Bill Raftery: broadcaster, confidant and everyone's favorite bar buddy
With signature phrases like "Onions" and "The Kiss," Bill Raftery is legendary
The former coach is sharp with his analysis and always quick with a joke
Raftery will broadcast his 28th NCAA tournament with Verne Lundqvist
NEW YORK -- 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.