NSMA: Packer called it like he saw it
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Brandt Packer went to college at the University of Tennessee mostly because he needed a break from ACC country.
“It wasn’t easy growing up in North Carolina when your dad is Billy Packer, and he’s broadcasting the basketball games,” Brandt said with a laugh. “All my friends, their parents were always asking me, ‘Hey, Brandt, why does your dad hate our school?'”
Billy Packer was a TV color analyst for 34 straight Final Fours from 1975-2008.
He knew the game, he was opinionated, and he didn’t mind sharing. He was ahead of his time. He wasn’t worried about stomping on toes or pulling punches. Political correctness took a vacation whenever Packer put on a headset and got on a roll. He lacked a schtick and he avoided clever catch-phrases, but he had a knack for telling viewers what would happen before it happened.
OK, his pistol occasionally jammed when he shot from the hip. There was that 2008 Final Four contest in which Kansas led UNC 40-12 and Packer declared it over really early. UNC rallied and fought back within five points. Kansas didn’t fold, but some UNC fans still hold a grudge.
Packer didn’t hate any team — really, he didn’t. He never cared who won.
Packer never shied away from coaching both teams at once, even if Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith were on the benches, and he didn’t mind reprimanding players when they launched a bad shot or fired a foolish pass. He also wasn’t reluctant to inform officials they’d just blown a call.
Whether you were a fan of North Carolina or Duke, you were sure Packer loathed your team, and that may be the first thing basketball fans of those two schools have ever agreed upon.
Packer was inducted into the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame on Monday night at Catawba. Sons Brandt, a producer for the Golf Channel, and Mark, a notable sports talk show host, were on hand as presenters — the day after Fathers Day.
Brandt saw some irony in the honor.
“This ceremony is kind of the antithesis of who my dad is,” Brandt said. “He hates this stuff. Awards aren’t his favorite thing.”
Packer was born Anthony William Paczkowski, with the Polish surname Americanized to Packer long ago.
He grew up as the son of a college coach. Tony Packer coached at Lehigh University from 1950 to 1966.
Billy became the star of the high school team in Bethlehem, Pa., and it was assumed he was heading to Duke.
“I was going on college visits and my dad told me that I’d made enough visits and he wanted me to call Duke and tell them I was coming,” Packer said. “So I called Duke, and they told me to give them a few weeks because they were still deciding between me and another guy.”
Long story short, that prompted the competitive Packer to sign with Wake Forest — so he could play against this “other guy” Duke was recruiting.
Packer turned in a terrific career at Wake Forest and was first team All-ACC tournament in 1961 and 1962. The Demon Deacons won both years to advance to the NCAA tournament.
“We had Len Chappell, a player with an unusual combination of size, strength, hands and speed,” Packer said. “He was similar to Tyler Hansbrough in some respects, but Len was a much better shooter and he could shoot with range.”
Packer, a guard with ball-handling and leadership skills, had a shining moment. He drained two clutch shots in the last 20 seconds of an Eastern Regional game with St.Joseph’s to force overtime, and Wake Forest eventually reached the 1962 Final Four.
Wake Forest lost in the semifinals to a seasoned Ohio State team led by John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas.
“They were better than us,” Packer said.
In those days a consolation game for third place was played prior to the national championship game, and Wake Forest nipped UCLA for third. Chappell scored 26 points against the Bruins, while Packer scored 22.
“That was UCLA’s first Final Four under coach John Wooden,” Packer said. “I became friends with Coach Wooden, so I have fond memories of that game.”
Packer played at Wake Forest for colorful coach Horace “Bones” McKinney, who once ordered Packer to play man-to-man defense against a referee. In a game at South Carolina, McKinney put his three big guys in a triangle zone and instructed his guards to closely defend officials Lou Bello and Charlie Eckman — because they were the two guys giving the Deacons the most trouble.
Packer’s degree from Wake Forest was in economics, but he went into coaching as a Wake Forest assistant for several years. He wasn’t seeking a broadcasting career, but it found him in 1972.
“I got a call from Skeeter Francis (the sports information director at Wake Forest for many years), and he asked me to meet him at a game,”Packer said. “Next think I know Skeeter is taking me to the TV truck and is introducing me to (producer) C.D. Chesley. C.D. says, “This is the guy?’ and Skeeter answers, ‘This is the guy.’ Then I’m working the game. The next day C.D. calls me and tells me I’m hired.”
This was before ESPN, and for most North Carolina basketball fans the televised basketball they saw for several years was brought to them by the broadcasting duo of Jim Thacker and Packer. They were a smooth combination. Thacker was adept at play-by-play. Packer, who had been both an outstanding player and a coach, brought credibility and headstrong, straightforward analysis to the broadcast.
Packer set records for call-the-station complaints by viewers, but his rise was meteoric. He climbed from a raw rookie to the smartest analyst in the business in a hurry. He became a national personality.
The trio of Packer, Dick Enberg and Al McGuire spent four seasons together on NBC (1978-81), and their team proved both informative and hilarious. Friendly jousting between Packer and McGuire produced classic moments.
“We were only together four years, but it seemed like a lifetime,” Packer said with a smile. “I learned a lot about life from Al.”
The years rolled by, and Packer was both a colleague and friend to notable broadcasters such as Jim Nantz.
Packer says the best game he broadcast was the 1974 ACC tournament classic between N.C. State and Maryland. They were two of the best three teams in the country. The Wolfpack won, 103-100.
“I say that game because of the quality of play — nine of the 10 starters had NBA careers,” Packer said. “And because of the stakes. The winner (N.C. State) was going to the NCAAs. The loser was going nowhere. And that game had David Thompson. If not for the problems he ran into, he would be known as one of the best to ever play the game.”
He agrees with a lot of people that the college game is sliding downhill. Teams are much younger now. The finest players head to the NBA after their freshman seasons. Back in the day, mega-stars such as Thompson, Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) played on freshman teams, and then played three varsity seasons.
“College basketball will always be exciting, but the day of the really great college teams is over,” Packer said.
Packer’s last Final Four was in 2008.
He doesn’t miss the travel or the mic. He always enjoyed the preparation for the games far more than the actual broadcasting.
At 76, he still has business interests, but he takes pride in being outdated when it comes to technological advances. Twitter and Facebook are mysteries to him. He owns no computer, has no email address.
He does possess a color TV set, a cellphone for emergencies — and indoor plumbing.
Packer was one of the best at what he did for a long time and he entered another Hall of Fame on Monday night.
That’s pretty good for a guy who swears he’s not a sports fan.
Packer’s final remarks on his broadcasting career were heartfelt and humble.
“I just hung around sports a long time,” he said quietly. “I don’t think I’m a Hall of Fame guy.”