CHARLOTTE — Billy Packer, an Emmy award-winning college basketball broadcaster who covered 34 Final Fours for NBC and CBS, died Thursday. He was 82.
Packer’s son, Mark, told The Associated Press that his father had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past three weeks and had several medical issues, and ultimately succumbed to kidney failure.
Packer’s broadcasting career coincided with the growth of college basketball. He worked as analyst or color commentator on every Final Four from 1975 to 2008. He received a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio and Sports Analyst in 1993.
“He really enjoyed doing the Final Fours,” Mark Packer said. “He timed it right. Everything in life is about timing. The ability to get involved in something that, frankly, he was going to watch anyway, was a joy to him. And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness.”
Packer played three seasons at Wake Forest and helped lead the Demon Deacons to the Final Four in 1962, but it was his work as an analyst that brought him the most acclaim.
He joined NBC in 1974 and called his first Final Four in 1975. UCLA beat Kentucky in the title game that year in what was John Wooden’s final game as coach.
Packer was also part of the broadcast in 1979 with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the title game. That remains highest-rated game in basketball history with a 24.1 Nielsen rating, which is an estimated 35.1 million viewers.
Packer went to CBS in the fall of 1981, when the network acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament. He remained the network’s main analyst until the 2008 Final Four.
In 1996 at CBS, Packer was involved in controversy when he used the term “tough monkey” to describe then-Georgetown star Allen Iverson during a game. Packer later said he “was not apologizing for what I said, because what I said has no implications in my mind whatsoever to do with Allen Iverson’s race.”
Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades and set the standard of excellence as the voice of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”
“He had a tremendous impact on the growth and popularity of the sport.” McManus said. “In true Billy fashion, he analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game. As passionate as he was about basketball, at his heart Billy was a family man. He leaves part of his legacy at CBS Sports, across college basketball and, most importantly, as a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He will be deeply missed by all.”
Packer was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale took to Twitter as word of Packer’s death spread. “So sad to learn of the passing of Billy Packer who had such a passion for college basketball,” Vitale tweeted. “My (prayers) go out to Billy’s son Mark & the entire Packer family. Always had great RESPECT for Billy & his partners Dick Enberg & Al McGuire-they were super. May Billy RIP.”
College basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted: “We fell in love (with) college basketball because of you. Your voice will remain in my head forever.”
Packer was viewed as a controversial figure during his broadcasting days, often drawing the ire of college basketball fans, particularly on North Carolina’s “Tobacco Road.”
“As a kid, I was a big NC State fan growing up, and I would watch a game and the next day I’d be like, ‘Boy you sure have it out for NC State, don’t you?’ And he would just laugh,” Mark Packer said.
The younger Packer, who is the host of ACC PM on the ACC Network, said it didn’t matter what school — most fans felt the same way about his father.
“He would cover North Carolina game and Tar Heels fans would be like, ‘you hate North Carolina,'” Mark Packer said. “Wake (Forest) fans would be like, ‘you hate us.’ And Billy just sort of got a kick out of that.”
Mark Packer said that while most fans will remember his father as a broadcaster, he’ll remember him even more for his business acumen. He said his father was a big real estate investor, and also owned a vape company, among other ventures.
“Billy was always a bit of a hustler — he was always looking for that next business deal,” Packer said.