Billy Packer, a charismatic curmudgeon who played in a Final Four for Wake Forest and then broadcast 34 more Final Fours as a TV analyst, died Thursday in Charlotte. He was 82.
Packer’s son, Mark, told The Associated Press that his father had several medical issues, had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past several weeks and ultimately died of kidney failure.
Packer’s broadcasting style wasn’t for everybody, but I was a fan. He was instantly incisive as a broadcaster and something of an anti-Dick Vitale. You would never see Packer climbing into a mosh pit with students before the game and ramping up the crowd.
Packer was smart, bald-headed, hard-headed and as old school as they come. I remember interviewing him once in 2011 and him dismissing the Internet entirely.
“I don’t have a blog or computer or any of that,” Packer said.
If you wanted to reach Packer, you called him. He didn’t use email. He didn’t tweet. No matter whether he was working for NBC, CBS or someone else, Packer didn’t hobnob with coaches. He didn’t know their wives’ names.
But Packer recognized the swirling patterns in a basketball game a half-second before anyone else, and pointed them out so succinctly that he called every Final Four from 1975-2008. Those included the Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird classic in 1979, Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper for UNC in 1982, Lorenzo Charles’ dunk to win the championship for N.C. State in 1983 and Duke’s back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992.
His insights were sharp and could be caustic. Packer’s no-nonsense broadcasting style was perceived as negative among a certain segment of every school’s fan base. As he told me in a 2006 interview about his style: “It’s ‘Why are you so against us?’ I get that all the time. But to me, there must be some balance there if everyone is saying that.”
For instance, in 2007, Duke’s Gerald Henderson broke the nose of UNC star Tyler Hansbrough on a play that was deemed a flagrant foul and caused Henderson to be ejected. Packer said on-air that Henderson got a raw deal and should have only been charged with a common foul. UNC fans were riled by Packer’s comments.
“I don’t care about that,” Packer told me later. “This is just one man’s opinion. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s OK.”
Packer had a number of business interests, and he invested in a number of real estate deals. He was involved in several controversies over the years but managed to survive them.
And although known for his college basketball announcing, that wasn’t all he did. If you ever happened upon the occasional Putt-Putt golf TV broadcast on some obscure TV channel, do you know who often was calling the action? Billy Packer.
College basketball teams knew they had arrived when they saw Packer on press row, though. Much like Vitale, Packer’s mere presence indicated it was a big-time game. Former Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop once told me in 1998 that, when Davidson was about to play Michigan in the NCAA tournament: “I was a little bit awestruck by (Jim) Nantz and Packer courtside at the shootaround.”
Packer’s game preparation generally consisted of a few pages of handwritten notes he had taken himself. Nothing was printed out from a computer because, well, no computer. I followed him around once in 2000 during an N.C. State-Wake Forest game for a story. After exchanging his black leather jacket for the blue blazer he would wear on-air, Packer told me he never got nervous in front of the cameras.
“Why? I guess because I’ve never been a sports fan,” he said then. “Really. As a kid, I loved to play sports. I’ve always liked to watch and learn about sports. But I never have had a rooting interest in a team or player. And I absolutely don’t care who wins tonight.”
As Wake Forest poured it on N.C. State that night, Packer watched the Wolfpack’s offense with some disgust. “Four guys standing, one guy dribbling,” he muttered on-air, which was exactly right.
A longtime Charlotte resident, Packer was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara. Among his survivors is his son, Mark Packer, who also has had a successful broadcasting career. The younger Packer hosted a radio show in Charlotte for years and now is the host of ACC PM on the ACC Network.
I’ll miss Billy, as many of us will. He told it how he thought it was.
And if you didn’t like it? He was fine with that, too.
This story was originally published January 27, 2023 9:27 AM.