CBS puts its employees up at a plush hotel during Final Four week where everything is taken care of for them. Free meals are offered in a ballroom, around the clock. Courtesy cars stand at the ready to take them wherever they want to go in Houston — whenever.
It's a sweet setup. And it's even better if you're part of "the talent."
Still, Jim Nantz turned down the CBS hotel for the first time in his career this week. The voice of the network traded in the killer suite waiting for him for a somewhat cramped, old bedroom in the Royal Oaks subdivision.
"Not River Oaks," Nantz quickly points out. "Royal Oaks."
It's in this quiet community, amongst all the trappings of his childhood, with his mother down the hall, that Jim Nantz prepared for Monday night's national championship game.
"All my old pennants are there on the walls," Nantz says. "My posters from when I was a kid. I'm lying there amongst all these artifacts of my childhood while getting ready to call a Final Four. It's a great reminder of the dream. That's where it all started with a dream."
Others may see faults with the Final Four Houston ended up with — lament the absence of more traditional powers or a crossover Jimmer Fredette star — but not Nantz. This is his dream Final Four. Because it's in Houston. Because it's showing off the city he loves most, the one that caused his beloved late dad to take a questionable career gamble just to get his family there.
"The most frequent comment I've received is, 'I didn't know people in Houston were this nice,' " Nantz says. "Everyone's truly made the visitors feel welcome."
In a Final Four without a single basketball player from Texas, Nantz has emerged, in many ways, as the Houston conscience of the event. He is the one who can bring the feel of the city home to the millions of people across the country watching Monday night's Butler-UConn showdown.
In many ways, he's the most prominent Houstonian on the mega stage.
But Nantz, who lives in Connecticut now, an easy drive from CBS' New York headquarters, re-immersed himself in his Houston first. He blew off the network hotel, and all the boys will be boys hanging out of a sports broadcast crew.
"I just thought to myself, 'When am I ever going to have a chance to do this again?' " Nantz tells CultureMap from his center court broadcast position, hours before any game. "When I ever going to have a chance to sleep in my old childhood room and go broadcast an event like this? When am I going to be able to wake up and go have breakfast cooked by my mom before calling one of the biggest sporting events in the world?
"It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I'm on the road all the time. When I have a chance to be home, I really want to be home. It's hard for me to describe just how special this Final Four is for me."
Nantz comes across as hokey (OK, more than hokey) at times. Until you spend some time around him. Then, you realize, it's truly not an act. This 51-year-old multi-millionaire really does still somehow possess an almost kid's wonder about the games.
There's no one in the world more excited to see if Butler can knock off UConn than Jim Nantz. I've interviewed dozens of broadcasters, have come across dozens more at parties (some of my best friends work at sports networks) and I've never ran into anyone else like Nantz.
The guy isn't selling anything. He just believes — in the power of a story, in the good of the audience. It's probably his greatest gift — even more than the booming voice his dad gave him. It's why so many slightly cynical sportswriters cannot get into his broadcasts and why so many regular folks adore them.
Nantz could convince a group of Botswana bushmen that UConn-Bulter is the most important thing in the world based on the power of his own belief.
Seasoned college basketball observers might not regard Butler as a true underdog, but Nantz thinks that's too shortsighted of a view. He will play up Butler's Cinderella cred to a national audience, knowing that many of those viewers will be watching one of their first college basketball games of the season.
Small school (enrollment of less than 4,500) from a small conference (Horizon League) — a school from Indiana, the home of Hoosiers no less — gets its chance at One Shining Moment.
"Now you're thinking like me," Nantz says. "It's all about the storylines. I can make a case on Monday night, that if Butler should win it, it's the greatest upset story in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Think about it. With all due respect to Rollie Massimino and Villanova (which shocked a powerhouse, Patrick-Ewing-led Georgetown team in the 1985 championship game as an eighth seed), Villanova is from the Big East. I loved Rollie and that Villanova story, but it's not the same as this Butler team.
"And North Carolina State in 1983 (which shocked Phi Jama Slama on Lorenzo Charles' dunk of an air ball a the buzzer), that team had a number of pros on it. It played in the ACC. This Butler team is a whole different deal. It's not the same Butler team that made the Final Four last year. I picked them to make the Final Four last year. No one picked Butler this year. I can turn to that camera and state the case to America that this is the greatest upset story we've ever seen in college basketball."
First Nantz gathered all his relatives in Houston for a Friday night family dinner — 21 people strong, relatives only. Another big event first for the man who will go straight from Monday night to the Masters. (CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo is here too and the two men will board a jet for Augusta together).
"It's such a thrill to have everyone together like that," Nantz says. "It's just grabbing a moment that, again, I may never get a chance at again."
Nantz smiles. Whoever gets the One Shining Moment Monday night, one thing is certain. When he is back sleeping amongst all those pennants on the wall from now on, he'll be reliving the call from the Final Four of his life.