From Julius Erving to Devin Booker, retired Steve Albert recalls top NBA moments

Q&A with Phoenix Suns former play-by-play man Steve Albert

During the offseason, Phoenix Suns play-by-play man Steve Albert announced his retirement from broadcasting. A 45-year veteran of his field, Albert called games for the ABA New York Nets, the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets and Phoenix Suns. NBA.com spoke with Albert about some of his best memories, which span from Julius “Dr. J” Erving to budding Suns star Devin Booker.

NBA.com: When did you first know that sports broadcasting was the career for you?

Steve Albert: Seven years old. The passion was there from the beginning. [My brothers and I] would go into a little room in our house and set up a makeshift broadcast table, turn the sound down on a baseball game – in those days it was just the Yankees on TV in New York – and we would do the play-by-play ourselves.

When I was a Knicks ball boy, I’d sit at the end of the bench because Red Holzman didn’t like the ball boys sitting next to him. I had the best seat in the house. I’d do play-by-play to myself.

That was a tremendous perk of that job — not just to get to know Bill Bradley and Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Dave Debusschere when I was a ball boy – but to actually sit there and practice play-by-play to yourself. If I had done it out loud, I would’ve gotten thrown out of the building. I wanted to do play-by-play earlier than that, but this was my first real hands-on feel for play-by-play, being right there in the middle of the action. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a ball boy and have that advantage.

NBA.com: What made you decide basketball was your preferred sport to announce?

Steve Albert: I did announce for the Mets for three years, very early in my career. I realized very quickly, within the first year of doing baseball, that I was more comfortable and felt better suited to a fast-paced, action-packed sport.

It was just too slow for me, baseball. I had to get back indoors and do basketball or hockey. When I did baseball, it made me more passionate to get back to the indoor sports, the fast-paced sports. I never looked back.

NBA.com: What was it like covering the Nets in their final year with the ABA?

Steve Albert: In ’75-76, you’re talking about Dr. J (Julius Erving), “Super” John Williamson… this was an incredible team.

The stories from just that year are countless. The one that stands out the most is in the very final ABA championship, the Nets played the Denver Nuggets, coached by Larry Brown. I was doing the Nets games. The announcer for the Nuggets games was my brother Al. I was going up against my brother for the final ABA championship!

NBA.com: Best memory from that series?

Steve Albert: The last game, which the Nets won, was at the Nassau Coliseum out at Uniondale, Long Island, where the Nets and the Islanders used to play. When the final buzzer sounded and the Nets won the championship, the fans – in their excitement – stormed the court. They just ran roughshod over the press table.

En route to the floor in their exuberance, they left me alone because they knew me as the hometown announcer, but they just ripped my brother’s equipment to shreds. They tore my brother off the air. I see him standing on the table, holding a microphone connected to nothing – as he was trying to finish the broadcast! That’s a memory I’ll never forget.

NBA.com: Who were some of your memorable color commentators?

Steve Albert: Phil Jackson [with the Nets] was my color commentator for a couple years before he became “Phil Jackson.” He hadn’t even coached the Albany Patroons in the old CBA yet! He lived in a neighboring town called Leonia, and I used to pick him up. His wife and kids would be on the steps in front of the front door, waiving goodbye as we’d go off to the Meadowlands Arena. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting to see his family doing that. We’d have some great conversations in the car. This was a very young Phil Jackson.

Later on I was with [former Seton Hall head coach] Bill Raftery for about 10 years, then [former NBA player] Jim Spanarkel. To work with these guys was an amazing education for me early on. To just talk to them and pick their brains, it was incredible. That stuff really pays off down the road, let me tell you.

Eddie Johnson [in Phoenix] kept me on my toes, man. He knows the league backwards and forward. It was tremendous doing games with him. He gave me the freedom to be myself and not just another run-of-the-mill, sterile play-by-play guy. We could have fun, joke around, be somewhat irreverent. I’m very grateful to the Suns for letting us do that. Either that or they weren’t listening!

NBA.com: What was it like calling games for the “Run TMC” era of the Golden State Warriors?

Steve Albert: That was such a collection of talent, from Chris Mullin to Mitch Richmond to Tim Hardaway. You just go down the list of guys on the team – it was a lot of fun. You had Manute Bol on that team, taking threes, and Don Nelson was encouraging him! When he would hit a three, he would just light up. All 7-foot-7 of him would be all smiles. One of the funniest guys you’d ever want to be around. A warm human being. He’d remember everybody’s name.

Every night sold out. I think it was 15,025 [capacity] in the old arena. You just had great people there. Al Attles was in the front office. They brought him and Bob Lanier back to coach the team a couple games down the stretch of my tenure there. It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it there.

NBA.com: Can you describe what it was like covering Devin Booker’s 70-point game last season?

Steve Albert: People don’t talk about this. That night, if you went into the locker room corridor at TD Garden after the game, you wouldn’t know who won and who lost. In the Suns locker room, they were jubilantly celebrating, pouring water over Devin’s head, posting pictures of Devin holding an homage to Wilt’s 100-point game with a hand-written 70-point sign. It was like they won the NBA championship, the noise coming from that locker room was that loud.

Then you walk into the Celtics locker room – and they won the game! – and it was very somber and sullen. They’re all sitting in front of their lockers with their heads down because they gave up a huge lead. Brad Stevens was not happy. They almost blew the game. And they’re hearing the Suns celebrate on the other side of the corridor. It was surreal. It was a real study in psychology.

NBA.com: What’s the challenge of covering winning teams compared to clubs that struggle?

Steve Albert: You always get that rush when you’re doing a game, but certainly it helps when you have a major event like that or you’re with a team that’s consistently winning. That always makes your job interesting. Anybody can announce for a good team, but you really have to dig down deep to call games for a team that struggles. It makes you work harder and prepare better. That’s why it’s great to have a really good color commentator like Eddie Johnson, someone you can banter with and talk about other things.

NBA.com: Your brothers, Al and Marv, are well respected play-by-play guys in their own right. What’s that family dynamic like?

Steve Albert: My brothers were doing it before me. It was amazing to follow in their footsteps. There’s a lot of animosity in sibling rivalries, but we never had that. We had a really stable upbringing by our parents, so it was just happiness. There was plenty to go around. There were plenty of teams. We never went for the same jobs or the same teams, so we were always content doing what we were doing.

NBA.com: You’ve called some incredible games and moments, but you never seemed to need that ready-if-needed catchphrase. Why is that?

Steve Albert: I was surrounded by people with catchphrases all my life. My brother’s got maybe the most iconic catchphrase in basketball with one simple three-letter word. He started saying that when he was doing the Knicks on radio. With [Suns radio play-by-play announcer] Al [McCoy], it was “Shazam!” for a 3-pointer and all the catchphrases he had. People grew up with it.

Personally, I just never became one of those catchphrase guys. I guess early on in my career, I experimented with a couple things, but I guess all the catchphrases were taken! I just relied on my exhilaration, excitement, hoping for a big shot down the stretch at the end.