Beyond The Boxscore
Jim Nantz Jr.'s belief in Houston stood as one of the absolutes in the Nantz home for almost as long as his son, the well-known CBS sportscaster, can remember.
The elder Nantz never wavered in his Bayou City adoration. He fell in love with the place on a business trip, figured out a way to move his family into town and still kept praising the city when that move backfired professionally and he had to find work as a furniture salesman instead.
Nothing could knock Houston down in Jim Nantz Jr.'s eyes.
"My dad would always say, 'Houston is a place that gives you a chance,' " Jim Nantz says. " 'It gives everybody a chance.' "
There really was no doubt where Jim Nantz would set out to give the sufferers of Alzheimer's — the disease that afflicted his dad — a better chance of regaining touch with their normal lives, where he'd make it a personal crusade to give researchers a better chance to find a cure. It had to be in Houston, Nantz town.
So there Nantz is Wednesday afternoon at Methodist Hospital, with the hospital's chairman of neurology Stanley Appel at his side, officially launching the Nantz National Alzheimer Center. The center (which will be housed for now on the eighth floor of a Methodist facility that's doing cutting-edge Alzheimer's treatment) is geared toward accelerating the fight against a disease that someone in the United States gets diagnosed with every 72 seconds.
For Nantz, the name of the center is crucial in two ways. He didn't want it to be the Jim Nantz Center because it's about a lot more Nantzes than that (his deceased dad of course; plus his mother Doris and his sister Nancy, the ones who took on the brunt of the caregiving for an Alzheimer's patient; and even his daughter Caroline). Just as importantly, Nantz wanted National to be in the title.
"That National is critical," he says. "Because we want people to come from everywhere. Whoever needs the treatment. Wherever you are. Come to Houston to get it done sure. But come from anywhere."
Coming on the same day that news broke that Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is heading to Houston to rehab from the gunshot wound to the head, the message rings particularly true.
Nantz knows this Alzheimer's fight needs to be national — really worldwide if at all possible. But he's going to wage that battle from the city his dad loved dearest, the city he went to school in himself, the city he clearly still identifies most with even if he currently lives in Connecticut.
He's already decided to make the Final Four — the Houston Final Four — an important part of his vision. Nantz (who buys Houston Texans season tickets every year, even though he knows his NFL broadcasting duties will never allow him to actually ever sit in one of the seats himself) figures he hasn't had the opportunity to call nearly enough Houston events.
"Since they've been in existence, I've done one Texans game," says Nantz, whose game schedule is set by CBS. "And that was the opener with the Jets last year. During that same period, I've called 44 Patriots games."
This year's Final Four will be different. Nantz will be calling the big event in his town.
"But you can't just show up and do the games in that case," he says, away from the dais and the fanfare of the official Methodist announcement. "You have to take a swing."
A Wortham Night
Nantz's swing will come in hosting a special NCAA Salute at the Wortham Theater Center on the night of March 31st (the Thursday of Final Four week). The night will honor the University of Houston's illustrious, but still sometimes forgotten Final Four history (the Cougars have made five — five — Final Four appearances) and particularly the impact of former UH coach Guy Lewis (the architect of every one of those Final Four runs). All the teams and coaches in the 2011 Final Four will participate, along with celebrity guests.
The show will be broadcast nationally (most likely on the CBS College Sports cable network) as something of a kickoff to the hoops party.
The end game of the event? Raising money to fight Alzheimer's — a point Nantz insists on.
Nantz did something similar when Houston hosted the Super Bowl — his Houston Salute held Monday night of Super Bowl week in 2004 was the first time the NFL's biggest game had an opening ceremony. But the proceeds that year were spread out among the NFL's official charities.
And Nantz has found that giving in a nebulous way isn't enough for him anymore. This 51-year-old multi-millionaire (he pays his ex wife nearly a million dollars a year in alimony) is now committed to making a major difference with one big cause rather than doing a little for a lot of different organizations.
"I added it up one year and it was about 100 days on the road for charity," Nantz says. "But I never knew if I was really making a difference. I'd host an event. I'd give a speech. I'd talk to people to raise money. But that would be the end of it. When I walked out of those events, I couldn't be sure I'd made a deal difference. With this center, I know.
"All those 100 days are going to the fight against Alzheimer's — and then some."
Nantz is certainly living up to his vow early. This is the week of the AFC Championship Game — a Sunday night affair that will be the most watched show on CBS primetime this year, likely the second most watched broadcast on any network in 2011, behind only the Dallas Super Bowl itself. Nantz is more aware of this than anyone. He feels the weight of all those ears following his every word from the booth.
But he insists that this Wednesday at Methodist is the day he really looked forward to this week. And that was even before he ran into one of his old UH professors at the press conference.
He promises that he'll talk about the Nantz National Alzheimer Center in his national Thursday conference call with 60 writers previewing the Jets-Steelers showdown. He'll hit the morning shows on Friday to chat about this new Houston center and his late dad (Jim Nantz Jr. passed away in 2008 after having suffered with Alzheimer's and its identity-robbing effects for 13 years) in earnest. He'll do a walk through of the Wortham for his Final Four event with NCAA officials.
Nantz will not get on a plane for Pittsburgh (the site of the AFC title tilt) until that blitz is done.
"There are not many people in his stage of life — since I'm an old geezer I can say that — that are about making a lifetime commitment to a cause," Appel says. "Those are very, very powerful words."
Nantz's dad would probably say it's a Houston thing.