Noie: Notre Dame play-by-play voice Jack Lorri was a college basketball confidant
It may have been baked chicken at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Or a breakfast buffet at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington. Then there always was the sausage and peppers in Madison Square Garden during the Big East Tournament.
Usually free and seldom very good, those pre-game media meals never really mattered. What did was the company kept when you spent so many days and weeks and months over the years traveling the Notre Dame men’s basketball beat.
Another pre-game meal in another arena in another East Coast city somewhere usually meant more time to sit with long-time Irish radio play-by-play voice Jack Lorri.
Separate from arenas, we’d often find other places on the road to share meals, and our stories. Like a corner hoagie shop along Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh. Or the long-since-gone Sam and Harry’s steakhouse in D.C. And the also-shuttered Grimaldi’s, an Italian restaurant near nothing but the New York Thruway in Syracuse.
Time to eat somewhere, anywhere, often was invaluable time spent with Lorri, who’d seen and done and said a lot during his 38 seasons as the voice of the Irish.
Lorri, 86, of Elkhart, died Monday after battling cancer. He will be remembered for the radio words that painted all the pictures for Irish teams coached by Digger Phelps and John MacLeod and Matt Doherty and Mike Brey. He also will be remembered for being the guy who showed the new Irish hoops beat writer from the Tribune the college basketball ropes.
Basketball was our bond.
For nine seasons, starting in 1998, the scenario always was the same. You’d arrive at a road arena two hours before a game, get settled in the press room, then courtside. Eventually, there would be a tap on your shoulder from Lorri, who had finished his pre-game to-do list. That included lugging around and setting up his own equipment out of an oversized suitcase, taping the interview with the Irish head coach, checking in with the engineer back at the station.
With time left before tip, the feisty and fit Lorri would swing by and bark in his classic radio voice, “OK, Tom, come on. Let's go eat.”
Then it was off to the press room. Not only to dine, but to listen. To learn. Radio guys like to talk, naturally, and Lorri talked. He shared stories about the days of covering legendary college basketball coach Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. About the days of Irish basketball independence. About Phelps. About mornings as a news man on Chicago radio. About nights as a sports anchor at WSJV-TV. About how this business had changed, but also about how college basketball still was college basketball.
The sessions were graduate courses about the game, about how to be a pro.
Lorri loved watching former Irish power forward Pat Garrity, a player he tabbed the toughest he’d covered in his tenure. He hated January, a month not 31 days long but more, he believed, to be like 68. He cherished road trips to Rhode Island, where he could see his sister, and to Rutgers. He liked little about Piscataway, New Jersey, but the Irish hotel was an Embassy Suites. It offered a couch separate from the bedroom, so Lorri could crash there if/when his radio colleague, Jack Nolan, snored (which he would do on occasion).
It became our road routine — sit with Lorri for dinner before games, listen to his stories, then joke about who would pick up the tab. The food was free. The friendship?
A tough call, but a cherished one
Lorri “retired” in 2006 at age 70, but he never strayed far from your thoughts, especially during basketball season. Especially during road trips. You sat at a media dining table in some arena with an empty seat and thought, that should be Lorri’s seat.
Once the pre-game meal was complete, we’d go our separate work ways. He’d do his job. The beat writer would do his. One time, courtside at Conte Forum in a game against Boston College, he asked me to join him and Nolan at halftime. The conversation rolled on seamlessly for seven, eight minutes. He must’ve liked what I said and how I said it. He closed by saying to the listeners something to the effect of, hey, folks, that’s a newspaper guy.”
It was his way of saying, excellent job.
A text from Nolan arrived in mid-June just as the Notre Dame baseball team was settling in out in Omaha, Nebraska for the College World Series. Lorri was battling cancer, and cancer was winning the way cancer usually does. There likely wasn’t much time left, Nolan offered, so if you had some to spare, maybe give Lorri a call.
Nolan’s message lingered the rest of the day. And the next. And the next. How do you make that call? When you do, what can you say? You sat with it for a few days, but knew you couldn’t sit too long. Not with the kind of cancer Lorri was fighting. It had spread to his bones, to his liver, to his pancreas.
If there’s a call to make, make it. If there’s something to say, say it.
One day last month, you found a free moment and a quiet place and dialed Lorri’s cell. A woman answered. You ask to speak to Lorri. You expect to hear that he can’t come to the phone. That it was not a good time.
Fortunately, this was a good day tucked inside so many difficult ones. Up popped that familiar voice, just a little less feisty.
There were awkward moments, for sure. Like when Lorri asked about next season’s Irish team, then admitted that he wouldn’t be around to watch them. He insisted that he was at peace with how it all would end. How he lived a good life, a full life. Lorri no longer could play his beloved golf and rarely ate, but he could talk. He could always talk.
Lorri being Lorri, he had a good Irish hoops story to share.
One day about a year ago, Lorri noticed someone who looked familiar — looked like a basketball player — arrive at the house next door. Lorri’s neighbor breeds dogs, and this familiar face had driven from his home outside Philadelphia — over 600 miles one way — to purchase one for his son.
Turns out the tall guy was former Irish power forward/team captain Rob Kurz. The two shared some stories before Kurz and the dog left for the return trip back to Pennsylvania.
“Must have been some dog,” Lorri joked.
That memory sparked a few more for Lorri, who recalled on the phone one game when he believed Kurz would play well. Remember that one, he asked. He insisted how Kurz would make four 3-pointers and the Irish would win. He made three, and the Irish won.
As our conversation closed — it went for 10 minutes and Lorri sounded exhausted — you attempt to sum up the friendship that formed in 1998 and continued long after Lorri left behind the microphone. He’d drop the occasional e-mail after an Irish game, offer his thoughts on the team (he was spot-on until the end) and encourage you to keep doing what you were doing.
On this July day, you hope/need to return the favor, but stumble and stutter through sentences that Lorri doesn’t quite understand. It was clumsy. The conversation ended with Lorri thanking you for the call and that was that.
You knew there wouldn’t be another one, that you wouldn’t get the chance to say what you wanted to say, what you wanted him to hear.
That would be this — thanks for helping show that young beat writer the way so many years ago. Thanks for sharing your time and your basketball knowledge and your patience. Thanks for being a friend.
Thanks for everything Jack.