Sixth in a series of nine daily essays leading up to the 2008-09 college basketball season.
Here in early November, we're still at least a month away from the non-stop barrage of "Year In Review" specials, all those tidy bow-snapping recaps that attempt to impose order on a loosely-joined, selectively-selected group of events. But after 11 months, one thing is crystal-clear: 2008 has been a horrible year for old white guys.
Old white guys are shriveling before our eyes, falling increasingly out of step with the times, their power and majesty collapsing, judgement and senses slowly taking leave of them as they drift into history. To the younger generations from failing hands
they fumble the torch; be ours, indeed, to hold it high. From John McCain to Jerry Lewis
to Ted Stevens
, off they go into the cold night of history. And then, of course, there's Billy Packer.
On July 14, the college basketball voice of CBS was carefully extricated from the business
, left at the side of the road of progress by his employer after 27 years. The news interrupted my placid and serene summer, a reminder of storm clouds in my sun-dappled reverie. I was idly taking in a weekday afternoon minor-league baseball game
in New Britain, Conn. when the news came in, beeping and ringing by voicemail, tweet and text. Everybody wanted to be the first to let me know, to join in on the celebration.
I am, after all, a "mid-major" person, and Packer was most decidedly not. The 68-year-old sportscaster was once a 21-year-old star guard for Wake Forest, helping the Demon Deacons win the Atlantic Coast Conference twice and in 1962 achieved a place in the event he was later to be synonymous with, the Final Four.
In the years that followed, he was an outspoken defender of college basketball's power structure, questioning top NCAA seedings given to Indiana State in 1979 and Saint Joseph's in 2004, then blasted the selection committee two years later when at-large spots were given to low-resource teams like Bradley and Wichita State and George Mason, and not power-conference with long CV's like Cincinnati and Florida State. He didn't feel the CAA or MVC had done enough in the past to merit any consideration.
The 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis was the only time I ever encountered Billy Packer in person. At George Mason's open practice the afternoon before the national semifinals, I saw him sitting by himself in the second row of the long, plastic-covered press row tables in the cavernous RCA Dome. He was carefully studying a computer printout, and there was a tall, sloppy stack of literature in front of him. I maneuvered my way into the seating area for a closer look.
From a seat two chairs away, I could better view Packer's reading selections. A George Mason media guide, a xeroxed clip file of Washington Post stories about the team, statistical breakdowns and box scores. All the homework he hoped against hope that he would never have to do, before the Patriots' wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut forced his hand.
Just then, a prominent and well-known print journalist
sidled up between us, wearing a tight red sweater with an embroidered golf-club logo over the chest, wielding a small wire notebook. He leaned in close to the grizzled sportscasting veteran, asked him what he thought of what he saw.
"John," Packer said wearily, rubbing his face. "Wake me when this mid-major shit is over."
It's a story I've told only sparingly over these last two years, partially because it's nothing more than an affirmation and fulfillment of a perception most people already have. In the collective consciousness, Packer is a curmudgeonly and divisive figure who loves power-conference teams and throws cold water on mid-major accomplishments.
He's never tried to show himself as anything more complex than this cartoonish WWE caricature, and so any NCAA upset is not only a victory on the court for the "little guy," but a needly fork in Packer's bare arse as well. When the CAA and MVC proved him wrong in the spring of 2006, Packer uttered the following cryptic mea culpa
: "I'm often wrong, but never in doubt."
Bad literature, and sorry attempts to project a cheap good-and-evil narrative on the sports world, need clearly-drawn heroes and villains. It would have been an even less gratifying storyline if Packer had come out after the 2006 NCAA Tournament with a newfound appreciation for schools that start with nothing and build towards greatness. It would have been ridiculous if he had pledged never to second-guess a mid-major team again, in a stream-of-consciousness monologue about seeing the light. Billy Packer knew his place in this world, and embraced that role with everything he had. It was better than the alternative.
I like to think I understand Billy Packer. To hold opinion close to the heart and deny doubt, even in the face of mounting facts, is its own self-contained and greyscale-free world that is always more safe and comfortable than the swirling debate outside. The stability of a power structure is easier to cling to than the anarchic chaos that upsets the balance. Knowledge acquired and collected in ages past is always preferable to any new reality that questions it, that threatens to shake it to its core. When you're old, you don't want to have to do any more learning.
And though the man himself has moved on, his career obituary written a thousand times already, his spirit lives on. We're not rid of him yet. Within every recalcitrant statement on an internet message board, Billy Packer is there. Every pundit who takes a top-down approach to college basketball, who sees us as invaders and pretenders to the throne, carries his message forward.
Every time a commentator or fan chooses conventional wisdom over intellectual curiosity, lazy perception over rigorous research, they unleash his indomitable spirit. From on high, Billy Packer is smiling in the moon, unleashing that big, ugly laugh of his, his cackles echoing across the expanse of a cold and dark midwinter college basketball night.