Lahaina, Hawaii ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, an integral part of the best broadcasting trio in the business, is so good at his job because he’s talented and prepares obsessively. But he’s even luckier than he is good.
Bilas and Sean McDonough have the best seats in the house. No, not their court-side seats. They get to sit next to the most colorful man in the business on airplanes and airports, in restaurants and bars. Lucky men.
Bill Raftery and Bilas flank play-by-play man McDonough and demonstrate a great team truly is greater than the sum of its parts and the parts happen to be solid gold. The Maui Invitational always is among their assignments.
They never stray too far from the game they’re calling, yet never treat it as if it ranks with world peace in importance.
McDonough already had developed terrific chemistry calling NCAA Tournament games for CBS in the 1990s, so bringing in a third man was a gamble.
“I felt like I was being inserted into a 30-year marriage,” Bilas said. “I felt like, ‘What am I doing here?’ It was like (former HBO Series) ‘Big Love.’ I felt uncomfortable.”
Not for long. The first game they worked as a trio was Notre Dame at UConn in the middle of the 2002-2003 season.
“Notre Dame had a kid named Danny Miller, who had transferred from Maryland,” Bilas said. “So Miller makes this great play, and we show a replay, and Raftery is talking over the replay, saying, ‘Oh, it’s Miller time, and you know how I love hearing that.’ And McDonough, without missing a beat, says, ‘Except on Big Monday, which is brought to you by Bud Light.’ And I lost it. I thought, ‘I’m home. This is great.’ We hit it off from the beginning and became great friends.”
All three bring spontaneous humor to a telecast. To listen to them is to recall sitting in a college dorm room with fellow basketball nuts, shooting the breeze deep into the night. Wasn’t there always a guy laughing at himself for putting his elbow through a tough workout the previous night, tossing them back? Raftery is that guy.
“Raftery eats the same stuff at every meal,” Bilas said. “A bowl of steam, a piece of old chicken and 12 drinks. The whole thing is a celebration of the game. Raftery knows everybody.”
Knows them so well his calls get answered no matter when they’re placed.
“We did a Villanova game,” Bilas said. “It’s snowing. The weather’s horrible. We’re driving to the game, and he calls (Villanova coach) Jay Wright. ‘Hey, Jay, get your galoshes. We’re going out after the game.’ This guy’s got a game in an hour.”
In the college basketball world, Raftery is the equivalent of a modern day Rat Pack star. He’s Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin rolled into one, minus the smokes.
“He enjoys every minute of it,” said Bilas, who impersonates Raftery superbly when quoting him. “He’s the best. He doesn’t understand this whole Twitter thing. So one of the things I do, when he says something real funny, I put it out there. So now he’ll be telling me a story. and he’ll stop in the middle, ‘Don’t tweet this, will ya?’’’
So Bilas doesn’t tweet it. Still, he never finds himself short of Raftery material.