When Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery called their first basketball games together in 1983, CBS executives told them they sounded great and that they couldn't wait to pair them again. It took 17 years to complete that reunion. But since reuniting in 2000, they have formed one of March's most popular and recognizable duos, combining an occasional folksy charm with an effervescent joy for the game.
After teaming up for Thursday night's doubleheader on CBS at Verizon Center in Washington, Lundquist and Raftery have called a total of 539 NCAA tournament games over a combined 60 seasons. And yet they recently finished atop the NCAA announcer ratings at USA Today's Game On — a blog compiled by and for sports fans of a different generation.
"And I think it's not that we're 'hip,' because we certainly aren't," Lundquist said over coffee and toast Thursday morning. "But I think we have an appreciation for the culture of the next generation, and the generation beyond that."
Lundquist, 72, and Raftery, 69, are hardly clones. Lundquist drinks Johnnie Walker Black; Raftery prefers Bud Light or Coors Light. Lundquist said the highlight of his recent seven-week cruise to Australia and New Zealand was seeing "La Boheme" in Sydney; Raftery had skipped the opera during his honeymoon in Florence in favor of another bottle of wine. Lundquist is partial to Rachmaninoff and Dvorak; Raftery taught his grandkids Tammy Wynette lyrics.
Lundquist has friends in the New York Philharmonic and National Symphony. "If things had broken right, I would have been a conductor," he said. "If I could come back, absolutely, that's what I'd do."
"That's the difference between us," Raftery joked. "Here's the culture in my family: my brother's a bagpiper."
About their broadcasts, though, the men were in accord: They strive to be genuine and to avoid stale shtick, that their repartee is authentic and that the best part of the tournament is their 30-minute casual gab sessions with a small group of players from the victorious teams between rounds.
They don't want sob stories - "that Johnny's grandmother made chicken noodle soup in the fourth grade for the whole class," as Lundquist put it — but they look for clues to make an unknown roster more compelling to a casual audience.
When it works, the moment sticks with them, as when Memphis's D.J. Stephens told them last week about the times he considered dropping out of school, and the gratification he achieved by sticking with it.
"If you looked at this kid you'd say: 'Ah, he's just another player. So what if he can dunk?' " Raftery said. "The tendency of the public is, 'Ah, he's another basketball player, a hired hand,' whatever they want to say."
"And I think the challenge that Bill and I both have is to convey those stories in the context of the telecast," Lundquist said. "Because we do, we live in a world that is so cynical. It just is. And our first inclination — I fight this all the time — is that he's got 87 sideburns and hair that's red, and how can he possibly be a productive citizen? And it gives us, at an older age, a chance to reconnect with these kids and to tell their stories in — I don't want to say a grandfatherly way — but in a generationally distant manner."
So yes, college kids he's never met call Lundquist "Uncle Verne," just the way they call Raftery "Raff," a nickname you wouldn't typically bestow on a senior citizen. Why is that, exactly?
"This gets into self-aggrandizement a little more than I want to," Lundquist began. "I think it's because of the comfort factor. I think the people who are regular viewers of games that Bill and I do come to expect that they are going to get an explanation of why one team is beating the other, or not. But along the way, they're also going to hear a couple of stories. They'll hear us interact with each other with warmth, with obvious friendship, without cynicism and sarcasm. And what comes through the broadcast is that these two guys really like each other.
"I do think the 'Uncle Verne' comes out," he continued. "That's a term of affection, and I take it as such. I take it as an indication from the person who's hollering that that they feel comfortable enough, in a faux way, to refer to us as family, you know?"
"I think sports can't be defined by generations," Raftery said. "We enjoy one another, on and off the floor. I think it's a mutual respect, and people seem to like it. I don't know how or why. But we enjoy it, too."