Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Verne Lundquist was out to dinner when the first missed call came. There was a message:

"Voice mail, call Bill." Then another. "Voice mail, call Bill." Then another. "Voice mail, call Bill."

"He called me three times," Lundquist said. "So I called him back, late at night, and it was emotional. It was very emotional for both of us, I think."

It was.

"That was a hard phone call for me," Bill Raftery said. "The first 10 minutes of the conversation, I felt bad having to tell him. But his reaction made it easier for me."

Unlike many urgent late-night calls between septuagenarians, this one brought happy news, with a bittersweet tinge.

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For the first time since CBS paired them for the 2000 NCAA Tournament, March Madness would carry on without the popular "Sunshine Boys" team of Lundquist and Raftery. But that only was because Raftery had been named to the No. 1 CBS/Turner team that will call the Final Four, for which he will join Jim Nantz and Grant Hill.

Lundquist summed up the reaction from fans, journalists and pretty much the entire basketball community when the news arrived Feb. 3: "Finally, finally!" he said Tuesday at a pre-NCAA media breakfast.

"I just think that people feel warmly about Bill," said Lundquist, who has been close to Raftery since they first worked together in 1983. "I wasn't surprised at the reaction, but it's even more positive, I think, than I expected."

The raves for Raftery's promotion deflected attention from the unhappy circumstances that led to it: the suspension of Greg Anthony after his arrest in January on a charge of soliciting a prostitute.

That, combined with the departure of Steve Kerr to coach the Golden State Warriors, left two openings alongside Nantz, who will call his 25th Final Four.

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Hill, 42, and Raftery, 71, each will analyze his first Final Four on TV, but Raftery waited a bit longer for his shot. Hill was 10 when Raftery first worked an NCAA Tournament.

Nantz turned to Raftery on Tuesday and said, "You're going to bring something back that hasn't been at the Final Four since Al McGuire [whose last was in 1981]. There's a love, there's an exuberance, there's something about you that's so endearing that everybody is excited for you, Raf."

Raftery has worked many Final Fours as a radio analyst and said he never thought much about moving to the TV side, in part because he "thought [Billy] Packer would be doing it forever."

But Packer left after 2008 with a reputation as a knowledgeable but curmudgeonly figure who did not connect with younger viewers. Raftery is the opposite. Young fans long have embraced him.

"It's something to walk into an arena, no matter where we are, and hear someone in the third balcony see Bill on the floor and yell, 'Onions!' " said Lundquist, who will be paired with Jim Spanarkel for the NCAAs.

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"They want to make a connection. We get, 'With a kiss!' and, 'Man-to-man!' all of it . . . He's not going to climb in the stands and hope that they surf him, but he interacts with people."

Crowd surfing is a specialty of another 70-plus analyst, ESPN's Dick Vitale. Raftery said he has no interest in being turned upside down. "I'm afraid to lose my money," he said. "[Vitale] has got plenty to lose."

Reporter Allie LaForce worked with Lundquist and Raftery last year and saw the Raf phenomenon in meetings with coaches.

"Normally it's like, 'Coach, how are you guarding a ball screen?' or, 'Are you going to hedge? Are you going to double? How are you going to play defensively?' " LaForce said. "He goes, 'Listen, cut the [expletive]; tell me something good.' It's just fantastic because he takes a totally humanistic approach to basketball."

LaForce is 26. Why does she think Raftery connects with her generation?

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"He makes you laugh. He makes you feel like you're his best friend. He is relatable. He has fun with the game."

Raftery, who this weekend is calling the Big Ten Tournament for CBS, credited his parents for teaching him to think and act young. But he concedes to slowing down from his decades as one of basketball's foremost late-night raconteurs.?

Now he will stay up late the night of the championship game, educating and entertaining America. "It's been pretty gratifying," Raftery said of the reaction to his assignment. "I mean, I never expected the comments, the letters, the texts, things like that. People couldn't be nicer. I guess it's a tribute to longevity, maybe."