Debbie Antonelli: “CBS isn’t looking at me as a female analyst. They’re looking at me as a basketball analyst.”

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Media Musings

by R.L. Bynum

NC native having another marvelous March

The relentless drive to prepare and excel that coaches and players need to reach the Final Four is routine for Cary native Debbie Antonelli.

The former N.C. State player has offered keen insights as a television game analyst during basketball games — both men’s and women’s — for 30 years. Those years have been marked by a work ethic that has served her well as she has become more in demand.

She reached a pinnacle of sorts when CBS hired her last season — and again this season — as an analyst for first- and second-round NCAA men’s tournament games. She became the first woman analyst for men’s tournament games since Ann Meyers Drysdale in 1995.

Antonelli, who will, in fact, work the Women’s Final Four, likens earning those CBS assignments to making the Super Bowl.

“I work really hard, and it was nice for somebody to recognize it and it’s an honor to be selected,” said Antonelli, who did games in San Diego this season. “I still pinch myself because I’ve had an incredible team with me, great support. CBS isn’t looking at me as a female analyst. They’re looking at me as a basketball analyst, which changes the whole conversation.”

Getting the men’s tournament assignment again this season told Antonelli that CBS liked her work during the 2017 tournament.

“I was just as anxious as I was the first year because I think if you’re a competitor, you want to do your best,” said Antonelli, who started three seasons for Coach Kay Yow as a shooting guard, making the NCAA tournament all four seasons, including one Sweet 16 appearance.

“This is the attitude that I took with me to San Diego: I wasn’t going there to prove anything, I was going to improve. So, every situation I was in, I’m not there to prove that I deserve to be here. I’m going to improve, so what can I do to make myself better, make my team better? Having that attitude is the attitude that is going to help me be successful because it’s going to help our team succeed.”

Antonelli anticipated Selection Sunday as much as the teams as she watched the brackets revealed on TV on a rare day at home. She knew she’d be calling games involving No. 4 and No. 5 seeds and was looking for those matchups to pop up. It wasn’t until 8 p.m. that she found out her assignment, and she was off to San Diego two days later.

Of the eight teams in San Diego, she had worked Auburn games and had attended Clemson and College of Charleston practices.

“People say, ‘what did you do when you were in San Diego?’ Nothing,” she said. “I didn’t even walk around the block. I went from the arena to the hotel, back to the arena. I ate all of my meals in the hotel. I was working. I didn’t have an extra 15 minutes to take a stroll. I had eight teams to prepare for. I was watching film or reading. I watch a lot of film. That’s my favorite thing to do and I love to watch synergy where you can go in and break down players.”

Neither the big games nor the prospect of bigger games fazes her.

“I feel 100 percent comfortable at the highest level,” she said. “If they say Bill Raftery can’t do the game and they call me up and send me to San Antonio, I’m ready.”

March can be a relentless grind for newspaper beat writers and TV reporters covering long NCAA tournament runs. But their schedules seem mild compared Antonelli’s crazy month full of travel across the country as an analyst for several platforms.

Her March run started with the ACC Women’s Tournament in Greensboro and concludes this weekend as the color analyst on Westwood One’s national radio coverage of the Women’s Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, beginning Friday.

“I think Debbie’s hard work and great comparative knowledge of both the men’s and women’s game has been on full display this month,” Wes Durham, the voice of the Atlanta Falcons who also does TV play-by-play work on ACC broadcasts. “She is very underrated on the national scene in my opinion as someone who has tremendous insight and the ability to make the fan understand what’s transpiring in a game, and the preparation leading up to it. She can do any game at any level and deliver the goods to the viewer.”

When Durham, who grew up in Apex, was involved in pick-up games with Antonelli during their high school days, little did either know that they’d end up on similar career tracks.

After calling the women’s national championship on Sunday, her cross-country version of March Madness will have included 22 games in five states (as well as CBS meetings in New York after the ACC Women’s Tournament) over 32 days.

She’ll end up spending only three days at her Mount Pleasant, S.C., home in March. Not that this schedule is much different from the regular season since she averages 80 games per year.

“There’s not much downtime. But quality time is important, and my guys don’t know any other way,” she said of her husband Frank and three sons: Joey, a senior at South Carolina; Frankie — who has Down syndrome — a freshman in the Clemson Life Program; and Patrick, a 10th grader. “This is my 30th year on the air, my oldest son is 23, so they’re pretty much used to my schedule in the winter.”

She went from working the Lexington Regional final of the women’s tournament Sunday (with Beth Mowins, shown in top photo) in Kentucky for ESPN to calling the Albany Regional final on Monday for Westwood One in New York, before heading directly to Columbus from there.

Calling national men’s games has exposed her work to a new audience. She has done men’s games for years on a regional level and did ACC and SEC men’s games this season.

“I give a lot of credit to Debbie,” Jenn Hildreth, a play-by-play announcer for the SEC Network, ESPN, Lifetime and Fox Sports, said via email. “She always believed that she was capable of crossing over after spending most of her career calling women’s games, and she pushed for that opportunity. Once it was given, she did not disappoint. Debbie got her opportunity to call men’s games not because she is a woman, but because she is a great analyst. Period.”

There are plenty of women who work as sideline reporters. But very few get the chance to be an analyst. The most prominent is Doris Burke, who has exclusively worked NBA games this season after previously also calling men’s and women’s college basketball.

“Doris is a friend and a colleague, and I have the utmost respect for her and I’m cheering for her every time I see her on the air,” Antonelli said. “She does get at a high profile, people are watching her and the more she succeeds, the better opportunity it is for the rest of us that are coming along beside her.”

Like Burke and, unfortunately, many women broadcasters, Antonelli has found that social media can be a difficult place because some fans don’t want to see women broadcasting games. As a media trainer for college teams, she tells players to never tweet or post something that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. Too many times, fans use a different standard.

“Social media can be really brutal,” Antonelli said. “If you challenge me on pick and roll or icing ball screens, if you want to throw that at me, then that’s a conversation that could be had. But if you are going to cowardly say you don’t like my voice, well I don’t really care. I don’t respond to any of it. … It’s not worth your time or effort to go back and forth with them or troll the trolls.”

Good insights are a product of both knowledge of the game and preparation. Hildreth says that Antonelli does that by not only watching a lot of basketball but knowing what to watch for. That played out in West Virginia’s games in San Diego.

“Most basketball fans know what a great shot blocker West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate is, but when Debbie called the Mountaineers’ NCAA tournament games, she broke it down even further,” Hildreth said. “She watched every single block of Konate’s from the regular season (which is impressive enough), but she then showed how many of those blocks fueled the fast break for WVU — that is second-level analysis. Debbie also watches enough film to know tendencies and to be able to recognize which sets will go to which particular players, so she not only tells the viewer what they are seeing, she tells them what they are about to see – and that is what the best analysts across all sports do.”

She hadn’t considered a career in broadcasting while she was working on her master’s degree in sports administration at Ohio University in 1988. As part of that program, she was doing an internship in the marketing department at the University of Kentucky.

A local cable company wanted to broadcast some Kentucky women’s games and her boss asked if she was interested in being an analyst.

“At the time, because I had been a graduate assistant basketball coach at Ohio University, I was sort of in between,” she said. “I had been offered some coaching jobs. I thought I wanted to be an AD. When I got a chance to do the games on TV, it sort of filled that void. I got the prep, I went to shootaround, I went to practice, I watched film and I studied the teams and then I would go and call the game and I didn’t have didn’t have to deal with the 18 to 22 [year olds] and the wins and the losses but I got to do everything else in basketball that I loved.”

Among the analysts that she learns from is football announcer Gary Danielson.

“He’s terrific. I think he’s a great analyst,” Antonelli said. “He’s not analyzing the same sport I am, but he might say something about the way that somebody is defending a cover two or that linebacker made that play with his eyes. I can say that about a point guard. That point guard made the play with his eyes. I listen to what he might say, and I pick some vernacular that I think can transfer. That’s how I try to expand my vocabulary on the basketball side. It’s not just basketball analysts that I listen to.”

When it comes to basketball analysts, Antonelli says, since early-on in her career, she liked to pattern her work after Hubie Brown.

“I’ve always thought he was really interesting because of the metrics and the numbers that he would use and how he would use a number to explain a certain situation on the floor,” she said. “I think he would probably be somebody that I really enjoy listening to a lot. I still enjoy listening to him on the NBA.”

She stays busy during the winter, and she also is a TV analyst for select Indiana Fever WNBA home games during the summer. She’s worked WNBA games for 17 seasons.

A full-time ESPN employee, she called several ACC men’s games during the non-conference season, including games at N.C. State and Louisville.

During the conference season, she worked women’s games on Sundays and Mondays (varying from ACC and Big 12 games to SEC games), SEC men’s games on Tuesdays for ESPNU and SEC women’s games on Thursdays for SEC Network.

“Fortunately, I was home on Friday nights because my youngest son is the JV point guard at Bishop England, his high school,” Antonelli said. “So, I got to see those games.”

It’s always basketball for her, even when she’s not working.

“It’s every day,” she said. “There’s no day off. Between prep and travel and just working to be better and to get ready, it’s non-stop. Next week when I get home and I won’t have any games, I’ll have to close up the season with all of my invoicing and making sure I get all of that stuff taken care of. It will take a couple of weeks to do that.”

She hopes to slip in a few rounds of golf before Fever season begins. No doubt, her competitiveness will also show up on the course.

Six laid off in N&O/Herald-Sun restructuring

Six Triangle newsroom employees — three each at The N&O and The Herald-Sun — were laid off this week as part of an ongoing effort to eliminate duplication and create a single news team to produce the two newspapers.

The last day for those laid off in Durham, all of whom have been at the paper for around 30 years, is next week. For those affected in Raleigh, some will leave this week and others next week.

“We are in the process of saying goodbye to several people in each of our newsrooms over the next few weeks, which is hard,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of both newspapers, said via email, adding that she is not saying there are more layoffs to come. “And yes, these were layoffs. Out of respect for the journalists affected, I’m not going talk about specific individuals.”

Among those losing their jobs is photographer Bernard Thomas, who says he’s retiring. For years, he roamed the sidelines at games in various high school and college sports, taking photos for The Herald-Sun. He no longer shot sports after the Durham Bulls’ 2017 season ended, though.

Thomas had been the only Herald-Sun photographer since Kaitlin McKeown left for The Virginian-Pilot in February 2017

Also out in Durham are Mark Donovan, who has been the metro editor in recent years, and features writer Cliff Bellamy, whose most recent beat has been “children, aging and families.”

Three veteran N&O newsroom people lost their jobs: Assistant photo editor John Hansen, out after 28 years; Bob Brueckner, who has been a daytime online editor on the real-time news team; and Cindy Hinkle, a newsroom administrative assistant.

“It’s hard to lose talented, dedicated journalists from our newsrooms,” Tomlin said. “It’s the last thing that any of us wants. Under the circumstances, the best path forward is one that involves us working together as one team.”

Tomlin says that although progress has been made in digital transformation, the financial challenges for newspapers remain strong. She hopes to make both newspapers stronger by having them work more closely together while still having newsrooms in Raleigh and Durham.

“That means we’ll be restructuring to better align with our topical coverage areas. Some Durham reporters will work directly with editors in Raleigh and vice versa,” Tomlin said.

Mark Schultz will remain the lead editor in Durham, but his title changes from managing editor to western Triangle editor.

“He will be part of the Metro editing team, working closely with editors in Raleigh to ensure our news coverage in both The Herald-Sun and The N&O effectively serves readers across the area,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin hopes that by eliminating coverage duplication, more subjects will be covered.

“For instance, between the two newsrooms, we had five people covering different aspects of education,” she said. “Now we will have three. The other two will be moved to new beats. That will mean we’ll have more people covering growing areas like Cary, Chatham, Chapel Hill, etc. under this new structure. We’re also reframing some of our other beats to ensure they have wider regional appeal.”

Previously, somebody in Durham coordinated with a designer at McClatchy News Desk East, the hub in Charlotte, about what should go in the print edition and The N&O’s print team did that for Raleigh. Now the print plan for both newspapers will be done in Raleigh.

Starting next week, one designer will lay out the sports sections of both newspapers each night and another designer will lay out the news sections of both newspapers.

Coverage of NCCU, women’s basketball picked up at end

After there was no regular-season game coverage of N.C. Central’s men or Triangle women’s basketball — except for the 1,000th career win for UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell — the consolidated News & Observer/Herald-Sun sports staff increased postseason coverage.

Jonas Pope IV, the staff’s recruiting writer and former N.C. Central beat writer, was in Norfolk to cover the Eagles’ run to another MEAC title and was in Dayton for their loss to Texas Southern in the First Four.

After the staff covered Triangle teams in the ACC Tournament, J. Mike Blake, the staff’s high school sports writer, covered N.C. State’s first- and second-round NCAA women’s tournament games at Reynolds Coliseum and provided additional coverage. In Kansas City for the regionals, the staff picked up coverage from the Kansas City Star, a fellow McClatchy paper.

Sam Newkirk and Pope wrote stories about Duke’s women’s team during the NCAA tournament.

Big local ratings on Stormy evening

The overtime victory for Kansas over Duke on Sunday was the best game of the NCAA tournament to date and attracted a particularly high number of viewers in the Triangle for WNCN.

The third-highest ratings of any market in the country for the game were put up by the Raleigh-Durham market at 20.8, with Greensboro second at 21.9. Leading the way, with many Jayhawks fans, no doubt, was Kansas City at 28.8.

Kansas City and the Triangle didn’t turn away once CBS switched to “60 Minutes” and Anderson Cooper’s interview with Stormy Daniels. Kansas City still led the way at 25.4, followed by Boston (21.3), Louisville (20.6), with Raleigh-Durham coming in fourth at 20.3.

Announcement from SportsChannel8

SportsChannel8’s Twitter account teased an announcement the past few days.

In addition to the vague “St8ment,” astute listeners of 99.9 FM The Fan radio in the Triangle began hearing liners (short radio promos) this week for “SportsChannel8: The Radio Show” though there was little accompanying information.

Friday morning, the SportsChannel8 social media accounts posted this announcement:

As the end graphic says, SportsChannel8: The Radio Show is set to air this Spring/Summer from 10 a.m. until noon on 99.9 The Fan and WRALsportsfan.com. The debut show will be April 7th. 

North Carolina-relates sports stories of note

Luke DeCock of the N&O/Herald-Sun wrote about the strange road that Devonte Graham took from Broughton High School to Kansas, which he’s helped reach to the Final Four.

Who knew that former UNC basketball player David Chadwick introduced Virginia coach Tony Bennett to his wife? Chadwick was his pastor while Bennett played for the Charlotte Hornets. That’s one minor nugget from an interesting story by David Teel of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., on how Bennett was lured into coaching and, later, to Charlottesville.

Pope wrote about incoming UNC freshman guard Coby White, who lost his father to cancer last August. He looks forward to the Carolina experience but doesn’t look forward to leaving home.

In The Fieldhouse, The Athletic’s college basketball site, C.L. Brown wrote about the hard work that has made former Duke star Marvin Bagley III such a good player. He was driven to work hard by his father, Marvin Bagley Jr., who is from Durham and played football at N.C. A&T.

Brant Wilkerson-New of the News & Record of Greensboro, wrote about how Theo Pinson overcame heightened expectations late in his high school career to frustrations early in his UNC career to becoming a key member of the Tar Heels.

UNC alum Aaron Dodson wrote an interesting account in The Undefeated of Kyrie Irving’s 11-game career at Duke.

In The Athletic, Erik Stanberg wrote about Davidson’s memorable 2008 NCAA tournament run, led by Steph Curry.