|When CBS acquired the rights from NBC in 1982, it put an end to the best television trio in basketball history. Enberg remained at NBC, calling the NFL, tennis and regular season college basketball with McGuire alone. The boldly opinionated Packer left for CBS where in time he would tally a total of 34 Final Four broadcasts. But March Madness’ best show on television was over.
Enberg, McGuire and Packer were enormously popular together. Think of the first matchup of Bird and Magic, the 1979 NCAA title game, it was the three of them who called it. Times were different. ESPN was just starting out and there weren’t as many games televised.
They were three men whose personalities were so distinctly opposite that the broadcasts were invariably filled with stimulating and entertaining debates on a variety of unpredictable subjects. McGuire was the son of a New York saloon owner, Enberg a Midwesterner and son of a Finnish immigrant and Packer, an idiosyncratic and unfearful son a basketball coach in Upstate New York. Enberg said, “Al will say white and Billy will say black.” They teamed from 1978-81 and in four short years they galvanized the country.
Historically, at least as it comes to television, it was the Enberg, Packer and McGuire trio, the advent of ESPN and Dick Vitale that propelled college basketball to great new heights.
|When McGuire paired with play-by-play man Dick Enberg and former Wake Forest coach Billy Packer for NBC in 1978, the way people consumed the game on TV changed. McGuire’s unique descriptions of the ebb and flow on the court were the perfect accoutrement to Enberg’s enthusiastic calls and Packer’s tactical insight.
“Al knew his limitations with television and the challenges,” Enberg said. “He knew that Billy knew more of the Xs and Os than he did. He also knew that Billy didn’t know how to run a game like he did. He knew that I took care of the nuts and bolts.
“We really did look at basketball in different ways,” Packer said. “People actually thought we didn’t like each other. But they thought it was neat to watch a game with us. Then people thought we prearranged the arguments. It was spontaneous.
“Al was the most street-smart person I ever met in my life. Yet, from a sophistication standpoint, he was something else. The more you got to know him, the more brilliant he became in terms of things he would say.”
Packer remembered a discussion the two had about the keys to building a successful program. It became one-sided in a hurry.
“Only one thing’s important when you’re a coach,” McGuire preached. “Seat 347.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Packer asked.
McGuire pointed to the worst seat in the arena in the far end zone, top row.
“When I came out to start a game I knew I was successful when I looked up at seat 347,” McGuire said. “If someone was sitting in it we were doing good things.”
Packer nodded his head. McGuire proved his point.
“Genius,” Packer said.
The working relationship and on-camera chemistry didn’t come instantly.
McGuire initially wasn’t even on the court with Enberg and Packer. Instead he was tucked away in a locker room, watching the game on a monitor with a button to push if he wanted to comment. They cut to him at halftime. It was an awkward setup.
“No one at NBC knew that when he was in that locker room he couldn’t have given a (expletive) about the game,” Packer said. “He probably never even watched it. We’re doing that first game and he’s in the locker room and you can’t see him or hear him and he didn’t even hardly come in.
“The second game, the same thing was going to take place so Dick said we have to get him more involved. I said, I think we should get him right out here with us. It was Dick, then me, then Al to my right.
“After one game Dick said let’s make a change. How about if we put him in the middle? That’s what we did. We went through the season and everything worked out. We got plaudits for it. All the executives at NBC wanted to take credit for creating the three men in the booth. They had nothing to do with it.”
Standard-setting viewing that made college basketball more popular than ever ensued. The trio’s broadcast of the 1979 national championship game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores set long-standing ratings records for a title game.
McGuire said it put college basketball on afterburner. As the game became a rout, Enberg deftly asked his partners who they would draft first in the NBA, Magic or Bird. McGuire blurted out, “I wouldn’t take either one of them. I would take Greg Kelser.”
Packer said, “Where are they going to play? Bird is a center and he’s slow and can’t jump. Magic will never get by trying to dribble that way in the NBA.”
Completely wrong. Yet completely captivating to an audience that could have tuned out of a blowout.
McGuire was a live TV high-wire act. He enjoyed needling Packer about his bald head. He coined terms such as “aircraft carrier” for a hefty post player and “white knuckler” for a close game. He didn’t talk about how to break a zone press. That was Packer’s job. McGuire measured the game’s pace, tempo and flow like a symphony conductor. And, boy, could he philosophize.
The three-man crew worked together just four years with NBC. Packer remembers being summoned to New York by producer Don Ohlmeyer. McGuire made a preemptive strike.
“When we lost the (NCAA Tournament) contract at NBC they called us in for a meeting,” Packer said. “They take us in a room and there are about 15 telephones. Don starts to talk and Al gets up and he takes all the phones off the hook and sits down. Don is still talking. The phones all start beeping. Don looks over and says, ‘Al, what the hell are you doing?’ Al says. ‘I know how these meetings go. You really don’t want to talk to us anyway so one of those phones was going to ring and you were going to pick it up and say this meeting is over. I made sure none of those phones would ring. Now what do you have to say?’ "
Goodnight Irene as McGuire would say.
College basketball’s broadcasting Beatles broke up. Packer went to CBS with the tournament in 1982. McGuire and Enberg worked together for another 14 years. The troika reunited for a game on CBS in 2000.