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So, You Want To Be In Sports Media

“Jay Mariotti says journalism has been replaced by cooperative public relations and those looking to work in sports media shouldn’t allow it to completely hijack their lives.”

Jay Mariotti

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Ten, 12, 15 — I’ve lost count. Day after day the last several weeks, I’ve appeared on talk shows with hosts who’ve asked the same questions: “Was Michael Jordan really that (magnificent, sublime, G.O.A.T.-like)?’’ … “Was he really that big of a (tyrant, S.O.B., jerk)?’’ … “Why were Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf so (jealous, vindictive, joyless) in breaking up the Bulls?’’

But near the end of a show last week, a host snuck in a different query: “What would you tell a young person who wants to get into sports media?’’

I paused. Did he really want to go there? Now? Sports media is a wilted flower, a pot-holed wheeze down a one-way back road in a rusted jalopy, a relic exposed as the antithesis of essential during the COVID-19 catastrophe. It has been left naked and cold by dried-up advertising revenue, radical downsizing, crumbling journalistic bedrock, corporate raiders who buy and kill news shops, an over-reliance on sports leagues and franchises to stay afloat, athletes and teams that have their own methods to reach fans and — if major sports leagues do shut down in 2020 — zero employment prospects as pay cuts and furloughs turn into permanent layoffs. Even if Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and college football return without spectators, one might have a more secure future as a drive-thru cashier at Taco Bell. Oh, and I should note that regular access to athletes and coaches, so vital to the storytelling separating good sports sites from charlatans, might not happen in a post-pandemic world of social distancing and no press boxes, thus requiring skilled writers to cover games off TV like the basement bloggers of yore.

Or, perhaps, do something else for a living.

Albert Dickens was a man of his Times - Chicago Sun-Times

For some reason, I then thought of the late Albert Dickens. Fortunate to spend much of my column-writing and broadcasting career amid the vigorous, thriving heyday of media, I viewed Albert not as an editorial assistant but as a daily symbol of the good times, a wise and pleasant soul who sat at his desk in the Chicago Sun-Times sports office and reminded us how we literally had life by the balls. Forget about the pathetic, mind-blowing farces evident even in those prosperous days: CEOs/publishers who skimmed profits and went to prison, editors who protected sports owners, fans who threatened your life because you didn’t always worship Da Coach, the newspaper guild that stood firm when the editor-in-chief forearm-shivered you into his office wall, the radio boss who canned you with great ratings because you didn’t agree in writing to stop criticizing his rights-holder teams, the baseball writer who gave an MVP vote to A.J. Pierzynski because he was a trusted source, the drunken colleague who wanted to fight in a Washington arena until Al Gore came walking by, the newspaper executive who asked the college football beat writer to pick up his free season tickets, the media rivals who couldn’t outwork or outperform people but certainly could outsleaze them.

“You’re alive and well,’’ Albert would assure me in his dapper sweater and tie, “and you’re making a nice living doing what you love.’’ He would deliver such a speech on a day when I’d take for granted the ESPN debate show I was taping that morning, the one that reached nearly a million viewers a day back in the best years of “Around The Horn;’’ and the column I was preparing for the next day’s newspaper, which might take me to Wrigley Field, Soldier Field or the Slaughterhouse That Jordan Built; and the expense account that allowed me to hop on planes and cover almost any event I wanted around Planet Sport. I welcomed his verbal nudges, those cues to smell the roses.

To me, Dickens was Media Yoda. And now, just days after his passing at 82, in a sports media landscape gutted by coronavirus fallout and facing a future unrecognizable when compared to the glorious past, somebody wanted to know what I’d tell a young person about a collapsing business. I would love to have replied thusly: Go read an entertaining Washington Post guest column by Rick Reilly, who doesn’t write enough, and realize that sportswriting can’t possibly be dying as long as he’s living.

If only the answer could be that simple. This was a young person’s life, and I could save it or ruin it. Years earlier, an agent asked me to have lunch at a Manhattan deli with a recent college graduate named Jordan Schultz, who said he wanted to be a sportswriter. Emerging amid the digital content boom of the 2010s, he thankfully has done well for himself as a basketball writer and Huffington Post columnist. Yet I wonder, in retrospect, if Jordan might have preferred the path of his father, Howard, the King of Starbucks. So my response to the radio host could not afford to be nuanced. I wanted to tout a sports media career as a blessing, as it has been for me for decades, but I also don’t want to add another dark statistic to the staggering U.S. jobless total. This is how I clapped back at our imaginary aspirant:

“Sure, pursue sports media as a sidelight gig. But you might think about writing code, not sports, until you have some money in the bank.’’

Sports Journalism the Povich Way - YouTube

From this point forward, I’m afraid, a volatile industry has only limited options, none as appealing as when I began at 19 as a fiercely independent rabble-rouser with a singular journalistic mission: No one ever would order me what to write or say. First of all, the very idea of pugnacious, nonaligned sports journalism is all but extinct, swallowed by media companies that prefer to secure business partnerships with leagues, franchises and programs and eagerly promote those entities rather than also covering and scrutinizing them — a frightening thought about a $200-billion industry rife with scandal.

There are people who follow leagues and teams as beat reporters, people who excel in long- and short-form storytelling, people who host talk shows as couriers for teams on the station and people on TV who shriek about whether the Packers insulted Aaron Rodgers by drafting Jordan Love. But the hard-hitting columnists who keep the sports owners and power brokers honest are dwindling to dust, either too pricey for the payroll or too hot to handle for sites such as The Athletic, which lacks edge and somehow is trying to cover AND appease the Big Sports mechanism. And the days of ESPN hammering the NFL over concussions and player conduct cases are long past, replaced by a corporate need to butter up commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners and help the network land a spot in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation. As for local media operations, which once exposed Barry Bonds’ steroids sham and some of sport’s biggest scandals, most gave up on investigative reporting long ago, realizing the professional and college machines have enough financial and political clout to flick them aside, probably with one call from a team executive or coach to a stadium-suite-leasing media boss.

The 2020 survivalist mantra: Become a sports sycophant or die. I’d rather die, keeping in mind that no one should allow an industry capable of being so thankless and cutthroat — lowbrow, too — to define one’s self. If sports media were a shinier craft, yes. And it once was, with the Post calling it “a storied profession’’ in its own piece last week about the demise of the industry. But the world is very big, folks — travel, art, wineries, parties, sunsets, movie scripts and 22-mile ocean bicycle trails, assuming we’re allowed to resume those activities — and you’d be foolish to allow the sports media trade to completely hijack your life when inevitably, for reasons that have nothing to do with talent or production or work ethic, you’ll be blindfolded and tossed aside by someone working for someone who works for someone.

And whatever happened to the spirit of beatdown competition, whipping the rivals with a big story or a mightier column and making content better for readers, viewers and listeners? Does anyone compete anymore? Back when I arrived in Chicago, I made a point of calling the publicist of author Sam Smith and requesting an advanced copy of “The Jordan Rules,’’ the hot new book that revealed the dictatorial side of MJ. She not only sent excerpts, she sent some of the most controversial, which was great for the Sun-Times because we didn’t pay a penny for material that the rival Tribune — which employed Smith as a Bulls beat writer and compensated him with a salary and expense money — paid thousands of bucks to publish. Of course, I published a column about it first, embarrassing the Tribune and prompting Smith to call my editor, moping that I was trying to get him fired. To this day, Sam is cranky about it when, you know, he should have put the clamps on his publicist.

ESPN Tops Cable Networks in Key Demos in 2019 - ESPN Press Room U.S.

Maybe young people today clamor to be Mike Greenberg, an amiable TV and radio host. But if they want to emulate Bryant Gumbel and his reporting titans on HBO’s “Real Sports,’’ they’re out of luck because the show has only a few correspondents, and there’s no other program like it. And if they want to be Reilly — hey, he gets it, choosing scuba-diving each morning in Hermosa Beach over a regular writing regimen. He can afford to, you see. Such were the perks of sports media in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and part of the ‘10s.

But not the ‘20s.

A reader of this column knows I’ve been alarmed, if not disgusted, by networks and sites that carry an amateurish, sappy tone of wishful thinking when “reporting’’ about the possible resumption of live events. I wrote about it last month, and because it doesn’t stop, I’ll run it back — as it pertains to the future of media. ESPN cannot speak sports into existence, but it certainly tries every night, with “SportsCenter’’ host Scott Van Pelt continuing as a mushy Disney character when, more than ever, we need journalistic clarity about the medical crisis of our lives. A series of critical issues should be addressed on each show: How will sports keep athletes and support staffs safe during an ongoing pandemic? … Are health risks worth taking just so leagues and athletes can recoup pieces of lost fortunes? … Does the whole thing go to hell if there’s a second wave of coronavirus? … Despite marked improvements in available testing, would enough kits be available over the months ahead — MLB alone needs 10,000 per week — for numerous pro and college inventories? … How can this be accomplished without depleting the national test supply and making sports leagues look uncaring and greedy? … What happens when athletes test positive? … Is MLB seriously going to quarantine a player who tests positive but NOT quarantine his exposed teammates, allowing the games to go on? … And will leagues be transparent publicly about every positive test or cover it up to protect their seasons and incoming revenues?

I rarely hear a mention of such protocol roll calls on ESPN. But I do get Stanford Steve, who joins Van Pelt on a frat-bro segment about past wagers gone awry. And I get a deceiving headline in the show tease — “PLAYERS TALK RETURN’’ — when there’s no certainty the NBA will resume play this year. So, kids, you’re basically stumping for sports leagues if you want to work in the biggest media shops. Even Van Pelt openly debated his purpose when he told CNN Business, “I have asked that question aloud and in my brain driving home some nights, where I think, `What are we doing?’ ‘’ The pandemic is one of those moments in time, like 9/11 and world wars, when sports media should want to be on the front lines. Instead, they’ve retreated into minimal-audience irrelevance. Why? Because the leagues expect media to be loyal partners in a time of crisis, to dutifully report what the leagues want the public to think, even if it’s tantamount to brainwashing that serves the bottom line.

Chicago Bulls and White Sox Owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, Allen … | Flickr

That isn’t journalism. It’s cooperative public relations. And in the future, a bleak trend that started years ago will continue in full force: If you want to work in sports media, you’ll likely be working directly for the leagues and teams themselves, or for a company that remains obedient in covering them. And if you want to report a story they don’t want reported, you’ll be bounced out of town, if not out of the business. You may remember when wives of Houston Astros players were harassed by White Sox fans during a World Series game in Chicago, forcing the Sox to apologize; well, my column about the apology never saw the light of day, killed by editors intimidated by Sox management. On a higher level, this is how President Trump tries to bully the White House press corps, but enough media shops have remained strong and protected the backs of political reporters. Sports? I can count on one hand how many boardrooms would protect their people in a firestorm.

The New York Times is one. Bleeding from financial woes, ESPN was too busy making money off the UFC 249 pay-per-view presentation to investigate business partner Dana White, who made a debacle of testing protocols in Jacksonville and didn’t seem to care if COVID-19 was spread or lives were lost. A Times sports reporter wrote a critical and fair story, accusing the UFC president of flouting Florida safety and health guidelines — headline: “U.F.C.’s Coronavirus Plan Is Careful. Its Enforcement Has Been Spotty’’ — with White responding in his usual level-headed, mature tone.

“F–k that guy. F–k that guy,’’ he said. “You know what happened with that guy? That guy, who has never covered the sport ever before, was writing a story about (UFC parent company) Endeavor … What do you think happened when this guy and this paper covered the UFC when they had never covered it before? What do you think happened? The f—–g story was huge. They did killer traffic. Now they’re writing stories, three a week, and they’re posting live results I don’t give a s–t what that guy thinks, what he has to say or what he writes. Good for him.”

Was White concerned about fallout from the piece?

“I don’t give a f–k,” he said. “Don’t give a f–k.”

The Trump effect, call it.

Restarting UFC during a pandemic is 'expensive,' Dana White says ...

I suppose a sports media aspirant could work for White and serve as his publicity flack, assuming he or she wants to risk contracting the virus. Or, worse, you can work for one of these goof-bubba sites where you make weed money for a few years but ultimately embarrass friends, family and even rats in the attic. You know: the joints run by creeps who see sports and sports media as toilets, take massive dumps and turn the profession into a sewage clog, aiming content at burnouts while declaring war on smart, well-adjusted humans. Like most panelists who’ve logged thousands of airtime hours on ESPN, I was targeted by one such loser who wrote about me so often — pathologically lying to the end — that there had to be something seriously wrong with him. There was: He was a hard-core drug addict who wound up in rehab and wrote about it, which may have explained why he had me followed and offered money to any colleague with “dirt’’ when I began a San Francisco gig. Later, Hulk Hogan sued the guy and his affiliated website for an original award of $115 million, putting both out of their misery forever.

If you think I’m overly cynical, I could suggest The Athletic. The founders, propped up by venture capitalists, are fighting the good fight for the future of sportswriting albeit with a glaring obstacle — they’re relying entirely on subscriptions that likely have peaked after four years of existence and won’t be selling during a sports-crippling pandemic, meaning hundreds of talented writers could be out of work if sports don’t return or a second virus wave buries an attempt to return. Actually, Sports Illustrated, despite internal flareups and various dents on a once-sterling reputation, might have a better chance to survive as a smaller operation. There are even smaller sports sites, zillions of them, but you’ll have a better life drawing unemployment.

TV? You either become a full-blown company man and get bonuses every time you utter, “This is why we love sports,’’ or you twist and shout like Stephen A. Smith. Otherwise, the networks will keep hiring those who played, coached or generally managed the game, often preferring been-in-the-trenches faux cred to compelling, thoughtful discourse and going so far to pardon criminals in sports and real life, from Alex Rodriguez to Ray Lewis.

Documentaries? This would be my recommendation, having contributed to the Hollywood content churn myself, with “The Last Dance’’ docu-series inspiring a new batch of sports films available in coming days — the Donald Sterling racism affair; Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the bogus home-run derby of 1998; the Lance Armstrong doping scandal; even a piece on Bruce Lee. But this isn’t sports media work, remember. It’s filmmaking, which means Jason Hehir, director of the 10-part Jordan series, is considered a far greater creative force today than Wright Thompson, thought to be the best of the current sportswriters and a guy ESPN actually has used — burp! — to chow down at college football tailgates.

The Last Dance: ESPN Series Director Jason Hehir on Michael Jordan ...

The takeaway: Unless you really like brisket, please avoid journalism school and enroll in film school. But even then, as Hehir knows, you’re at the mercy these days of iconic athletes — some with their own production companies — who want their legacies crafted their way, maximizing the triumphs and minimizing the gambling mischief and political limpness. See, you’re still working for The Man.

Talk radio? All you need to know is that Bernie Miklasz, the biggest sports media personality in St. Louis the last three decades, was fired from his talk show because he made too much money. And the story floated in the New York Post about the teetering fate of ESPN host Dan Le Batard? Much as Le Batard denies the story, he pulls down more than $3 million a year — and the Post media writer has strong Bristol sources. Anyone who makes real money in talk radio soon might be replaced by … wait, a kid out of college! There’s the answer for our sports media aspirant: Work cheap when the big-money guys are ziggied!

Dismiss me if you’d like. But one sunny morning in 2009, on a Wrigley Field rooftop, I told the legendary writer Frank Deford, a former boss of mine who passed in 2017, why newspapers would fade away if they didn’t adjust to technology and create a revenue balance between newsprint and an eventual digital takeover. A year before, I had opted out of a lucrative, long-term deal because the Sun-Times reneged on a promise to improve its website — a flaw that led to the paper’s quick free-fall. Deford, then hosting a “Real Sports’’’ segment about the troubles of print media, pointed to a copy of that day’s paper and asked, incredulously, if the newsprint product would cease to exist. I told him the entire operation, someday, would cease to exist. For now, the Sun-Times remains on life support, kept alive by the periodic financial largesse of Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, which means a staffer can’t criticize the Hawks anymore without being Bullwinkled by Rocky. But truly, whatever was left of a once-dominant sports department died when Albert Dickens passed.

Ozzie Guillen

I remember the day when Ozzie Guillen, a crude baseball loon worthy of my nickname for him (“The Blizzard Of Oz’’), called me a “(bleeping) fag.’’ He was incensed because I’d criticized him, while on a road trip covering the NBA Finals and U.S. Open golf, for rebuking a kid pitcher who didn’t bean a Texas Rangers batter as ordered. This led to a national media storm that included requests for me to appear with Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly, half-assed punishment from the commissioner’s office and interest-conflicted Sun-Times editors who cheaply exploited coverage of the flareup, including a sports boss who asked me to issue a statement for other media outlets. Um, wasn’t my “statement’’ contained in the column I was writing on Guillen? WTF?

Sometime later, I saw Albert at his desk. “You sure know how to keep the lights on around here,’’ he said.

It’s a lost art, kids.

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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