We know Jim Nantz gives away his tie to a player at the Final Four who inspires him. We were never supposed to know that nor were we supposed to learn the 57-year-old broadcaster has given away hundreds of ties during his career. But it was only a matter of time. No public deed goes unscrutinized.
What we know about this unusual tradition, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more to the real story than the viral headlines which erupted last spring. And what appears to some as a superficial overreach is actually much deeper. The real story is about how a well-intentioned and secretive gesture was immediately distorted from the outside to be something other than it was — and its journey back to a positive place after a detour of negativity.
“It was always supposed to be private, it was never a publicity stunt,” Nantz told The Big Lead. “I did it all these years with no one knowing about it. Forget the 10 or 11 athletes, I’ve given away hundreds to nice people along the way.”
His private practice became public fodder after Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono wore the red tie he’d been gifted to the postgame press conference after winning the national championship last March.
“I gave him the tie,” Nantz said. “I didn’t hold him up. I took 10 seconds to basically tell him I’ve done this for a number of years for a player that’s inspired me with their character and performance and you’re the guy I’ve chosen. Villanova went to its press conference and Ryan wore the tie around his neck. I’m sure it stood out because it was a red tie, which I wore for being back in Houston, and he was asked about it. He went and basically, song and verse, if you get the transcript, repeated exactly what I had told him on the floor. In my opinion, you could tell it meant something to him. Otherwise, why would he have worn it in there? And he even expressed an appreciation for it.
I get on a plane the next day going to Augusta and all of the sudden, I realize my private moment, my expression of appreciation for a great young man — and every great young man that I’ve given one to before — had now suddenly been handed over to some people who wanted to write their own biased, tainted or cynical version.”
Those versions came out with great frequency after the incident became public. Many criticized him for injecting himself into the story. Some went as far as to point to it as a irrefutable sign of pompousness.
Nantz’s narrative? Well, it’s a long, complicated story, but he’s happy to tell it.
“People want to come up to me and talk about the tie with a smile on their face thinking they know the story,” he said. “I get it. I understand it. I’d probably do the same thing. But it’s a good thing and I’m not ashamed of what the backstory is. I’m proud of it. It’s just that I wasn’t looking for any credit for it.
The reality is, I’ve been giving my ties away for decades. It was a sweet, private moment and I didn’t usually do it at sporting events. Maybe here and there I’ve given a manager one or a pr director who’s been especially kind to me. Understand that I couldn’t name every guy I’ve given a tie to because I’ve given, truly, hundreds away in my career. The great majority of the time it’s to someone that is waiting to meet me or wants an autograph or wants to take a picture. Sometimes it’s a young kid standing there with their father. I did it as a goodwill gesture, as an act of kindness. My father told me to look at the world that way. My father loved people who weren’t operating under some sort of false pretense or caught up in their own success.”
Now, before we go much further, let’s dispense with the idea that the ties are sweat-drenched and need to be wrung out.
“They’re mint condition,” Nantz said. “Brand new ties, not sweaty ties despite what some take liberties to say. I’m not sitting there in a full-blown Albert Brooks sweat.”
Nantz was in the ritual of giving away his tie to someone he feels is extraordinarily nice to him. He’d never given one away to an athlete, however, until a special encounter with Corey Brewer at the 2006 Final Four.
That year, the Florida Gators won their first of back-to-back championships. The team was full of players with famous fathers. Joakim Noah, son of Yannick. Al Horford, son of Tito. Taurean Green, son of Sidney. Nantz noticed something about the coverage of Billy Donovan’s team. Writers were focused on the second-generation stars. CBS’ cameras were even trained to maximize reaction shots from the trio of dads.
“I went up to Corey Brewer and asked if his father was going to be at the Final Four,” Nantz said. “He said, ‘No, Mr. Nantz, he has a surgery coming up and can’t make the trip.’ I said, ‘Corey, my suspicion is that you love your father just as much as the other kids who we are always focusing our attention on love their dad.’ I told him, ‘you know what I’m going to try to do? I’m going to try to get your father’s name on the broadcast and tell him that you wish he could be here and that you’re thinking of him.’ He said it would mean a lot to him.
Fred Demarest was their SID at the time and he’d been telling me what a great kid Corey was. The championship game ends and I see Corey on the floor after One Shining Moment played through the arena. He came over and I told him I’d mentioned his dad on the air. Then I said, ‘I want you take this. You’re a great young man and it’s been a privilege to cover you this tournament.'”
When the Gators and Brewer returned the next year, Nantz hadn’t given any thought to presenting another tie following the Final Four. He then discovered that Brewer had hung the tie he’d received in his locker as a reminder.
“That’s how it started,” Nantz said. “I never thought I’m going to do this and I’m going to force my tie as people claim. Truth be known, again, only because I’ve done this so many times, I couldn’t tell you who I gave the tie to next year. I can tell you this, when they [Florida] won the championship the next night, I grabbed Corey and said, ‘again, your dad’s not here this year is there anything you’d like me to pass on to your dad. I put the mike in front of his face and he said, ‘hey, dad, I love you.’ I thought, wow, here was a kid in Brewer who had a rich college experience, just a special kid.”
To hear Nantz tell it, there was no grand plan for The Great Giving of the Tie to become a thing. That said, he’s quick to appreciate the positive feedback he’s received from past recipients like Mario Chalmers and Peyton Siva.
“I realized it meant something so it went on and would never have seen the light of day by my choosing because that was never the intent. So it’s not a publicity stunt,” Nantz said. “I just figure it’s a piece, a reminder from their special night.”
The backlash following this tradition going public reached Nantz who, again, stresses he never wanted this to become in play for the masses to see, in droves. What he’s intent on doing is to turn that negativity into something positive.
“You guys in sports media have given me a wonderful gift, he said of the mixed reaction to his textile gifts. “I live in a spot where you get a lot of attention. I’m a big boy. I’m okay. Did I lose sleep over it? Absolutely not. Did I want it to go public? Never. Did I want to sit before reporters and tell them that I have been doing this dozens and hundreds of times over to people? No. Would I rather it had been a private play? Yes. I operated for 25 years as a private gesture.
But I’m grateful. Now that it’s out in the public, I just want people to know that it has given me a wonderful new platform. See, no matter what I do, I can’t get anyone to draw any interest in what I wake up everyday worrying about outside of my family. And that’s to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
Nantz lost his father to the disease in 2008. In 2011, the broadcaster opened up the Nantz National Alzheimer Center in Houston. He calls it a “gigantic endeavor” into which he and his wife have “poured their hearts and souls.”
He is partnering with a tie manufacturer in 2017 on a costume line he hopes will be a visual reminder to the audience about his his passion project. He will give 100 percent of his portion of the proceeds to Alzheimer’s research. The ties will feature Forget-Me-Knots on the front and the name of the research center on the back.
“If I’m not around to see a cure for Alzheimers, I’m going to feel like I didn’t make the most of the platform I have,” he said. “I wake up everyday worrying about a cure. We have a whole team, a whole army of people working on it in Houston. I’d love for people to come visit the center. It’s been the focus of attention of all kinds of science and medical magazines. We’ve raised millions of dollars. I can’t get anyone to talk about it. Now we’re going to be able to take this thing to a really new, beautiful place. We’re going to raise a lot of money and a lot of awareness for Alzheimer’s and that tie around my neck. All of this attention was a very big gift to me.”
Nantz will call the Big Ten Tournament in Washington DC beginning Saturday. He’ll embark on his 32nd NCAA Tournament behind the microphone a week from today. He’ll give away another tie after the Final Four in Phoenix, and you can bet a similar flood of negative or snarky headlines will come forth.
They’ll only raise awareness. And drive more people to learn more about the ties and the good that’s come from a private moment pushed into a bright spotlight.