Q&A with Basketball Analyst Debbie Antonelli ’86
The NC State men’s basketball team plays Florida at 3 p.m. Sunday at the RBC Center, and the game will be nationally televised on Fox Sports South. The sideline reporter for the game will be one of our own: Debbie Mulligan Anontelli ’86, a Cary native and a three-year starting guard on the NC State women’s basketball team. In fact, she’ll be the sideline reporter for most of the Sunday ACC basketball games that will air on Fox Sports South this season and will provide much of the color commentary for the televised ACC women’s basketball games.
Antonelli, who was a double major in economics and business management, also calls games for the Big 12 and SEC, among others; has been the radio analyst for the CBS/NCAA Radio Network for the past 13 Women’s Final Fours; and co-hosts with Beth Mowins a weekly 30-minute podcast, “Shootaround with Beth & Debbie,” that focuses on women’s college basketball. During the off-season, Antonelli runs basketball camps and clinics during the off-season in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., where she resides with her husband, Frank, and their three children (Joey, Frankie and Patrick). “Everything is basketball,” she says, “and I would be remiss not to mention the influence and the impact that Coach [Kay] Yow had on me, professionally and as a mom and as a wife.”
Antonelli played under Coach Yow from 1982 to 1986 and is a member of the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund’s board of directors. She took time to speak with us before the holidays about her career.
How did you get into broadcasting?
I got my master’s in sports administration from Ohio University, and I felt like I was on a track headed toward being an athletic director. That’s why I was in external affairs, marketing and fund-raising, because I felt like those were the skills you had to have to be a really good athletic director. . . . So I was headed toward that, but when I had the opportunity to do the basketball, I loved it. . . . When I left Kentucky and went to Ohio State, when I got there, they did not have a local TV package for their women. So being the director of marketing in the athletics department at Ohio State, I went to the local cable company in Columbus and I asked them if they could produce sports and they weren’t sure. And I said, “Well, put a figure together and tell me what it would cost to do eight women’s basketball games.” They gave me that figure, and as the director of marketing, I went out and sold advertising to pay for the production of eight women’s basketball games, and I got to do the games. Essentially, I was able to create my own opportunity but . . . . And when I was at Ohio State, I started to get some offers on a regional level. ESPN would call; other places would call. At this time, there are not a lot of women’s basketball games on television. There’s very few opportunities and there are very few places where you could actually find work. And I sort of created my own opportunities to stay in broadcasting. . . . It has worked out better than I could have ever imagined.
I just love the spirit of competition, and I love being there to watch teams cut down the net after championships. I know how hard they – the coaches and the players — had to work to get there. . . .I can’t remember any time in my life that I hasn’t had basketball in it. As a player, as a coach, as an administrator, and as a broadcaster, I have been able to see the game from many different angles. I love seeing people get better at their craft. I love going to a college environment; I love going to campus and watching teams practice. I love watching film and tape. I’m constantly learning something new about the game every day. I’m a basketball junkie – a true definition of it.
What are the biggest challenges you face, and how do you deal with them?
The travel can be difficult, and some coaches are not as accessible as others. And, being away from my family is a huge challenge. I have three boys who are 14, 12 and 8. We’ve been in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., for 10 years. My middle son [Frankie] has Down syndrome and has special needs. That’s a whole other story, but he is smart, handsome, and funny and athletic, and he just happens to have Down syndrome. That doesn’t define who he is. That’s another challenge. I actually thought after he was born, I wasn’t sure I would be able to continue to work. But fortunately, my husband told me to continue to do what I do. And here we are 12 years later. But the career choice is only basketball. I choose not do spring sports and not to do football sideline reporting, because doing that would take away more time from my family. We’ve been doing it like this since the kids were born. . . . We have a full-time person at the house after school to help with homework and dinner and normal after-school activities. I hire a kid in the neighborhood to videotape my kids’ playing basketball. We just manage. They all play basketball, and they’re all involved in various things. We are supremely organized.
What’s your schedule like?
I might have one or two games a week before Christmas during the college season. But after Christmas, I have a game literally every night in January, February and March. From Christmas to the Final Four, it’s pretty much straight through. It’s a lot of travel, and it’s time away from my family. It’s kind of like basketball deployment. I’m deployed at Christmas time and come back Easter. I’m not saying that I’m gone completely, but I’m not here very much.
So what makes your job worth it?
If I’m going to be away from my family for that amount of time, I’m going to make sure that I’m having a good time and doing what I love. . . . And when I was in college, we never played on television. I never played one game on TV. When these kids get to be on TV, for some of them, it might be the only chance that they’ll be on TV. Their grandmother is watching in Wisconsin and this is the only time they are going to get to see their grandkids play; well, I’m going to make sure that I have something positive and ready to say about every kid, even if it’s the last kid off the bench. I want to know everything I need to know. . . . I’ve been going to the places into the ACC for so long that I know the parking attendants, the guys that work the backdoor, the ushers that work in my area — it’s just a real comforting feeling when I’m on the road all the time.
How do you prepare for games?
I read newspaper clips, I read game notes, I watch film. I talk to coaches and local media. I’m constantly looking for another piece of information and nugget. Coaches have certain people they can call when they have a question in their profession. For me, I have several coaches who are very good friends of mine and who I can go to to ask something technical about the game. . . . My philosophy is this: I don’t care if it’s the top two teams in the league or the bottom two teams in the league, I’m going to bring the same efforts and prep and the same level of preparedness as if it were the national championship. That’s the only way I know, and it’s not fair to the coaches and players when you don’t bring your best effort.
What are some of your favorite moments from your career?
Interviewing John Wooden [the former UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA titles]. About eight years ago, I had to call UCLA to get his number and UCLA would call him and say so-and-so wants to interview you and he would say if it was OK for you to call. If he would say yes, they’d let you know and tell you to call at a certain time. Well, they gave me his number and told me to call him tomorrow at a certain time. So I call, and I’m fully expecting to get a voicemail. And the first time I call, he says, “Hello.” And I say, “Is this Coach Wooden? Umm. . . . This is Debbie Antonelli. I’m scheduled to speak with you. Can I call you back in two minutes?” He said, “Absolutely.” So I get off the phone and calmed down a little bit. He is basketball. . . . He is a national treasure. So I hung up and wrote down every single thing I wanted to ask him because I knew that this is not one of those interviews where you call back and say, “Coach, I forgot to ask you something.” That was a thrill.
What did Coach Wooden say during the interview that has stayed with you?
That he enjoys going to the women’s Final Four more than he enjoys going to the men’s Final Four, because of the way the [women’s] game is fundamentally-based and not above the rim. The discipline in the women’s game — I think that’s something that he said that means a lot.
Other favorite memories?
When [Tennessee women’s basketball coach] Pat Summitt won game No. 900 and when [former Texas women’s basketball coach] Jody Conradt won game No. 900 – two milestones that have never been achieved on the women’s or men’s game. I was on the call for both of those games. It is something that I’ll never forget. . . . I also was on the call when Pat got win No. 1,000, which was last year. The last 13 Final Fours on the women’s side are always memorable, and every ACC women’s basketball tournament is special to me.
And, being able to be there and calling the games when [Coach Yow] won No. 700 and when the team beat Duke in the 2007 ACC Tournament. Duke was No. 1 and undefeated, and this was when [Coach Yow] was really sick on the sidelines. And, right before they had upset North Carolina, which was No. 2. And seeing the court [at Reynolds Coliseum] get named after her and having a significant role in that – that was something very important to me. I’m also on the board of directors for her fund, which is also very important to me because I have the chance to be apart of influencing others to give to her fund and find a cure for her cancer. Cancer has touched all of us, and I know that’s part of her fulfilling her legacy is to help make a difference. . . .
The first time I go into Reynolds and Coach Yow is not there, that will be a difficult thing. But we all have to go through that; I haven’t experienced that yet, so I’m not sure how I’ll handle it. But because of my job and my profession, I will handle it the best way I can. I have been on the air for many emotional moments with her. I’ve interviewed her and it’s been very difficult to do those things. But I know that she is counting on me and many others to do the right thing, and she’s always expected that. That would not be any different.