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The Power of YES: From Wolfpack Basketball to Olympic Broadcaster

Being open to opportunities has led former Wolfpack basketball star Terry Gannon ’85 to center stage as a voice of the Olympics.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall | Illustrations by Ben Kirchner

Terry Gannon ’85 was a pretty good college basketball player. He was arguably the best three-point shooter in the country in 1983 when the Wolfpack won the national championship and still holds the school career record for free throw percentage. And, in that NCAA championship game, Gannon made a critical play — drawing a fourth foul on Houston star Clyde Drexler — to help seal the win. Such play could launch a player to the pros — or so Gannon wondered. But, as he mulled over an opportunity to play in Europe, Jim Valvano, NC State’s larger-than-life coach, swiftly shot down the idea.

“Terry, you’re short, you’re slow and you can’t jump. Who the hell are you going to be, [former New York Knicks point guard] Walt Frazier? Get on with your life,’” Gannon remembers Valvano telling him all those years ago.

Gannon took Valvano’s advice and said no to a professional basketball career. But in that same conversation, Valvano gave him permission to say yes to something else — a career in broadcasting. It was an unexpected course change for Gannon, who had always thought he’d end up coaching like his dad if playing professionally didn’t work out. But that idea seemed less appealing after NBC Sports broadcaster and former coach Al McGuire told him the coaching business was too hard during a dinner at Amedeo’s with Valvano a week earlier. And, Valvano’s advice to pursue something different — something unexpected — wasn’t surprising. He had always drilled into his players the importance of taking on new challenges — of saying yes because “why not.”

All those choices where you get the phone call, and it’s that decision in that moment to say, ‘yes,’ or, ‘no.’ I’ve always been inclined to say, ‘yes,’ and then get excited about it.

“Go do it,” Valvano told him. “Within 25 seconds, he made a choice for me,” Gannon says. “That’s how I got into TV.”

Some 35 years later, Gannon is one of the most versatile sports broadcasters in television, a play-by-play analyst and host for NBC Sports and the Golf Channel. He has covered some of the world’s biggest sporting events, even though they have nothing to do with layups and three-point shots. In February, he’ll be on center stage again with two other larger-than-life personalities — champion figure skaters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir — to call the figure skating competition at the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

The trio — featuring Lipinski’s and Weir’s glitzy outfits and big personalities next to Gannon’s dark suits and buttoned-up, but fun-loving dad persona — will be an essential part of NBC’s coverage. They’ll likely spark the kind of social media fodder that had actress and comedian (and self-proclaimed Gannon fan) Leslie Jones mock Gannon’s shoe choice of “Buster Browns” when he was broadcasting the U.S. Olympics gymnastics team trials in June. “I hear ya @Lesdoggg,” Gannon tweeted. “Buster Browns retired!”

In the early days of his broadcast career, some wondered why he would waste his time on anything other than basketball. But Gannon followed Valvano’s advice at every turn, shaping his career by saying, “yes,” to assignments like figure skating or team handball or the Tour de France, and then scrambling to learn everything he could about the sport.

“All those choices where you get the phone call,” Gannon says, “and it’s that decision in that moment to say, ‘yes,’ or, ‘no.’ I’ve always been inclined to say, ‘yes,’ and then get excited about it.”

Assignment: Roving Reporter

Gannon’s rise wasn’t meteoric. For several years, he cobbled together a variety of broadcasting gigs, including reporting features for Valvano’s coach’s show, filling in for Valvano on his radio show, Valvano’s Viewpoints, and ACC basketball coverage. He eventually caught the eye of ABC executives, and the network sent him to cover the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg in 1993 as a roving reporter. There, he covered everything from sailing to judo and turned in a few entertainment and history pieces about the Russian city.

When he returned, ABC Sports offered him a contract for about $150,000. After scrambling so long to get work, “I thought I was the richest guy in the world,” he says. Gannon signed the contract and continued to rove, leading to a phone call from ABC executives asking if he could cover a figure skating event in Tokyo on short notice. Gannon told them he had heard of gold medalist skater Peggy Fleming, but that he knew nothing else about figure skating.

“And they say, ‘Well, we think you can do it.’ And you say ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Gannon says. “Then the next question is, ‘Well, they wear tuxedos. You own a tux, right?’ And, you lie and say, ‘Oh sure, sure.’ And then, the next moment, you’re renting a tux for Tokyo the next week. And that’s how it happened all along the way.”

When ABC asked him on a Monday to do play-by-play that Saturday for an ACC football game, also unfamiliar territory, he said yes — and then called every football play-by-play guy he knew to get advice. With each assignment, he developed a system to build his knowledge about a new sport. He focuses first on the basics and the terminology. He dives into videos to see how past competitions were called. And then he researches the athletes. “Every sport, no matter what it is, whether it’s a new sport or not, I do a whole research sheet for every event, so I have that in front of me,” he says.

Gannon’s goal is to explain to viewers what’s happening and not turn off a sport’s biggest fans with the wrong phrases or descriptions. Lipinski is one of those fans, and, she says, his process has more than paid off. “The figure skating world really respects him,” Lipinski says. “Terry just adapted so easily, picked up so much about the sport. And, I think, more importantly, liked figure skating and understood figure skating and had a passion for figure skating. And, at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”

When Lipinski started broadcasting with Gannon a decade ago, he was a celebrity to her. He had called her own competitions in the 1990s; she won Olympic gold in 1998. Lipinski credits Gannon for some of her success in broadcasting. “He never got tired of teaching me,” she says, “never got tired of talking to me.”

‘Rarest air’

Gannon’s move to the Golf Channel and NBC in 2010 was a practical one. He was calling a college basketball game in frigid Ames, Iowa, as he considered the opportunity. When he realized the golf crew was in Palm Springs, Calif., he decided covering golf might not be such a bad idea. Now, with NBC, he’s had a front row seat at multiple Olympics, covering rowing and canoeing at the 2012 Summer Olympics, figure skating and short track speed skating at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia; golf play-by-play at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio; and figure skating, along with the closing ceremonies, with Lipinski and Weir, at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

It’s the rarest air. There’s nobody else occupying it right now. And it’s got to be a lonely place at times.

Gannon started covering gymnastics in 2018, and last summer, that sport was his primary focus. Instead of Weir and Lipinski, he was part of a broadcast team with Olympic gymnastics medalists Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin. The three were front-and-center during the Games’ biggest story, as superstar U.S. gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the all-around final after a disappointing performance on the vault, citing her mental health. Liukin and Gannon noted the pressure Biles must have been feeling moments before her vault.

“It’s the rarest air,” Gannon said during the broadcast. “There’s nobody else occupying it right now. And it’s got to be a lonely place at times.”

Like millions of others, former teammate Thurl Bailey ’83, a retired NBA player and current Utah Jazz broadcast analyst, was following it all. “You can appreciate the fact that as an ex-athlete and not just a broadcaster, there are many things that athletes go through,” Bailey says. “If he hasn’t gone through it himself, he knows somebody who has. He’s empathetic.”

Back On The Ice

Now, the focus is back on figure skating. This fall, Gannon, Lipinski and Weir, a two-time Olympic figure skater and three-time U.S. National Figure Skating champion, covered the qualifying competitions that led up to the Olympics. Moments before the broadcast begins, the trio gives a quick nod to the skating careers of Lipinski and Weir and to Gannon’s Wolfpack basketball days. As the producer counts down to air, Lipinksi and Weir do a little shimmy and then Gannon joins in as they pretend to make a jump shot. Lipinski calls it “good luck charm” for the three who have announced figure skating competitions together since 2014.

Gannon says his role is to build a foundation for analysis by Lipinski and Weir. “It is up to me to provide the basics of what we’re watching, who we’re watching and why, as a fan, sitting on the couch, you should care,” he says. “If I get the basics down, it allows them the freedom to roam.”
And the conversation and antics do roam. Behind-the-scenes outtakes shared on social media show Weir and Lipinski dancing and lip syncing, with Gannon getting in on it on occasion. “I got a little Jagger,” he says as he grooves to stadium favorite “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil John during the 2018 Olympics in South Korea with Lipinski. “He’s so game for fun with us,” she says.

That includes what Lipinski and Weir wear for the broadcasts — sometimes sparkly, fantastical numbers which, of course, isn’t unusual for figure skating. “It’s a little bit different than other sports where you’re doing these incredible athletic feats, but you’re also wearing a sparkly dress and you’re being judged on artistic merit,” Lipinski says. “Johnny and I approach our shows like that, and it’s just so great that Terry is always game for us to be, like, we need to add a few sparkles to your microphone or we need to match this.”

Because of the influence of Lipinski and Weir, Gannon now travels with two suitcases instead of one so he has more fashion options, enabling him to coordinate a tie or pocket square with his co-commentators. Some, like Leslie Jones, have lightheartedly called Gannon out for not adding more flair to his outfits. In 2018, somebody even launched @TerryWearing, a Twitter account that documented “What is Terry Wearing Tonight?”

“Terry’s pocket square goes DOUBLE AXEL,” said one tweet with a picture of him wearing a two-pointed gold pocket square.

For the record, Gannon’s wife, Lisa Sherrill Gannon ’84, helps with his attire. And she’s gotten a little mad about some of the criticism, including the barb about the Buster Brown shoes. “But I laugh too,” she says. So does Gannon. “There are a lot of people who get on me for not being outrageous with my suits or whatever,” he says. “And my answer to them is this, ‘This is as far as I go.’ It would look ridiculous if I started to really go out there and dress crazy.”

At the Winter Games, Lipinski and Gannon agree that U.S. skater Nathan Chen will be the athlete to watch. And from his post in Beijing, Gannon’s phone likely will be lighting up with texts from his Wolfpack teammates who stay in touch. Former teammate Sidney Lowe ’83, an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, doesn’t really understand figure skating, he admits. “But I will watch it because he is doing it,” Lowe says.

‘Exceeded all Expectations’

Gannon, 58, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, whom he met in the weight room of Reynolds Coliseum, and two children, now young adults. His daughter, Maddie, is following in his footsteps, recently launching a broadcasting career on the news side.

Lisa Gannon is not surprised her husband has done well. “Terry is like the ultimate professional,” she says, “and he’s kind to everyone and he treats everybody with a great deal of respect.”

NC State is never far from Gannon’s thoughts. His social media handles on Twitter and Instagram include the number 83, and his bios list 1983 “NC State National Champ” first, followed by “NBC/Golf Channel Announcer.” And, on occasional Halloweens, he has been known to don his Wolfpack uniform, complete with those short 1980s shorts. But thinking back to when he was actually wearing that uniform, Gannon would never have guessed this would be his life — a path shaped by just saying yes and going for it, not unlike the ’83 team.

“This has exceeded all expectations,” Gannon says, “and I won’t say it’s exceeded my goals or my dreams, because I really didn’t have concrete mapped-out goals. I wanted to see where it was going to take me.”

Watch Terry Gannon on NBC during the 2022 Winter Olympics from Feb. 4–Feb. 20.

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  1. I watch Golf Channel programs here in Australia and one day I saw the commentator was a guy named Terry Gannon. His name was stored in my memory bank and I immediately recognised his face when I saw it on the program. He doesn’t seem to have aged much and I recognised his voice from watching the Cardiac Pack video so many times too. I didn’t know him personally when I was at NC State but the man is a legend, and an excellent commentator. Loved the article which explained how extensive his career has been. Once again, great advice from Coach V!!

  2. Who would have thought that my high school double play partner, who we couldn’t get to talk, would end up talking for a living. Great job Terry. I couldn’t be prouder of you.

  3. Such a classy young man and has carried himself with respect for others. I’m a Wolfpack Fan and admire his dedication to NCSU. I think he does an outstanding job in broadcasting, my favorite!