Answering the call

Television basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli of Mount Pleasant will be working the College of Charleston and Clemson games in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. Staff/File

COLUMBIA – The first person to notice her is an Alabama player, who spots Debbie Antonelli standing in a corner of Colonial Life Arena and breaks from the team shootaround to trot over and say hello. Soon assistants, support personnel, and even the head coach are greeting her like an old friend.

It’s more of the same an hour later when South Carolina takes the floor, and the Mount Pleasant resident is embraced like a member of the family.

“That’s my girl, right there!” Gamecocks freshman guard Bianca Cuevas exclaims, jogging over to give Antonelli a hug.

It’s like this everywhere she goes. Players, coaches, athletic department officials, security guards. They all know Antonelli, a television analyst who’s been a fixture in women’s college basketball for more than two decades. Interest in the game has spiked in the Palmetto State due to the ascent of nationally ranked South Carolina, which leads the NCAA in average attendance.

But Antonelli sees it from a wider perspective, calling nearly 80 games each season, part of a tireless schedule that also includes raising three sons and occasionally prepping for broadcasts while waiting in the pickup line at Wando High School.

A recent Thursday encapsulates it all. Antonelli is at USC to call a game against Alabama, but nine hours before tipoff she’s already in front of the camera talking basketball, being interviewed by a Raleigh production team for a retrospective on the coach at North Carolina State, Kay Yow. Then there are shootarounds for both teams, informal interviews with both head coaches, a “chalk talk” basketball Q&A session with boosters, a visit with her oldest son, Joey, who is a sophomore at USC, a change of clothes and then finally the call of the game itself. Afterward, she’ll drive to Atlanta, and do much of it again the next day.

Her schedule during basketball season is planned out with almost military precision. Work Alabama at South Carolina, drive to Atlanta. Work Florida State at Georgia Tech, fly to South Bend, Ind. Work Wake Forest at Notre Dame, drive to Bloomington, Ind. Work Purdue at Indiana, fly home to Charleston for one day, until it’s time to hit the road again. She averages 80 college games a year, also works the television broadcasts for the Indiana Fever of the WNBA and has a side business providing colleges with media training.

“I do a lot of late-night driving,” Antonelli said. “The secret to late-night driving is water and Atomic Fireballs. Already loaded up for tonight.”

Antonelli and her husband Frank moved to the Charleston area 15 years ago, but it was in Cary, N.C., where the basketball bug bit. She had always played sports, even pitching in Little League baseball in her hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But then she moved south, and was exposed to women’s college athletics, particularly basketball at N.C. State. She went to the camps, she attended the games, and she played from 1983-86 on Wolfpack teams that reached the NCAA tournament every year.

“The best non-stat starter in N.C. State history,” Antonelli called herself. She maintains close ties to the program, successfully lobbying to have the Reynolds Coliseum floor named for Yow as her former coach neared the end of her long battle with breast cancer, and even scrambling up jerseys from the N.C. State equipment manager to be used in the video filmed in Columbia. She arrived at the shoot with a bin filled with mementos from her playing days, from her own No. 12 jersey to an old fundamentals poster she used to have on the wall.

But Antonelli didn’t follow the direct path from competing to broadcasting that many athletes do now. In 1986, there was no path, particularly in women’s basketball.

“There was no one doing this,” she said. The lone women’s basketball personality in those days was Mimi Griffin, who called the one nationally televised game on CBS each year.

Antonelli pursued a career in athletic administration with an eye toward becoming an athletic director. She was working at Kentucky when a local cable company proposed the idea of broadcasting a women’s game.

“My boss said, ‘What do you think about doing the game?’ I said, ‘I’d love to try it.’ And I was hooked,” Antonelli said. “Like hitting that sweet 7-iron. One time, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I love the game, I had a chance to stay in the game, I could prep for the game, watch tape, all the things I loved to do as a player, and do it on television. Instantly hooked.”

Her first broadcast was in November 1987. She doesn’t remember the opponent, but she remembers what she wore on-air. “Blue suit with a white shirt,” she said. “I was a nervous wreck. The on-camera was deer in the headlights, for sure. And the guy I was working with, he was no better than me. Horrified.”

Still, it was a beginning. When she moved to the marketing department at Ohio State, she created a women’s basketball television package and handled the color commentary herself. Regional sports networks — back then, ESPN was hardly the omnipresent force that it is now — began to call. Antonelli realized that if she wasn’t working for a university, she could probably work as a television analyst full-time.

“It was a good roll of the dice,” she said. “At the time, nobody else was really doing it.”

She’s been doing it ever since. Now Antonelli calls women’s games for almost every major network, and even works an occasional men’s game. She packs all she can into the relatively narrow window that is college basketball season, eschewing other sports so she can spend some time in Mount Pleasant with Frank and their teenage sons Joey, Frankie and Patrick.

Still, December to April is a constant grind, with occasional travel hiccups, like that time last year when the National Guard pulled her out of a snowbound interstate, mixed in.

“You have moments,” she said. “But when those moments come, I try to be thankful and grateful for what I have, and not let it overwhelm me. What am I going to take a step back from? There’s not anything I want to cut out or do less of. I want to do more.”

It’s 30 minutes before tipoff, and the crowd is assembling at Colonial Life Arena, and Antonelli is in her courtside seat alongside play-by-play man Brad Muller. But this South Carolina game is a little different in that it’s not on television: It’s being broadcast online-only. And, one of the best-known analysts in women’s basketball won’t take home a penny.

Antonelli is working five online broadcasts this season for USC and deferring her compensation to Innersole, the charity founded by Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley, which provides new sneakers to underprivileged children. As part of the agreement, Antonelli and Staley visited Pinckney Elementary School in Mount Pleasant on Dec. 8, one day after USC’s landmark victory at Duke, and handed out more than 50 pairs of shoes.

“It was good for me because I get to do the games. It was good for Dawn because she gets to take her foundation,” Antonelli said. “And for those kids, it’s absolutely priceless what we got to do.”

Antonelli “just jumped on board,” Staley said. “The position is underpaid, and she’s over-over-over-overqualified for that position. But when you have someone who’s from the state of South Carolina, she lives here, she’s done our games over the past year, she’s watched this program grow, there’s not a better person who can represent and speak on our behalf, good, bad, or indifferent. She’s a great analyst, and I would only want the truth in how we’re playing. She does that every time I see her commentate a game.”

The ties between Staley and Antonelli, both former players who stayed in the game in different ways, are natural. Antonelli remembers how awed she felt when she moved to Cary and was first exposed to women’s basketball at North Carolina State.

“Seeing these women playing college basketball at a very high level — physical scorers, could shoot it, very skilled — I was like, wow. That was sort of my dream. That became my inspiration, my motivation,” she said.

Is that happening now in South Carolina?

“I think it happens every day here,” she said. “Look at the women on South Carolina’s team. ... I think boys and girls are inspired by it. People see that, and aspire to be the same thing. Dawn has put her team out there. They’re out in the community, they’re out there meeting people. Dawn can’t go anywhere now without being stopped. It’s kind of a product of what you wanted.”

The same could be said of Antonelli, and a broadcasting career that blossomed from a side job into a livelihood, and in the thick of the season moves with the speed of a South Carolina fast break. The USC game complete, she packs up and prepares for a late-night drive to Atlanta. The water and the Atomic Fireballs are ready to go.