GLENDALE, Ariz. — Only a handful of games into his broadcasting career at Turner Sports, Grant Hill received a message summoning him to meet with his boss.
“I’m thinking I have to go to the principal’s office and they’re going to tell me how bad I am,” Hill said. “Instead he’s like, ‘Hey, we want you to do the Final Four with Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery.'”
When Steve Kerr left to coach the Golden State Warriors in May 2014 and Greg Anthony was arrested on a charge of soliciting a prostitute eight months later, CBS and Turner had to scramble to find replacements to put alongside Nantz in their top broadcast team. Pairing Raftery with Hill was an intriguing option because of their contrasting perspectives, one a beloved white-haired ex-coach known for his self-deprecating humor and the other a widely recognizable former Duke star with the charisma to offset his lack of broadcasting experience.
Having the chance to join Raftery and Nantz came as a total shock for Hill because being a TV analyst was still so new to him. In early 2015, Hill was less than two years removed from the final season of his decorated 18-year NBA career. He had called a few NBA games for Turner and done some studio work during the NCAA tournament, but he still hadn’t even decided if broadcasting was something he wanted to pursue longterm.
“Honestly, full disclosure, I didn’t think I was ready at the time,” Hill said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no clue. But I also was smart enough to realize this opportunity may not come along again when I think I’m ready, so I said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
When Hill calls his third national title game Monday night on CBS, he’ll do so with the confidence and assertiveness he initially lacked. He has grown more comfortable with Nantz and Raftery, found his voice as an analyst and learned when to stay quiet and when to interject.
Deferring too much was one of Hill’s biggest problems when he began working alongside Raftery and Nantz. Only comfortable speaking after Raftery had made his points or when either Raftery or Nantz asked him a question, Hill sometimes sounded more like a guest in the booth who had to be nudged to join the conversation.
“I think he deferred a lot more at the beginning because he’s a gentleman,” Raftery said. “Now he’s really ready to jump in when he has a good thought without feeling like he offended Jim or I. That’s a normal progression for anyone.”
What helped Hill feel more comfortable was getting more games under his belt and establishing a stronger rapport with Nantz and Raftery away from the booth.
Raftery knew Hill from when he used to work his games at Duke and in the NBA, but doing 18 games in four weeks together during March has helped them forge a stronger bond. They’re inseparable on the road, whether at pregame meetings, postgame dinners or enjoying one of Raftery’s favorite activities — knocking back a cocktail or two at the bar.
“The only thing he doesn’t do is order the wine,” Raftery said. “Jim and I order wine we can afford. His taste goes on the high side. So we’ve eliminated him from the choice.”
The off-air chemistry among Nantz, Raftery and Hill revealed itself on air this year during the opening round of the NCAA tournament when a courtside power failure forced them to huddle around a single handheld microphone during the final minute of Michigan’s victory over Oklahoma State. Said Hill, “I feel like one of the Temptations.” Countered Raftery, “I think we’re all going to use some Listerine later.”
Later that same day, Nantz, Raftery and Hill lived up to the Temptations analogy when they sang happy birthday to sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson late in Kentucky’s victory over Northern Kentucky.
“I gave up early with my voice,” Raftery joked. “I let those guys bury themselves.”
If Hill was once iffy about a post-basketball career in broadcasting, that’s no longer the case. Working with Nantz and Raftery every March and calling NBA games for Turner is now as important to him as his real estate ventures.
The camaraderie between Hill and his colleagues revealed itself once more when Raftery finished an interview with a reporter on Friday afternoon. “I killed you,” Raftery joked to Hill. In response, Hill took out his wallet and feigned paying Raftery for his compliments.
“I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but instead of feeling like I’m the third of the group, I feel like we’re all level now,” Hill said later. “There’s a rhythm. It’s just like in basketball when you get traded to a new team. You want to inject your personality and your talent and you want to add value, but you have to build that trust too.”
More Final Four coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• Here’s the most crucial aspect of Monday’s UNC-Gonzaga title game
• Phil Knight and Nike have ‘an interest’ in Lonzo Ball, but $1 billion is ‘a little steep’
• How Grant Hill went from having ‘no clue’ to calling the Final Four
• Gonzaga coach, 54, celebrates win with handstand
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