying estimate how many times he's been approached in public with shouted requests like a band with some fan favorites.

"You know what's funny?" Raftery asked. "I'm not nuts about clichés. I remember early on, this man to man at the beginning of the game, really I just did it as part of getting out of the play-by-play's way. We didn't have the graphics we have now with popup pictures and names, things flying on the screen. I used to just do it without knowing I was connecting the letters. Then I'd be in the airport and someone would say man to man and I'd wonder 'What the hell are they talking about?' Well, that was me."

Going from patrolling the sidelines to patrolling the microphone is in the playbook for a life in basketball. But there's something about a coach. They'll always be a coach. Like if you looked closely enough you could see the faintest tan line from the whistle around their neck.

"Dave Gavitt said to me, 'I've watched your team and you should try television,'" Raftery laughed. "It's helped me be a big part of an extension of coaching, maybe. The first year I missed October 15 a lot. The great thing about coaching that you have and being out of it is the compassion you have for those who lost. I understand how hard somebody works to be in a game and then lose a game. In the early days when we weren't running out of buildings I used to try to say hello to the guy who lost."

That part of him is most visible when a made basket is quickly punctuated by Raftery informing us all that the player has that in their game. It's the product of scouting work that has to be done before he even gets on a plane. It reflects a willingness to meet the game on its terms and is powered by a genuine appreciation for all the permutations of basketball and individual strengths and weaknesses.

It may sound basic but audiences want to know the announcers are active and authentic in their excitement. March Madness enjoys breezy buy-in from the public, who are welcomed without barriers and both the promise to have a hell of time and a track record to assuage any doubts about how easy it is to be swept away to the next under-12 timeout or 63 percent free-throw shooter lining up the pivotal front end of a late one-and-one.

At this point it's nearly Pavlovian to give Raftery that same buy-in. He's working, but not making it seem like work. The least a person burrowing into their own cushions can do would be to match his enthusiasm.

Sometimes the simplest explanations are the truest explanations: People like spending time with Bill Raftery. From the comfort of their couches or from the shadow of the scorer's table or at a restaurant after the game. It can all boil down to that. Maybe it does all boil down to that. We can analyze the subtle dopamine blast that comes from realizing, certainly not for the first time, he's the exact soundtrack for the moment and that the memory will be a little more special because he's involved.

But that sort of takes all the fun out of it.