Q&A: Broadcasting legend Marv Albert talks lengthy career
The Hall of Fame broadcaster looks back on a legendary career as he prepares to retire after the East finals.
There are perhaps humans who watched more games, worn more headsets, shouted more times, sat court side for more hours and witnessed more historic live sporting events than Marv Albert.
But nobody ever did all this with more authority.
For 55 years, Albert has been on fire, his distinctive voice reaching into your eardrums from way downtown, and so this begs the question: Does this make Marv an iconic figure in NBA history, a play-by-play broadcaster who became as well-known as the stars he described, and a precious link to two generations of basketball?
And the answer to that — OK, this is too easy — is Yes!
Albert will call his final game in the conference finals, then he’s retiring. He did 25 All-Star Games, 13 NBA Finals, the Dream Team Olympics and called the action for the Knicks for decades. Of course, this just a partial sampling; Albert has plenty of other sports, namely hockey, on a resume that never seems to end.
Albert just turned 80 and got his start as a Knicks ballboy; you can’t get any closer to the action than that. Or so he thought. In high school he worked for Marty Glickman, the jack-of-all announcers in New York and eventually a mentor. After college, Albert was the radio fill-in whenever Glickman had another assignment, doing his first game at age 21, and long story short, Albert succeeded Glickman in 1967 full-time on all things Knicks: radio and eventually TV.
Along the way, Albert discovered his own voice and style, which became easily and instantly recognizable and separated him from the talking head herd. He had a dry wit, knew when to inject it into a telecast or into the side of Mike Fratello, perhaps his most popular broadcast partner. Albert is known to let the game breathe without going over the top or talking non-stop. He spends hours preparing for a game, scanning box scores and newspaper and internet stories to use on the air. He’s also famous for his dramatic pauses in the middle of his catch phrases, for example, after a player scores and then gets fouled in the process: “Yes … (pause) … and it counts!”
He’s in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he’s the basketball version of Vin Scully, the legendary voice of the Dodgers. That’s how much Albert is praised among his peers for his endurance, longevity and announcing chops; he’s considered an idol of many in the business.
On the eve of the conference finals and his victory lap, Albert agreed to an interview recently and touched all the broadcasting bases, with a bit of David Letterman and Robert Redford tossed in.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: This has been a dream that lasted five decades, right? What were your earliest memories?
Albert: Since the third grade I wanted to be a sportscaster. But I first became a rock and roll disc jockey at Syracuse, where I went to school, and I loved it. I thought that might be my direction. We’d run these shows and bring in Chubby Checker and Del Shannon, we made deals, sold out these halls, made some money and lost some money. It was a great experience. Then I auditioned for the Syracuse Chiefs minor league team; I was the second person on the broadcast, and that’s where I started before I came to New York and worked for Marty. He was doing high school game of the week and I was writing stuff for the telecast and helped produce it. I got to know Marty quite well. He was the big name in New York, did Knicks, football Giants, college basketball, was very instrumental in putting me on the right course. I started subbing for him.
And your first Knicks game?
Marty was doing Yonkers races and he had a harness racing meeting in Paris and he got stuck in a snowstorm, so he suggested to his bosses I do the Knicks game. I took my brother Al to be a statistician and we went to Boston for the game. They didn’t want to let me through the press gate because they thought I was faking it. I took out all my credentials from WCBS radio and showed security that we were real. Then Richie Guerin, who was with the Knicks, walked into the press area at the same time and said “He’s legit.” So we were in. I did the game and several others. Years later I listened to that game and said I can’t believe they put this on the air.
Unlike some other broadcasters of local teams, you didn’t fit the definition of a homer. Which, in hindsight, played well in a tough, smart market like New York, right?
I always believed in being objective in terms of broadcasting games which wasn’t always appreciated by Madison Square Garden. But I was there in the good times in the ‘70s and later with Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy. Then they went through this stage without making the playoffs for a stretch of years and it was awful and you had to say what was going on. Why would people believe you when things are going well if you don’t say what’s evident when they’re going poorly? So I always believed that. You can do this job without hammering people. We were critical the other night about Giannis (Antetokounmpo) with the 3s and as great as he is, how the other guys aren’t getting their shots, like (Khris) Middleton. If people are afraid to tell him don’t take those 3s, why do the broadcast? He shouldn’t be developing that shot while the game’s going on.
At the same time, your humor was self-deprecating and dry, would that be accurate?
I always felt you had to have a sense of humor about stuff. Even as a kid I always saw things from a nuanced point of view.
Other than Howard Cosell and a few others, you might be the most mimicked sports broadcaster in history. Surely you have some stories about that?
We had a sound-alike contest years ago at the Garden. Billy Crystal’s accountant was one of the finalists. I’d gotten to know Billy, he’s a New York guy and sits next to us at Clippers’ games when we go to LA. But his accountant was very good. I’d give him a 6 or 7. People will come up to me at airport men’s room and go into play by play. Right there at the urinal. All I could do is give them a strong 5.
Of all of your catch phrases, “Yes … and it counts!” might be the most popular. How did that begin?
Sid Borgia was a colorful referee years ago, really animated. And when a player hit a shot and was fouled he would say “Yes and it counts.” Early in my career Dick Barnett of the Knicks hit one of his fallback jumpers and I just happened to say, “Yes.” It sounded right. Then people would start repeating it to me and players would say it to me during warmups. It just happened to catch on.
And then it’s from Way Downtown, which seems weird because if anything, the 3-point shot is taken from uptown, right?
Downtown was said by others. I can’t take credit for that. But you’re right, for some reason in this case, downtown seems to signify it’s further away.
Explain your enthusiasm for the game while calling it. Do you need a fan’s emotion?
You don’t wan to force anything. Not to go over the top. You have to be under control because if you get out of control you’re a fan doing the game. There should be a little part of fandom in your head, but that’s all. You try to do what comes naturally. It’s in the moment when you get the best results, than if you over-rehearse. One of the all time calls is Al Michaels’ Do You Believe In Miracles? Knowing him it just came naturally. That was not rehearsed, because I’m sure he didn’t figure the US hockey team would beat Russia.
One of your signature calls took place in the 1991 NBA Finals when Michael Jordan executed a reverse-hand layup while in mid-air and you yelled “Oh, a spectacular move, by Michael Jordan.” Whenever that clip is aired, the highlight wouldn’t be the same without your voice. What about that play?
It just came. That was the first NBA Finals game I ever did so I was happy to be there. The other Jordan moments, like the flu game, was unbelievable, too. It was just in the moment. Funny thing about that play is that it wasn’t like it won the game.
Another was when Willis Reed made his iconic comeback from a badly sprained ankle in Game Seven of the 1970 Finals for the Knicks against the Lakers. Tell us about your radio call when Reed walked in from the tunnel at the Garden and you said “Here comes Willis.”
That was an amazing moment because everyone had the feeling Willis wasn’t going to play. He came out late and walked in from right under from where we broadcast and I couldn’t believe it. The Lakers were in their pre-game warm-ups and they stopped and stared. (Wilt) Chamberlain and (Jerry) West could not believe it. They didn’t prepare for Willis. It was inspirational what Willis did, hit the first two shots, hobbled around, and the rest of the team had a sensational game. The crowd when Willis walked out was the loudest I ever heard in terms of the decibel level.
One of the perks of being a New York sportscaster was being asked to appear regularly on Late Night With David Letterman during the ‘80s when it was very popular, and you did sports bloopers. Any stories from the green room?
Dave was a big sports fan, loved basketball, big hockey fan, big baseball fan. He had a separate green room than the guests. The makeup room was where I got a kick out of because all the stars on the show would be in there, from Cher, name anybody who was popular from the 80s and 90s and they were there, people you never thought you’d come across. Dave went to a couple of games with me, and we got such a kick out of it, but he’s a very private person, low-key funny in private, too. As far as me being on his show, he would call me the emergency guest. Aside from my regular appearances with the blooper tapes, if they needed me at the last minute he’d call me. It was between me and Regis Philbin for most appearances on the show.
Over five decades of airline travel, aside from racking up the frequent flyer points, you must’ve had some famous people on those planes. How about some names?
The biggest moment was Robert Redford sitting across the way and a woman, a stranger he didn’t know, was chewing his ear off. He came over to me, and I didn’t know if he knew me, and he said “Marv, do you mind if I sit here?” We were flying from New York to LA and we talked all flight. Even better, we kept in touch after that. We knew a lot of the same people. He asked me for World Series tickets for his dad one time. Such a great person. I usually just read on fights but I didn’t read that day.
Any other A-list interviews that you’ve conducted?
I’ve interviewed presidents, and Barack Obama, his personality was unbelievable. All he wanted to do was talk basketball. I did it at the White House. When he walked out he said “Yesss” and some of my other phrases. I asked him some questions that might have been considered mildly tough, and one time he said, “You know, I have security here all around me.” So there were no more tough questions after that. He said he watched games at night and would turn the sound down. I told him that I take that personally. He laughed. But he had the sound down because that’s when he’d get his reading in. Terrific person.
You even appeared on the Tonight Show, right?
I was asked to do the Johnny Carson show and that was a thrill, because I thought so much of him and his show. I always admired what he had accomplished. And an even bigger deal was that he laughed at my jokes. I was sitting on the couch with Jerry Seinfeld and Julio Iglesis. It seems surreal, just sitting and talking to Johnny Carson. It was a big deal.
What was the biggest event you ever worked?
The greatest kick I got was doing the Dream Team, not for the games because they were all blowouts. But just to be around it. They were like the Beatles, had tight security, couldn’t really go anywhere. This is when basketball internationally had landed and started the whole movement. The first time they walked out on the floor I got the chills. Greatest group of athletes in a team sport that I’d ever seen.
Probably the Jordan flu game. We knew Jordan was ill but the fans didn’t know, even when he was being carried back to the bench by his teammates every timeout. What he did was amazing, and the game was tight and he put up big numbers. He looked like he was going to double over. Because of what he did in that game, that was the most memorable.
In your opinion, which is based on five decades of watching basketball, who are the greatest players?
It’s hard to compare eras because the game is different and the way the athletes are built and hard to take a center and compare him to a traditional player. If asked to pick an All-NBA team I go old school. I’d have LeBron, Bird, Kareem over Chamberlain and Russell, and then Jordan and Magic. Four out of the five is from the ‘90s and 2000s. Apologies to West, Julius Erving, Russell and Wilt.
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That’s so hard but I go old school and give a slight edge to Jordan. When he first started as a rookie he was a bit skinny but I think if he played today he’d have LeBron’s body. He’d have the same motivation in terms of offseason training. There are guys in the 60s and 70s who would be able to play today, too. Bob Cousy would be a star because you see smaller guards now doing things that Cousy did then. His body would’ve changed. He’d still be 6-1 but he’d have a better shot, a jump shot instead of a push shot. Rick Barry would be sensational. If Michael played today he would be off the charts.
When was the league at its best?
The way it is now, the 3-point shot does hurt it because the big guys can shoot 3s so it puts them outside and a lot of bad shots are being taken. I thought the best game was in the 90s. You had variety. Michael didn’t shoot 3s but surely you recall the (1992 Finals) game in Portland in the first half. He would sit down with us before the game, but he missed that session on that day because he said he had to go out early for practice. That struck me as strange and he rarely did that, but all he was doing was shooting 3s. Then he had the game where he made six in the half. He looked over at the table and gave his famous shrug. It was myself, Mike Fratello and Magic sitting at the table. The czar (Fratello) still claims Michael was looking at him. I still think its a great game now but so different than what we saw 20 years ago. The 90s you had different teams and styles of play, had the Knicks who were physical. You can’t do that now. They changed the rules.
Final question for you is, why now? Why retire after 55 years from the best job in sports?
I once put a number on it but I think it’s time to give the next generation a shot. I don’t feel it’s quite the same for me as 10 years ago in certain ways, so I think it’s better to go out than to start falling off. I’m in good shape and feel great. I think the pandemic was a rehearsal for retirement. I read a lot, became a TV binger. Now I get to see my kids and grandkids. I’ll follow my son Kenny’s games and will be enjoying the hockey. I thought it was the right time. I didn’t want to just hang on, because then there will be a point where you stop doing the big game.
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