NEW YORK – Iowa State not only plays in the nation’s most-famous arena Friday night, but it has the nation’s best college basketball broadcasting duo calling its game.
No television network executive building a sportscasting pair from scratch would come up with Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. Which is why they’re all the better. They have accrued popularity across all generations by being who they are, talented communicators who enjoy their work and convey genuine excitement.
More importantly, maybe, they like each other and their audience.
“I think it’s borne out of our friendship,” Lundquist said. “We are kindred spirits even though we have diverse backgrounds.”
At 73 and 69, respectively, Lundquist and Raftery have only gotten more popular as time goes by. They're working Friday night’s NCAA Tournament East Regional doubleheader at Madison Square Garden, which starts with Iowa State playing Connecticut.
Wherever they go, they have people a half-century younger wanting to meet them, get pictures taken with them. With Raftery, it was for basketball. With Lundquist, it’s for his broadcasting, sure. But it’s also for something else, something he did 18 years ago.
It was a role as a golf announcer in Adam Sandler’s 1996 movie “Happy Gilmore” that has given Lundquist as much enduring fame as anything.
“We were doing Michigan State and Michigan this year,” Lundquist said. “(Michigan’s) Nik Stauskas told me ‘Oh my God! I just watched ‘Happy Gilmore’ last night.’
“(Ohio State’s) Aaron Craft, last week in Buffalo, before the game he comes up to me and says ‘Remember when we talked four years ago about ‘Happy Gilmore?’ Well, I watched it again last night.’
“For two old goats to walk in to an arena to call a game and have the kids respond to us, it’s gratifying?
Who doesn’t like these guys? Who among us that have watched much sports on television didn’t hear at least one of Lundquist’s numerous signature calls, be it in an NCAA tournament game, a college football game, or The Masters golf tournament? Like this one at the end of last year’s Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl:
“On the way … No, returned by Chris Davis. Davis goes left, Davis gets a block, Davis has another block! Chris Davis! No flags! Touchdown,Auburn! An answered prayer!”
Who among us that have watched much sports on television hasn’t laughed at and even repeated some of Raftery’s array of sayings?
“Dagger!” “Nylon!” “Send it in, big fella!” “And the kiss off the glass!”
And, of course, “Onions!” That’s generally saved for when a player makes a big shot late in a game.
“I don’t eat fried onions,” Raftery said in the Garden Thursday morning. “I don’t mind onions, but not the fried kind.”
Raftery and Lundquist had a meet-and-greet with media people here Thursday. Raftery started shaking strangers’ hands the minute he entered the room, wanting to know where everyone was from.
“Des Moines? Cedar Rapids? I’ve been in those towns,” he said. “I shut Ames down one night, too.”
He and his partner called Iowa State’s last Sweet 16 game, a loss to Michigan State in the 2000 Midwest Regional final.
“Over the years,” Raftery said, “we’ve said Michigan State won the national-championship that day. That’s how good Iowa State was.”
Raftery coached a lot of games in the Garden when he was at Seton Hall from 1970 to 1981, and has broadcasted perhaps over 100 games here, including Iowa’s NIT semifinal and final here last year.
“This is maybe the largest stage,” Raftery said. “Not necessarily the largest stage in terms of the NCAA, but this is the place where a lot of good things have happened.
“Even if a kid’s not a basketball junkie, he’s read about or heard about or watched a game in the Garden.”
Lundquist stood outside a department store in Everett, Wash., when he was 10, watching a telecast of college basketball from the old Madison Square Garden in 1950 with a dozen or so friends on a television that was in one of the store’s display windows.
Raftery has done color on countless Big East tournament games here, some of college basketball’s premier contests of the last quarter-century.
These are guys who will appreciate where they are Friday night, and what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have felt right had CBS put any other of its broadcasting duos here.