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Onions? Bill Raftery’s got ‘em. But that’s not why we love him

Feb 3, 2012, 2:45 PM EST

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Dick Vitale may be college basketball’s most famous TV analysts, but Bill Raftery is its most beloved.

If all he ever gave the game was this brilliant moment, it’d be enough for anyone. But Raftery offers insight, honesty and boundless enthusiasm for a game played by kids. Sure, Raftery has his own catchphrases, but for some reason they’re less cloying and overtly obnoxious than Vitale’s. (Just seeing #ONIONS! trend on Twitter makes me smile.)

This isn’t a new thing. Raftery’s been praised and rightly hailed as a gem for years, and probably not long after he began his broadcasting career in 1981.

But this lovely feature by David Roth at The Classical explains what’s behind Raftery’s brilliance and why hoopheads can’t get enough of him. There are several “yes” moments in the story, but I found this excerpt on how Raftery’s avoided the decline that enviably affected Vitale, Bob Knight and Billy Packer to be most telling:

Vitale has retreated utterly, vanishing loudly into grandfatherly digression and howling baroque; Knight is as professional as is possible for someone who so transparently doesn’t give a shit, but is not so much disinterested as he is uninterested. The sour and departed don of college basketball commentators, Billy Packer was, by the end of his long career, an ugly wound bandaged glumly into a suit—his grumpy disconnection from the kids playing the game, the fact that they simply could not or would not see what he saw or do what he wanted them to do, made him unbearable: an intensely knowledgeable but densely disagreeable black hole from which only peevish disdain could escape. This hasn’t happened to Raftery.

Improbably and remarkably, Raftery instead reveals himself multiple times a week as somehow unblemished in his enthusiasm for the game and undiminished in his patience with both the mistakes that slow and soften college basketball, and the kids who have made those mistakes in front of him, week after week, for nearly 30 years. More than that, Raftery’s decades in college basketball seem somehow both to preserve and restore him—he seems, bafflingly but blessedly, happier to be there with each meaningless game he researches and explains. This is the patience that approaches grace—facing down all that rude and unceasing and inevitable imperfection and still seeing something perfectible, or at least intermittently and haltingly great; something human and messy and still worth admiring, and worth thinking about, and worth talking about until last call, and for maybe one more drink after that.

This game’s played by teenagers and young men. They’re still learning the game and what life holds. Raftery gets this, revels in it and thrives.

Why else would he be having so much fun after all these years?

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