McIlvaine leaves men’s basketball broadcasting team with towering presence


Jim McIlvaine started on the Marquette broadcasting team in 2003 and was the permanent color commentator since 2005. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics)

One look around a men’s basketball event and former Marquette basketball player and color commentator Jim McIlvaine sees countless familiar faces.

FOX 6 photojournalist Mickie Leach, longtime athletics staffer Rich Kellaher and former great Earl Tatum were just a few people to catch McIlvaine’s eye during the Fiserv Forum open house.

“I could sit here all night,” McIlvaine said. “There are familiar faces everywhere I look.”

However, McIlvaine won’t be sitting at the Fiserv Forum this season, as he will be moving to Florida after 15 years of color commentary on ESPN Milwaukee alongside Steve “Homer” True.

“It’s hard to walk away from probably the funnest (sic), coolest gig in college basketball,” McIlvaine said. “But I felt like I hogged it for a bunch of years because it was so much fun.”

In his 15 years on the Marquette broadcasting team, he stood out both literally and figuratively. The 7-foot-1 center and his 6-foot-7 wife were at one point the tallest living couple in the world, said True.

But his towering presence goes beyond tall family portraits. McIlvaine earned respect across the basketball program.

“I know there are other people that are equal to him, but there’s nobody that could be a better representative of Marquette University,” said True, who broadcasted Marquette games for about three decades. “If you want to consider Marquette and understand how Marquette is special, you should call Jim McIlvaine.”

As the team was on the road, McIlvaine’s quirkiness and intelligence also made an impression on head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who referred to him as “a staple of Marquette basketball.”

“Jim is a renaissance man,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s got so many different and varied interests. There’s really not a topic that he can’t talk about. I just loved being with him.”

His ability to explain complex topics helped him get a job with Johnson Controls working with Optima Batteries when he wasn’t broadcasting Marquette games.

True had a front-row seat to what made McIlvaine such a special color commentator. When he first subbed in for George Thompson in 2003, McIlvaine brought seven pages of notes to the game.

McIlvaine’s intense level of preparation and unique personality made him a great fit for the color commentary role. As an example, he would frequently eat enough to break food challenge records, but he didn’t want to break the record because the record might be important to the current holder.

“My disappointment is that I really didn’t do enough to try to get him a job as a national analyst,” True said. “He would have been as good as anyone who’s done it. He knows basketball … Nationally, people didn’t get to see how incredibly good he is.”

McIlvaine first impressed True when he was in high school at Racine St. Catherine’s, about a 30-minute drive from Marquette, but the relationship didn’t blossom until McIlvaine joined the broadcast team.

The relationship even led to True joining what McIlvaine calls the “Saturn clan” — a group of people who drive Saturn cars. McIlvaine introduced True to his car dealer.

“I get them for my kids because they’re reliable beater cars,” McIlvaine said. “He gets them because they’re cheap.”

There’s one thing True and McIlvaine don’t see eye to eye on, however: Skyline Chili, a restaurant in Cincinnati.

“He loves Skyline Chili, which I think is horrible. It’s not chili,” True said. “He would always take me there, and I’d never have the chili.”

When McIlvaine and his wife agreed to move to Florida once their older children were out of high school, True made an appeal for another year with the headset.

“Come on. Come on. An extra year,” True frequently pleaded.

Yet McIlvaine stuck to his family agreement, and True will work with another former Marquette standout, Tony Smith.

“Tony Smith was a phenomenal player,” True said. “I’m surprised his shoulders haven’t worn out because no one carried a team more than Tony Smith did.”

Now McIlvaine will trade Thanksgivings in basketball arenas for traditional family celebrations.

“I don’t know what it’s like to celebrate holidays on traditional holidays,” McIlvaine said. “It’ll be weird to be able to be home for Thanksgiving with my family … and watch the games on TV. I don’t know how I’m going to cope with that.”

Part of coping may involve skiing, a hobby he hasn’t been able to do during basketball season.

“I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone snow-skiing since I retired from the NBA,” McIlvaine said. “We played out in Idaho for the tournament and I brought my boots out there and had two great days at Bogus Basin … You just couldn’t go skiing in the wintertime because you always had to be close.”

McIlvaine won’t be completely removed from the Marquette family, though. He said he will “poke (his) head in every once in a while,” and his oldest daughter Kailey is a freshman living in Abbottsford Hall.

He said he hopes his younger children get a bit more time with their dad than Kailey did.

“So it’s not just me going and doing a game. It’s me sitting at home and ignoring my family for several hours while I’m scouting teams,” McIlvaine said. “It’ll be nice to get that time back.”