Bill Raftery: everyone's best bar buddy
Courtesy Sports Illustrated
(March 15, 2010) About a decade ago, a group of 13 former coaches and players assembled for a three-day golf outing at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. Among those in attendance were Chuck Daly, Billy Cunningham and various members of the North Carolina family, including Dean Smith. They lived like frat brothers, playing 36 holes each day.
Paired off in golf carts, broadcaster Bill Raftery was left to drive his own. To fill his empty seat for the last morning's round, Raftery, who made quick friends with the course pro and his wife, had them help him locate a blond-haired blow-up doll. As he approached the tee in his cart, driving in super-slow motion, Raftery wrapped his arm around his new best friend. One by one the others would look up, then fall in laughter.
"It was like pushing dominoes as I went by," Raftery recalled.
"Bill's a good golfer," Cunningham said, "but a plus-three handicap after six o'clock."
To Raftery, life is a roast, replete with raised glasses and howling laughter. Since stepping down as Seton Hall's basketball coach in 1981 two weeks before the start of the season, Raftery has been a color analyst for CBS and ESPN, coining priceless phrases like "Onions!," "The Kiss" and "Send it in, Jerome!" He has worked college basketball and NBA games and called last year's six-overtime Big East tournament game between Syracuse and UConn.
"The voice is so undeniably distinctive and the vernacular so unique that if makes for memorable moments," said Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports.
Somewhere in between the 60-odd games he works per year, Raftery, now 66, has managed to chase closing time in pubs from Kearney, N.J., to Killarney, Ireland, all the while keeping his audiences rapt like the favorite uncle at a wedding. Raftery uses coaches as Zagat Surveys, picking postgame establishments that he visits on return trips. To family, he's "Uncle One More." Even his triple bypass surgery in 1992 was celebrated afterward when a friend sent a string quartet to the hospital to perform Zing Went The Strings of Your Heart.
"My biggest fear is when he does a 9 o'clock game in our place," says Villanova coach Jay Wright. "You won't see him until close to midnight and then he won't be done with you until about 5 a.m."
This week Raftery takes Manhattan, calling the night sessions of the Big East tournament for ESPN. He will receive his first-round NCAA assignment Sunday.
"I tell guys in the business all the time, 'Would you rather be [Adolph] Rupp or Raft?" said Hofstra coach Tom Pecora, referencing the legendary Kentucky coach who won 876 games in 41 seasons but was known to be a racist. "You can win almost 900 games and be a jerk or you can be the best human being and walk away a winner."
Raftery's sister, Rita, a nun and president of College of Saint Elizabeth in New Jersey, laughs when asked what she thinks of his on-air vocabulary of lingerie and sweet kisses: "Oh, that's just spontaneous Bill!"
To the company he keeps, he can do no wrong.
"He's the only person I know who can say, 'F--- you' and make you think it's a compliment," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who was at Pinehurst and works with Raftery and play-by-play man Sean McDonough for the network's "Big Monday" broadcasts.
Raftery, who has been married 40 years, leaves laughs behind wherever he walks on the links. A few summers ago he was at a golf course on Long Island, serving as emcee at a Coaches vs. Cancer charity event. He hit it off with a few policemen and returned a year later as a guest. As a sign of their appreciation for not being "a stuffed-shirt coach" one of the cops gave Raftery a bulletproof vest as a gift. It came with a green carnation. Later in the night Raftery and one of the cops exchanged a few ripostes in a nearby tavern, and the cop suggested Raftery put on the vest.
"Let's see if you can take a charge, Coach," the cop said, meaning that he would fire a shot into the vest.
Raftery laughed and agreed as the cop went to get his gun from his car. As he walked out, Raftery turned to a coaching friend and said, "Hey kid, maybe this isn't such a good idea. If he misses north, he'll hit the pipes, and the pipes have been golden."
One by one, friends around the bar started to laugh, falling in line like dominoes. (And the joke ended there.)
On the last Monday in February, Raftery, wearing a green sweater and pulling a black rolling suitcase, strolls into the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., for West Virginia's shootaround shortly before noon. Tip-off is seven hours away but Raftery, forever looking to land the first jab of the day, instead absorbs the first blow.
"Bob Knight called, he wants his sweater back," says West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla, deadpanning the delivery and keeping his dribble.
Raftery, who beat Knight's West Point squad when he coached at Seton Hall and once threw a chair of his own on the floor, kibitzes with Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, walks around with McDonough and Bilas and returns for UConn's session at 2.
"Ya know, Jim," Raftery says to Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, "we used to get free coffee when we came."
Calhoun, holding a Dunkin' Donuts cup that is labeled "Coach Calhoun" by the rim, rolls his eyes, pokes fun at Bilas's unshaven face, asking if it is makeup he forgot to remove, and says, "I forgot the lights, cameras and action guys are here."
Behind Bilas, Raftery and McDonough motion for Calhoun to keep needling.
"I suppose the elder gentleman should be served by the rookie Bilas," Calhoun said.
Around arenas, Raftery's social ease is both loved and lampooned, but UConn associate coach George Blaney remembers when Raftery was a serious player. In Kearney, N.J., during the 1950s, Raftery, the son of Irish immigrants, was an all-state baseball, basketball and soccer player at St. Cecilia's. At 6-foot-4, he did uncommon things for a player his size and was a second-team Parade All-American, chasing scoring records and scholarship offers. He was well-liked even then, deferring to teammates and refusing to score for record pursuits during games that were already in hand.
Blaney, who grew up in nearby Jersey City, said Raftery was "Bill Bradley before Bill Bradley." Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who squared with Raftery in Newark summer leagues, said, "He was in perpetual motion, always with a purpose. Everyone else seemed to be flat-footed in comparison. Everyone was compared to Tommy Heinsohn, who went to my school, and Billy compared very favorably. I guess we can say as a broadcaster he's even better than Heinsohn."
Told of their assessments, Raftery said, "Bill Bradley, huh? That's very nice, but trust me, the only Oxford that ever called me was the shoe store."
His recruitment led him to visit Notre Dame, Maryland and LaSalle, among others. One day, he went to see Frank McGuire's North Carolina team at Madison Square Garden. After meeting with McGuire, Raftery said he was headed for the train. The fare at the time was approximately 30 cents, but McGuire slipped him a $20 bill.
"I think I started dating on that money," Raftery said. "Sodas and cheeseburgers on me for a week!"
The Christian Brothers of LaSalle and coach Dudley Moore landed Raftery, and he proved a formidable challenger to Tom Gola's records. But a chance meeting with broadcaster Bob Wolff was more future-looking as a back injury precluded his career after a tryout with the New York Knicks.
Raftery started as the silent partner when he got into broadcasting. One week when he was a player at LaSalle during the 1960s, Wolff, the broadcaster who called Don Larsen's perfect game and voice of the New York Knicks, visited campus to prepare for a LaSalle game. Moore assigned Raftery the role of informing Wolff, and when their work was done, Wolff told Raftery that he should join their business.
After graduating from LaSalle, he would sit next to Wolff and write down his thoughts for Wolff to use on the air. After being cut by the Knicks, Raftery took a job as the basketball and golf team coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. He then sold Chuck Taylors out of the trunk of his car. So enthused by the product he was peddling, he refused to take off his white leather Converses while honeymooning with his wife in Europe.
"I would say, 'Hey Bill, why don't we go barefoot today,'" said Raftery's wife, Joan. "He just loved those sneakers."
Later, Seton Hall was a good fit, too, but Raftery felt television was the best opportunity given the financial limitations then in college coaching. He was given nine games his first year with ESPN and took a job as a banker for additional income. When Raftery went to the bank his sister asked their mother whether she would like to move her savings to her son's bank. "No," she said. "I know how he is with numbers."
The coach in him has never left, though. During the West Virginia-UConn game, Calhoun was given a technical in the first minute and Huggins was ejected in the final 40 seconds. Huggins later approached Raftery, who in his coaching days was known to throw his stylish suit jackets into the stands and once punched a mirror in disgust, to vent his frustrations.
After the game, Raftery, McDonough and Bilas retreated to a back table at Max's Downtown. Twenty minutes after they arrived, a roar came from the bar. It was UConn fans reacting to Calhoun's entrance. As Calhoun turned the corner and recognized Raftery, he said, "Oh, no, not you guys again."
The two traded war stories about referees and the old days. Calhoun shared that he had approached the refs about giving him a technical before the game started. Raftery delighted in the technique.
As midnight and March approached, Raftery, his tie loosened and looking like a salesman just off the road from a long day, readied to leave. Raftery said to Calhoun, "Jim, just wanted to thank you for the bottle of wine" and motioned toward the waiter.
Confused, Calhoun looked up. Realizing Raftery meant that he was to pick up the tab, Calhoun waved it off.
"No, no, no, not paying for him!"
A blue-collar kid from North Bergen, N.J., Dan Callindrillo was bartending by the time he was 15 and met Raftery in a Hudson County pub. Callindrillo's parents, who were deaf and wary of outsiders, sensed something trustworthy about Raftery. Callindrillo's father, an Italian, would refer to the Irish Raftery as "corned beef and cabbage." Callindrillo, a guard, committed to Seton Hall.
"Bill was born to walk in a house and convince parents that he would take care of their kids," said Bob Hurley, coach of St. Anthony High in Jersey City.
Raftery gave Callindrillo the greenest of green lights in his backcourt. His first three years were productive, but Callindrillo, who had a key to Wash Gymnasium, did not know what he was walking into when he entered the gym on October 28, 1981. No one else was on the court but Raftery, then a 42-year-old with silver-streaked hair and a pale face framed by a pair of sideburns.
"Coach, you look nervous," Callindrillo said. "What's wrong?"
Raftery, whose record was 151-141 at Seton Hall, tried to brace Callindrillo. He put his arm around him and steered him toward the sideline.
"I'm leaving, Danny," said Raftery, who had been at the school for 11 years.
"I'll transfer with you," Callindrillo said. "Where are you going?
"No, I'm leaving coaching, to do television," Raftery said, explaining that he was going to ESPN to be a color analyst. A week earlier, Dave Gavitt, a longtime friend of Raftery's and Big East Commissioner who did broadcasting as well, had contacted Raftery about the job.
At the press conference, Callindrillo was the only player to show.
"I lost it there," Callindrillo said. "I was bawling."
Their relationship changed. The next week, Seton Hall athletic director Rich Regan told Callindrillo that Raftery was sending a limousine to pick him and his girlfriend up for dinner. Callindrillo checked that it was not a violation of NCAA rules. The celebration of their time together lasted past sunrise down the Jersey Shore.
"To this day, any time Raft calls me up and invites my wife and I out to dinner, I tell my wife that we need a car service, a babysitter and that she's going to see the sun rise in the morning," Callindrillo said. "He's a magnet. I never want him to leave my life."
For Seton Hall's game against Princeton that season, Raftery was assigned to the broadcast. Callindrillo had ripped off game-winning shots in several previous games, and here he was again breaking a tie with a pull-up jumper to win. The crowd erupted, and Callindrillo ran to Raftery, tapped him on the head and kissed him on the cheek.
Raftery's play-by-play announcer asked Callindrillo afterward: "Did you just kiss Bill Raftery?"
Yes, he said.
Melvin Knight, who played for Raftery and then coached under him, said, "I would have loved to see him coach three McDonald's All-Americans and two blue-collar kids at a school with a big-time fan base, big-time resources and a spanking-new arena. We would have seen one of the all-time great coaches and company men."
Raftery's assistant Hoddy Mahon carried out the season and was replaced by P.J. Carlesimo the next. In the years since, Raftery grew close with Carlesimo, who carried the Pirates to the 1989 title game. The two were honored at last spring's Seton Hall commencement with honorary degrees. In Raftery's speech, he said, "This is an honor. Usually when we go to an arena we leave with a loss or a technical."
He went on to explain that he told Monsignor Sheeran, the school's president, that he hoped the degree was not based on his win-loss record. Sheeran, according to Raftery, said don't worry. He hid that from the board. He simply told the board that Raftery and Carlesimo combined for 600 wins. There was no mention that Carlesimo accounted for 500 of them.
"He has the self-deprecation down so well that you would think that he was so poor a player he couldn't get picked to play three-on-three, and so bad a coach that his record was 2-250," said Carlesimo. "I know better. I've seen all shades of that man."
Raftery's cross-generational appeal remains larger than ever. He will work his 28th NCAA tournament, paired with his longtime partner, Verne Lundqvist, whom he met in 1982, his first year.
"All this time later there's never been a last call he's obeyed, but he's up every Sunday morning, shaved, showered and shined," said Lundqvist. "He knows where mass is and what time."
The coach in Raftery has never left. Lundqvist remembers calling an NCAA tournament game against Michigan State in the 2000 Elite Eight. Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy lost his cool with the referees and received a pair of technical fouls and got ejected. So wrapped up Eustachy would not back away, Raftery immediately asked, "Where are his assistants?"
"He pleaded on air," Lundqvist said. "You could tell by the passion in his voice that for those three seconds he was a coach again."
Raftery is the mellow voice of reason. Lundqvist said he knows the preparation Raftery does throughout the season, watching film from the leather chair in his New Jersey house or the DVDs that he now carries and pops in his laptop on long flights, has him ready for the games to call. He bought his sister a laptop as a present recently, and told her that she can use it to watch films. She informed him that she does not need to watch games, but could use it nonetheless.
"When I call or he phones, I simply ask, 'Where are you?"
Sean McDonough answers the phone with trepidation at times. If he's in a hotel on assignment with Raftery, and it rings, "I know it's either an emergency or Bill wanting me to join up for a drink."
Last fall, Raftery, who enjoys needling McDonough for telling too many "tearjerker" stories about players during games, called McDonough after he did play-by-play for the Michigan-Notre Dame football game.
"Hey kid, I guess no one died today or at least you didn't update the world on the telecast," Raftery said.
In the background was Rollie Massimino clamoring for a chance to compliment McDonough's tie.
"Sometimes I wonder if it's really just the two of them down there," said McDonough. "Rollie with a bowl of pasta and Bill with a bottle of Coors Light, watching another game and making fun of me, laughing all the way."
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