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March 11, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – It happens at the start of every game in the ACC Tournament.
An official poises to toss the ball in the air between two players coiled and waiting. Adrenaline surges through their veins, as well as through coaches and fans.
Not to mention the announcers. Fans who can’t get to the Greensboro Coliseum are likely glued to their radios and/or televisions to follow the games as described by familiar voices.
“It’s a very comfortable feeling,” said Dan Bonner, Raycom’s color commentator for two games Thursday and one Friday. “You get excited about it. It’s just one of those things that, having been associated with it for so long, it just feels like part of the natural fabric of things.
“I always get a little tingle before every game and here at the ACC Tournament it’s a bigger tingle. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Woody Durham, the play-by-play man for North Carolina, is calling his 39th straight tournament. Bob Harris, his counterpart at Duke, is up to 35 years.
Durham said that, on occasion early in the morning when he’s working on his stat cards before a game, he wonders, “Why am I still doing this? But then you get ready and you get to the game and you know why you’re doing it, because I still get the thrill of … a big-time basketball game.”
“Never,” Harris said. “And the minute that it is, I’ll walk away. That’s the thing. This event holds a special place for me.”
Durham and Harris will each call seven of the 11 games during the tournament. In the days before the ACC expanded to 12 teams, the tournament took seven games to complete and they called every one. Apparently the only announcer doing that now is Durham’s color man, Eric Montross, who will do each game.
“To be honest with you, yes, this is physically and mentally the most challenging thing we do the entire year,” Durham said. “Your overriding hope is that the fourth and final game of the day will be competitive, that it will have a certain degree of excitement to it.”
Durham remembered one year in the old Capital Centre in Landover, Md., when the final game of the day was exceptionally boring and there were so few fans left “you could have gone duck hunting in there.”
Although each announcer has some extra energy for the tournament games of his own team, neither simply goes through the motions if the Tar Heels or Blue Devils are eliminated.
“I never slight any game,” Harris said. “I always save a little something extra for the Duke game. If we aren’t playing the first game, I pace myself for the Duke game because the majority of people who are tuning in to our network are listening for the Duke story.”
There are multitudes of ACC Tournament memories for each announcer. The one that stands out for Durham is 1975 in Greensboro, when six games (the league had only seven members then) were decided by a total of 20 points.
The Tar Heels won that one but almost lost twice, against Wake Forest when they rallied in the final minute, and to Clemson, when Tree Rollins’ hook shot to win in regulation went almost through the entire net before spinning back out. Carolina then won in overtime.
Durham also recalled the 1980 championship game when there were several inches of snow outside the Greensboro Coliseum. Duke beat Maryland 73-72 and a lasting image of that game is the final shot by Maryland’s Albert King hanging on the rim and falling off and the Terps’ Buck Williams going for the rebound and disappearing.
“Buck mis-timed his jump and (Duke’s Kenny) Dennard made sure he wasn’t going to get it,” Durham said. “I still believe that was one of the finest games ever played in this building.”
The 1978 tournament, also in Greensboro, is one Harris fondly recalls because it was Duke’s first championship of his tenure. The Blue Devils ultimately put together a strong run in the NCAA, advancing to the championship game before losing to Kentucky.
Another tournament Harris remembers well is 1962 in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. He was a student at NC State and the color guard commander for the Army ROTC.
“I can remember it just like it was yesterday,” he said. “Standing there at center court, the spotlight comes on, I’m holding the American flag. I cut my eyes left and there is (Wake Forest’s) Bones McKinney, Lenny Chappell, Billy Packer, all that crowd from the 1962 team. Then to my right there’s (Wolfpack coach) Everett Case and the guys, many of whom I knew and had classes with. The only thing that went through my blood at the point was ‘Don’t drop the flag.’”
Durham and Harris, of course, have called games from their perspectives as announcers for a particular team. As a TV analyst, Bonner has a slightly different approach.
“It’s a very big picture kind of thing,” he said. “You’re looking at it not only from the standpoint of the conference but the national picture. It’s just a much wider and broader view.”
A number of announcers at this year’s event are former players, including UNC’s Montross, Duke’s Mike Gminski (for Raycom) and Maryland’s Len Elmore (for ESPN).
And Bonner, who played at Virginia from 1973-75 (freshmen were ineligible his first season).
“It was totally different from the regular season,” he said of the tournament. “We were always very excited, no matter what happened during the season. This was a new chance, a new opportunity, and it was just really fun to come here.
“Now, in those days our program wasn’t as competitive as it became later on. Our goal was always to try to get to the semifinals. We always wanted to play on the second day; we never wanted to play one game and go home. It never occurred to us that we might win the tournament, and when I was in school we didn’t.”
The record book shows that the Cavaliers won their first game in 1973 and ’74 and lost in the first round in ’75. In Bonner’s five ACC Tournament games, he totaled seven points and four rebounds. In 1976, a year after he graduated, the Cavaliers won the tournament for the first time.
“Maybe my being in school and not winning the tournament were somehow related,” he said with a laugh.
Another announcer with fond tournament memories is Dave Odom, now in his second year as a color commentator. He coached Wake Forest to back-to-back tournament championships in 1995-96, their first ACC titles since 1962.
“I tried to make sure that the players knew it was a shared championship,” Odom said. “The best things in life are the things that you share, and we were able to share those with the Wake Forest fans.”
Broadcasting isn’t something Odom planned to do after leaving coaching, but when the opportunity came up he decided to try. He’s still adjusting to the neutral feeling he has when a game is over.
“The strangest thing about the broadcasting is you walk out of the arena wondering if you won or lost,” he said. “You never can make a decision, you never can come to a conclusion, and that’s kind of an empty feeling. Coaching, you walk out of there and you have that feeling of euphoria if you won or that feeling of being down if you lost.”
Odom believes he’s getting the hang of what he’s doing, though, gaining confidence and enjoying the different sensation it brings. He always tells someone that he’s working with for the first time that he will make mistakes, “but I’m coachable.”
By Thursday’s end, four games would be in the books with four more on tap Friday, two Saturday and the championship Sunday. Most announcers will stick around until the end. Because of a CBS assignment, Bonner will have to leave after Friday’s first game matching top-seeded Duke against Virginia. But he’s glad for the time he has had in Greensboro.
“It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s somehow inside you. Every tournament that our team was in was here in this building. So I always feel, particularly when it’s in Greensboro, it’s like coming home again.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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