HOUSTON — In early January 1986, a 26-year-old with joyful ambition and bottomless optimism took a flight out to Seattle to call a men's basketball game.
It wound up being the formal initiation of a legendary broadcasting career.
Jim Nantz's first play-by-play assignment for CBS was a USC-Washington affair on January 11 of that year, working the game alongside former Kentucky standout Larry Conley.
One week later: a proper introduction to a lifelong friendship. Nantz catty-cornered to Coral Gables, Florida, to call Arizona at Miami. As fate would have it, he was partnered with the one and only Bill Raftery. An eager-to-please Nantz got taken out to an extravagant Miami Beach dinner, and as is Raftery's wont, young Jim got more than he bargained for that night.
"You walk out of one dinner with Raft and you feel like you've known him for 37 years, which is the actual case now," Nantz told CBS Sports in his final sit-down interview before his final basketball call after 37 years and 354 NCAA Tournament broadcasts.
On Monday night, Nantz will toss on the headset for one final basketball call next to Raftery, working CBS' broadcast with Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson. It's No. 4 UConn vs. No. 5 San Diego State — a national title game almost nobody saw coming as recently as two weeks ago.
"I want this to feel as normal as possible," Nantz said. "I just want to have a nice, clean, high-camaraderie broadcast. In sync with (producer) Wolfie (Mark Wolff) and (director) Mark Grant, Grant and Raft and Tracy, just want it to be clean. All in sync. Take off the headset, go give the trophy away. It's their moment, it's not mine."
Humble as Nantz is, there is no escaping this night will also, in part, be about him. And it should be.
You don't get stories without the storyteller.
Nantz has a distinctly singular career in broadcasting due to his lifelong ties to CBS and his nearly 40-year connection to this blessed, maddening tournament. He's leaving behind the basketball portion of his broadcast duties after tonight, and appropriately so, this joyride is concluding in Houston. This is the city where he went to college, the place that put him on the path to microphone royalty.
At the University of Houston, a 19-year-old Nantz began his road to this night by talking into the mic as the public address announcer for Cougars basketball games.
"My school and the basketball program gave me the entryway into the business," he said.
The 63-year-old is most affectionately tied to calling golf, the Masters being his most treasured event of them all, and he'll continue to be the lead play-by-play voice of the NFL on CBS. Over the decades, he's also been the go-to voice on CBS for college football, the Winter Olympics and tennis.
But basketball — college basketball — bred him and nurtured his craft into becoming the broadcast legend he is. It's the sport where Nantz cut his teeth, honed his techniques and, most amazing of all, became the voice among a throng of animated narrators over the past 30-plus years in this absurdly incredible event that is the NCAA Tournament.
"The enormity of it now still blows me away," Nantz said.
Monday night's title game will be the 32nd Final Four of Nantz's career. Given the nature of some television contracts and network-hopping tendencies of broadcasters, this will never be done again. Before his first Final Four assignment in 1991, no one had worked more than six Final Fours. It's an outrageous accomplishment, and yet it speaks to Nantz's preternatural capability as a broadcaster that he's never felt old, stale or worn out. It's always felt like he should be there.
"I got to live out my dream because of college basketball," Nantz said. "Sure, I was a golfer and I went to Houston to be on the golf team. But, really, went to Houston to study communications and try to figure out a way to get trained to hopefully one day be noticed by CBS. That was what the goal was: to work for CBS."
"I'm preparing for this game tomorrow as hard as I did in '91," Nantz says as he settles into a chair, donning a salmon-colored quarter-zip from his personalized Vineyard Vines clothing line.
Every basketball assignment Nantz has called for CBS (the number is somewhere in the vicinity of 575 broadcasts) includes a "game board": a white, wide, sturdy paper that is his colorful prep sheet of information and statistics about the players and coaches. Every one of them is treated as a treasured document.
"No shortcuts," Nantz says, eyes down, pen to page and filling out the final board of his career. "Doesn't matter if it's a game like this or it's a regular-season game. The effort, the work behind it, has to be there. And otherwise you can't be comfortable. And I happen to enjoy this process."
Nantz has never lost or thrown a single game board out. Every one from his career is archived, by year, at his Pebble Beach home in California. Last year, Hill stopped by Nantz's house, and while he was there, Jim pulled out his board from Dec. 22, 1990, the 10th game of Hill's Duke career — a game at Oklahoma.
"I know this sounds very anal," Nantz says. "But I like to be organized. I like to be able to go back and pull a board every once in a while."
And here, the day before his final tournament call, Nantz sits down and continues to fill out the goodies as he finalizes his need-to-knows on UConn.
"The record will show the last name that I ever write down will be Jordan Hawkins," Nantz says at 4:00 p.m. on the eve of the championship.
The plan for this sit-down was 15-20 minutes. But Jim wants to talk — Jim always wants to talk. He holds court for a full hour, taking in every minute of this experience. He thinks back to his first tournament call, in March of '86, the Old Dominion-Duke game he worked with Raftery.
"Tonight will be Game 354, and I get to say, 'Bookends. Raft. Front and back.' It's a great privilege," Nantz says, pen in hand.
He was nervous back then in 1986, just as he will be Monday night.
"That's the nature of live television and what resides inside of people who strive to try to do it as cleanly and perfectly as possible," Nantz said. "It's not a fear. It's more an anticipation, a joyous anticipation. There's that, 'Here it is, it's gonna happen now.' It's not a lack of trust. It's coming from a place of I'm sitting here. It's coming from appreciation. I'm here. I have been given this great gift of covering another national championship game one more time. That's not lost on me. I've always felt the same in these games. It's been an amazing gift for a long time, a big part of my life."
Nantz's narration has carried us home for three-plus decades, his voice telling the stories that define seasons, create legacies and carve everlasting memories of college basketball. For Nantz, his Final Four run started in 1991 with Duke's stunner over undefeated UNLV, which led to back-to-back national championships for the Blue Devils and the official ushering in of Mike Krzyzewski's legacy.
He's had a front row seat to some of the greatest teams and players this sport's ever seen, but ever-humbled, Nantz has spoken often and does again here of Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Gary Bender and Brent Musburger, all of whom called Final Fours, all of whom Nantz idolized as a boy and then into the early stages of his broadcasting career.
The whole way, it's been CBS. Never a serious thought to pivot elsewhere. That's made him the signature voice of this tournament.
"I never wanted to move around," Nantz said. "I wanted to be the anti-portal player in sports broadcasting."
It's going to be strange to go through 67 games of this event in 2024 and not hear Nantz on a call, but he's ready to step away and eager to have Ian Eagle get his well-deserved shot at being the next voice of the Final Four. But for one more day, it's obvious he's clinging to every moment of this.
"You get here to see the place bulging at the seams and the intensity and energy in the building is as fevered pitch as ever," Nantz said of Saturday night's semifinals.
The universe winked at us Saturday night, gifting a buzzer-beater in the FAU-San Diego State thriller. Nantz was on it, as always, as the spectacular spooled out in real time. He identified the less-than-ideal offensive lineup San Diego State had on the floor as the final play broke loose before the Aztecs broke out an all-time tournament moment. Lamont Butler's winner happened in the same building, on the same end of the floor, as our last epic moment under this roof: Kris Jenkins' title-winning shot for Villanova over North Carolina in 2016.
"That was I had that thing that came to me within seconds and I went up with it," Nantz said.
Who knows what the Huskies and Aztecs will give us tonight. That's why we do this, right? Play the game, tell the story, let's find out together.
Take us through it, Jim.
As he does, he'll partly be carried in spirit by some no longer with us. The late Billy Packer, who died in January and was Nantz's north star in basketball broadcasts for so many years. Also gone is Pat McGrath, Nantz's longtime statistics specialist and right-hand man, who died of a heart attack in his sleep the day after Selection Sunday. It's been a looming void for Nantz as he's gone through this final push. They worked alongside each other for three decades and had planned to walk off together after Monday night's title game.
Then there's the photo of Jim's parents.
During Saturday night's semifinals, for the first time in his career, Nantz placed a photo of the late Jim and Doris Nantz next to the monitor in front of him. It's a picture from the 1998 Final Four in San Antonio. Nantz lost his father to Alzheimer's in 2008. His mother died last October.
"Every time I looked at it during the game, I honestly felt like they were looking at me," Nantz said. "I had never done that before, but I thought, I'm in Houston, I want them to be here by my side."
More than anything, Nantz wants Monday night to be about the team that wins, the coach who guides them there. He wants to watch "One Shining Moment," as he does every year, with his oldest daughter, Caroline.
"That'll be joyful," he said. "Joyful and triumphant. That's what I hope to feel when it's over. Joyful and triumphant. In a personal sense, in a broadcasting sense, fulfilled. I've had so many people that have lifted me on their shoulders and gotten me here that I've shared the experience with and I hope they all feel that I'm repping them and that they're with me on that night and have felt that way hopefully every time they turned on television, saw a game, they felt like they were being represented. I want to rep them."
A kid who got his first over-the-air call on 740 AM KTRH Radio for a Rice-Fairfield game in Clemson, South Carolina, in 1981 is going to call one more basketball game on Monday night.
The guy who eagerly scooted and coyly sat below the CBS set, all but 3 feet away from Brent Musburger in 1983 at the Final Four in Albuquerque, will come full circle in Houston.
Nantz has been our biggest narrator of March and April for not just one generation but multiple. He'll continue to serve in that role for golf and football, but those events don't provide the nationwide, wide-eyed magic that this one does.
"This tournament is about dreamers," Nantz said one time on a broadcast.
You were right, Jim. You're the evidence of that.
Let's share this experience one more time. Tell us one more story.