Remembering Johnny Hoops

By Dennis D’AgostinoJohn Andariese lived the quintessential New York basketball life.

He walked, talked, lived and loved the game with every fiber of his being...from the streets of Brooklyn, to the ancient gym at Rose Hill, to the Eastern League, and finally to the biggest, most glittering stage of them all.

There was nowhere he wouldn’t go to watch a game...from the high school gyms to the old Pro-Ams to Summer League. He was a gym rat before they even had a name for it.

John was so much more than a former player, an announcer, an analyst. His manner, his personality, his outlook on life, all of these made him the perfect ambassador for The City Game.

“Playing in college and in the rec leagues fed my love for the game and the understanding of how much talent NBA guys have,” he once said. “That’s what feeds me to this day, that I realize the gift, and I love to share the understanding of that gift with people.”

He literally walked among giants, and yet possessed a humanity and humbleness that is nearly extinct in today's world. He never lost the sense of sheer wonder that permeated every day of his life, that marvelous good fortune that allowed him to spend so many years commenting on and analyzing the game he loved, educating and entertaining generations in the process.

Over 34 seasons - a span that included 17 head coaches, nine 50+ win seasons, three Atlantic Division titles and three trips to The NBA Finals - John was behind the mike as Knicks broadcast analyst on both radio and TV. For 21 of those years, John and Marv Albert formed one of the longest-running duos in NBA broadcast history. His list of Knicks partners reads like a veritable broadcasting Who’s Who, including Bob Wolff, Mike Breen, Gus Johnson, Spencer Ross, Al Trautwig, Mike Crispino, and, as if to truly span the generations, Marv’s son Kenny and later Spero Dedes, who wasn’t even born when John started at the Garden. A three-time New York Emmy winner, John’s fame would eventually spread nationally as one of the first voices of the NBA on ESPN, Turner and NBATV. But always, his heart and focus remained in the Big Apple and its loyal basketball clientele.

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“The sport is fed by the enthusiasm of so many fans in New York,” said John toward the end of his career. “You’ll get young players noticing the reaction when a guy blocks a shot or when a guy throws a great pass. They’re not cheering for the guy who put the ball in the basket, they’re cheering the pass. That’s the difference in New York. And I don’t even think it’s an arguable point among basketball people. The New York fan is on another level of sophistication, knowledge and feel.”

In 2014, two years after his retirement, Andariese was accorded his profession’s highest honor when he was named winner of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s annual Curt Gowdy Media Award for broadcasting. At the time, he was only the sixth game analyst to be honored with the Gowdy Award. Throughout his career, John took particular pride in that he was - and remains - one of the very few NBA broadcast analysts who neither played nor coached in the League.

From the start, John was unique among broadcasters in that he had no pet phrases, was never loud or overbearing, never jumped to conclusions and never overtly ripped a player or coach. His analysis was always measured and gently critical when necessary, but he wasn’t above a literal “Wow!” moment on-mike when the situation called for it.

That was John Andariese, the Hall of Fame announcer. John Andariese the person was even better.

Everyone in the New York basketball orbit has a John Andariese story, and every one of them, no doubt, centers on his kindness and genuine inquisitiveness. It didn't matter if you worked alongside him at the Garden or ran into him on the street or in a restaurant or on the subway. He was one of us, a grown-up city kid; and if you wanted to talk Knicks, Johnny Hoops was your man.

He had time for everyone, and placed himself above no one. Lunch or dinner with John, or a walk through midtown or a shared crosstown cab ride, would be constantly interrupted by a stream of fans saying hello, or thanking him, or ranting about last night’s game. It was the voice of the city, speaking to him for nearly four decades, and he relished it.

There was no greater student of the game’s history, nor one more respectful of it, than John Andariese. The nostalgia-themed “NBA Legends with Johnny Hoops” was one of the staples of the fledgling NBATV. One of this writer’s favorite memories came about 10 years ago, when John and I spent a frigid winter’s day with camera crew in tow inside the Knicks’ original home, the fabled 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, invoking the ghosts of the old Knicks from the center court spot where George Mikan and Sweetwater Clifton faced off in the NBA Finals a half-century before.

John joined the Knicks for the 1972-73 season, at the height of the team’s Camelot era. He got the job, literally, through his gym rat tendencies. Rebuffed in his early efforts to carve out a broadcasting career, he nonetheless would haunt the Garden sidelines and work as an assistant or statistician for out-of-town broadcasters who didn’t usually travel with an analyst.His big break came at the 1970 NIT at the Garden, when he worked alongside legendary Atlanta announcer Ed Thilenius during Georgia Tech’s drive to the quarterfinals, and scored his first on-air interview...Hall of Fame coach Joe Lapchick. Three years later, the rookie NBA voice was mikeside for a Knicks championship, and from then on faithfully wore the commemorative cufflinks the team handed out to the announcers instead of rings.

That championship season, of course, first paired John with Marv Albert, and the two would become a symbol of Knicks basketball for countless years afterward. Marv bestowed the Johnny Hoops nickname on Andariese and made John an on-air cult figure as he also did with Sal “Red Light” Messina on the Rangers side. But he also allowed the neophyte color man to establish his own turf, and the partnership blossomed almost immediately.

The roots of Andariese’s love for the game went back to his days as a prepster at St. Michael’s, playing alongside the likes of Doug Moe and Tommy Davis in the old Hearst All-Star game at the Garden (a Brooklyn boy through and through, he fondly reminisced about saving Borden’s Ice Cream lids that could be exchanged for bleacher tickets at Ebbets Field). A letterman at Fordham under fabled coach Johnny Bach, John helped lead the Rams to two NIT appearances and captained the 1959-60 team.

John also had a playing stint with the Allentown Jets in the rough-and-tumble Eastern League during the early 1960s, then played with a Washington Capitols-type foil team called the New York Skyscrapers, coached by another Big Apple legend, Fuzzy Levane.

For decades, John built his primary career as a television ad executive and distinguished himself with endless behind-the-scenes charity work, but his true passion came alive on those winter nights at 33rd and Seventh. Courtside was his home office for so many years, and John would always laugh remembering all the times that John Goldner, the long-ago Garden executive, tossed him out of those same seats during his high school days. Gentle humor like that was always part of John’s appeal, such as time he donned Ray-Bans and jammed with the house band in Milwaukee, or when Marv introduced him as “the 53rd leading rebounder in the history of Fordham University” at his Hall of Fame ceremony.

Honors, it seemed, naturally followed him around. In addition to earning the game’s highest broadcasting honor, John was a member of the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, both the Fordham and St. Michael’s Athletic Halls of Fame, and was the 2013 winner of the Dick McGuire Legacy Award given by the Knicks.

Now the humor, the friendship and all those good times are tinged with so much sadness. There should have been more Knicks games to see, more tennis to play, more horses to ride, more good times to share, At John’s highest professional moment, when he accepted the Gowdy Award at Springfield, his illness had already taken hold. It broke so many of our hearts when John's body and mind were stricken just when he should have been enjoying his life's calling, his daughters, his adoring wife Maureen, to the fullest.

Years of struggle, both physical and mental, followed. He never got the chance, really, to bask in the gratitude of a city he had educated, enlightened and enriched for so long. But now, for Johnny Hoops, the pain is gone. The lane is wide open, a packed house at Rose Hill is clothed in the Old Maroon, and all his layups are uncontested.