You know that thing sportswriters do with old ballplayers? The writer watches an aging Michael Jordan sink a midrange jumper; the writer takes a bite of madeleine; and suddenly he remembers the lumbering, imperfect athlete before him in his golden prime? Turns out you can do that with sportscasters, too. Tonight, I did it with Marv Albert.
It was the first quarter of Bucks-Raptors. Eric Bledsoe ran toward the basket and threw a curving alley-oop to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who flushed the ball with both hands.
A play-by-play announcer’s greatest talent is their ability to get the words out of their mouth before the rest of us can even think them—and have those words be correct and perfectly pitched and, once in a while, in an odd way, kind of beautiful. Albert was already there: “Oh, it’s Giannis, with the lob, putting it down!”
Albert had earned the exclamation point, because he hadn’t over-called the pedestrian moments that had come before. He knew the difference, instinctively. Minus the 6-foot-11 point forward and an ad for Doritos Locos Tacos, it could’ve been a cut from Prime Marv on the NBA on NBC.
With the exception of a very notable three-year gap, Albert has called the NBA Finals or a conference finals series every year since 1991. But, at 77, he finds himself in the are-they-bringing-this-guy-back stage of employment. In November, the New York Post reported that Turner might give Albert’s job on the “A” team to Brian Anderson. With Jeff Zucker now in charge of Turner Sports, the Post noted this month, Albert’s future is less clear. But there’s still talk of a “farewell season” and a “respectful exit.” It seems worth remembering just what kind of utterly strange, utterly unique announcer we might be about to lose.
A famous play-by-play announcer put it to me like this recently: If someone doesn’t get the difference between Marv Albert in his prime and Mike Breen, I can’t help ’em. I agree, but we don’t have to sideswipe Breen to appreciate Albert. Back in ’90s TV land, the first thing that made Albert different was the way he sounded. He sounded like he came from Brooklyn, not Golden Throat University. Even now, you can detect faint traces of an accent: “Bucks with the best rekkid in the NBA …”
Albert has always been excitable. But he doesn’t shout a lot. He does this subtle thing where he speaks in italics. “Giannis goes right to the rim. … Gasol from downtown. … Here’s Lowry—for three.” The trick allows him to underline a piece of action without doing the cheap thing of shouting into a microphone. When Albert shouts into a microphone, something like this has just happened.
Watching Bucks-Raptors, it was amazing to think how many phrases Albert either popularized or introduced into the announcing universe. With authority. On fire. From 3-point land. From downtown. Say an anodyne phrase with a single point of emphasis—“The Blazers have hit their first seven field goal attempts”—and it sounds like Marv Albert.
The reasons to admire Albert were plentiful. He was a technician. He had an exactitude about court geography he learned from his Knicks predecessor, Marty Glickman. Well into his 60s, Albert would grab a DVD copy of the game he had just called and watch it in his hotel room, looking for mistakes.
But Albert wasn’t an announcing robot. You could get past pure admiration and actually like him. Albert was opinionated enough to piss off James Dolan when he did Knicks games, which is the nicest thing you can say about anybody.
A lot of announcers become the official “voice” of a sport without actually seeming to love it. Albert loves basketball. At 16, he was a Knicks ball boy. His favorite compliment is beautiful: “Middleton, ah, beautifully done.” That non-phony affection for the game helped erase some of the distance between the announcer and the audience.
Put another way: You know the pure enjoyment of basketball that infuses Zach Lowe’s writing? That’s Albert doing play-by-play. His exclamation of surprise—“Oh!”—sounds like a foodie who has just stumbled onto the best cheeseburger of their life.
The other thing you have to remember about Albert is his era of television. Before Twitter, network sportscasters tended to be stiff, factory-custom, almost pre-ironic figures. It was like a miracle when one of them winked at you through the screen. Al Michaels winked. Bob Costas winked. Brent Musburger winked. (The question was, who was Brent winking at?)
Albert’s wink was the most unexpected of all. He didn’t seem particularly funny. Based on the handful of times I’ve interviewed him, he’s really not. But when Albert went on camera, a strange thing happened. He took the stiffness we expect from a sportscaster and channeled it into a comic straight-man act.
It’s a short list, but Albert is one of sports TV’s great absurdists. Once, New York’s NBC affiliate shot some footage of the philharmonic to run on the newscast. The weatherman came up with the idea that Albert, who was the station’s sportscaster, should appear in every shot playing a different instrument. When the segment aired, Albert wrote, viewers called in to say they’d seen a musician that looked uncannily like Marv Albert.
Another time, Albert was interviewing Whitey Herzog when Herzog and Yale president Bart Giamatti were competing to be president of the National League. “Whitey, look at it this way,” Albert said on air. “Although you may not be looking for a career change, if A. Bartlett Giamatti takes the job … there would be an opening for you at Yale University.” Herzog boycotted Albert interviews into the following season.
The best was when Albert used to subtly troll his partners. During the ’92 NBA Finals, Magic Johnson did color commentary that sounded like his tweets. “Marv,” Johnson said during Game 1, “nobody better leave their TV set, because there’s going to be some great plays in this series.”
“A live promo offered up here by Magic,” Albert said.
In terms of partners, Albert has to be one of the unluckiest great announcers who ever lived. Look at the analysts NBC trotted out for the Finals beginning in the early ’90s: Mike Fratello; Fratello and Johnson; Matty Guokas; Guokas and Bill Walton; Doug Collins; Walton and Steve “Snapper” Jones. If that group had called a decade’s worth of Super Bowls, a bunch of network executives would have gotten fired.
Albert often had to supply everything: the play-by-play and the ad read, the drama and the comedy, the very life force of the booth. In Albert’s hands, Fratello became “the Czar of the Telestrator.” Walton didn’t completely hijack the broadcast like he does nowadays on ESPN. The other analysts you happily forgot about.
Pat Summerall never had to apply shock paddles to his partner during a telecast. Albert was never ungenerous, just the opposite, but most of the time it seemed like he was working alone.
What happened during that three-year gap? In 1997, Vanessa Perhach said Albert sexually assaulted her in a Virginia hotel room. (Perhach said Albert bit her during the assault.) Albert called the NBA Finals while the case was pending. During the trial, Albert pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault and battery, which caused NBC to fire him. Then Albert went on a network interview tour, denying Perhach’s account and claiming he was the victim of “extortion.”
Albert called his years away from network TV an “exile.” But as exiles go, it was pretty painless. He got hired by Turner and MSG with “little adverse advertiser reaction,” The New York Times noted. Less than two years after his firing, NBC rehired him. In the age of #MeToo, none of this would have happened: not the victim-blaming TV tour, not the instant rehiring, and certainly not a network gig within two years. Though Albert insisted on his innocence, it’s not hard to think that, today, the second half of his career never would have happened at all.
For reasons having little to do with assault, the second half of Albert’s career was a shadow of the first, anyway. The way you become and stay a no. 1 play-by-play announcer isn’t talent—it’s getting your boss to write a bigger check than the other guy’s boss. In 2002, ESPN took the NBA rights from NBC and hired Brad Nessler to call games. When Nessler got sent back to football, the network gave the job to Michaels and Breen. Albert got to call the conference finals on Turner—a swell gig, but sort of the announcing equivalent of being champion of the Eastern Conference.
I often ask TV producers when “ageless” sports announcers suddenly become aged. The best guess is their mid-70s, especially with a challenging sport like basketball. For Albert, calling a game is clearly harder. His voice got drowned out by the crowd noise in Toronto and the in-game music in Milwaukee. In Game 4, I couldn’t hear him when Serge Ibaka had a big putback dunk. In Game 5, he got hoarse when talking about Kawhi Leonard less than two minutes into the game.
Then there are the mistakes. During Game 4 of Bucks-Raptors, Reggie Miller had to correct Albert when he miscalled two continuations. (The continuation is the occasion for the greatest of Albert catchphrases: “Yes—and it counts!”) In Game 5, Albert confused Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez. He called a late shot-clock violation as Marc Gasol getting fouled—though ultimately he was right when the refs wound up changing the initial call.
Without asking, I know those kinds of mistakes kill Albert. Then again, Brian Anderson, Albert’s reported replacement, blew game-ending calls this year in both the NBA playoffs and the NCAA tournament. It happens.
We might have a whole season left of Marv Albert calling this kind of stuff. We might have one game. In either case, I encourage you to fasten onto a call and fill in the rest of the sound with your memory or YouTube. There are little moments of NBA history, and then there are the ones worth shouting about. Marv of all people would know the difference.