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Mr. Cash Checks Out

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What's striking about Billy Packer's departure from CBS is this:  he's widely respected as a basketball mind, and just as widely despised as a personality.

From some of the comments we've read, you'd think CBS had been liberated from the Huns.  There's no question that Packer is a sharp basketball mind, and no question that he's contributed a lot.  Still, almost everyone has an axe to grind with him.

For us, it was his announcement, two minutes into the 2001 title game, that "Duke's getting the calls."  How the heck can you decide that two minutes into anything?

Packer managed to infuriate people in any number of ways:  he offended two women at Duke who were checking credentials, suggesting they go deal with a women's game instead.  He annually offended the tournament teams from conferences not named the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC 10 or Big East.  Non-ACC people thought he was horribly biased towards the home folk.  And calling Alan Iverson a "tough monkey" went over like a lead balloon among blacks, although Michael Wilbon gives him a pass because he, remarkably, overhauled his racial baggage in mid-life, not a common occurrence, certainly.

He was talented and not scared to offend.  So why is he so universally disdained?

Well, in a nutshell, here it is:  you can be brilliant at what you do and still be a jerk.  And all too often, Packer has been a jerk.

Out of his best-known fiascos, all of them were avoidable.  He didn't have to make people mad; he usually chose to either make people mad or disregard their feelings entirely.

You can argue that on TV, it's important to be candid and, indeed, ruthless. This is the Howard Cosell take-no-prisoners mode, which, when handled by say, Bob Costas, can be startling because he's such an engaging personality.  You know when he smacks someone down there is something at stake.

In the hands of lesser people, like say Jim Rome, whose low point was insulting Jim Everett by calling him "Chris," as in women's tennis star Chris Evert, and getting Geraldoed immediately by Everett, the routine is stale and tabloidish.

Packer has a keen mind paired with a cutting tongue, and that combination has really cost him with the public.

Take as a contrast Dick Vitale.  Is he bombastic? Yes. Is the shtick getting old?  Yes.  Did people miss him and were they concerned about him when he had to have throat surgery and miss most of the season?  Hell yes.

Vitale could learn a few things from Vitale - like staying on top of the game, not yelling, and keeping whoever he adores at the moment to himself (before it was Duke, it was UNC).  He's not nearly as skilled a broadcaster as Packer is.

But his warmth, his desire to do good and to be good, is undeniable.  When he talked to kids about staying away from drugs after Len Bias died, his passion was undeniable and his concern for them was obvious.  He has been loyal to Jim Valvano since he got sick and has spent the 15 years since Jimmy V died carrying on his friend's campaign to defeat cancer.

When was the last time you heard Mr. Cash put in a plug for anything or anyone like that?

You can argue that he has no obligation to do so, and of course, that's right. But he comes across as a cold and remote figure, a guy whose arrogance will not allow him to apologize for the most cruel insults unless he is forced to.  That's who he chose to be in public, and that's the way, aside from his knowledge of the game, that the public will remember him.

A small note:  when Packer was still with NBC and teamed with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, the joy of that was that McGuire, a subtler and much funnier version of Vitale, did a lot to soften Packer.  He was irreverent and didn't prepare for broadcasts any more than he did for opponents (he left the heavy lifting to assistants as a coach and to others as a broadcaster).  It was too bad the act had to break up when NBC lost the tournament to CBS.

As you no doubt heard, Jim Nantz will now team with Clark Kellogg for the Final Four.  Kellogg is earnest and he's worked hard.  He's a smart guy who has really improved as a host.  He's not a great broadcaster, though.  Nantz is, although he's essentially the straight man, serving set-ups for his partner. If it were up to us, we'd probably have considered someone else. At the very least, we would have tried to rent out Charles Barkley for the tournament to play the McGuire role.  Someone needs to bust these two guys up.