By Suns Public Address Announcer Jeff Munn
Posted: Feb. 14, 2002
Five years ago, when Al McCoy celebrated, along with his millions of fans, his 25th season as the “Voice of the Phoenix Suns”, he was honored in a variety of ways. There were video tributes, recognition on the Suns’ flagship radio station, KTAR, and there was a lengthy story about Al in the artist formerly known as Fastbreak Magazine.
There was just one problem.
Those kind of salutes are usually reserved for someone who’s leaving. Now, with Al celebrating his 30th anniversary, and showing no signs of slowing down, how could we possibly do a story that will be different and better than what we did in 1997?
Then, the answer came.
It was this past January 18th, the night of the Suns’ dramatic overtime victory over Minnesota. You remember – Stephon Marbury hits a three-pointer with time winding down in overtime to end the Timberwolves’ nine-game winning streak. In the seconds leading to the game-winning shot, the inspiration for this story appeared, and it came from the man himself.
As Marbury dribbled with the seconds winding down, McCoy captured the drama of the moment by saying, “The fans are on their feet here at America West Arena. How about you?”
It is only two lines. Exactly fourteen words. Yet, it provides the perfect example of what makes an Al McCoy broadcast of anything – basketball game, news report, music show – special.
Still don’t know what we’re talking about? Let’s put it another way – some play-by-play men are reporters, some are announcers. Then, there is Al McCoy. Al McCoy… is a broadcaster.
“Broadcaster” is a slang term that is subject to personal interpretation, but to most it means someone who has a full understanding of the broadcast medium, and that is what this story is about. While there have been hundreds of stories about Al’s career in Phoenix, the path that led him from the farm in Williams, Iowa, to his courtside seat at Veterans Memorial Coliseum and now America West Arena, and the memories that have come from 30 years in that spot, this is a story about what makes an Al McCoy broadcast unique, and something, in itself, to be celebrated.
Go back to that line for a minute. Can you remember the last time a play-by-play announcer asked you what you were doing? It’s an example of one of the basic keys to a McCoy-called game. Al doesn’t talk down, at, or around his audience. He talks to them. When Al takes the air, it isn’t met with the clarion call of a trumpet. He just comes on and says “How ya doin’?” Sounds like an old friend who drops by once in a while, right? An old friend who knows exactly how you feel. When the Suns are setting up for the game-winning shot, this old friend knows you’re probably either standing, crossing your fingers, or doing something else to ease the anticipation. Only an old friend would know and understand. Now, you’re starting to see what we’re talking about.
Notice what he said before he asked what you were doing. He said “The fans are on their feet here at America West Arena.” Ask any high school English teacher and they’ll tell you the key to telling a good story is to use the five senses. Admittedly, smells, touches and tastes are a little tough to convey on radio and television, but not sights and sounds. On radio, the listener forms a “word picture” and the truly great broadcasters, whether it’s a news reporter, sportscaster or disc jockey, realize that, in order to paint the most vivid picture, detail is a key.
Go back to that line. If you’re listening, you can now picture in your mind what the scene is. Even if you hadn’t heard a single minute of the game before Marbury’s game-winning shot, you could hear that line and immediately determine that there’s little time left, and the outcome of the game is at stake.
If what a broadcaster does is paint a picture, consider how the painting is put to canvas. In the case of a basketball game, describing the action is the foundation. Statistics are the first broad strokes of expression. For a splash of color, Al adds a “Shazam” or “Heartbreak Hotel”, and to complete the picture, the detailing – sights and sounds – which can turn the picture into a masterpiece.
Al McCoy paints masterpieces, every time he takes the air. There are few things as dependable as an Al McCoy broadcast. The truly great ones do it the same way, at the same level, day in, day out. While some may say that no two basketball games are alike, all Al McCoy basketball broadcasts are alike, and this is one case where familiarity does not breed contempt.
To take it a step further, broadcasters are versatile. While most Suns fans immediately think basketball when they think of him, Al’s career has included jobs as a newscaster, disc jockey and program director. To simply call Al McCoy a sportscaster doesn’t do justice to the man’s real talent – a thorough understanding of the medium. The basics of good broadcasting haven’t changed much in the 80-plus years since the first station went on the air, yet only the truly great ones are aware that those basics are still the foundation.
Sure, you say. You’re gushing about Al because you work with him. Indeed, working with him offers a perspective into the man’s professionalism that the public doesn’t always see. However, don’t just take our word for it.
Over 30 years, a lot has changed about Phoenix sports. When Al took over as “Voice of the Suns” in 1972, the NFL, NHL and MLB were still years from arriving in the Valley. Arizona State University was a vital part of the sports scene, but was still operating in the nearly unknown Western Athletic Conference. Yet, when you talk to the other “voices” that now call Phoenix home, they speak with respect and reverence for the man who has set and maintains the standard.
“You can close your eyes when Al calls a game and you’re never at a loss for the score”, says Greg Schulte, who can appreciate Al’s work from two perspectives. He not only worked alongside Al as his producer for 11 years, but also as his on-air partner for two seasons. Now, beginning his fifth season as a play-by-play voice of the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, Greg brings that “old friend” flavor to his baseball broadcasts.
“I know I have patterned many of my broadcast habits after Al,” says Schulte, “simply because they’re professional and considerate of the listening or viewing audience.”
Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo and longtime Lakers broadcaster Chic Hearn presented McCoy with a bronze microphone on Nov. 16 in recognition of his 30th anniversary.
“Al sounds like an announcer SHOULD sound,” says Phoenix Coyotes broadcaster Doug McLeod. “Anymore, all the play-by-play voices you hear sound as though they were cut with the same cookie-cutter – high, thin, bored, and thus, boring to listen to.
“Al has a terrific voice and delivery. Perhaps not a point the average fan would make, but it means a lot to me.”
Something else that means a lot to McLeod is another “basic” of good broadcasting – honesty.
“When you represent the team, you have to balance marketing with fairness to your audience and describing events accurately and honestly when the team isn’t playing well is critical,” says McLeod, like McCoy, a native of Iowa, and who, like McCoy, attended Drake University. “No one wants negativity, but you have to tell it like it is, and he does.”
While we seldom, if ever, openly ask a play-by-play announcer to tell the truth, history shows those who don’t are quickly exposed. The listener, as previously mentioned, is to be respected, and best way to show respect to a listener is…tell the truth.
One other point about honesty – how you say something is as important as what you say. Al will tell you when the Suns aren’t playing well, and yet, he does it in a fashion that shows respect to one other group – the players. Can you think of one player, Phoenix Sun or otherwise, who has ever taken exception with something Al has said? It’s not a secret – Al simply treats people the way he would like to be treated.
“Al McCoy’s finest quality is that he is an even better person than he is a broadcaster,” says Tim Healey, radio voice of ASU sports. “He’s always quick to say hello, and pass along a compliment or a sound piece of professional advice.”
Indeed, Tim got some career advice from Al…indirectly.
“From the time I first moved to Phoenix in 1983, I became a huge Al McCoy fan,” Healey says, “and through my admiration of his work, I found the inspiration to pursue a play-by-play career of my own.”
Tim’s not alone. Al’s influence on aspiring broadcasters ranges far from basketball. Prior to joining the Suns, Al called hockey games for the long-since departed Phoenix Roadrunners of the Western Hockey League. One of his early partners on those broadcasts was Mike Lange, who was inducted this year into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his years of service to the game as the Voice of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins.
Yet, with all the professional accomplishments and admirers to go with it, Al McCoy remains at heart, that old friend who drops by every so often to talk. For 30 seasons, his visits have been a welcome part of a Suns fan’s routine. He asks how you’re doing, he tells you what’s going on where he is, he does it with respect for your feelings, and when it’s time to leave, he doesn’t just say goodbye, he says what any old friend would say – “So long for now”.
Fourteen words. Yet, they offer insight into why so many millions of fans, thousands of players and coaches, and countless fellow announcers consider Al McCoy a broadcaster.
Like any old friends, Al’s next visit is right around the corner. Good thing. We need some time to start thinking about what we’re going to do for his 35th anniversary.