From basketball to broadcasting, he leapt to the top with grace

John “Bud” Palmer ’44 in 1963
John “Bud” Palmer ’44 in 1963
George Crouter/Denver Post via Getty Images

Sept. 14, 1921 – March 19, 2013

Even wearing clunky headphones, John “Bud” Palmer ’44 was a strikingly handsome man. Clad in a white shawl-collar sweater for the prelude to the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s game against the Soviet Union, Palmer gracefully leaned on a stadium railing, microphone in hand, and explained the stakes to a national television audience.

Palmer’s was the sole voice on the two-hour broadcast of one of Olympic hockey’s greatest upsets, a 3–2 victory for the United States, deftly navigating a play-by-play filled with Grebennikovs and Tsitsinovs. The success of the Winter Games at Squaw Valley, Calif., would help to solidify the place of sports on network TV. 

The son of a silent-movie actor and an aspiring soprano, John Palmer Flynn was born in Hollywood, Calif. As a boy, he was dubbed “Bud” because he was the budding image of Lefty Flynn, his talented but troubled father, whose career petered out after a few starring roles. He dropped his father’s last name when his parents divorced, but the nickname stayed with him. 

Athletics dominated Palmer’s time at Princeton. One of the first basketball players to use a jump shot, the 6-foot-4-inch center broke the Tigers’ single-season scoring record in 1942–43. He also captained a championship soccer team and earned All-America honors in lacrosse before joining the Navy as an aviator. 

After completing his military service, Palmer showcased his jump shot at Madison Square Garden, starring for the New York Knicks of the fledgling Basketball Association of America (precursor of the NBA). But he found his calling away from the court in the broadcast booth, first on radio and later on television. 

Palmer covered everything from the Masters golf tournament to the Little League World Series, and he explained his approach succinctly in a 2007 interview with The New York Times: “I tried not to tell people what they just saw, and I learned when to keep my trap shut.” Herb Hobler ’44, a Princeton basketball teammate, recalls watching Palmer on TV. “It was exciting,” he says, “not just because a friend of yours was on television, but because he was good.”

Palmer also modeled menswear; pitched for Vitalis, the hair tonic; and served as the original “Ask Jake” advice columnist in Glamour magazine. In 1966, New York City Mayor John Lindsay appointed him as commissioner of public events, a job that leveraged Palmer’s ample talents as an entertainer and raconteur. His assignments included welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir at Kennedy Airport and ushering the Philippines’ first lady, Imelda Marcos, on a shopping tour. 

John Christgau, author of The Origins of the Jump Shot: Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball, interviewed Palmer in the mid-1990s and exchanged letters with him for years. He says Palmer seemed determined to make his mark on the world, partly because of his father’s unfulfilled promise and partly because of his natural disposition. Says Christgau, “He had charisma and presence and was absolutely, totally engaged in life.” 

Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital editor and sports columnist.