Two years ago, when Jim Nantz decided this would be his last time calling the Final Four — a farewell in his hometown of Houston — he knew it would be an emotional experience.
But the legendary CBS play-by-play announcer could not have anticipated the flood of feelings that would accompany this goodbye. He expected the waves of nostalgia, but not the sadness of the last several months.
He lost his mother in October, followed in January by longtime friend Billy Packer, who flanked Nantz as a CBS basketball analyst for 18 years.
And then, three days before the start of the NCAA Tournament, statistician Pat McGrath died unexpectedly in his San Francisco hotel room. He was in town to work an NBA game, just another routine stop in advance of joining Nantz for March Madness.
The two had worked side by side for 30 years. As with Nantz, McGrath had decided this too would be his last tournament. He would have turned 73 on St. Patrick’s Day, four days after he died.
“We did the Big Ten weekend, and on Sunday night he flew to San Francisco,” Nantz said. “We do know that he got up the next morning to go get some breakfast because there was a card swipe to re-enter his room around noon.
“Pat’s ritual was to prepare notes all night and then sleep during the day. He liked to take naps before the game just to go in refreshed. He laid down for a nap that afternoon and never woke up.”
Nantz, 63, began calling early-round games for CBS in 1986 and was the Final Four studio host for five years before replacing Brent Musburger in 1991 as the lead play-by-play announcer. Monday night will mark Nantz’s 354th NCAA Tournament game.
“That’s a lot of survive-and-advance moments,” he said. “A lot of high drama.”
Nantz, whose crew now consists of Bill Raftery and Grant Hill, will sign off his basketball coverage in the city where it began. As a student at the University of Houston, he started as the public-address announcer for the school’s basketball team and host of coach Guy Lewis’ television show.
This isn’t the end of the road for Nantz in broadcasting, just calling college basketball games. He wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Courtney, have a 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, and going from NFL games to March Madness to the Masters is a relentless — albeit glorious — stretch. He and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus decided two years ago that this would be his final tournament as top announcer.
Millions of Americans know Nantz, whose voice is synonymous with some of the biggest events in sports, among them the Super Bowl, Masters and Final Four. McGrath, while virtually unknown to the outside world, was revered in sports broadcasting, working football, baseball and basketball games throughout a career that spanned half a century. By his count, he worked alongside 120 different play-by-play announcers, among them Jack and Joe Buck, Dick Enberg, Bryant Gumbel, Marv Albert … on and on.
“He had the best seat in the house who no one knew about,” said Nantz, noting that McGrath was always impeccably dressed in a coat and tie at games and carried an old-school leather attaché case, seasoned by decades of life on the road.
McGrath, a Chicagoan with a brilliant math mind, would sit to the immediate right of Nantz and communicate on a headset to broadcast associates in graphics and someone compiling stats in the production truck.
“Guys like Pat are computers,” Nantz said. “They’re inputting data — rebounds, shots, turnovers, assists, points scored — and I’m looking at how a team’s moving the ball down the court and who’s scoring. But they’re tracking trends. Their minds are never shut off.”
McGrath would quickly jot his observations and calculations on a steady stream of notecards and hand them to Nantz.
“He had very good penmanship even in haste,” Nantz said. “Everything was legible. Things are happening so fast, I don’t have time for a guy to give you a piece of calligraphy. It’s got to be scratched out and sent over to me.
“Pat had that sixth sense and he was fast. He was genius.”
Ethan Cooperson, who was trained by McGrath, will be crunching numbers for Nantz at the tournament, just as he already does during the NFL season. Meanwhile, Marty McGrath — Pat’s brother — will attend the Final Four along with his wife and daughter as guests of Nantz.
While sorting through his brother’s keepsakes, Marty found a birthday card to Pat from Nantz and his voice caught with emotions as he read the inscription: ” ‘You are one the finest guys I’ll ever know. Love you, brother.’ And that’s how they were. They were brothers.”
It was the same with Nantz and Packer. Back when he chose this as his final tournament, Nantz envisioned Packer being there for his send-off.
“I had this dream where Billy would be there and I’d be able to give him a hug walking off the court,” he said.
The plan at some point was to call his old friend and colleague to invite him.
“I never had a chance to make that call,” Nantz said. “I did know since November that the likelihood of him being able to travel was diminishing by the day. He had had some sort of setback. No one knew for sure what it was, but he had fallen in his garage. His family wasn’t sure if it was stroke-related. But it was a tough last three months.”
Packer, hospitalized the last three weeks of his life, died of kidney failure on Jan. 26. The night before, Nantz was able to have a final conversation with him.
“His three children — Mark, Liz and Brandt — were in the room, and I asked if I could have a word with him,” Nantz said. “They called and put me on speakerphone. We talked for — I looked it up — 12 minutes. Got to regale him with a few of our stories and hijinks away from the court. Dinners and conversations. His voice was raspy but I did get to tell him I love him. Last thing I got to say to him.”
Likewise, Nantz had hoped to have his mother, Doris, there for his final basketball game. She died of cardiac arrest on Oct. 3, precisely six months before Monday’s final, and would have been 92. She was a devoted fan of the Houston Cougars.
“She was immobile but healthy,” he said. “She just couldn’t get around real well. That would be the last time I could ever take my mom to a game.”
Despite the sadness and loss he has experienced in recent months, Nantz is upbeat about the close of this chapter of his career.
“This is a joyous occasion,” he said. “I’m as nostalgic as anyone on the planet. It’s in my DNA, and I got that from my mom. But I don’t want the word nostalgic to infer that I’m maudlin. My nostalgia is born out of gratitude.
“I’m deep in the heart of Texas, but deep in my heart is just an abundance of gratitude for the relationships I’ve had on this 37-year journey, the support and love I’ve had from my family and friends, and I’m here to celebrate it.”