The Voice of Sports
Jim Nantz began his dream job as a sports commentator right out of college, and to this day is thrilled by The Masters, March Madness and his NFL broadcasts
From the Print Edition:
Jim Nantz, May/June 2011
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Nantz is quick to point out that his preparation has nothing to do with memorizing statistics: “Statistics don’t tell the story,” he says.
“Parents will come up to me and say, ‘My son wants to be a sports commentator and he memorizes the box score of every game. How should he get started?’ And I always say, ‘First, lose the statistics.’
“I tell them that their son should learn how to write and tell a story. Look at the classic form. Listen to the great orators. Listen to the people in your life who know how to tell a story: your preacher, your priest, your rabbi. Listen to people with the ability to grab your attention. How do they build and pay off a story? How do they make it dramatic and thoughtful? It’s a tricky thing, to find that sweet spot.”
But Nantz has mastered that skill, on and off the air. Paul Marchand, a longtime friend who was Nantz’s teammate on the University of Houston golf team, says, “If you sent Jim on a vacation and had him tell you about it after, it would be better than if you went yourself.”
Storytelling: That’s the way his heroes did it. When Nantz—born James William Nantz III—was a teen in Colts Neck, New Jersey, he idolized the sports commentators who took over his TV set every weekend because of their ability to craft a narrative: Jim McKay, Jack Whitaker, Pat Summerall, Keith Jackson, Dick Enberg.
Yes, Nantz loved sports, playing basketball and golf in high school and golf at the University of Houston. But he was consumed by the broadcasters who chronicled the events on TV.
“They were classical storytellers and I was mesmerized by them—I’m not exaggerating,” Nantz says. “I had a strange way of looking at sports, because I was so into the broadcasters.”
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Nantz recalls, there were no 24-hour cable networks devoted to sports. Nor were there VCRs or DVRs, and sporting events were generally only broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays. So, to get his daily sports fix, Nantz would spend his weekends recording whatever events were being broadcast—from golf tournaments and NFL games to the long-running “ABC’s Wide World of Sports”—on his little cassette tape recorder, winding the microphone around the TV dial so it hung next to the speaker.
“Then, during the week, I would go back and listen to the broadcast over and over, to listen to the excitement in the commentator’s voice,” he says. “I would play it back over and over. I was probably borderline obsessive-compulsive about it. If I liked the sound of it, I’d practically be hyperventilating about the opening of the broadcast, listening to Jim McKay do the tease before the U.S. Open. The opening tease was just this beautifully written piece of prose, 60 seconds long with striking visuals and a big narration. I’d play them hundreds of times. I’d wear those tapes out.”
Nantz began to pursue his dream of becoming a sports commentator after enrolling at the University of Houston. (He makes the distinction between “sports commentator” and “sportscaster,” in his best-selling 2008 memoir, Always By My Side, noting that, to him, “sportscaster” refers to someone who delivers the sports headlines on a nightly newscast.)
A member of the storied Houston college golf team (where one of his roommates was future Masters’ champion Fred Couples), Nantz spent all his spare time freelancing and stringing for local radio and TV stations, eventually anchoring a weekend sportscast on one of Houston’s TV stations—a job that led to his first full-time job out of college at a CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City.
“I had no college life, really,” Nantz says. “I wasn’t into fraternity parties or hanging out drinking. My goal was to get to CBS. Why would I waste a night at a party when I could be out covering a game?”
Paul Marchand, general manager and head pro at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Texas, says, “He’d come back to the dorms and he was a star already. I thought, This guy’s on TV. He’d walk in and say, ‘I interviewed Muhammad Ali today.’ Muhammad Ali? He was still in college and he was talking to Muhammad Ali.”
Though he loved playing golf, Nantz decided quickly that his game wasn’t good enough to buy him a future. Recalls Marchand, “Jim tells a story about playing a freshman tournament. He shot a 35 or 36 on the front 9— and on the back 9, he went into broadcasting because it all fell apart.”
So, after college, Nantz was recruited as sports anchor for KSL in Salt Lake City, a CBS affiliate where he also did play-by-play for Brigham Young University football and Utah Jazz basketball games. In 1985, he was tapped by CBS to anchor its college football scoreboard show, eventually expanding to cover golf and college basketball for the network.
CBS, Nantz says, was the only network he’d ever wanted to work for because “CBS had the Masters. I always loved the Masters—it was the only major that was contested on the same course every year. I like the feeling of hope and renewal in the springtime, when it’s played.”
In 1986, Nantz was involved in his first Masters broadcast, standing at the 16th hole as Jack Nicklaus made a historic charge, uttering a line for which he has become famous: “The Bear has come out of hibernation.” Eventually, Nantz became CBS’s top golf broadcaster, which meant leading coverage of the Masters. His goal at this point in his career? To broadcast 50 Masters’ tournaments.
“I’ll be 75 if I do 50 Masters,” Nantz says. “It would be April 8, 2035. Obviously, a lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen.”
Nantz loves to cover golf and still loves to play it, though his game is a hit-and-miss proposition. Says Billy Packer, his former on-air partner covering March Madness, “He’s a PGA golfer on the driving range and a 14 handicap on the golf course. It mentally gets to him.”
“Believe me, I was masquerading as a golfer at the University of Houston,” Nantz says. “But I get a lot out of the game just being on the driving range. I imagine I’m a player who needs to hit certain shots to win a tournament. It’s a trick of the mind I used to do as a kid.”
He enjoys playing in charity events when he can—and was a regular golf partner of former Pres. George H.W. Bush, once playing a few rounds with Bush and former Pres. Bill Clinton (and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady). On the course, Bush said in an e-mail interview, Nantz is quick with a quip—about himself and others.
“Jim is good with the ‘lip wedge,’ needling as we play,” Bush observed. “His love of the game comes through. He makes everyone feel included. I just plain like the man.”
Not that Nantz gets that many opportunities to actually play a round: “He seems to add club memberships all the time but his time constraints keep him from playing,” Marchand says.
Notes Nantz, “I’ve been the beneficiary of really nice extensions of appreciation by wonderful golf clubs across the country. But I just don’t have time to play.”
Nantz was invited to speak at the U.S. Capitol for National Golf Day on April 28, and at the World Golf Hall of Fame for its induction day in early May, to present two new inductees: former Pres. George H.W. Bush and Frank Chirkinian, Nantz’s former boss at CBS, who was known as the father of televised golf. Nantz spearheaded a move for an emergency
election for Chirkinian, before his longtime producer died in March: “They’re both great men who have been father figures to me,” he says.
Nantz winces from the back pain as he gets up from the couch and heads into the recording studio to finish the Rolex commercial, focusing on getting the tagline exactly right.
“Rolex. Live for greatness,” he says several times into a microphone, then looks up from his script with a question for the recording session director that hints at his attention to detail.
“Do you want a comma after ‘Live’?” he asks. “Or is it just ‘Live for greatness,’ one phrase?” The director offers him a reading of the line and Nantz nods, then says, “You know what? I’ll give you 10 of them and you can choose.” In less than a minute, Nantz utters the line 10 more times: “Rolex. Live for greatness.”
But every reading of the commercial tagline is different: a slight pause here, a change of vocal pitch there, up a shade on this word, a bit more punch on that one. It’s not as simple as just emphasizing a different word each time or altering pace from slow to fast; there’s a different tone to each version, a shift in shading that changes the feeling, if not the meaning, of the four-word catchphrase.
Then he looks up and says, “You think you’ve got something you can use?”
The director looks slightly amazed and says, “Oh, yeah, absolutely.”
Nantz, who prides himself on not repeating a well-crafted turn of phrase, continues to rack up a record of NCAA tournaments and Masters coverage. After a quarter-century, his schedule may be repetitive but his approach never loses its freshness, curiosity and eye for detail. The rest of it—the travel, the time away from home—is just part of the job.
Between the NFL season, March Madness and his PGA coverage, Nantz is on the road most weeks, estimating that he spends 180 nights a year in hotels (“But there used to be years where that number was a lot higher,” he says).
“This counts as a day off,” he offers, about the day in the recording studio, because he’ll spend the night at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, and get to spend time with his 17-year-old daughter Caroline (Nantz and his wife Lorrie divorced in 2009). He also owns a residence in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Deer Valley, Utah: “But I probably had eight or nine days in Deer Valley in December and maybe one night in January,” he says. Actual vacation time during the year? “Maybe a week or two in June and July,” he allows.
When he’s in serious road-warrior mode, he uses exercise as his outlet: “I look for the release of getting some sort of workout,” he says. “I go for a run; even if it’s a light jog, or even a walk—I need that. I’ve run or walked through all the great cities. I try to get to know the places I’m visiting. I don’t mean touristy things; I mean just dropping in to the vibe of the city. I feel I can make my way around any city at this point. I have favorite restaurants in every city. That’s my day: Can I get a workout and a great dinner?
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Tracy Rowe — KS, USA, — November 20, 2011 5:32am ET
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