Bill Raftery and the Power of Love

In praise of college basketball's greatest positivist and favorite uncle.
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Both of these men would like all your scotch.

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Some of it is simply because it's the Big East, and some probably because there are only so many other places to be on a Monday night in Syracuse or Morgantown or Providence, but there is a wild, thrumming energy to even objectively meh conference-season games that can feel jarring and a little dissociative when viewed from the plush remove of the couch. Inside the arena, as is usually the case, all this excitement makes sense—that's the only big-ticket basketball game being played on that floor that night; there's almost always some sort of rivalry-related context to be found, even against DePaul; and there are students and beer, which is honestly probably it, or most of it.

That has to be it, right? Because the crowd is bouncing and honking and waving those oversized disembodied-heads-on-sticks around, and yet—miles away, beer open, television on, apartmentbound and in for the evening—the game is inarguably and irreducibly a mid-season, middling Big East game. So it's: Fouls and missed foul shots, turnovers and turnovers and turnovers; some stocky, going-on-too-confident point guard from some Jesuit prep hoops powerhouse along the northeast corridor rocket-launching a back-rimmed three-pointer or dribbling so hard into a wall of frontcourt beef and falling down. And then a cut to some exasperated person or other on the sidelines, his arms folded or flailing but always fuming and deeply in disbelief. The conference season isn't even halfway home yet, which means more meaninglessness. West Virginia's Bob Huggins is not yet wearing the Steve Harvey Collection suits he'll break out during the conference tournament. For now it's strictly flame-retardant slacks and a windbreaker and a case of phase IV bitter beer face. Get far enough from it—and a meh-ish college game seen from across your living room might as well be seen from across the universe—and this sort of game becomes abstract, and all that emotion attending all this imperfection is honestly just weird. So get closer.

Or don't, if you don't want to. For those who already have enough basketball in their lives, thanks, or are dug snug into their trenches in the goofy culture war between professional and college hoops, college basketball is something best left far away. From that distance, college hoops is a messy and hugely imperfect vision of the game, which in turn makes all those bobbing disembodied heads and willfully ignorant, tradition-humping purists and roaring, unsinkable crowds seem a little bit ridiculous, and their enthusiasm an expense of spirit in a waste of aesthetic and ethical shame. But if you want to get closer, if you'll let yourself love it, you really ought to listen to Bill Raftery.

On Monday, Raftery was where he has been since 1981, which is on the sidelines and in a headset, doing color commentary on a definitively un-vital Big East game. It was a pretty good one, close and generally well-played. It was, also and of course, wildly imperfect, because it was played by people in their teens and early 20s, almost all of whom have not previously been coached all that much or all that well. Where the NBA inspires awe, college basketball can evoke a weirdly protective feeling, the unspoken and tender-hearted hope that everyone out there—sure, even the Plumlees—is getting something out of all this. Where the NBA gives us a chance to see great players be great, college basketball gives us an opportunity to watch them get better, or closer to what they might eventually be. We pay for that in watching them make mistakes and be sad and experience, on a basketball court, every shitty other thing that goes along with learning at that particular age.

This is a different and more human drama than the NBA's laser show, and there are a limited number of ways to address it during a broadcast. All of these can be heard on the ESPN/CBS family of networks. Dick Vitale responds to in-game sloppiness by not really responding to anything in the game, and instead talking loudly and excitedly about how excited and loud he is, or about how he just had lunch with Johnny Dawkins and it was wonderful, just wonderful, what a fine man. Bobby Knight, who slouches at the other end of the enthusiasm/affection spectrum, speaks slowly and in a low voice about how disappointed he has been and expects to continue being at the poor decision-making of the players on the court. If Vitale's palpable desire to hug somebody, anybody, almost excuses how much he clearly does not bother to know about the players on the floor, Knight's withdrawn, faintly whiskey-ish, would-rather-be-hunting-with-Tony-LaRussa-and-Donald-Rumsfeld vibe does the opposite, despite the fact that Knight evidently bothers to at least top-line the teams he'll spend a few hours talking about. Jimmy Dykes, a former big-time assistant in the SEC, is astute and opinionated and seems far too smart not to become a college head coach sometime sooner than later. Raftery is like none of these guys, if also a little bit like all of them, and he is exponentially better at talking about college basketball than anyone else who does it on television.

This is true in a practical, good-at-announcing sense. Raftery is famously obsessive about preparation, watching hours of game tape and filling legal pads with palimpsests of notes and diagrams about tendencies and go-to plays and other coachly minutia. He's also good enough at talking—Raftery communicates in carpet-bomb sorties of self-effacement, jokes and near-jokes, front-and-center asides, and periodic incendiary bursts of catchphrase—to create his own contextual environment within a broadcast. He needs to be that good, too, because Raftery uses a tremendous amount of coaching jargon, much of which would be even more opaque than the dense rhyming-slang allusiveness of his signature exclamations—"lingerie lingering on the deck" = faked-out-of-his-jock, and so on—if it were not wrapped, with offhand grace, in those sheets of exposition he just keeps unspooling. He wonders, almost under his breath, where the weakside help was on that play or why the bullheaded point guard didn't fan dribble and reset, and it makes sense whether you know what all those words mean or not, because you've been watching and hearing him watch it, and suddenly and even a little surprisingly (because what exactly is a fan-dribble, even?) it is all right there. But how good Raftery is at calling college basketball is not what makes him great at it.

No, what makes Raftery great is that he is great. That everyone in the world of college basketball likes him is worth something, I guess. The same can be said for the uniform adoration of his broadcast partners. "[Sometimes] someone is a certain way off the air, and then the red light goes on and they're completely different," Ian Eagle told Dan Levy on Levy's podcast back in 2009. "People think [that about Raftery], 'oh is that an act?' No, that's him." And here Eagle's voice gets a little amused and a lot loud, and the audio—which had that podcastian echo to begin with—goes leaping into the red. "He's the BEST. He's the BEST HUMAN BEING that you could be around." But all this seems not so much beside the point—at least inasmuch as it almost never matters when famous people are friends with other famous people—as it is redundant. Redundant, that is, because it is impossible not to get a sense of manifest personal goodness and generosity of spirit while listening to Raftery call a game.

And that generosity and patience, finally, is what college basketball requires, both of the people who make their sizable livings talking about it on television and those of us who watch it. College basketball announcers and coaches and die-hards face an inescapable Wooderson factor—though they get older, the players they watch multiple times per week just stubbornly stay the same age. That unstoppable tide of unfinished flubbiness and teenage-grade decision-making and mismatched college-kid emotion—all those roaring crowds at all those sludgy 50-42 games—inevitably erodes color commentators, and the shape of what's left is revealing and not always flattering.

Vitale has retreated utterly, vanishing loudly into grandfatherly digression and howling baroque; Knight is as professional as is possible for someone who so transparently doesn't give a shit, but is not so much disinterested as he is uninterested. The sour and departed don of college basketball commentators, Billy Packer was, by the end of his long career, an ugly wound bandaged glumly into a suit—his grumpy disconnection from the kids playing the game, the fact that they simply could not or would not see what he saw or do what he wanted them to do, made him unbearable: an intensely knowledgeable but densely disagreeable black hole from which only peevish disdain could escape. This hasn't happened to Raftery.

Improbably and remarkably, Raftery instead reveals himself multiple times a week as somehow unblemished in his enthusiasm for the game and undiminished in his patience with both the mistakes that slow and soften college basketball, and the kids who have made those mistakes in front of him, week after week, for nearly 30 years. More than that, Raftery's decades in college basketball seem somehow both to preserve and restore him—he seems, bafflingly but blessedly, happier to be there with each meaningless game he researches and explains. This is the patience that approaches grace—facing down all that rude and unceasing and inevitable imperfection and still seeing something perfectible, or at least intermittently and haltingly great; something human and messy and still worth admiring, and worth thinking about, and worth talking about until last call, and for maybe one more drink after that.

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