In the second quarter of Tuesday’s Jazz-Clippers game, Ian Eagle unveiled a signature move. Utah forward Bojan Bogdanovic had stolen a pass, grabbed the ball in the corner, and drained a 3. “Bog-dan-ovic!” Eagle said on TNT.
Then Eagle paused. He waited a split second, like a shooter trying to get a defender in the air, before he said: “A steal and a triple!” That little pause doesn’t seem like much. Few people probably noticed it. But in the language of sports announcers, it’s like listening to a Rolling Stones song and hearing Chuck Berry. Eagle learned how to pause like that from Marv Albert.
The Albert Pause has been part of the NBA’s soundtrack for 30 years. “If you listen to a lot of his great calls,” says Eagle, “he has a moment where he waits and then delivers.” When Michael Jordan changed hands mid-flight at the 1991 Finals, Albert said: “Oh, what a spectacular move”—beat—“by Michael Jordan!” As a young announcer, Eagle thought the pause lent Albert a unique rhythm and left you hanging on his words. “You’re anticipating the next part of the call,” says Eagle. On Tuesday, he got the exact same effect.
Last month, Albert announced he will retire at the end of the season. “Yes!” will be no more. But an announcer’s sound, like a musician’s, has a way of sticking around. Eagle’s and Mike Breen’s calls will carry a few notes of Albert, just like Albert’s carry the notes of his mentor, Marty Glickman. It’s not an imitation. “It’s an essence,” says Eagle. It’s an exhilarating way to listen to the playoffs. If you know what to listen for, you can hear notes that stretch back to the birth of NBA announcing in the 1940s.
Sports announcers have always been spirit mediums for the dead or departed. Pat Summerall spoke in the tight-lipped style of Ray Scott, his old CBS partner. In his early years, Joe Buck channeled Summerall—so much so that Buck had to perform a self-exorcism. When ESPN’s Joe Tessitore says the word “partner” during a football game, you can picture a grin spreading across the face of Brent Musburger. But NBA sounds have the most obvious provenance.
In the 1950s, a lot of people wanted to talk like Marty Glickman. Glickman was the greatest basketball announcer in the world, which is to say New York City. Glickman started calling Knicks games in 1946, the first year of the franchise. He rolled his eyes when he heard a moonlighting baseball announcer butcher a layup. “There was no technique, no attempt to catch the rhythm and flow of a game,” Glickman wrote. “I determined that I would be the basketball announcer.”
As a teenager living in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, Albert was in the thrall of Glickman. Albert was working as a Knicks ball boy. He was so shy he surprised Glickman when he told him he wanted to be an announcer. Glickman gave him a job. “I was working for him when I was in high school,” says Albert. “I was actually his writer.” Sometimes, he sat next to Glickman during games, listening to his sound while he handed him commercials to read.
“When you first start doing play-by-play,” Eagle tells me, “you open with a blank canvas, and you’re instinctually trying to figure out your process. Often, your default mode is, ‘OK, well, what have I heard a lot in my life?’”
The voice Albert had heard a lot was Glickman’s. “I started to talk like Marty because I was around him so much,” says Albert. “I answered the phone like him.”
Albert followed Glickman’s path to Syracuse. When Albert subbed for Glickman on a Knicks radio broadcast, at age 21, he produced what amounted to a “bad impression” of the master. As Glickman later observed, “One of the problems with Marv was that he sounded just like me.”
By the time Albert became the Knicks radio announcer, he’d traded imitation for his own unique style: the stubborn New York accent; the fanboy wonder when he saw a magic trick like Jordan’s; the long-dash style of play-by-play. (“Here’s Durant. Putting moves. Crossover on Giannis—and hits!”) The style would make Albert, as Breen declared during the Lakers-Warriors play-in game, “the greatest basketball announcer of all time.” (In 1997, Albert pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery charges and was fired by NBC that same year. He was rehired by the network in 1999.)
Albert’s announcing still carries some of Glickman’s spirit. “I would say elements and maybe emphasis on details about certain things,” says Albert.
You can hear it when Albert calls a made basket. Glickman liked to say “Swish!” During Game 2 of the Nets-Bucks series, Albert said, “Irving—yes!” The one-syllable catchphrases have different origins. (Glickman heard two Knicks players using “Swish!”; “Yes!” came from NBA referee Sid Borgia.) But they are almost perfect echoes. They’re useful for the same reasons.
Glickman felt he could get a one-syllable word like “Swish!” or “Good!” out of his mouth before he was drowned out by the roaring crowd. As Glickman and Albert moved from radio to TV, their catchphrases became quick acknowledgements of what everyone at home could already see: The ball went through the hoop.
Another way you can hear Glickman in Albert is the way he describes motion across a basketball court. In the early days of basketball on the radio, some announcers ticked off the names of players as they passed the ball around. That was pretty useless for listeners. Glickman’s inspiration was to add geography—to tell listeners where the ball was going, not just to whom.
“He had the nomenclature down,” says Albert. “Right corner, right baseline, throw it out to the top of the key. What kind of shot is it? Is it a jumper? A running one-hander? In his day, was it a set shot?” That beat-by-beat description is less important on TV. Though as Albert said on an HBO documentary about Glickman, he listened to Glickman’s tapes before he called a radio football game well into the 2000s.
The final note you can hear is more like a moral value. Even as Glickman called games for the Knicks, Giants, and Jets, he rejected homerism. “You can’t go wrong doing an impartial broadcast,” Glickman wrote.
Albert went a step farther. His play-by-play stood out for being reporterly and even critical. When Albert called Knicks games for MSG Network, Jeff Van Gundy (savor the irony) complained about him. In 1991, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause gave an interview to NBC about Toni Kukoc. Afterward, Albert told the audience that Bulls players weren’t excited to play with Kukoc, no matter what Krause said. Albert “couldn’t get away with this,” Sam Smith quoted Krause as thinking in The Jordan Rules. “He’d pay.”
That kind of pushback is all but gone from network telecasts and was never around much to begin with. Yet during last month’s Celtics-Wizards play-in game, Albert brought up the fact that Russell Westbrook looked off his game and checked-out. That is Glickman Honesty.
Ian Eagle looked at Albert from the same worshipful place. Eagle first heard Albert in 1977, when he was an 8-year-old living in Forest Hills, Queens. Soon, Albert’s voice was everywhere. Knicks and Rangers games. The news on Channel 4. NBC on the weekend. Eagle went to Madison Square Garden and watched Albert instead of the Knicks.
Albert found his way to an original sound via imitation. Eagle did the same. “Oh, yeah,” says Eagle. “To the point where I was going downstairs for breakfast in the morning and I would say, ‘I want two eggs over hard, bacon lightly crisp, toast—and juice!’”
Eagle continues: “I would tell my parents, ‘I want to be Marv Albert.’ They said, ‘Oh, you want to be like Marv Albert.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. I want to be Marv Albert.’ That’s when they started to seek some psychiatric help. They said, ‘Maybe you need to talk to someone.’”
Eagle followed Albert’s path to Syracuse. When Eagle called his first game there, at age 18, he had the same experience Albert had with Glickman. Albert’s cadences and signature in-flec-tions popped out. “I didn’t start doing play-by-play with the idea, ‘Well, I’ll just do a bad Marv Albert impression,’” says Eagle. “That’s what came out.”
At 52, Eagle is one of the best announcers anywhere and is very much his own guy. After an Ivica Zubac block, both men might say, “Re-ject-ed!” Only Eagle would follow it up, as he did Tuesday night, by calling it a “Zu-block-a.”
You can still hear some of Albert’s spirit in Eagle’s game calls. During the third quarter of the Jazz-Clippers game, Rajon Rondo tossed an inbounds lob to Zubac. “Zubac throws it down off the perfect pass!” Eagle said on the broadcast. He waited a beat. “A dime from Rajon Rondo.” That’s an Albert Pause.
“On made baskets, there’s still part of him that pops up in my style,” says Eagle. You could hear that Tuesday night, too. On a Reggie Jackson 3 early in the first quarter: “Jackson, wide-open look. Book it!”
“Book it!” has two syllables rather than one, like Albert’s “Yes!” It’s just as effective. It allows Eagle to clear out and let an analyst like Greg Anthony take over. The same goes for “Bottom!” or “Buries it!”
Maybe the biggest place you can hear notes of Albert is in Eagle’s sense of humor. Albert had a way of exploiting the inherent starchiness of announcers for comedy. He delivered laugh lines as dryly as the starting lineup. The jokes seemed to float right by analysts like Mike Fratello, who never cracked a smile. (People who know Fratello say he wouldn’t give Albert the pleasure.)
A classic example came during a 1992 Knicks-Pistons playoff game. Someone brought a bulldog to the street outside Madison Square Garden and stuck an unlit cigarette in its mouth. NBC showed the dog. After Albert and Fratello exchanged a few jabs, Albert put on his most serious announcer voice and said: “So dangerous, though, to see a dog smoker.”
When Eagle cracks a joke, it’s in the same spirit as that smoking-dog line. For a while, Fratello was Eagle’s analyst for Nets games at the YES Network. Once, Eagle asked him, “How was your summer?”
“I had a great summer,” said Fratello. “I had the opportunity to go over to Europe—”
“I’m sorry, I’m going to have to cut you off here,” said Eagle, turning back to the game.
The fun thing about cataloguing the notes that connect announcers is that the canon keeps getting bigger. A young announcer channels an elder. Pretty soon, the young announcer is the elder, and someone is channeling him.
Take Dan D’Uva, the voice of the Vegas Golden Knights. D’Uva is 36 years old. He also went to the Syracuse school of broadcasting destiny. His Twitter bio says he studied at the “Marty Glickman school of play-by-play.”
A couple of years ago, an announcer heard a familiar sound when D’Uva called a Golden Knights game. The announcer took D’Uva aside. “Do you know who your vocal doppelgänger is?” the announcer said. “It’s Ian Eagle.”