Joe Lunardi had been wondering, just like any college hoops fanatic would, when this time of year would start to feel normal again.
The answer came this past Monday night, when one of Philadelphia’s most famous off-the-court contributions to the sport was in Las Vegas covering the West Coast Conference men’s tournament. There were big-time teams in the building, including No. 1-ranked Gonzaga and No. 17 St. Mary’s, and big-time crowds to watch them.
“The arena was electric,” Lunardi said. “From a professional standpoint, you wouldn’t have known about a pandemic.”
But you might have known one of the faces on press row. The fans who yelled “Joey Brackets!” from the stands sure did.
“Turning around, hearing your name called out, just feeling alive again in that way,” Lunardi said, “it was pretty cool.”
It’s been 26 years since Lunardi started writing his Bracketology feature for ESPN’s website, and 20 years since he first appeared on TV for the network. Only three years ago did he become full-time at ESPN, leaving his longtime job working in the public relations department at St. Joseph’s. He’s still based in the Philly area, including a studio at his family’s Shore home in Ocean City that became his “bunker” last March.
This year, Lunardi is back at his traditional “bunker” at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. And for as fun as that night in Vegas was, he knew that even in pre-pandemic times, such moments were fleeting in the final, frenetic days before Selection Sunday.
‘Beam me up, Scotty’
“I thought, in a way, from a purely analytical standpoint, [for] studying the quantitative part of all this, — not moving around, not being on the go, not chasing planes, trains, and automobiles made me better, because an entire set of distractions was eliminated,” he said of his Shore setup, with games on multiple screens and a camera for his on-air hits.
“The technology of me sitting in a chair in front of a backdrop, and playing ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ to whatever game or studio or halftime or scoreboard show they needed, it really worked quite well,” he said. “It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I got back to the bunker in Bristol for the first time in two years, that I realized that there’s a different energy there too. Because your colleagues are down the hall instead of in your ear.”
That hints at an important aspect of Lunardi’s work. It isn’t just for the millions of fans who read his bracket projections on ESPN.com throughout the year. It’s for his colleagues, too, advising the pundits on ESPN’s game broadcasts and studio shows.
“Probably 80% or more of what I do is off-camera, in terms of funneling the information that drives the narrative of games and studio shows,” he said. “I do, essentially, a daily newsletter that goes around to all the college basketball people at the network, on and off the air, literally from Dickie V [Vitale] to the graphics producer in a truck in Boise.”
Indeed, it was in the Feb. 25, 1996 edition of The Inquirer that Lunardi first put the term “Bracketologist” in print, in an interview with Mike Jensen. (The subject back then was one they’ve discussed many times since: what Villanova’s seed should be.)
‘Never bet against the Lord in March’
There’s one more fan, in another basketball hotbed, who has status.
“I do the Sister Jean bracket,” Lunardi said.
Sister Jean, the 102-year-old Loyola-Chicago team chaplain, has become a national celebrity since the men’s basketball team’s famed Final Four run in 2018.
She returned to the spotlight last March at Loyola’s games in Indianapolis. And she plans to travel with the Ramblers again this year, after the Ramblers clinched an NCAA berth by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last weekend.
It’s a joy for Lunardi, a connection from one hoops-loving Jesuit to another. But that doesn’t mean the conversations are always easy. When last season’s bracket set up No. 8 seed Loyola to challenge No. 1 Illinois in the second round, Lunardi made a polite suggestion.
“Well, you know, Sister, they have a seven-footer whom maybe you don’t,” he said, referring to Illinois star center Kofi Cockburn. “And it was, ‘Joseph Michael, why are you taking those heathen schools?’ ”
Sister Jean got her way and naturally, Loyola upset the Illini, 71-58.
“Never bet against the Lord in March,” Lunardi quipped.
There has been plenty of correspondence since then, with Sister Jean regularly asking what part of the country Loyola might get sent to. And there should be many more conversations to come, because the school is moving to the Atlantic 10 this summer. That will put the Ramblers in the same conference as St. Joseph’s, for whom Lunardi still does color commentary at home games.
Lunardi also makes time to watch Michigan, especially the recent games where Phil Martelli stood in for the suspended Juwan Howard.
“Phil and I are like family, and always will be,” Lunardi said. “Good for him, and frankly, good for them. How many schools could lose their coach and have the national coach of the year with 444 wins sitting on the bench?”
‘I’ve become the proxy’
Lunardi has to go in a moment, on to the next game before the next flight to the game after that. There is undoubtedly more work than ever, as he becomes more popular and as the internet and social media evolve. Now, instead of making one mock bracket per week or even one per day, he said, it’s “up-to-the-minute tweaking, because that’s what a 24/7 sports network demands.”
He’s OK with that. Even if it means early-morning texts from colleagues, spirited discussions with fans, or the occasional pushback from a 102-year-old chaplain.
“I’m conscious of the fact that while this is still only basketball, a lot of people’s livelihoods revolve around jobs in this industry,” he said. “These people can’t talk to the actual [selection] committee. And by accident of circumstance, I’ve become the proxy for that.”
Which is why Lunardi’s standards remain as high as ever — and so does his success rate. The Bracket Project, a website that has compiled mock brackets from around the internet since 2006, shows that in that time, Lunardi has correctly predicted at least 95% of the teams to make the field every year.
“I almost get embarrassed because I’m walking through the MGM lobby [in Las Vegas] last night, and there’s a full-screen graphic with our stuff,” he said. “And I think there’s a certain responsibility that comes with this, frankly, to not screw up.”