Telling Basketball's Ever-New Story

Veteran college-game broadcaster sees a new selfishness emerging. INTERVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BILLY PACKER is the definitive voice of men's college basketball in the United States. Last spring, the CBS sports analyst celebrated his 20th consecutive season broadcasting the Final Four - the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Men's Division I championship.

Packer says he doesn't consider himself a professional broadcaster: He never had any professional training. ``I fell into it,'' he says. He was a Wake Forest (N.C.) guard who moved to the sidelines as an assistant coach and then into the broadcast booth.

Packer doesn't have an off-season, he says: ``Broadcasting basketball games is a hobby, like a guy who likes to hunt and fish.'' He is involved in sports marketing, sales, and real estate here and abroad.

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A telephone call from this reporter found Packer at his home in North Carolina relaxing in front of another court - Court TV. He pulled himself away to talk about his career in college basketball and the players in the game today. Some excerpts:

After broadcasting college games for 20 years, what brings you back for more?

The uniqueness of college basketball is that there is a new storyline every year. A new cast of characters comes along, and it ends with the fairest and greatest tournament in March.

Professional basketball goes in 3-to-5-year phases. Right now, it's Shaquille O'Neal and his team. We also had the period of Magic [Johnson] and Michael [Jordan] over 10 years. So in that sense, professional basketball is very limiting. There's a freshness about new guys coming onto the scene, which is what you have in college basketball.

What does college basketball offer that pro basketball doesn't? Have you ever considered switching?

I've never played or studied professional basketball, and I think a person has to have this background to have a deep understanding of the game. My pet peeve is that some people have superficial knowledge of it. In this day and age, to get on TV, they have opinions without background. I wouldn't feel comfortable broadcasting a pro game.

What changes have you seen in college players?

Players in the late 1960s were very selfish. Then, when you saw John Wooden become successful with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [at UCLA], teamwork was displayed, but it was also an angry period. During the 1970s, [Larry] Bird and Johnson came along, who were very unselfish players. There was a much better feeling of the game.

As for the period we are in right now, I don't particularly care for it. You have the taunting and the chest-beating. Individual displays when someone does something significant, as if only their actions created the play.

The attitude athletes have in the pros filters down to college players. Sports are a team effort. Among the professional ranks, guys are way out of focus as to what it's all about. Fellows like Jordan and Bird were able to win unselfishly. Too much success nowadays creates selfishness. Maybe TV has had to do with it, the way it hypes people, and makes heroes out of people who may not really deserve it.

Colleges were just introducing women's programs when you started broadcasting. What are your views on women's basketball?

Women's basketball has made greater strides than any other sport. When they first started to develop in the 1970s, we were so far behind the Soviet Union. I remember when we first started to focus on women's international teams. People said we would never catch up. Now, with the exception of having been beaten by some teams, [United States teams] are the dominant ones.

But women's basketball is a different sport. Men and women's basketball have the same rules, but because of the difference in athleticism, it's not the same sport. Men play above the rim. They have leaping ability and great physical strength. People who want to be critical of the women's game should understand that it is different, and learn the elements of its strengths.

Young college players are put under a microscope by the media. Is it fair to subject them to such scrutiny?

I detest people making judgments of players before they ever see them play. It affects all of us because we in America, for some reason, judge people before we see them perform.

For example, Felipe Lopez was a great high school player. He proved to be an outstanding player, and he may turn out to be a great college player. [at St. John's University]. But for that, does he deserve to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated? Wait until he proves himself. We as fans ought to think what it would be like to do that to our sisters, brothers, or relatives. How strong a kid must be to be put on such a high pedestal, and then score a low game. What happens after the game when he goes back to his dorm room?

Do you ever wish you could just sit back, relax, and enjoy a game without having to broadcast it?

I enjoy the game more as a broadcaster than a fan because there are no interruptions. The guy next to you won't ask you to move so he can go to the bathroom or a vendor won't walk by yelling trying to sell you some food.

Any predictions for the season?

No. I don't believe in predictions. Games will be played; someone will end up being the champion. If I did predict, I'd probably lose to [co-broadcaster] Jim Nantz.

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