It is to some degree of amazement to him, therefore, that he is invited back year after year by the Jefferson-Pilot television network to do color analysis on regional Southeastern Conference television broadcasts. The former member of the so-called "Bomb Squad" just finished his eleventh year as a network color analyst-- almost a lifetime, compared to the flame-outs of many broadcasting careers.
"It's really hard to believe I've been doing it that long," he says.
"You get a lot of feedback on this job, but really, I guess the most important feedback you get is whether you get invited back for the next year, and whether you get invited to do more games."
As a color analyst, Booker hasn't quite reached Dick Vitale / Bill Raftery status-- yet. He's not been able to quit his daytime job (client manager at Bank of America in Nashville). Neither CBS nor ESPN has come calling yet, and outside the South, he's barely known.
But turn on the tube on a basketball Saturday in the South, and you're likely to see the man once known as Vanderbilt's "Long Ranger" calling an SEC game. On J-P telecasts and SEC-TV broadcasts on Fox Sports South, his face and his voice have become hard to avoid.
How has the one-time Bomb Squadder managed to avoid bombing out on the air? Like most of college basketball's well-known color analysts, he has a distinctive, easily identified style of delivery. Unlike Vitale (thankfully), Booker's style is homespun and folksy, as befitting his Middle Tennessee roots. His baritone goes down smooth, like a bite of Southern pecan pie.
Don't be fooled, though. With a keen eye for the game, and the experience of playing four years in the conference under C. M. Newton, Booker is able to take the TV viewer inside the game and point out the contest's more easily missed, subtler nuances. Like the best color analysts in the business, he adds rich shades to the game, never detracting from it.
Booker got his first real broadcasting break in 1993, when WSMV-TV anchor Rudy Kalis invited him to help out on some local Vanderbilt broadcasts in the school's last SEC Championship season.
"I just bounced my way through that," he recalls, "and several people said, 'You know, you do a really good job with that. You ought to look at getting into it.'"
Vanderbilt Assistant Sports Information Director Tony Neely picked up on Booker's talents, as did head coach Eddie Fogler. Unknown to Booker, the pair sent in his name and profile to Jefferson-Pilot Television and recommended him for a network audition, which he got.
"I went through that, and they decided to give me a few games during that 1994 season," Booker marvels, boyishly. "And whattya know, this is year 11 now!"
The college game is quantitatively different today than it was when he wore the black and gold, Booker says.
"It's just so much more physical than it was 15 years ago. The guys are so much bigger. I was 180, 185 pounds during my playing career, and there just aren't any guys that size these days! Everybody-- if they're 6-3 or 6-4, they weigh 205 pounds, or 215 pounds. There's so much more pushing and shoving, especially around the basket.
"That's part of the reason I don't play any more than I do these days. I get out there, and people want to push and shove so much."
Off the air, Booker remains an unabashed Vanderbilt fan-- when he's not calling another game, he's often part of the partisan Memorial Gym home crowd. On the air, however, he's called upon to remain neutral, even when he's calling a Vanderbilt game.
Early in his career, he says, he probably went too far in trying not to come off as biased. It's a charge he no longer worries about too much.
"Definitely, some of the fans do talk about Vanderbilt being my favorite team, and me wearing black and gold, and all that stuff. I think in the past, I kind of went too far in my commentary on the air, trying to distance myself from that charge [favoritism]. At this point, I just try to call it like I see it.
"Vanderbilt is my favorite team, of course. Why not? It is my alma mater. I want them to do well. But I really want all the other SEC teams to do well also."
Call enough basketball games, and you'll eventually get to call a career-defining classic; Booker's finest moment as a broadcaster probably occurred on his final telecast of the past year. In the late-night quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament, Florida defeated Alabama 75-73 on a 17-foot overtime buzzer-beater by Lee Humphrey. For Booker, getting to call that game was "equivalent to hitting a 40-foot jump shot at the buzzer."
Every time he sits in the analyst's chair and the bright lights go up, Booker says, he feels a little chill run through his body-- and he's just a little bit amazed that he's been asked to do it yet again.
"The best thing about the job is getting to be on the front row watching college basketball games," he said. "There's really not much that's bad about it.
"The only downside is the travel, and being away from my family. I've got a young baby boy at home and another one on the way, so it's tough being away from them. But other than that, it's just a blast. I love being a part of the game, just being so close to the people that are a part of it."
Photos by Brent Wiseman, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com