INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The voice was always unmistakable to Grant Hill, whether he was watching a game on television or listening over the radio during his formative years in suburban Washington, D.C.
The wit and wisdom. The tenor and tone.
"He's been developing those for a while," Hill said with a laugh, gazing across a conference table at Bill Raftery, their 73-year-old source lounging against a high-backed chair.
"I guess I'm not as creative or as humorous as my partner."
Yes, they are partners now, all these years later. Hill and Raftery are part of a new-look broadcast crew for this year's Final Four, teaming up with longtime play-by-play voice Jim Nantz to bring Saturday night's national semifinals to what could be a record-breaking TV audience.
"We're just three friends talking about the game," Hill said, "and I don't know if that's how it comes across, but that's how it feels. So it's really cool."
Hill will be broadcasting the Final Four for the first time, and coincidentally, in the same city where he helped lead Duke to the national championship. And for the first time, Raftery will get to bring "Onions!" to the TV side after more than three decades in the business.
"When they called me, I was taken aback, to be honest," Raftery said, "because there were so many good choices. I guess if you stick around long enough, they'll call your number."
The new partnership was born out of necessity.
Steve Kerr had taken a coaching job with the Golden State Warriors, forcing CBS and partner Turner Sports to find at least one replacement. That wound up becoming two when Greg Anthony, who was part of the team a year ago, was accused of soliciting a prostitute.
With his Final Four pedigree and natural charisma, Hill was an easy choice. Raftery was the sentimental pick for the other spot, the ageless wonder who had earned his stripes.
Raftery's long and circuitous road to the center-court seat began when he left a coaching job at Seton Hall for a part-time broadcasting position in 1981. It was a groundbreaking move back in those days, when sports television was in its infancy and the thought that broadcast rights to the Final Four would someday command billions a farfetched dream.
He worked for a bank for many years to help make ends meet, but his uncanny ability to spin a phrase quickly made Raftery a popular broadcaster. CBS eventually hired him, as did ESPN, and for more than two decades he was the voice of the New Jersey Nets.
There, he had a chance to call games featuring Hill, by then an All-Star in the NBA.
Raftery insists his catchphrases just happen. They aren't something that he manufactures in his hotel room the night before a game, or that he dreams up in an elevator and then stashes away for future use. They are spontaneous bursts of emotion, genuine excitement that somehow seems to reach right through the TV or radio and embrace the audience.
"I've always been around some pretty funny people," Raftery said. "I think the biggest thing was when I started doing it, I was just trying to get out of the play-by-play person's way."
In other words, Raftery had a mere moment to make his mark. Pithy became imperative.
Over the years, those catchphrases became part of the college basketball lexicon, kitschy but not quite cliche. How is a team starting out defensively? "Man-to-man!" Or maybe more accurately, "Mantoman!" Players don't drive to the basket so much as they "take it to the tin!" And why bank a shot off the backboard when you can score "with a kiss!"
"A lot of these were just, get in and get out," Raftery said. "Not much more to it."
Hill sheepishly admits that he's been honing his own catchphrases. Reluctantly, he even gave a few of them a test drive before unveiling them for millions on television.
"I've been working on one, kind of getting into the paint, getting wet," Hill said. "Getting messy. Like I said, I'm not as creative or humorous as my partner."