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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   June/July 2011  issue

Raft World   

CBS and ESPN basketball analyst Bill Raftery is widely known for his colorful catchphrases. But its his reporting skills and penetrating insights that really make him special. Thu, March 3, 2011


By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

Midway through the second half of a tight basketball game in January, University of Tennessee forward Steven Pearl barrels improbably past two University of Connecticut defenders on the baseline and hits a running bank shot.

Bill Raftery, at the broadcast table alongside his partner, Ian Eagle, is finding it a little hard to believe what he has just seen. Pearl is, in basketball parlance and reality, a coach's son, scrappy, fundamentally sound and at least a step slow. No one enjoys being surprised and sharing his surprise with an audience more than Bill Raftery. "Did I say blow-by?" he says, screwing his voice up into a high and tight gravel. "Knit one, Pearl two. Takin' it to the tin with a kiss." Coming out of the commercial break, an amused Eagle reintroduces his partner, "Mr. Needlepoint, Bill Raftery."

Mr. Needlepoint is, if not by popular acclaim, although there is certainly that, then among the most respected people in broadcasting, one of the very best basketball analysts on television.

His popularity is the result of a memorable gym rat patois, cleaned up a little like an old pair of Chuck Taylor high tops run through the wash. Raftery's blow-by is a noun, his tin is a rim and a kiss is swapped by the basketball with the tin on its way through the nylon (net).

The catchphrases have been great for Raftery's profile, but are a little like an amazing trick shot that distracts you from his flawless overall game. He has a beat reporter's depth of experience, the bulldog's instinct for digging and a top columnist's gift of helping you to understand what you just saw on the court in a new and often startling way. And, unlike the current trend in his business and everywhere else, Raftery has no truck with the first person.

"I don't know a single person in this sport that doesn't like and admire Bill Raftery," says Verne Lundquist, a longtime Raftery partner who has called almost every major event in American sport. "He is the consummate professional. Self deprecating and as well prepared as any man I have ever worked with in any sport. Meticulously prepared."

"In this business there are very few people who are the same person you see on TV," says Eagle, one of the brightest young play-by-play announcers and another frequent Raftery broadcasting partner. "I can tell you what you are seeing with Bill is who he is in real life."

Take it from his ever-expanding universe of family, friends, bartenders, waiters and golf pros who make up Raft World and anyone who loves to hear a good story well told, Raftery is much, much bigger in real life than he is on television. A very unscientific survey suggests that everyone who has ever met Raftery is able to tell a story similar to one told by Jay Bilas, his partner on ESPN's popular Big Monday broadcast of Big East Conference basketball games.

Bilas accompanied Raftery to dinner after a Villanova Wildcat game, to Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse in Philadelphia earlier this year. "We get there and people start to come in and pretty soon there are 45 people there, and they were going to close, but they don't close because nobody says no to Bill," Bilas says. "He spends time with everybody. He doesn't leave. We don't leave. Everybody loves Raft. I think he's a vampire." If so, he is certainly the most avuncular among the undead.

Raftery is a man of a routine shaped by the rhythm of college basketball, on the road from fall to spring. He calls me from the backseat of a car somewhere between his home in Florham Park, New Jersey, and Hartford, Connecticut, en route to the UConn-Tennessee game. Raftery was beating it out of New Jersey a day early, ahead of a looming blizzard.

He usually does color for two games a week, including Big Monday, and more during the weeks in March when the NCAA College Basketball Tournament is played. He's the rare analyst with contracts with two competing major sports networks, CBS and ESPN.

Were it not for the phone interview, Raftery would be reviewing a thick legal pad that is a running narrative of his season. The notebook is filled with analysis of games played by the teams involved in the upcoming game on DVDs delivered by courier to him whether at home or on the road. He diagrams plays he thinks teams might run and flags team and player tendencies, little things a casual viewer doesn't see.

Broadcast partners, to a person, are almost prickly in defense of Raftery's game preparation. His easy on-air bonhomie and theatrics give the unfair illusion that Raftery is somehow just winging it, Lundquist says.

Bill Cunningham, a close friend and a pretty fair analyst after winning a National Basketball Association championship with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 as a player and in 1983 as a coach, says his pal Raftery is too often underestimated.

"The thing I like about him is as long as he's done this, he is so good that he could cut corners, and no one would know," Cunningham says. "But I'll tell you what, he doesn't because he's the only person who knows the difference, and that's all that matters."

For Raftery, a personality because of his style, it's simply a matter of work ethic, of habit. "This is the way I've always done it," Raftery says, before pausing to give directions to his driver. "You'd be surprised how much that legal pad helps. I learned early on to value content over style."

Raftery values content as only someone who has produced that content at a high level can. Friends and colleagues are quick to correct Raftery's trash talking of his own basketball career. During the late 1950s at St. Cecilia High School in Kearny, about 20 miles west of where he and his wife, Joan, live today, Raftery set a New Jersey high school scoring record with 2,192 points. He was named All-State not only in basketball but also in baseball and soccer.

His 370 points set a freshman scoring record at La Salle University and, despite injuring his back when he was a junior, he was a senior co-captain on an Explorers team that made it to the National Invitation Tournament, the more important end-of-the-season tournament at the time. Raftery was drafted by the New York Knicks but didn't make the final roster.

Even then, Raftery's amiable personality and storytelling helped disguise a ferocious intensity, his older sister, Rita, says. Rita, now Sister Francis Raftery, has been for the past 14 years president of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey.

Their parents, both born in Ireland, stressed education without too much rah-rah about individual achievement. Sports taught, too, that the individual achieved with and through the team. In this, Sister Francis says, her little brother excelled.

"There was always an intentionality to his play. He was serious about it," Sister Francis says. "He's always had a zest for life that I think was nourished by good coaches."

It was his impression on those coaches that led to a city recreation job in Kearny, to a coaching job at Fairleigh Dickinson University, to the head coaching job at Seton Hall University in 1970, all before he turned 30. In 103 years of Pirate basketball, only three coaches won more basketball games than Raftery did in 11 years.

Raftery was a good coach, better than he'll tell you, a winner, his friends will tell you. "We were a tough out," is all Raftery will say.

One of the friends he picked up along the way, Dave Gavitt, one of the founders of the Big East Conference, told Raftery as he was starting out as a TV analyst in 1979 that he thought Raftery might be good on television, too. Raftery wasn't ready. When Gavitt got in touch again, in the middle of Seton Hall's practices two weeks before the start of the 1981-82 season, Gavitt told Raftery there was an analyst job for him at ESPN, take it now or leave it.

Weighing the pressure of big-time college basketball against the pay and the precariousness of the future, Raftery turned the program over to his assistants with small regrets. "I missed the pace of the gym every day, but I liked what I was doing right away," Raftery says. "I found great satisfaction in analyzing a game the way you might analyze an opponent."

Early on, play-by-play partners told Raftery he needn't worry about developing a broadcast style, that if you worked hard and were lucky, you would end up with a style and the style would be you. Few in his business are more you than Raftery.

Raftery's measure, however, is his effectiveness as a team player. In 2003 ESPN decided to add a third person and second analyst, Bilas, to the Big Monday team of play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough and Raftery.

Raftery, who might have felt crowded, welcomed Bilas, one of the best young analysts in the game. "It's like working with your best friends," Bilas says.

Lundquist, who thinks the three-person approach is one of the toughest assignments in the business for all of the give and take, says, "I think they are the very best three-man booth in broadcasting."

The reason for all of the elbow room is Raftery's sense of when and when not to talk. Eagle, or Bird as Raftery calls him on air, says his frequent partner treats a broadcast like a conversation, the good kind you might overhear in a good tavern, only with a few million people eavesdropping.

Or watching a very good "Saturday Night Live" when, on Monday, everyone is repeating the best lines in the best skit. Raftery insists he has never deliberately set out to create a catchphrase. "It's just these things that I say come popping out."

Twenty-three years after the University of Pittsburgh's Jerome Lane shattered a backboard in a game with Providence College, people still refer to a monster dunk with Raftery's euphoric call, "Send it in, Jerome."

Years ago, Raftery wanted the audience to know he thought a player had shown guts or a part of the male anatomy taking a shot with the game on the line. For some transcendent reason Raftery blurted out "Onions!" a euphemism lost until commercial break on his partner and now a part of the lexicon.

And when a player has been faked out of what used to be called his jock, Raftery declares in a Jackie Gleason, "And away we go," voice that the defender has left "lingerie on the deck."

Against UConn, "strokin' a little nylon," meaning hitting a few shots, got Tennessee right back into a game it eventually lost. After a basket by UConn's freshman guard Jeremy Lamb, Raftery remarks, "There is nothing worse than a lamb on the loose." And working himself into a brief delirium after Tennessee's 275-pound center Brian Williams flattened 170-pound Huskies guard Shabazz Napier with a screen, he says, "Whoo-hoo. That's why you've got that belly, big fella. Use it."

"I think some people think those things he says are shtick, like he has a list of things he has to say," Eagle says. "Those are just things he says. That is who he is."

This ebullience has made Raftery a part of the fabric of the game and, his colleagues say, has gone a long way toward keeping him relevant in a sport played by kids half a century younger.

Raftery isn't a gladhander with the players. He likes ragging on them, instead. Joe Mazzulla, a senior guard at West Virginia University, says Raftery singled him out a year ago during a pregame shootaround, making a crack in reference to the University of Pittsburgh, which had beaten the archrival Mountaineers at the buzzer earlier in the year.

Without missing a beat, Mazzulla looked at the green V-neck sweater Raftery was wearing and yelled back, "Hey, Bob Knight called. He wants his sweater back." Raftery loved it and made another friend.

"I don't see him much, but he always makes sure to stay in touch," Mazzulla said by phone after one recent practice. "He's a great guy. I think he likes to be involved with the players. He's always looking for the positive, wanting to give a compliment."

Raftery collects and keeps friends everywhere. He stays current with his Fairleigh Dickinson and Seton Hall players, Sister Francis says. Former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca and former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino are just two of the foils and friends among the coaching ranks.

Cunningham, who gets together frequently with Raftery and their wives in Jupiter, Florida, where they have winter homes, says Raftery has very particular standards for friendship. "All you gotta be is nice."

Cunningham is an inveterate kidder. He likes to suggest that perhaps the birthdate Raftery uses on his official bios, April 19, 1943, is fudged. But about their friendship, Cunningham is as serious as his left-handed jump shot.

"There aren't many people like him that you meet in the course of your lifetime," he says. "He's a joy to be around. He's always there for you. He's a great friend."

Raftery couldn't begin to thank all of the people that have made his success possible. He'd rather have them over for drinks. Nor is he willing to explain his success in a way other than moving doggedly on to the next dream after the last one has evaporated. He does, however, share one secret, once used to motivate his players, and one that sounds suspiciously like a motto for his life.

"I always think the most important game is this one, because you're in it," he says. "What I do is important to the kids on the floor. I think they deserve my best shot."