It was a heated rivalry game against North Carolina — and the score was close late.
When a teammate was hit hard on a shot attempt and no whistle was blown, North Carolina State freshman Debbie Antonelli stood up on the bench and screamed “Foul!” at the closest referee.
Much to her embarrassment, Antonelli was assessed a technical foul — and assumed she would get scolded by her Hall-of-Fame coach, Kay Yow.
What ensued the next day, though, wasn’t a tongue lashing or some merciless punishment. Instead, Yow gave Antonelli a 20-minute lesson on the importance of character that she still often thinks about.
Antonelli is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN and CBS — and announces nearly 100 men’s and women’s games from coast to coast each year.
The Daily Coach spoke to her about her trailblazing career in broadcasting, critical life lessons from Yow, and the “three power words” that guide her daily.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Debbie, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us a little about your childhood and some key lessons from it.
I spent the first 13 years of my life in Hyde Park, N.Y. Then, we moved to North Carolina because my dad got transferred with IBM. One of my memories in New York was that I played Little League Baseball. I was 10, there was no softball option for girls, and I had a skillset that was good enough to try out for the boys.
I actually made the All-Star team and distinctly remember being at practice and hearing a dad lined up on the fence yelling, “Get that girl off the field. Why is there a girl playing?” I heard it a lot when I was 10, 11, 12 and didn’t understand what it meant.
I look back on those moments and think about the incredible competitiveness and the desire to excel and overcome it inspired. It was more reps, it was more batting practice, more fielding ground balls. I was just trying to fit in and not let anybody say that I didn’t belong. I think it’s helped me in other parts of my life today.
What drew you to NC State for basketball?
When we moved to North Carolina, my parents took me to NC State to Reynolds Coliseum. I sat on the railing and learned girls played basketball in college and that you could get a scholarship to do it. I saw Kay Yow’s teams that were very good in the late 70s and early 80s, No. 1 in the country, and I decided that was something I wanted to pursue.
We didn’t have summer basketball back then, AAU, anything like that. We played in the park and in the playground, found where the guys were and went to play. I could shoot it, so they let me in the games.
I had an offer from North Carolina sitting on my kitchen table, but Coach Yow came back and said, “We really want you. Hasn’t this been your dream? Hasn’t this been what you’ve always worked toward?” Every answer was yes. I ended up starting for three years.
What made Coach Yow special in your eyes and do you have any particularly memorable stories?
I got the technical foul on the bench as a freshman. The next day, we watch film, we don’t practice. (Coach Yow) hasn’t said anything to me. I’m sweating. I kept thinking, “Just send me to the track and make me run until I puke or something.”
I went up to her office and said, “Can I talk to you about what happened?” She had this incredible way about explaining why it was important to handle ourselves in a certain manner, how hard we worked to develop relationships, what sportsmanship is all about, and how getting a tech wasn’t representative of NC State or her program.
She said, “I loved that you were involved, invested. That’s what good teammates do. I love the passion and all of that. Just don’t get a technical foul.”
Instead of beating me down, I actually felt uplifted. I had a great practice. She didn’t punish me in a physical manner. She explained to me on an emotional level that I could understand.
I have three words (today) that are my power words: Build, serve and empower. The first two come from her. Building and being constructive with your time is really important. Build other people up. Why would you take the time to tear them down? Let’s fight for the things that are right and do them the right way. Let’s be constructive.
Serve is from her as well. She thought service was the greatest quality of a good leader. I want to serve the game and the people in the game. I use build and serve as ways I make decisions. I think if I build and serve, I’ll empower others to do the same. As a wife of 31 years and mom of three boys, she’s had a direct influence on all of that.
How did you get into broadcasting?
I got into the Ohio University sports administration program out of college, which was not an easy feat, and did an internship at the University of Kentucky, which at the time had one assistant AD and a secretary in marketing and fundraising.
After my internship finished, I was named the director of marketing. Kentucky had never had that position before. The local cable company came to us and said, “We think we can produce sports.” We said they should try women’s basketball. There was only one women’s game on at the time: the CBS National Championship.
This was a new thing and not something I’d ever thought of before. I was removed from playing and said I’d do the game. Once I did a game, I thought it was really cool. It was coaching — the film, practice, prep — just without the players.
When I was 27, I was offered the job of director of marketing and licensing at Ohio State. My four years there coincided with Katie Smith, who’s a Hall-of-Famer, No. 1 recruit in the country. It was a perfect opportunity.
I went to the local cable company and said, “Can you produce sports? Tell me what it will cost to produce eight games.” I think it was $50K, which is unheard of now. I went out and sold the inventory. I sold the advertising to pay for the network. I did the games. We hired a play-by-play guy and a producer.
We had a network for four years. It grew over time. It was absolutely incredible. Nobody was doing this. ESPN had started to pick up a few women’s games, but not many. It worked out — and I’m grateful for it.
You’re obviously well established as a broadcaster now and travel around the country doing so many games each year. What’s the key for you to staying organized?
It’s year-round prep. The summer, I use for a lot of education. Camps, clinics, networking, learning the game from a different perspective, learning different vernacular. Day to day, there’s a lot of film, a lot of analytics, a lot of Synergy to break down film.
I don’t use any services to prepare for the games. I don’t have somebody do the boards. I do them myself. I handwrite everything. I have very little research on a computer I keep year after year, but I keep my game boards and look for storylines that can carry over… You put the reps in, you put the work in, you should be confident. Just go out there and deliver.
I did Clemson-Georgia Tech the other night and have a great relationship with the Clemson staff. I’ve been texting back and forth this morning with a staff member asking “Why this? What that?” I’ve rewatched the game. I watch lot of film on the road and think it’s important because the coaches are the ones who know.
I have it on my list to send a note to Chris Rastatter, the guy who’s in charge of NCAA officiating, because there were a couple of situations in the game I want to get clarification on. I love my gigs with ESPN and CBS, and I want to keep them. It’s not going to be because I don’t know the rules.
Five years ago, you started “24 Hours Nothing But Net” to raise money for Special Olympics programs. Why does that mean so much to you?
The inspiration is my middle son, Frankie, and the impact of sports and Special Olympics on our family. We’ve raised $851,000. This year in May, I’ll cross $1 million for the Special Olympics, shooting free throws in my driveway.
It’s a 24-hour free-throw shooting marathon, where I make 100 free throws on the top of every hour for 24 straight hours. By the end, I’ve made 2,400. The fitness and the training that come with it are significant.
My average is 94 percent. It’s not about the free throws, though. I’m not messing around. I livestream the whole thing. You can watch it on YouTube or Facebook. Special Olympics gave Frankie a place to compete, and train, and organize and socialize — and I know it can impact other families.
Debbie Antonelli ― Website | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn
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