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Mixed Media: CBS' Jim Spanarkel jumps through hoops to get to Buffalo

Jim Spanarkel prides himself on being a planner, someone who stays organized. When his CBS Sports broadcasting crew was assigned to cover the NCAA Tournament games in Buffalo this week, he heeded the weather portents and moved up by a day his flight out of Newark, N.J. He arrived here Monday, well before the snowstorm.

Just about anything Spanarkel encounters in Buffalo will seem like a stroll on the beach compared to what he experienced on Saturday night in Pittsburgh, where he was covering the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Spanarkel got into an elevator in the hotel where he was staying and started to descend from the 14th floor. A couple of floors down, the door opened and he was joined by two male college students who turned out to be members of the pep band from Virginia Commonwealth University. The door closed and the elevator was going down, until it wasn’t.

“We got stuck right around the 10th floor,” Spanarkel recalled. “We hear a noise, a loud bang, and the elevator comes to a complete stop.”

Spanarkel pushed the alarm button and one of the VCU students called the front desk to report their predicament. An elevator technician had to be summoned, along with some Pittsburgh firefighters. Spanarkel and his new acquaintances were stuck for more than an hour.

The technician showed up and the firefighters told Spanarkel and company they were going to slide the elevator car down enough for the passengers to get out. It was time for Plan B, which involved lowering a ladder and a harness into the elevator, then having each person go up through the ceiling and climb out over the top of the elevator.

“Now on a zero to 10 scale, 10 being I'm very afraid of heights and zero I'm not, I'm probably a 30 – I'm not a heights guy at all,” Spanarkel said.

One of the VCU students used his phone to videotape the proceedings.

“I put the first guy in the harness,” Spanarkel said, “so he gets up and he gets stuck. If you've seen the video, I am pushing him up and pushing against the harness to squeeze him through. Then the second guy went up and then it was my turn. … Me being 6-5, 215, a lot bigger than these 20-year-olds were, they had to get a saw and cut a hole to make it bigger on the roof. Then I looked up a second time at one of the firemen, who was very nice and helpful, and I said, I just want to remind you again, I am very afraid of heights, I mean VERY afraid.”

Spanarkel did manage to climb out and a firefighter pulled him to safety.

“It was an interesting experience, but for someone who's afraid of heights, that was a little too much for me.”

Spanarkel, an All-American at Duke who led the Blue Devils to the 1978 championship game, is an analyst for CBS, working at the tournament with play-by-play legend Verne Lundquist and reporter Allie LaForce.

Spanarkel said it was about 8:30 Sunday night when he got word that their broadcast team was headed to Buffalo. He had just gotten back from Pittsburgh and pulled out his phone to look over the NCAA matchups taking place at KeyBank Center. He liked what he saw.

“I looked at the field and said, wow. 'Nova, that's not a bad team. And who's going to match up with them, we'll find that out on Tuesday night. Then I said Wisconsin-Virginia Tech, that could be interesting, teams coming from good power conferences. Then I look at Notre Dame and Princeton. Princeton doesn't run the old Princeton offense, but they are very methodical at the offensive end and they try to wear you down and shoot threes. And Notre Dame is a pretty good basketball team, so I thought that one could be maybe more of a fundamental basketball game than some of the other ones.

“And West Virginia-Bucknell – West Virginia comes at you with this wild defense, almost a full-court tempo the whole time, and Bob Huggins is a great coach. So I’m pretty happy with the teams on this bracket.”

Spanarkel has also been a TV analyst for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets for 25 years. He has done college games for CBS for 20 years, and has worked for Turner and ESPN. He has seen a lot of basketball over the years and he thinks this year’s NCAAs shape up to be one of the least predictable he can remember.

“If I put the top eight teams in the country right now, can Kansas be beaten by any of those other seven? I think we'd both agree that somebody in those other teams can beat them. If you do that, can Villanova be beaten by one of those seven teams? Yes they can. Can Duke, can Kentucky?

“So I think this year more than ever, it's going to be a scramble if they all get to that point in the Final Four. But my guess is, somewhere along the line, some of these ones and twos might get hit early in this tournament.”

CBS shuffled its announcing teams a few seasons ago. Spanarkel had worked with Ian Eagle for 17 years before the network paired him with Lundquist.

“When I got the phone call to say I was going to move over to Verne, it was bittersweet because I had worked with Ian as a broadcast partner for 17 years,” Spanarkel said. “But it’s a new experience with Verne Lundquist, who is an institution, just a legend in the broadcasting field. And when I sit down next to him, I just shake my head sometimes. How many people would want to be sitting next to him broadcasting a basketball game, or even just talking about the history of his career, in football, in golf. As good an announcer as he is, an institution, he is even better as a person.”

Last year, Spanarkel and Lundquist were working an NCAA game and it was time for a CBS promotional announcement about the Masters golf tournament. Lundquist read the announcement live on air.

“Verne turned to me and, whispering like they always do on golf broadcasts, he said, ‘I’m now going to read this in my Masters voice.’ And he does the promo as though he’s doing it in front of a golfer who is getting ready to putt. And I said to myself, how lucky am I to be sitting there with Verne Lundquist.”

Dialed in

* The March Madness partnership between CBS and Turner Sports continues. The Final Four and championship game, which now alternate between the broadcast network and Turner cable stations, return to CBS this year. Between CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, all 67 games of the tournament will be televised. CBS will carry 24 games in total; the three Turner cable networks will air 43 games.

* Bill Raftery, who worked the Buffalo NCAA games in 2014 with Lundquist and LaForce, is part of CBS’s No. 1 crew, with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson. They will be in Phoenix for the Final Four.

* If you prefer online streaming to traditional TV, all 67 games of the men’s tournament will once again be live-streamed as part of NCAA March Madness Live. From the CBS-Turner press release: “NCAA March Madness Live has expanded to 15 platforms including Amazon Alexa devices and Xbox for the first time, as well as desktop, Amazon Fire tablets, Amazon Fire TV, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, Android handset, Android tablet, Chromecast, Windows 10 mobile and desktop, Roku players and Roku TV models.”

* The release also mentions that March Madness Live includes “excitement alerts” from the tournament. As always, check with your doctor before beginning any strenuous viewing activity.

* The studio coverage on CBS and the four Turner outlets will once again have some of the flavor of TBS’ famed “Inside the NBA” postgame program, as Ernie Johnson co-hosts coverage with Greg Gumbel, while Charles Barkley, Clark Kellogg and Kenny Smith also provide analysis and more than a few jokes along the way.

* Two of the teams playing in Buffalo, Wisconsin and Virginia Tech, have CBS and Turner crews “embedded” with them throughout the week and will be featured in segments called “NCAA March Madness Confidential,” behind-the-scenes profiles of the teams that will air during studio segments throughout the tournament.

* Did you know? ... Allie LaForce is married to major league relief pitcher Joe Smith, who this offseason signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after finishing last year with the world champion Chicago Cubs.

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