HOUSTON (AP) — Certainly, Jim Nantz could fill an evening weaving tales of the great games and buzzer-beaters he’s had the privilege to see, and call, over a storytelling career that made his the voice of March Madness for nearly four decades.
But when asked about his favorite moments as he prepared for the 354th and final game of that journey — Monday’s title game — he brought up Delaware State.
The Hornets were a 16 seed when they made what is still their only NCAA appearance back in 2005. They were going against Duke in a first-round game hardly anyone remembers now. Nantz was certain he’d see those Duke players again.
“But those Delaware State kids, they’re on CBS, and I envisioned that someday, they’re going to have the VHS tape to be able to show their grandchildren and say ‘I played in the NCAA Tournament,'” Nantz said during a courtside conversation with The Associated Press the day before the start of his last Final Four. “This tournament is their ‘forever.’ I always wanted to make sure that I do justice to their story.”
The 63-year-old traces his own path to the announcer’s table to when he was 9 and living in New Orleans. His dad took him to his first college basketball game.
Working the sideline was a bear of a coach who had a red, polka-dotted towel draped across his shoulder. About 10 years later, that coach, Guy Lewis of the Houston Cougars, would give Nantz, who played golf at the school, a job as the public-address guy for home games at Hofheinz Pavillion. A year after that, Nantz was still living in the dorms at UH when Lewis asked him to host his coach’s show.
Nantz’s might very well be the voice American sports fans know best. He has guided them through six Super Bowls on CBS and walked with them among the towering pines at the Masters since 1986, when Jack Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket. He’ll continue on those assignments for the foreseeable future, but this 37th run through March Madness will be his last.
Some said it might have been perfect if his alma mater, which came into the tournament as a No. 1 seed, was playing in its hometown in the final game of Nantz’s basketball journey. That didn’t happen, but Nantz believes there’s something fitting about a Final Four that came out of the blue like this, with three schools that had never been this far before, and no team seeded better than No. 4 UConn.
He has always loved the underdog tales.
“Storytelling paradise,” Nantz called it.
It’s been wild, emotional and a little awkward for a man who concedes he likes to tell the stories, not be part of them.
He got a key to the city Friday. Two streets on an intersection outside the stadium were renamed “Jim Nantz Way” and “Hello Friends Boulevard.”
“Hello Friends” is the comfy-as-a-slipper welcome he coined about 20 years ago. It gives Nantz a moment to connect with the audience and think of his dad, who passed away in 2008 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. The Nantz National Alzheimer’s Center is based in Houston.
Nantz’s welcome-in message to the telecasts might be planned. Other things aren’t.
His call of Saturday’s buzzer-beating shot by San Diego State’s Lamont Butler in the semifinals — Nantz estimates he’s had 20-something such last-second winners over his years in the tournament — plays back like a master class in what his job should be: simple, urgent, much more about the moment than the person talking about it.
“It’s Butler. With two seconds. He’s gotta put it up. Aaand. He wins it! He wins it! With the jumper!” Then, five seconds of silence, followed by, “A San Diego State miracle!”
Speaking of miracles, there’s another announcer who made a name for himself by talking about one. Shortly after this interview was over and Nantz had started talking to some well-wishers, he lifted up his phone and smiled as he showed it to a few folks standing nearby: Al Michaels was calling.
Though many might consider Nantz and the 78-year-old Michaels as contemporaries, there was a sense of the unfiltered excitement Nantz felt about receiving that call. And it gave a glimpse as to why, even after all this time, he has such a strong bond with the millions of people who tune in. In some ways, he’s just like us.
Moments earlier, Nantz had recalled hosting the Final Four studio show from the Kingdome in Seattle in 1989 when Magic Johnson popped by for a visit on the set. As Magic and Nantz, both 30 at the time, sat in the corner of the arena, watching the final seconds of the Michigan-Seton Hall title game tick down, the announcer asked Johnson if he ever stopped to soak in everything and reflect on the wonder of all he’d been part of.
“He nods and just says, ‘All the time,’” Nantz said. “And today, I think about that. I’ve had the best seat in the house at the Super Bowl or the Masters or here for my whole career. And I’ve never gotten over the fact that I’m the one who’s blessed with the chance to lend a voice to it, and to tell the story.”