Billy Packer, straight-talking college basketball analyst, dies at 82

Billy Packer, a sharp-eyed, opinionated lead college basketball analyst for NBC and CBS whose commentary was heard during every Final Four game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament from 1975 to 2008, died Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was 82.

His son Brandt said the cause was kidney failure.

A former point guard and assistant coach at Wake Forest University, Packer began as a broadcast analyst in the early 1970s as the men's tournament, and especially the Final Four, became the signature sports event known as March Madness. He took to the national stage easily with a fast-talking, straightforward style and opinions that provoked strong feelings among fans.

"He had the ability to make every fan base feel he was against them, and he relished that role," Jim Nantz, who became Packer's partner at CBS Sports in 1991, said in a phone interview Friday. "He wore the black hat better than anyone I'd ever seen." He added: "North Carolina thought he was in the bag for Duke. Duke thought he was pro-North Carolina. He loved it."

At NBC Sports, Packer worked with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, a former coach at Marquette University, forming one of the most popular announcing teams in sports. Packer and McGuire had different views not just of basketball but of the world, and they played off each other well, with Enberg acting as the straight man.

Their partnership broke up in 1981, when the tournament's television rights were acquired by CBS. Switching networks, Packer worked with several partners, including Brent Musburger and Nantz, with whom he stayed until he retired in 2008.

Packer was largely serious on the air, without any shtick, unlike ESPN's exuberant Dick Vitale; he stuck instead to X's and O's and strategy, with a healthy dose of opinion about the game he was watching and the state of college basketball.

"The poor guy is so serious about basketball that he can't have any fun with it," McGuire once said. "It's all life or death. There's no in-between with Billy. If it's on his mind, it jumps out of his mouth. But bless his heart, his mind is just as fast as his mouth."

In 2004, Packer excoriated St. Joseph's University as a No. 1 seed in its region in the NCAA Tournament. The next year, he criticized NCAA officials for choosing some mid-major conference teams for the tournament while excluding teams from larger conferences that he deemed better.

More problematic was the time in 1996 when he called Georgetown University guard Allen Iverson, who is Black, a "tough little monkey." He apologized on the air, saying he had not intended the comment to be racial. "Al Capone was a tough monkey," he said. "Mike Ditka was a tough monkey. Bobby Hurley was a tough monkey."

In 2000, he snapped at two female students who were checking press passes at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, saying, according to news reports, "Since when do we let women control who gets into a men's basketball game?" He later apologized.

Anthony William Paczkowski was born Feb. 25, 1940, in Wellsville, New York, near the Pennsylvania border, and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his father, also named Anthony, was hired to coach the Lehigh University men's basketball team. The elder Packer changed the family name soon afterward. Billy's mother, Lois (Cruikshank) Packer, was a homemaker.

Billy played guard at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and led the team to two Atlantic Coast Conference titles and to the Final Four in 1962, when the Demon Deacons lost to Ohio State. He totaled 1,316 points in his career, finishing second in scoring in each of his three years.

He graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1962 and returned to Wake Forest in 1966 as an assistant coach. He held that job until 1970 while also working in the furniture business. In the early 1970s, while Packer was sales manager for a radio station in Winston-Salem, a friend asked him to fill in for the announcer of an ACC game being televised by a syndicator.

"I wasn't nervous," he told The Chapel Hill News in 1974. "I figured I'd just walk in and tell the people what I saw, and that's it. And that's been my approach throughout."

He became a regular on syndicated broadcasts and was hired by NBC in 1974, putting him in place to be at the center of college basketball for the next 34 years.

He was there for John Wooden's last game as UCLA's coach in 1975; the title-game victory of Magic Johnson's Michigan State team over Larry Bird's Indiana State team in 1979; North Carolina State's last-second win over Houston to win the 1983 championship; and the successes of Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Kansas and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"He knew the game -- cold," Kevin O'Malley, the former CBS Sports executive who hired Packer in 1981, wrote in an email. He added, "Billy was the best basketball analyst at doing one very important thing in a fast-paced game -- 'see it and say it.' He wasted no words and reacted to what he saw on the floor instantaneously -- a really invaluable trait for the broadcast."

After retiring from CBS, Packer was succeeded by Clark Kellogg.

In addition to his son Brandt, a golf producer at NBC Sports and Golf Channel, Packer is survived by another son, Mark, host of a daily television program on the ACC Network, which covers ACC sports; his daughter, Liz Kimberly; four grandchildren; his sister, Carol Dague; and his brother, Richard. His wife, Barbara (Sucansky) Packer, died last year.

Packer said broadcasting was a hobby for him, compared with his interests in real estate and golf course development and art collecting. He also pursued other paths: He hired a psychic to find the knife used in the murders of O.J. Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. And he started a defense fund for Richard Jewell, a security guard who was wrongly suspected of planting a pipe bomb in Atlanta that killed one person and injured more than 100 during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Packer had an entrepreneurial streak that he demonstrated on the Friday before the 1995 Final Four at the Kingdome in Seattle. Bryant Reeves, a center for Oklahoma State, shattered the backboard on a layup drill during the team's practice, sending pieces of it all over the court. Packer went after the shards, stuffing his pockets with pieces shaped like three- or four-carat diamonds.

After an NCAA official made him surrender the pieces, he found the person who had swept them up, and he stuffed his pockets again.

"He didn't give up easily," Nantz said, "But when Oklahoma State got knocked out in the semifinals, I asked him what he was going to do with the shards. And he said: 'They're not worth anything. They lost. It's garbage now.'"

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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