Historical

Billy Packer recalls NCAA title game, played 40 years ago tonight, hours after President Reagan was shot

Billy Packer, Dick Enberg and Al McGuire

Times were different in 1981, no internet, no cell phones and cable TV was an embryo.

In a country of 230 million at the time, ESPN, about a year and a half young, was becoming a marvel for sports fans, but still with only 7 million subscribers. CNN, only eight months deep then, was trying to make its mark, but it was well before Fox and MSNBC. 

The three legacy networks, ABC, CBS and NBC dominated American television including news. At home, television was the first source for news.

At about 2:30 pm on March 30th, a little more than two months after he took office, President Ronald Reagan was shot and seriously injured by John Hinckley. For many in the country then, the first thought it likely triggered was the assassination, 18 years earlier, of President John F. Kennedy, Whether Reagan would survive would not be known for hours. 

Two events that would generally be of far-reaching public interest that Monday were that evening’s Academy Awards and the NCAA title game. The matchup was a good one, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers and Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels.

While the title game was played once the White House confirmed that Reagan was out of danger, the Academy Awards were delayed until the next night, March 31st. (Oh yes, Robert De Niro won for best actor in Raging Bull.)

NBC Television had the rights to the tournament. But the Peacock was a lame duck at the time. Earlier in the month, the NCAA had announced that CBS had purchased the rights to the Final Four for three seasons, 1982-1984, at $16 million per year. In 1981, NBC was paying $10 million.

How far have television and the NCAA come? This year, the consortium of CBS and Turner is paying the NCAA a combined $850 million for its extensive rights that include many tentacles beyond just over-the-air and cable television.

The 1981 title game also marked the end of what was arguably the most popular trio of on-air broadcasters to ever call a Final Four, Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire. They were behind the NBC microphones from 1978-82, working among other Final Fours, the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson title game in 1979. Some historians point to that Herculean matchup as the game that fueled national interest in college basketball

A couple years ago, I had a chance to pen a multi-part interview with Packer who called the Final Four for all or parts of four decades, 1975 through 2008. I asked Billy to share his memories of the night of the Reagan shooting. Amazingly, going back all those years, Billy recited details, chapter and verse. 

What are your memories of the 1981 NCAA title game when President Ronald Reagan was shot hours before the game?

Al McGuire was with me and once we got to the arena we got wind of what happened. Al said, “Come on, let’s get a hotdog.” I said, “Come on, Al. We have to think about what we’re going to say on-air.”   Al looked at me and said, “Billy, you and I are  the last guys they’ll have talk about the president being shot. There’s NBC News and Bryant Gumbel, who’s here with us. Come on. Let’s get a hotdog.”

The 3d place game started (Virginia-LSU). Once word from Washington was that Regaan would survive, we were assured the title game would be played.

But I learned a lot that night. First, what a pro Gumbel was. NBC News kept changing how much time he would be allotted at the open. Yet he handled it so smoothly, like a solid pro. He mastered it. I always thought TV would make the decision. But Wayne Duke, commissioner of the Big Ten and a powerful member of the championship committee, was in firm control and NBC’s Don Ohlmeyer had to acquiesce to the NCAA’s decision.

Dick Enberg also admitted to us later that in the first half the Reagan shooting weighed on him and he told me, “I didn’t really hear a word you guys said.”

Longtime Indiana University Voice recalls the night:

Fischer

I reached out to Don Fischer, the unmistakable Voice of the Hoosiers. He started with IU in 1973 and just completed his 48th season, doing football and basketball.

From Don:

I remember of course how the shooting caused great concern and consternation. Like everyone else, we weren’t sure whether the game would be played.

Every ten minutes leading up to game time, I got phone calls from the head of the Indiana News Network which held the rights to IU sports. Like everyone else, he wanted to know whether the game would be played.

We had somewhere between 55-60 affiliates on the network which took everything we produced, from football and basketball to coaches’ shows. There were lots to be sorted out. Each time all I can say is I don’t know. Once the president was out of danger, it was a go.

Like so many, we were all distraught when the game began. What I remember of the game is that North Carolina led throughout the first half. IU took the lead for the first time on a last second shot prior to the half by Randy Wittman. Then, in the second half, Isiah Thomas stole the show.

***

IU won 63-50. Thomas finished with a game high 23 points. It was his last college game. He entered the NBA draft and was picked second behind DePaul’s Mark Agguire.

It was the second of three IU national titles under Knight. Fischer presided over the mic for all three, 1976, 1981 and 1987.

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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