The Voice

Tom McGinnis Marks 25 Years Behind the Mic
by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Let's face it.

If you're an aspiring basketball player, the likelihood of getting to the NBA ain't that great. 

Here's a rough look at the odds, just to give you a sense of what we're talking about. 

According to the NCAA, nearly 541,000 boys in the United States play high school hoops. Their chances of landing a spot on a college team? A not-so-sure-fire 3.5%.

Project that pool to the NBA, where there are only 30 teams and a maximum of 510 athletes active at a given time (counting two-way contract players), and the figure plummets to a microscopic 0.09%. 

But hey, 510 is at least a big enough number to kind of wrap your mind around. 

Let's say, however, you wanted to get to the NBA via another route. More specifically, that of a play-by-play announcer - the person who says the unseen and calls all the action. How long of a shot would that be?

We may not have the exact specs, but we do know this:

There are only 30 full-time NBA radio play-by-play gigs out there (not including national network opportunities), and unlike the league's stars, broadcasters don't really have a shelf life or expiration date. 

Take Al McCoy, for instance. He's the play-by-play announcer for the Phoenix Suns. He's 87 years old, and just completed his 48th year - an NBA record. 

So back in 1995, when a Spring Valley, Illinois native returned home to pack up his stuff before making a life-defining move to Philadelphia, he had an ironic discussion at a going away party at his family's house.

"One of my best friends growing up, Polly Cassidy, was there," recalled Tom McGinnis, who at the time had just been hired by the 76ers. "I had purchased a lottery ticket that day, and she goes, 'Why did you purchase a lottery ticket? You won the lottery.'"

McGinnis let Polly's words sink in for a moment. 

"She was right," he says now, "because this career, this dream being realized was my lottery ticket."
Twenty-five years later, McGinnis continues to cash in. 

"I look at the skyline of Philadelphia every time I come here to the arena. To be in a market this size, calling games in the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers is still something I cherish. I never take it for granted."

**********

Listen to a 76ers broadcast on the radio, and it shouldn't take you long to get a sense of how much Tom McGinnis enjoys what he does.

Whether it's the opening tip or the decisive shot, McGinnis' signature qualities flood your ears.  

"I've said this to him many times," said long-time Sixers' television play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff, "when he broadcasts a game, people nearly drive off the road because the excitement, the passion, the energy is perfect for radio."

Ask Jerry Monzo, the statistician for the Sixers' radio and TV broadcasts, to describe McGinnis, and he likens McGinnis to a one-man Broadway show.

"He does everything," Monzo said. "He produces, he acts, he speaks.

"We joke a lot because to him, every game is a Game 7. You can hear it in his voice, see it in his demeanor, in his actions." 

Yes, McGinnis' act is very much of the solo variety. Unlike his play-by-play counterparts on TV, he goes it alone. No color commentator, no sideline reporter. He even does his own halftime shows.

Says Marty Dickerson, the Sixers' radio engineer for the past 15 years, "To actually be here and see him do this job, and for him to do it without a color analyst and still do the job that two people would normally do? It's phenomenal, man. It's phenomenal." 

Retracing his steps, McGinnis remembers always having a fondness for basketball. He grew up in a small town along the Illinois River 100 miles southwest of Chicago, and played lots of hoops (64-0 in junior high school!), along with football, tennis, and baseball.

Every now and then, McGinnis and his father, a career banker in their hometown, would take a trek to the Windy City to watch Bulls games at the old Chicago Stadium. These were the days of Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, Bob Love, and Norm Van Lier. 

"It was a big thing for me," McGinnis said. "It would be like driving to The Center from Harrisburg."

While the McGinnises didn't go to lots of games, Tom made the most of his trips. Industrious by nature, he found ways to maneuver down to the floor to rebound during pregame warmups. 

"Eventually, I'd get kicked out," said McGinnis.

But attending these games was enough to give him a taste. 

"It got in me," he said. "That's what enveloped me in this dream. Of course you want to be an NBA player, and even though I played basketball in college, that wasn't going to happen."

So McGinnis focused on broadcasting. 

His first jobs were in TV as a reporter, covering sports in smaller markets like Charleston, South Carolina and Panama City, Florida. 

Then, in 1989, he took a bold, calculated gamble, and shifted his track to play-by-play. If he ever wanted to reach the pinnacle of broadcasting in the NBA, however, he knew he needed to get reps somewhere, so it was off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association.

McGinnis logged four seasons in the CBA, which, for more than half a century, was the precursor to the modern day G League. After a year calling games for John Starks and the Silver Bullets, McGinnis moved on to Lacrosse, Wisconsin. The franchise there - the Catbirds - was coached by Flip Saunders, and won the CBA title in 1992 with McGinnis behind the mic.

"Even though I was in the 'minor leagues,' the game was the same [as in the NBA]," McGinnis said. "Obviously the competition wasn't the same, but there were call-ups to the NBA between the players and the referees and administration."

Turned out the same could be said for announcers, too. 

Before getting tapped as Jon Gurevitch's successor with the Sixers in 1995, McGinnis spent two seasons in minor league hockey - the first in South Carolina, and the second in Cleveland.

"My experiences all melded together," he said.

"I remember reading about his hiring in the newspaper," said Marc Zumoff, who was named the Sixers' TV voice in 1994, the year prior to McGinnis' arrival.

"When I first met him, I heard this voice. When I heard this voice, I said to myself, 'I'm not long for this world.' This voice was beautiful, it was booming, it was perfect for sports. He had this wonderful mid-western accent, and just the way he spoke with this air of confidence. I said to myself, 'I haven't even heard him yet, I know he's going to be good.'"

Zumoff was right.

McGinnis was confident. But not in the braggadocious r self-congratulatory way.

His sense of self-belief was instead rooted in experience - the critical experience that seven years earlier he was wise enough to understand he'd need in order to get to the highest level of his profession. 

"I had already called some 200-plus professional basketball games given my time in the CBA," he said, "so I was ready."

In other words, when McGinnis debuted for the Sixers during the 1995-96 campaign, he was already comfortable with his voice.

"Finding your 'voice' is not, 'Are you kidding me?' It's not that. It's knowing when to meet the moment - when to communicate, how to carry the game - because we're not just play-by-play announcers. It's kind of entertainment. 

"Some people are just going to Wawa to get bread and eggs and milk, and you only have them for a little bit. You have to have fun and enjoy it, and I hope that comes through on the air - that I'm not pulling teeth, that I enjoy what I'm doing, and that's reflected in how I call the game."

**********

Not unlike the Man of Steel, Tom McGinnis transforms when he steps into a booth. 

Marty Dickerson, the Sixers' radio broadcast engineer, says, "He's got that mild-mannered, laid back Clark Kent-to-Superman type thing. There's the before and the after."

"He's very laid back off the air - has a wife and two kids," says statistician Jerry Monzo of the minivan-driving McGinnis. "But as soon as he gets on the air, a switch is absolutely flipped. He turns into what he is and what he does."

To see McGinnis actually do a game is to watch a full-body experience. Not only is his head on a breakneck swivel, tracking the action flying from one end of the court to the other, his body moves and sways side-to-side as well. 

He pumps his fits to punctuate signature plays, and waves his arms with the crowd as fans rise to their feet during a game's biggest moment. 

When the arena gets loud, he clenches the earphones of his headset hard against his temples for maximum focus. There's a constant fire in his eyes. 

"If there's a slam dunk by Joel Embiid, I think sometimes he's about ready to jump up out of his seat," said Dickerson, who for Sixers' home games sits behind a multi-channel audio control board directly to McGinnis' left. "I'm looking at him like, 'Woooooah. Calm down man. Too much coffee, too much chocolate.'"

Ah yes. Coffee and Andes mints, the rectangular bite-size confections that come in those green foil wrappers. These are vital gameday vitamins for McGinnis.

"Before games he has his coffee and some of his chocolate," Monzo said. "Once game time starts, it's a totally different person for sure." 

"To listen to the way he does this - to paint that picture for the listener - is one thing. To actually be here and see it, it's a whole other story. You have to be here," said Dickerson. "Animated? That's putting it mildly."

Mix all the gyrations and gesticulations together, and you get a style that is 100-percent McGinnis' own.

Over the course of a roughly 2.5 hour broadcast, there's a range of inflections and emotions amplified and underscored by his voice. Happiness, humility, humor, frustration, unbridled joy. 

McGinnis' tone constantly and accurately reflects the natural ebbs and flows of an NBA game.

"I've been doing this for many years," Monzo said, "and a lot of people ask me for my opinion about various announcers, and I just say Tom is such a great guy. Fans love his energy. I think that's one thing he brings game in and game out."

When asked about the source of his signature sound, McGinnis says it all goes back to his love for NBA basketball, and having the privilege to go to NBA arenas night in and night out, all while documenting the performance of the top athletes in the world.

"This is what I do," said McGinnis. "It's never, 'Oh I have to go down to the arena and I've got another game tonight.' You're a broadcaster. People don't think you had a rough day. It's 7:00 at night, like c'mon man! This is what fans expect.

"So, I'm shot out of a cannon. It's time to deliver. Part of it is projecting, part of it is entertainment and capturing an audience and all the descriptions and everything that goes into being a good play-by-play broadcaster, but I take pride in trying to do the best job that I can."

And he's essentially doing it all by himself, at least in respect to the on-air part of his role. 

Aside from a brief stint with former 76er big man Todd MacCulloch, McGinnis has been a solo act his entire career with the Sixers. That doesn't make him unique among his NBA radio peers, but it certainly doesn't diminish the difficulty of the gig, either.

"The great thing about Tom McGinnis is he is very comfortable talking to himself," Zumoff said with a chuckle. "So because of that, he does a great job by himself on the air."

Zumoff puts McGinnis' storytelling abilities up against anyone's.

"The things that he remembers to me are amazing. I think because I watch him on planes, buses, or what have you, he's always writing things down. I believe he has every waking moment of his life recorded somewhere. 

"His excitement, passion, energy is perfect for radio, because when you're driving or listening at home you can't see what's going on. Not only can you hear it from Tom, you can feel it."

It's a dynamic that's gone unchanged for a quarter century.

**********

The conclusion of Tom McGinnis' 25th season as the 76ers' radio play-by-play announcer didn't come without a twist.

Over the course of his tenure with the organization, he's seen a lot - the rise of Allen Iverson, the 2001 Finals, the surprise 'Show Ya Luv' run in 2012, the Process. He's experienced two lockouts, too.

But like anyone else who has lived through the last six months, nothing could have possibly prepared him for the aftermath of Mar. 11, when COVID-19 forced the NBA to put the 2019-20 season on pause.

"I think as a society we didn't understand and know what was going on, and we were all trying to gain an understanding of what was going on," McGinnis said. "The news could be overwhelming at times with so many people getting sick, people passing away, and so many unknowns about sports. It frankly didn't seem that important early on."

The NBA ultimately resumed play in July. And for as compelling as it was to learn about all the logistics and protocols that formed the basis of the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, it was just as fascinating to see how McGinnis' gameday routine was impacted. 

Aside from a limited group of announcers working for the NBA's national TV and radio partners, no broadcasters were allowed on site. 

So McGinnis, along with the rest of the league's play-by-players, had to adapt. Such is the nature of the world these days.

When the Sixers played their games in Orlando, McGinnis was back in South Philadelphia, stationed in a broadcast booth normally designated for hockey announcers in the upper balcony of The Center. Typically, he calls games from the top of Section 112 in the arena's lower bowl.

McGinnis' new booth was configured to account for both safety (he and engineer Marty Dickerson were separated by a transparent floor-to-ceiling plexiglass wall) and ease of access to the follow the game itself.

Directly in front of the desk where McGinnis sat were two massive 54" HD monitors. The one on the left showed an "All-10" view of the entire court the Sixers were playing on, while the screen to the right displayed a tighter view being used for the TV broadcast.

On McGinnis' table was another smaller monitor that displayed in-game player and team stats in real time.

"What they've done to make the games available to do the remote broadcasting has been nothing short of sensational, and we're all pulling it off," said McGinnis, praising the NBA. "And oh by the way, the competition, the games, what's at stake has been magnificent."

Even more impressive was that if you listened to one of McGinnis' bubble broadcasts, you'd be hard-pressed to hear much of a difference. 

The mix was pristine, and seamlessly incorporated audio sources provided by the NBA from Orlando - inputs offering everything from the PA announcer feed, to on-court sound effects, to simulated crowd noise, to audio from the league's official replay center. 

Marty Dickerson said his mission running the audio board was unchanged, regardless of where the team was, or he and McGinnis were located.

"While we're on the radio, we're painting the picture for the people out there listening. We want fans to say, 'Man, you ever listen to a game by Tom McGinnis? He makes you feel like you're there,'" Dickerson said.

The contrast that McGinnis' remote setup presented was stark.

Without the aid of headphones, pretty much all you could hear from the booth was McGinnis' voice echoing throughout an empty 20,000-seat arena.

With the headphones on, however, and you were immediately transported to a different place. All the familiar sounds and feels of an NBA game came rushing back, a refreshing escape from the current norm.

And McGinnis was along for the ride too, same as he ever was. 

"Between his storytelling, his vivid descriptions, and his innate knowledge of the game, it's a great listen," said Marc Zumoff, "and if you ever close your eyes - I don't recommend this while you're driving - but if you could somehow pull along the side of the road and just listen to what it is that he's saying, it's vivid and it's awesome."

"You always want to hear what he's going to say next," Jerry Monzo said. "I don't think he'll ever change. I can tell you this, in 25 years, he's the same on Day One as he is now. That excitement is still there. That fire is still there. What he does pregame with his homework and everything, it's still there. I hope he does it for another 25 years if I can be completely honest. He's that much fun to listen to."

For McGinnis to last as long as he has in such a scrutinized, competitive field is no small feat. It's also not by accident.

He critiques himself constantly, and cherishes the connections to fans, players, coaches, and executives that the game has given him.

"Twenty-five years is great," McGinnis said. "I don't ever take it for granted."

"It has to be a great feeling, has to be," said Marty Dickerson. "My hat is off to him. I'm just glad I was able to be part of it along the way, along the journey, to see it, to hear it, to know it, to feel it, and that's the main thing.

"When he calls a game, you feel it. And if you don't feel it, then you haven't listened to a basketball game called by Tom McGinnis, the voice of the 76ers."

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