16 July 2008

March Madness Will Be Fun Again

(From RealClearSports)

I can’t wait to watch the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

I won't have to listen to the humorless and joyless Billy Packer ranting endlessly. I won’t have to put up with Packer's pompous declarations. I won't have to frantically search for the mute button when Packer begins to scold the refs, the players and the crowd – but rarely the coaches – for anything that goes wrong on the court.

College basketball is going to be fun again.

Packer sucked the life out of one of the most exciting sporting events just by being his curmudgeonly self. March Madness should be a time of celebration, a time of boundless joy over impossible possibilities. Instead, with Packer behind the mike, it often felt like the Batan Death March.

It would inevitably start on Selection Sunday. It had become an annual ritual for Packer to berate the committee chairman, the poor soul who just spent 48 sleepless hours to pick 65 teams for the tournament. It predictably began with the diatribe over why so many mid-major teams, teams from conferences that Packer deigned to be beneath contempt, were picked over the bottom feeders of his beloved ACC.

There was that worthless George Mason team in 2006, or Saint Joseph’s in 2004. Or any team from the Missouri Valley Conference, in any year. If Packer were the committee chairman, he’d just make it the ACC Tournament with a few invitations to the big-name teams from other power conferences.

Packer hates Cinderellas. Most college basketball fans want to see the little guys compete, and perhaps steal a game or two. Packer wants to see them squashed like cockroaches on a buffet table. UCLA 70, Mississippi Valley State 29 – now, that’s a basketball game that would make Billy Packer almost smile.

It’d be one thing if Packer’s dour demeanor and sour words were only for the benefit of the camera, a charade to counterbalance the insufferable boosterism of, say, Dick Vitale. But that was no act. The man is really that mean and graceless.

He once called Allen Iverson a “tough little monkey” as a compliment. Whether he was a racist or not, at least he was on his best behavior when it came to commentary on black athletes in the latter part of his career. Not so with women.

Packer’s a world-class misogynist. He once mused about Jennifer Gillom, the center for the U.S. Women’s Pan-Am team: “Doesn't Gillom remind you of a lady who someday is going to have a nice large family and is going to be a great cook? Doesn't she look like that?”

Packer thinks women’s basketball is so utterly rubbish that he belittled Richmond’s Ginny Doyle, who had set an NCAA record by making 66 consecutive free throws. Doyle invited Packer to a free-throw shooting contest, with a men’s ball, not the smaller women’s ball that Packer had denigrated. Packer showed up and promptly made 12 of 20 shots. Doyle sank all 20.

Then there was the 2000 incident at Cameron Indoor Stadium, when he was stopped and asked to show his credential by a female Duke student. Beyond the usual narcissist drivel such as “do you know who I am” dripping from his pursed lips, Packer couldn’t help but add this gem: “Since when do we let women control who gets into a men's basketball game? Why don't you go find a women's game to let people into?"

OK, we get it. He hates the underdog. He thinks women should stay in the kitchen. He is not moved by all the hoopla and pageantry that is March Madness. He must know basketball, right?

Well, he knows basketball, in so far as it’s played in the conventional form, like when he starred for Wake Forest in the 1950s. He has no real grasp of the many innovations of the sport over time, which might explain his absolute abhorrence for the NBA. When a new concept emerges in the college game -- take the Dribble Drive Motion Offense most notably deployed by Memphis in recent years -- it seemed to befuddle him.

So just exactly why CBS kept this man as the voice of the Final Four for the past 27 years, when he was nearly universally despised and derided? Simple. It’s a true test for the audience. If you’re a college basketball fan and you’ve tolerated Packer through gritted teeth over all these years, you must truly love the game.

You have now passed the test. Congratulations!

Bring on Clark Kellogg. And turn up the volume.

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