By Jesse Roman
PEABODY — If only college hoops announcer Billy Packer could see Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt now. ... Actually, maybe it's better if he doesn't.
"I certainly wouldn't run over and shake Billy Packer's hand if I saw him today," Bettencourt said with a smile yesterday when asked if he still holds a grudge against the now-retired college basketball analyst.
The first time Packer set his gaze on the future mayor was March 18, 1993, and he clearly wasn't impressed.
Bettencourt was a freshman backup guard on No. 13 seed Holy Cross, which was up against a buzz saw that night in No. 4 seed Arkansas and its "40 minutes of hell" full-court press defense in the first-round NCAA Division 1 tournament.
With three minutes to go in the game and Holy Cross down big, then-Holy Cross coach George Blaney inserted the seldom-used Bettencourt into the game. Television play-by-play announcer James Brown gave Bettencourt a warm welcome by informing the prime-time national television audience that the Peabody native was the prior year's Massachusetts Boys High School Basketball Player of the Year.
"That scares me a little bit," Packer quipped, never one to mince words. "Now I can see why UMass has to recruit out of state."
Bettencourt finished the game missing both shots he took and went into the locker room understandably feeling bad about his team's 94-64 loss, but obviously unaware of what had transpired over the airwaves. He was initially confused and alarmed when Blaney informed him that "something happened" and pulled him aside in the locker room for a private conversation.
"He told me that Billy Packer said something that might upset me," Bettencourt recalled. "He gave me a pep talk, said he was happy with the way I played this year, and he was looking for me to be the starting point guard the next three years."
Bettencourt didn't make much of Packer's insult at the time, because he was still too rattled by the loss and the cold fact that the senior-led team had just played its last game together. When he got back to Worcester and Peabody, however, Packer's remarks were impossible to ignore. There were articles in the newspapers, and friends, family, even Peabody High School teachers barraged CBS with telephone calls and letters demanding an apology, not just to Bettencourt, but to the state of Massachusetts for slandering its entire basketball prowess.
"It was a big deal," said Bettencourt, who acknowledges that the Packer comments did sour his only NCAA tournament appearance. "My mother is still mad about it."
Ted's brother Kevin Bettencourt, a prominent player on the 2005 Bucknell team that stunned Kansas in the first round of that season's NCAA tournament (see sidebar), was only 8 years old at the time, but even he has the controversy seared into his memory.
"I remember people talking about it and all the backlash afterward," he said.
Packer eventually wrote a letter to Bettencourt's mom, Barbara, "apologizing, but not really taking back what he said," Bettencourt said.
Despite the hoopla, Bettencourt said he cherished his time in the spotlight as a basketball player at the NCAA tournament, which continues tonight with Sweet 16 action. He and his teammates, for one weekend anyway, were treated like celebrities, with fans asking autographs, press conferences, a packed area and a nationally televised game.
Bettencourt used the Packer slight as motivation going forward in his career, and it worked. He went on to score more than 1,000 points in his collegiate career, start two years, captain the team and make all-Patriot League honors his senior year.
But even as success followed, Packer's five-second remark did, too — college sports fans can be particularly brutal creatures. Clever student sections in road games at rivals like Lehigh and Bucknell knew exactly what chant to use when Bettencourt got the ball: "BILL-LEE PACK-ER!"