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It’s Time For Michael Jordan To Tell The Truth

“Having covered Michael Jordan’s prime years in Chicago, Jay Mariotti says it’s time for MJ to come clean in ‘The Last Dance’ docuseries.”

Jay Mariotti

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What I experienced for eight years cannot be crammed into 500 minutes. Let’s hope the 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,’’ is remembered for more than the usual retro rehash: Michael Jordan’s merciless appetite to conquer flesh and blood, an angle that merely brushes the marrow of the most exhilarating and elaborate sports story ever told. The magnitude and scope of his reign remain immense even now, still hard to wrap the mind around, as if Shakespeare, Scorsese and Fellini collaborated to inject every conceivable dramatic element, with sprinkles of Spike Lee, Dick Ebersol and Bugs Bunny.

Competitive rage. Global overload. Gambling. Murder. In-house treachery. A pop-culture explosion. Celebrity fawning. Corporate exploitation. Political aloofness. Sneaker frenzy. A mysterious baseball interlude. And characters as diverse as ‘90s life itself: a brooding sidekick, a free-love coach, a feather-boa-wearing freak, a grumpy general manager who poisoned the joy instead of embracing it, and an insufferable owner who was stingy with well-deserved financial rewards and couldn’t wait to launch his own dynasty, which has become a travesty. Even a filmmaker as skilled as Jason Hehir wishes he had a wayback machine to tackle a monstrous challenge: The Jordan spectacle, with all its triumphs and tensions and scandals, was best lived and consumed each day to allow for an exact chronicling of grandeur and wildness.

Nor can a film about Jordan and the Bulls dynasty serve any therapeutic purpose, for a country mired in a stupefying medical lockdown, if it dabbles in the worst two words in the ongoing political lexicon: fake news. This narrative always has lacked a complete filling of all the blanks, revelations that make the story whole. Thus, “The Last Dance’’ is thrust as a moratorium on getting at the truth of a man who somehow remains mysterious after a generation of tongue-wagging and slam-dunking through our consciousness. Some would compare Jordan, in a context of baggy shorts and $200 sneakers, to Donald Trump, and just as Americans demand transparency from the President of the United States, particularly during a pandemic, they would appreciate clarity from the most significant basketball player and sports cultural figure ever.

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The audience will be the judge, over the next five weekends, on whether Jordan strikes a more authentic bond beyond his extraordinary legacy. At 57, still mourning the death of his younger friend and disciple Kobe Bryant, he is losing chances to resonate with the masses. He will make progress in “The Last Dance,’’ but likely not enough to lift him from the realm of the enigmatic.

Never has the world hosted an athlete so heavenly and simultaneously devil-like — and if that seems a stretch, consider Jordan won six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards in his six NBA Finals … 666. His genius was his fury, his compulsive need to control every human being and circumstance around him, and that is what fascinates me about the docu-series. As a general rule since his playing career ended, Jordan has been largely reclusive as owner of the nondescript Charlotte Hornets, reticent to reconstruct the Bulls years, an era I covered as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. He has controlled his image by simply not discussing it and staying out of the mainstream and Twitterverse. That has led to social-media mockery (see: Crying Jordan meme), but isolation served him long before he was advised to shelter at home like the rest of us.

So why come out now, Mike? Why consent to a massive project that drops Sunday night on ESPN and Netflix? Is the renowned control freak just playing us again?

The Ankle Breaking Crossover | Michael jordan, Michael jordan ...

Or, some 22 years after pushing off Bryon Russell (he did) and delivering his famous final fling with an exquisitely flexed extension of the right wrist, is Jordan finally ready to drop the veneer and tell the entirety of his tale? If so, it would include a dissection of the following subjects, heretofore off-limits: his troubling gambling habits, the unanswered questions about his father’s grisly 1993 murder, his abrupt decision to play minor-league baseball and whether it was attached to an NBA suspension, his well-known loathing of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and its toxic spread throughout the organization and league, his rebuke of team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for siding with Krause in his feud with coach Phil Jackson, Jordan’s disgust that ownership dismantled the dynasty before its expiration date, a public sexual affair and the end of his first marriage, his relationship with his children, and an array of friendships that have run the social gamut, from Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Kobe to the shadowy likes of Richard Esquinas, Slim Bouler and Eddie Dow, a North Carolina bail bondsman found dead with three of Jordan’s checks in his briefcase.

Obviously, not all of those talking points will be in the show. But the opening episode does include a scene that confirms Jordan’s heartless contempt for Krause. Described as “maniacal’’ by the Washington Post, Jordan approaches the roundish Krause after practice and says, “Are those the pills to keep you short? Or are those diet pills?’’ It’s a symbolic snapshot of the wicked strife between management and the team’s cornerstones — Jordan, Jackson and Scottie Pippen — that led to the tragicomic breakup of a powerhouse capable of winning one or two more titles. It took the presence of rare footage from the final 1997-98 season, christened “The Last Dance’’ by a turmoil-weary Jackson, for the NBA’s entertainment division to kickstart a project centered around the farewell tour, with breakout profiles of the human sides of Jackson, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, assuming Rodman has a human side.

The question to ask throughout the eight-plus hours of air time: Is any new ground being broken? Just because Hehir raves about Jordan’s willingness to answer the most sensitive questions — including those about gambling and his father’s murder — doesn’t mean we’re getting absolute answers from Jordan that settle all doubts.

ESPN - The Last Dance Trailer II on Vimeo

“He never once censored us. He never once policed us. He never once said that any topic was off-limits, so he was a perfect partner for this project,’’’ said Hehir, who sat down with Jordan for three lengthy sessions. “He went pretty deep on the gambling allegations against him in the ‘90s. He went pretty deep about what happened to his father and how that affected him on the court. … He never instructed us to take anything out, and from Day One, he told me that there wasn’t a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully.’’

Of course, it’s one thing for a director to raise sensitive topics in a one-on-one interview setting — and quite another to pursue penetrating follow-ups, explore the topic with other people and edit the film with an independence that lets the viewers decide. Didn’t Hehir, who grew up mesmerized by the Jordan mystique like the rest of his generation, fear the wrath of Basketball Jesus? Evidently not. Hehir asked the tough questions, and Jordan provided firm responses, but if this is an Oscar-caliber film, it must be balanced and explore all sides of the explosive issues. Watch closely, with a checklist and pen, to see if “The Last Dance’’ is more about presenting Jordan in a favorable light or at last revealing the real-real, regardless of optics. Which delicate topics are confronted and which are short-shrifted, downplayed and ignored? Gambling, for one, is pervasive throughout the series; the NBA camera crew repeatedly shows Jordan making wagers on anything and everything during the final season. Given Hehir’s exhaustive research and interviews with dozens of subjects, the director had the leverage to attack as he chooses. The wealth of material provides an opportunity for an all-time cinematic work, one befitting his stature. Both blessed and haunted, through triumph and tragedy, Jordan deserves an epic Hollywood deep-dive that captures his historical footprint.

But that would happen only with unvarnished truth. And the control freak in Jordan wouldn’t allow total disclosure. Does he reveal how many wagering millions he blew? If he was suspended by the NBA? If he sees a direct link between his gambling and his father’s murder? No, he does not.

Basket Ball Star Michael Jordan is Alive and Well - Mystique ...

The credits suggest Jordan took typical liberties to protect his portrayal. His Jump 23 enterprise is a principal producer, along with ESPN Films, NBA Entertainment and Mandalay Sports Media, which is chaired by a league owner, the Golden State Warriors’ Peter Guber. Meaning, Jordan and his longtime business representatives, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have had the entire production of “The Last Dance’’ under their dictatorial thumbs, with Portnoy and Polk listed as executive producers alongside industry veteran Mike Tollin. Team Jordan also is fully supported by a league far more interested in legacy promotion than any raw, damaging truths, as well as a sports network grateful to have something substantial to fill dead air during a pandemic. If he wanted it — and my experiences with him say he would demand it — Jordan is armed with the power to control content as a creative overlord. As Polk told The Athletic, that power was wielded during early moments in the project, perhaps making it more difficult to address the most jarring and sensitive components of Jordan’s joyride with definitive, full-blast treatment.

No doubt “The Last Dance,’’ at its core, succeeds in presenting the Jordan panorama in a 2020 prism: the unprecedented glorification, the rock-star traveling circus, the endless highlight reel, the cut from his high-school team that fueled his inner rage, the title-winning jumper for North Carolina, The Shot, the 63-point game, his personal rivalries and accompanying trash-talking, the postseason dramas that weren’t as easy as they seemed, failures and eventual conquests against the Detroit Bad Boys, the Knicks wars, the legendary “Sick Game,’’ the near-crash against Indiana in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals and, of course, the final shot in Utah that should have been the perfect ending for the perfect career. The docu-series will serve as indisputable evidence to hush stubborn millennials and Gen Zers who insist, with recency bias and ignorance, that LeBron James is the greatest of all, forgetting that Bryant came closest to approaching Jordan’s body of work and pulling off the grand impersonation.

Just how far does the documentary dare to reach? I’d like to know if the late David Stern, who presided as NBA commissioner during the Jordan era, fully investigated the relentless flurry of his gambling. Didn’t the league have much to lose if Stern publicly benched his Golden Goose? Jordan didn’t even try to hide his itch for the action — an off-night trip to Atlantic City during a playoff series in New York, his massive golfing losses to an opportunist (and book author) such as Esquinas, his Las Vegas rampages with Woods and Charles Barkley. Was it merely coincidence that Jordan escaped to baseball and missed almost two NBA seasons? We don’t get those answers. During that period, I wrote a column explaining why Jordan was exposing himself to potential extortion — say, a scumbag on an 18th green asking him to fix an over-under in a Bulls game. The Sun-Times’ managing editor, who didn’t last in the job much longer, warned me, “This is the most important column you’ll ever write.’’ The piece ran in some form, but not before an editing workover that seemed to involve outside meddling. Such was the influence of Jordan.

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In the doc, Jordan does pile on Krause, whose 2017 death makes the scene look worse. He won’t be so cruel to Reinsdorf, now a fellow NBA team owner and a man Jordan fears to some degree. “The Last Dance’’ should include the all-encompassing quote of the final season, when Krause, already settled on Iowa State’s Tim Floyd as the next coach of a so-called new Bulls dynasty, sat down with Jackson and said, “You can go 82 and (bleeping) oh and you’re not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls’’ — prompting Jackson and the players to declare war on the front office. Also worthy of pitiful detail: the subsequent two-decade implosion of the Bulls. Now an abysmal franchise that wasted the most potent resource in sports history — the pomp and glory of Jordan — the Bulls allowed the very icon they’ve immortalized with a United Center statue to finish his career with the Washington Wizards, all because Jordan was seething about how Chicago ended and needed to control the last scene, sad and dubious as it was in D.C.

No Jordan series is complete without Reinsdorf, now 84 yet still a power player in sports, and how he extracted mega-fortunes for himself and Bulls investors yet never rushed to reward Jordan, Jackson and Pippen. Reinsdorf demanded Jordan play out an eight-year, $24-million contract that became laughably obsolete, particularly after Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing received new, fatter deals amid an NBA boom. Jackson would win title after title, then be insulted each summer with a Scrooge offer that led him to sign one-year deals — the breaking point in his rift with management. Pippen was grossly underpaid for years, demanded a trade and had to leave in free agency to hit a jackpot commensurate with his Hall of Fame credentials. Reinsdorf, as he has done once or twice, could make that story line vanish in the ESPN project with one call to the Disney Co. hierarchy.

There was the anger of Jim Brown and other black activists who called Jordan a coward for his social indifference, such as his flip comment that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,’’ which Jordan says was taken out of context. And don’t forget how Jordan and Pippen turned the 1992 Barcelona Olympics into the humiliation of Krause’s Euro-pet, Croatia’s Toni Kukoc. In an NBA documentary about the Dream Team, Jordan said, “We weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.” Does he now think the stance was a bit petty? Especially after Kukoc famously bailed out PIppen by hitting a game-winning playoff shot after Pippen pulled himself from the game, upset Jackson didn’t draw up the play for him. Pippen should be painted as an agitated soul during Jordan’s baseball escape, not dealing well with lead-dog pressure and referring to Chicago fans as racist around the time a gun was found in his vehicle outside a restaurant. How about the 1993 NBA Finals, won in Phoenix by John Paxson’s dagger and lost when Barkley spent too many off-nights partying at an Irish pub in Scottsdale? And what of Jordan’s faltering relationship with Barkley? Speaking of alcohol, Jordan threatened to ruin Rodman’s life when the party animal routinely showed up hungover at practice, a necessary form of pressure that sobered up Rodman long enough to contribute to three titles and cement his Hall of Fame induction. The bullying side of Jordan is front and center — the haymaker he threw at a feisty Steve Kerr in practice and his ruthless criticism of end-of-the-roster patsies, if only to toughen them for the postseason grind. I once saw Jordan try to gouge Reggie Miller’s eyeball, and he wasn’t apologetic, telling a magazine, “Playing Reggie drives me nuts. It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman.’’

6 Michael Jordan's Wildest Gambling Stories

Say what? Jordan should thank the lords, every day, that he played before social media and TMZ. That goes for all facets of a life that would be 10 times crazier and more scandalous had he had born in 1993, not 1963.

Said Hehir: “He went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that. He has a certain pride in how competitive he is and how he’s a win-at-all-costs kind of guy, but also he’s a human being.’’ But the Jordan-rage angle is well-worn, because everyone was subjected to his wrath at some point, myself included. There was the day he warned, “I keep your articles on my refrigerator door,’’ and the time he tossed an ice cube toward my head — missing like, well, a batter whiffing on a curveball — when I stopped by a golf course to ask about the gambling probe. I remember arriving in Memphis to see his oldest son, Jeff, play one of his first AAU games, only to have the coach instruct me which questions to ask — as ordered by Jordan over the phone. When the Sun-Times displayed the column on the front page, with a large photo of Jeff, Jordan was outraged, even as I explained I don’t make placement decisions. And when he couldn’t personally scold and admonish, his tentacles were deep. Broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, his friend and media protector, would take personal shots. And Jordan’s father, not long before he was murdered, engaged me and other media people in a spirited discussion, concluding that his son’s gambling urges were the product of “a competition problem.’’

For years, I navigated Jordan’s attempts to control the media.

Now, in 2020, Jordan is part of the media.

Three reasons why The Last Dance will and won't be ESPN's most ...

It’s vital to ESPN’s editorial integrity that “The Last Dance’’ not be a puff piece. Buried until further notice in a coronavirus black hole, the network desperately needs oxygen without live sports, which has caused considerable ratings slippage and revenue bleeding along with continued cord-cutting that is killing the cable industry. With journalism in Bristol giving way to business relationships with leagues and athletes, ESPN cannot afford watered-down storytelling for “The Last Dance’’ — the one story that should be maximized and dramatized for full effect.

The clamor for an unconditional, consummate Jordan documentary has been intense for years, increasing amid America’s collective quarantine. LeBron himself tweeted, like a schoolboy: “April 19th can’t come fast enough. I CAN NOT WAIT!!’’ We will be entertained and educated, occasionally gobsmacked and slack-jawed, and that is cool, because I no longer can binge on “Ozark’’ without wanting to body-slam Marty Byrde. But if you’re looking for long-lost revelations that will rock the world, well, remember the operative rule about Michael Jordan: No matter the game, he is in control.

Always.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

BSM Writers

What Tom Brady Needs To Know Before His First Fox Broadcast

“Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tom Brady announced he is retiring from the NFL today. It happened literally a year to the day since the last time he retired.

The last retirement lasted just 40 days. Before the end of March of last year, Tom Brady had decided he was done pretending to be happy about embracing life off of the field and announced he was returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a third season.

I guess we cannot rule out that that will happen again. The difference this time around, at least for Tom Brady’s professional life, is that he has a plan for his future. Now that his playing days are over, it is time for him to start his ten-year deal with FOX to be the analyst in the network’s top NFL booth.

Audiences do not know what to expect. No one can deny that Brady brings star power. He is the GOAT after all, but we cannot say for sure if he will be any good.

The pressure is tremendous too. Not only is Tom Brady embarking on a new career, but football fans seem to have taken a liking to the guy he is about to unseat. Whether Greg Olsen gets kicked back down to the number two booth or he is forced to share the spotlight in a three-man booth, plenty of people will look at Brady as the reason we hear less from the guy regarded by many as the best analyst on TV right now.

Brady does not have much room for error here. Since that is the case, I thought I would get some perspectives from people that can help him out. I asked three people to give me their best advice for Tom Brady.

Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.

THE PLAYER TURNED ANALYST: ANTHONY BECHT

In 2000, the New York Jets used the 27th pick of the NFL Draft to select Anthony Becht. He played for five different teams during his twelve NFL seasons.

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Courtesy USA Today

His broadcasting career began in 2013. Becht worked on ESPN for eight years as an analyst on the network’s college football games. He has since abandoned the booth to return to the sidelines. He will be the head coach of the St. Louis Battlehawks when the XFL starts its third first season this month.

I texted and asked him to look back on his broadcasting career. What does he wish he knew before he started? Here are the three pieces of advice that he had for Tom Brady.

1. Less is more. Folks want to watch the game and just know the “why”. Providing tangible information in a five or six second window is key.

2. Fans want to know about your personal experiences as a player – information and stories they can’t get or wouldn’t even know about because they never did it at the level we did. Share those when the time comes in a game.

3. Have a strong opinion about what you agree or disagree with, but be able to voice it without being demeaning towards players and coaches. It’s an art form and takes time to articulate that in a way that’s done right. I never bash any player or coach because a lot of work goes into be a professional athlete and coach. That needs to be respected but critiqued appropriately.

Anthony Becht via text message

THE PLAY-BY-PLAY LEGEND: TIM BRANDO

Tim Brando has worked with a lot of people. That happens when you have been calling football and basketball action on TV for as long as he has. When I called him on Wednesday to discuss what is ahead for Tom Brady, he drew on his experience with another Brady.

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Courtesy FOX Sports

Brando was working with Jole Klatt in his early days at FOX, but he and Klatt were not going to be an exclusive team. He remembers Brady Quinn coming in to their booth shortly after his NFL career had eneded. Quinn was about to make his debut for FOX. Before they were ready to turn him loose, the network wanted the former quarterback to get a feel for the pace and atmosphere of a broadcast booth.

I do think it’s important that you have a new talent understand what that workplace is like in the booth – the choreography that takes place, because there is choreography. If the ball is deflected, your spotter’s hands are coming together like a bad clap. If there’s a hit, who caused the hit? Who stripped it? So there’s a hand signal for stripping the ball and then recovering the ball with the arms closing together. So who got the recovery? Who caused the fumble? Those things are always helpful.

There are things that are going on frantically in the booth, but you as a broadcaster have to remain calm, understand it, and sound succinct and confident. That just takes time and it takes reps. 

That’s one of the great things I think that Greg (Olsen) probably had an advantage in, as do a lot of analysts that get better over time. They do games of lesser importance that maybe the whole world is not watching. 

Tim Brando via Telephone

Tom Brady won’t have the luxury of time or of reps under the radar. He may get to do a few practice games, but the first time he will be calling a game on live television, it will be one of the biggest of the week.

Brando says in that case, it is really important that Brady use his instincts to his advantage in the booth the way he did on the field.

I don’t know Tom well, but I know him well enough to know that he prides himself on preparation. I don’t doubt for one minute that he will be prepared. He’s obviously an incredible competitor. You know, this is a this is a business of competition too. 

If you’re a great player, just like a coach, you love the ecstasy of victory. You don’t want to admit it, but you love the agony of the defeat as well. That feeling of defeat is something we feed on to motivate you for your next performance. In television and sports television, you don’t get that in terms of winning and losing, but you do get it if you look at it as a great performance, 

I believe that all great broadcasters are performers at heart. It takes a certain level of of a theater. It’s live. It’s not scripted. 

I think some players that get in the booth that are looking to have that same, you know, euphoria that they have after playing and winning a game. Some of them get that and understand that in broadcasting and get out of that the same thing and others don’t.

Tim Brando via Telephone

THE BROADCASTING COACH: GUS RAMSEY

Plenty of broadcasters turn to Gus Ramsey for critiques and advice. The Program Director for the Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting at Full Sail University is also a broadcasting coach working with clients at all levels of the business. They trust his opinion because of his professional experience.

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Courtesy Full Sail University

In a prior life, Ramsey was the producer of SportsCenter on ESPN. He has worked with a number of incredibly talented people and been tasked with taking newbies to new heights, so I asked him what he would be thinking if it were his job to get Tom Brady ready for his first FOX broadcast.

Sometimes great athletes forget that most humans don’t know what the athletes know. Things that are basic or simple or even mundane to the athlete are incredible pieces of wisdom or insight to the average fan.

When I was at ESPN we had Tony Gwynn in for an episode of Baseball Tonight. In our show meeting, Tony was explaining why a hitter was slumping because we was cupping his wrist. He went on explaining it for 30 seconds or so. The room was in total silence, eating up every word. The greatest hitter of our generation was doing a deep-dive on hitting. It was amazing.

Tony suddenly got a little self-conscious, stopped explaining and apologized for “going on too long” and we were all like “No!! Keep going!” Tony thought is was boring. It was just the opposite.

Athletes can think things they’ve learned and repeated their whole lives are common knowledge so sometimes they don’t share that info because they think “everyone knows this.”

I want to walk away from a broadcast feeling like I learned something. Sometimes the ex-athlete doesn’t realize how much educating they can do in a broadcast.

The other thing I always encourage former athletes or coaches to do is to take the viewer where they’ve never been; on the field, in the locker room, in a contract negotiation, etc. If you can get that viewer to fully appreciate the feelings and emotions of what goes on in those places, you enhance the experience for us.

Terrell Davis was an analyst on NFL Network for a bit after his career. He once described Champ Bailey running back an interception 100 yards by saying as Bailey got to the 50 yard line “right here it feels like someone put sandbags on your ankles.” I’ve never run 100 yards in a football uniform in Denver’s altitude, but Terrell’s line helped me better understand what it feels like.

Gus ramsey via text message

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BSM Writers

Mark Packer Loves Reading Your Memories & Tributes to Billy Packer

“I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports.”

Tyler McComas

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It still stands today as one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of Arizona basketball. Three simple words said it all as the Wildcats celebrated an overtime win over Duke to win the 1997 national championship. “Simon says championship.” Those were the words of legendary broadcaster Billy Packer as Miles Simon fell to the floor with the ball in his hands. It’s one of many lines his son, Mark Packer, has been reminded of recently.

It was the perfect three words after the country just watched Simon carry Arizona to college basketball glory. Packer captured the moment perfectly, just like he did during every Final Four for 34 years.

Packer passed away last Thursday at the age of 82 but his legacy and impact in sports broadcasting will never perish. He was heard during every NCAA Tournament from 1975 to 2008 and was on the call for some of college basketball’s most iconic moments, including Michael Jordan’s shot to win the 1982 National Championship, Bird vs Magic in 1979, and even Kansas completing an improbable comeback to win the 2008 championship in his last broadcast. And the best part of it all was that Packer did it his own way, with his own unique style.

“It has really been remarkable,” said Mark Packer. “When Billy passed Thursday night we put it out on Twitter and it took off but I didn’t really know what to expect on Friday and Saturday as far as reaction. But the tributes have been fantastic and our family has loved it.

“I have heard from just about everybody and their brother. Folks I never thought I’d hear from, I’ve heard from them, such as commissioners, whether it be the NBA, whether it be other Power 5 leagues, I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports. To me, that’s been comforting to all of us. It just reinforced all the stuff we knew he was about and brings back special memories.”

Packer’s style of broadcasting has been well-documented over the years. He was honest about what he saw and always spoke his mind. Granted, that didn’t always sit well with college basketball fans, but Packer wasn’t concerned about that. He was honest because he cared. 

“He wanted the game of college basketball to be the best it possibly could be,” said Mark.  “When he saw things he did not like, the one thing he always did was speak his mind. He ruffled feathers and he didn’t care. His intent was to make the game the No. 1 priority. You realize now he didn’t have it out for your team, he was just speaking his mind.”

That style meant fans would often yell at games, ‘You hate Duke! You hate North Carolina!’ Packer’s honesty was often taken by fans as he hated their favorite team. He used to laugh at that, just as Mark does know when he thinks about those moments. That’s because Mark can remember feeling the same way as other fanbases as a kid growing up rooting for NC State. 

“When he was calling an NC State game I thought he was always out to get my team,” laughed Mark. “He’d be doing a game in Raleigh — we grew up in Winston-Salem — and the next morning after the game I would be eating breakfast before school and I would say ‘Man, Billy, you really got on so-and-so last night, what’s your problem with NC State?’

“He used to just laugh, because I thought he had an agenda against my team. Of course the funny thing is, we’d go on trips with him to other games and you’d hear fans say, ‘Billy Packer hates my team!’ It almost became a laughing joke, even amongst the family members, that Billy Packer was out to ruin your team’s day when he does a ballgame.”

Mark has always referred to his dad the same his television partners did. That goes for his two other siblings, as well. “Dad” was rarely, if ever, said in the Packer household. Instead, the legendary broadcaster was called by his first name.

“The fact they called him Billy on television, we never called him dad,” said Mark. “We just called him Billy.”

As you can imagine, ‘Billy’ had a lot of stories. That’s normally the case when you’re around the game’s greatest players and broadcast the legendary games we still talk about today. Packer was always quick to share those stories with his family, which made for an entertaining childhood.

Out of the hundreds of messages Mark has received since his dad’s passing, he says he hasn’t heard any stories he’s never heard before. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t been telling him stories about his father.

“We’ve heard them all, quite frankly,” laughed Mark. “Maybe the thing that was so funny about it was that it reinforced some that we thought were total BS when we heard them the first time.”

Packer will always be synonymous with college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. He was the voice of the sport during its golden era and helped bring the magic to TV sets across the world. If Mark had to guess what his dad is most proud of regarding his broadcasting career, he says it would be just that. 

“From a broadcasting standpoint, probably the Final Fours,” said Mark. “When you, I think the number was 34 I heard, and he did so many of them, for us, we kind of took it for granted. It was just something he did. It was March and Billy is about to go do March Madness. It was just fabric for not only him personally, but also the family. He just loved the sport and wanted it to be good.”

Mark has carved out an incredible broadcasting career of his own. He’s hosted both radio and TV shows with outlets such as the ACC Network, WFNZ in Charlotte, and ESPNU. Having a front row seat to one of the most iconic careers in broadcasting, undoubtedly helped shape his career. Mark is very forthcoming as to what lesson he took from his dad the most. 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Mark said. “That’s prep. He always studied. He was always coming up with notes and angles and facts. I have always done that with the radio and TV shows, that you constantly prep, you constantly read and make notes. You may not use but 10 percent of whatever you’ve been studying, but somewhere down the road you’ll use it again.

“When we were cleaning out his closet I ran into an entire box of old notes that he had from games from yesteryear. I kept every one of them and I can’t wait to look at them and relive those games and see his prep work and point of detail for all those games.”

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster

Anatomy of an Analyst: Doris Burke

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.”

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Basketball and Doris Burke have been synonymous for many years. At the age of 7, she started to play the game that would eventually get her to the top of her profession. Along the way she’s recorded many firsts for women in this field which I’ll detail later. Burke has also become an inspiration to other women already in broadcasting and those thinking about a career in media. Pretty impressive. 

Burke was raised in Manasquan, New Jersey. She was the youngest of eight children, and started playing basketball in the second grade. She starred at Providence, where she was the team’s point guard all four of her years there and made an impact immediately. 

During her freshman year, Doris Burke led the Big East in assists. She was a second-team All-Big East player once and twice made the all-tourney team of the Big East Women’s basketball tournament. Burke held seven records upon graduation, including finishing her career as the school and conference’s all-time assists leader, a record that has since been broken. She served as an assistant coach for her alma mater for two years from 1988-90.

From there it was time to embark on a Hall of Fame career.

ROAD TO ESPN/ABC

Burke began her broadcasting career in 1990 as an analyst for women’s games for Providence on radio. That same year, she began working in the same role on Big East Women’s games on television, and in 1996 she began working Big East men’s games. 

Doris Burke has been working for ESPN covering basketball in different roles since 1991. It has also allowed her to do other things along the way that were unchartered for women in the business. In 2000, Burke became the first woman to be a commentator for a New York Knicks game on radio and on television; she is also the first woman to be a commentator for a Big East men’s game, and the first woman to be the primary commentator on a men’s college basketball conference package.  In 2017, Burke became a regular NBA game analyst for ESPN, becoming the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full regular-season role. 

If that wasn’t enough, from 2009 to 2019 she served as the sideline reporter for the NBA Finals on ABC. I mentioned it was a Hall of Fame career and it was officially deemed as such in 2018. Burke was selected to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the Curt Gowdy Media Award winner.

AS AN ANALYST

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.” Relying on her past experiences in the game as a player and coach, the information she brings her audience is relatable. Some analysts struggle to bring home a point in a way that a casual fan will understand. Burke has no trouble with this. Her ability to spell it out, concisely and conversationally sets her apart from most analysts, male or female. 

Burke attacks her job, knowing that some will question her authority when it comes to commentary on the NBA. She doesn’t mind steering into the skid.

“I am mindful of the fact that I have not played or coached in the NBA,” Burke said to Sportscasting.com last year. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t do a very competent job. I think I try to do that every single night, and I’m never afraid to ask questions.” 

It’s all about the information to Burke, and has nothing to do with the fact she’s a woman covering the NBA.

“If you enhance a viewer’s experience, it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she said. “As long as you are competent and put in the work … you’re going to be accepted.”

Doris Burke learned the ropes so to speak from several women that came before her. In an NBA.com piece from January of last year, she outlined how much she enjoyed watching former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Gayle Gardner. Early on in her career at ESPN, Burke got to work with Robin Roberts on WNBA and women’s college basketball broadcasts along with Ann Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman. Roberts was Burke’s inspiration as she started her career path. She admired the professionalism that each displayed. 

“Working alongside Robin Roberts … the one thing I would tell you is the most powerful means to change or impact somebody is by your actions,” Burke said. “She was the epitome of professionalism and competency and garnered the respect of the people around her because of the work habits she had. Watching Robin early on let me know that the basis for everything is the work you put into something.”

While Roberts may have been influential to Burke, Burke has been a beacon for other woman that are getting opportunities in broadcasting.  When asked about their role model, YES Network analyst Sarah Kustok, 76ers play-by-play broadcaster Kate Scott and former WNBA player and current Miami Heat studio analyst Ruth Riley Hunter all mentioned Burke by name.

“Burke is the best example for anyone — male or female,” Hunter told NBA.com. “I love the way she describes the game. She adds so much to every broadcast, and when I was playing in the WNBA I was always really inspired by her work.”

Burke is popular amongst her colleagues at ESPN/ABC, thanks to a tireless work ethic an ability to adapt to whichever sport she may be calling that day. Count Jeff Van Gundy among her biggest fans.

“She’s the best, most-versatile analyst and commentator at ESPN,” Van Gundy said of Doris Burke in 2017 via Deadspin. “She does it all—great interviewer, commentator, studio analyst—everything. And she is an expert at it all—women’s and men’s college basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. She’s the LeBron James of sportscasters. There’s no better broadcaster out there right now.”

Burke is equally a big fan of Van Gundy and the top broadcast crew for ESPN/ABC’s NBA coverage. That includes Mike Breen and Mark Jackson as well. 

“We are talking about three of the best to ever do it. Mark, Jeff and Mike have held down the NBA Finals for over a decade with commentary that is the best of the best. Hubie Brown is a living legend. All of those men have been nothing but gracious and supportive of me,” Burke told the Athletic. 

Doris Burke is considered one of the best NBA analysts around.  Her bosses at ESPN made sure to re-sign her to a multi-year deal and promised she will be involved in “high profile” NBA games in both the regular season and playoffs. Burke will also call finals games on ESPN Radio and appear on the NBA Sunday Showcase program on ABC.

Good for her and good for fans of the NBA on ESPN/ABC.

DID YOU KNOW?

In 2010, she was featured as the new sideline reporter for 2K Sports ‘NBA 2K11’ video game. She has appeared in every version since, including the latest ‘NBA 2K23’.   

As a senior at Providence in 1987 she was the school’s Co-Female Athlete of the Year.  

Her basketball idols growing up were Kyle Macy, Kelly Tripucka and Tom Heinsohn.  

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