In looking back at my broadcasting career, the one indelible constant that will always remain in my mind will be my partners who sat alongside me to deliver the action to the audience.
Yes, the special games stand out, but having the opportunity to work with the former athletes and coaches will always be number one.
Think of it.
As a sports fan growing up, I watched the exploits of those who excelled in the various sports they played, and if you had told me back then that I would get to know many of them up close and personal and work with them, and even help them in a new career, I would have said “no way!”.
But that’s been the case for over a half-century in this business, and for that I am forever grateful.
It would take considerable space to discuss them in every sport I’ve covered, but with the NBA hoping to re-launch soon in Orlando, basketball, both college and pro, will be my focus.
Let’s start with the college game.
While I am known for my work with the NBA, both with CBS, and TNT, I’ve considerable experience in covering NCAA hoops, including 12 regional finals, and two championship games. One as a host on CBS-TV, the other working play-by-play on CBS Radio.
I start with Billy Packer, an unknown to our younger readers, but an icon in basketball broadcasting.
Packer was a star point-guard at Wake Forest in his day, helping lead the Deacons to two Atlantic Coast Conference titles and a trip to the 1962 Final Four.
He covered every NCAA Men’s Division I Championship including the Final Four from 1975 to 2008.
He was at courtside for the NCAA tournament for 35 straight years for NBC and CBS.
How’s that for a resume?
I worked with Packer many times at CBS, usually in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament when his partner for the Final Four, either Brent Musburger or Jim Nantz served as host.
Actually the first time I met him came under a most unusual circumstance.
For a couple of years in in the mid 70’s, I worked as the play-by-play telecaster of the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association.
Billy Packer who lived in North Carolina, and still does, going strong at the age of 80, worked a few games for the Cougars.
We were teamed up to announce a playoff game in Louisville between the Cougars and the Kentucky Colonels.
We were staying at a hotel within view of Freedom Hall where the game was scheduled, and when I arrived early, I decided to take a nap.
Suddenly there was knock on my door. It was Billy, who introduced himself, and proceeded to inform me that the game was canceled because a tornado had opened up a hole in the roof the arena.
I had missed the event.
I learned that tornadoes can do incredible damage in one spot, and leave a structure close by, untouched.
We couldn’t leave Louisville that night, but had dinner and hung out.
Little did I know, we would be partners on about 20 college basketball games on CBS in the years ahead. The thing I will always remember about Billy, was his penchant for playing practical jokes on anyone, anywhere. He was as smart and funny a partner as I’ve had in any sport.
I also had the opportunity to work with the great Al McGuire, after he joined CBS in his latter days on the air. McGuire was teamed with Packer and the legendary Dick Enberg on NBC’s college broadcasts in the late 70’s.
It was the best broadcasting team ever in the sport, and it made college basketball a special attraction. I liken that trio, to the ABC NFL Monday Night crew of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.
They had tremendous impact on their sport.
Al McGuire was a character. At nearly every city we worked, he would drag me to a shop that sold miniature toy soldiers. That was his hobby.
The first ex-star I worked with in the NBA, was Bob Cousy, who was the finest point-guard of his time when he played for the perennial champion Boston Celtics. I worked with Bob on the 20-game schedule we aired on the local station, WBZ-TV in Boston. Cousy was the first of several ex-Celtics who would become my partner.
Growing up I watched the Celtics dominate the sport, and they were the featured team on ABC nearly every weekend.
The fact that I worked with practically the entire starting team, at one time or another, of a dynasty that captured 11 world titles in 13 years may be the single most significant memory I’ll ever have of my career.
A year before I was assigned the lead role in CBS’ NBA telecasts. I was teamed with Kevin Loughery, a wonderful man, who was a top-notch player and coach in the league.
We covered the first playoff battle between the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, since the days of the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain duels of the big men which represented the NBA’s greatest individual battle of that era.
While I had the honor of announcing every Celtics-Lakers Final in the 80’s, starting with the 76ers and Doctor J, Julius Erving, and winding up with the back-to-back titles won by the Detroit Pistons, including the rise of Michael Jordan, the 7-game series between Boston and Philly, in 1981, was the best playoff series I ever covered.
The Celtics won the Eastern Conference Final with a dramatic rally after being down 3 games to one.
The Sixers won the opener 105-104, and took a commanding lead until the Celtics won Game 5 by two points, Game 6 by two, and grabbed the deciding game on Larry Bird’s basket, 91-90.
I don’t remember watching or working a better series.
Bill Russell was my first expert-analyst when I was named the lead play-by-player for CBS the next year.
He was the symbol of a champion. He was part of more titles (11) than any player in history. A five-time MVP and a 12-time All-Star, he was known for his brilliant defensive play. A dozen consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds and key blocked shots. He was also the first African-American coach in American professional sports history and the first to win a title.
Russell was as dignified a man as I have ever known, with tremendous pride and a sense of humor not known by most.
Not an easy man to get to know, he became a friend, and I learned so much about his feelings concerning race and human nature.
My two years alongside Bill Russell were rewarding.
Another ex-Celtic, Tom Heinsohn succeeded Russell on our broadcasts.
Heinsohn was Russell’s teammate when they played, and Heinsohn was driven by his philosophy that fast break basketball, employed as much as possible was the only way to win. If a team was reluctant to “push it up the floor”, Tommy would be disgusted, and HE was never reluctant to express his feelings.
Heinsohn was a joy to work with, and his dedication and sincere forcefulness when he spoke, was a big asset. He was my partner for four years and still appears on some Celtics broadcasts at the age of 85.
I think it is amazing that three Celtic greats I’ve mentioned are still with us.
Bob Cousy is 91, Bill Russell is 86, and Heinsohn, 85.
My next partner was Billy Cunningham, an NBA Hall-of-Famer who played and coached for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Cunningham, known as Billy C, and even more so, as the “Kangaroo Kid”, was one of the most likeable figures ever to represent the sport. Billy established himself as a Brooklyn high school whiz who starred at the University of North Carolina. At the relatively modest basketball size of 6-feet 7-inches Cunningham would out jump virtually every player he faced.
We only had one year together, but it was one of the most enjoyable I ever had. When we weren’t preparing for a game on-site, we would play golf. A truly relaxing season. I’ll never forget when Billy called to tell me he wasn’t returning to CBS. He informed me would be joining the expansion Miami Heat as a minority owner, worth about $30 million. I jokingly chided him on taking that kind of a deal over working with me and playing golf during the season!
Hubie Brown was the last expert-analyst I worked with during my nine-year run as the lead man for the NBA on CBS. Brown had plenty of on-air experience when he became my partner. He had been a demanding head coach, first with the ABA Kentucky Colonels where he won a championship, and later with the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, and Memphis Grizzlies. He was a two-time NBA Coach of the Year. But off the court he wasn’t the most popular figure in the game, and he didn’t care one bit. Hubie was opinionated and rubbed people the wrong way.
In the early 80’s, Sports Illustrated did a story on Brown, titled, “The World According to Hubie”. He was critical of many people in the game, including this reporter. He referred to me as “a jerk”. It’s never easy to see that written about you, especially since I had never met him.
Yet, when CBS asked me my thoughts about a successor to Cunningham, I recommended Brown.
To set the record straight, the decision was not mine to make, but the network wanted my input.
People I knew in the game thought I was crazy. But deep down, I knew Hubie Brown would be the best for the job.
It turned out he was. He realized I had gone against the expected, to suggest him.
For the last two years of CBS’ time as the NBA rights holder, and in later years working the games for TNT, Hubie Brown was my partner, and a great one.
He entered basketball’s Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. one year before I was so honored.
Brown prepared for a telecast the way he coached. Detailed and thorough. Nothing slipped through the cracks with Hubie.
He was on top of the game like no one I ever met.
The one thing he refused to do, was predict or suggest what a coach might do in a given situation.
Fans want the expert to do that. But Hubie never did.
To his credit, he insisted coaches knew their players and their plans better than anyone. He simply was not going to first-guess. And he would never second-guess. I always applauded him for that.
He was authentic that way.
Hubie Brown is still on the air. He continues to do NBA games for ESPN. He will be 87 in September.
One other partner I had in my early days at Turner was Chuck Daly. Daly was the head coach of the Pistons when the “Bad Boys” won consecutive NBA titles in 1989-1990. He also was an assistant coach with Hubie Brown at Duke in the 1960’s.
I don’t remember a coach who could handle players as well as Daly. He had an assortment of athletes in Detroit that would be a challenge to any coach. Consider, Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer to name three with varying temperaments.
Chuck’s easy going manner enabled him to work with them, as well as others, and have them play championship team basketball.
Off the court, he was no different.
One time, during my early days doing sports on local station newscasts, I roundly criticized Daly for leaving his job as head coach at Boston College to jump to the University of Pennsylvania. In those days, I would do controversial commentaries which were a ratings boon.
My criticism was strong.
Years later, during the time we worked together, I summoned up the courage to ask Chuck why he hadn’t brought up my knocking him for the move.
He shrugged, and said, “it was a one day story”.
That was Chuck. He never held a grudge.
He passed away 11 years ago. I don’t know anyone who didn’t respect and adore him.
So there you have it. A thumbnail sketch of most of my basketball partners though the years.
As I’ll always say, the people I worked with represent the highlights of my career.