By: Patrick Kurish
No matter how hard you search, there's no precedent for what a continuous 50-year NBA career looks like. There's no blueprint. There's no roadmap. There's certainly no workout regimen.
There's only Al McCoy.
The legendary radio and television voice of the Phoenix Suns is the first and only person to ever do it with a single NBA team. He long ago became the longest-tenured broadcaster for a team in NBA history, and in 2021-22 he reaches the remarkable 50-season milestone.
To those that know him, as well as the millions of sports fans across the great state of Arizona that have welcomed his voice into their homes for the last half-century, Al McCoy is, in essence, the Phoenix Suns. He was there with you for the highest of highs. He shared in your jubilance after the “Shot Heard 'Round the World” in 1976. He loved watching Charles Barkley and the boys take on Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals. He couldn't believe Rex Chapman forced overtime at the horn in the 1997 playoffs. He witnessed Seven Seconds or Less alongside us. You were sitting on pins and needles as he explained the rulebook to us last June when Crowder hit Ayton for the Valley-Oop.
Conversely, he checked into the Heartbreak Hotel on your same itinerary after the Suns couldn't pull it out in Boston in the third overtime in 1976. Yeah, he was there when Paxson did his thing. He saw Kobe Bryant make what felt like an endless amount of shots. For all our sakes, let's not dive too far into Robert Horry or the San Antonio Spurs, but let's just say he was sitting about four feet from the event that shall not be named.
For many people around the Grand Canyon state, McCoy has been the uniting factor that has helped bring this community together, through the good and the bad. Spending fifty years in any industry is nothing short of a Herculean undertaking, much less spending that length of time in the public eye. His voice and his passion for basketball and the Valley of the Sun permeates our homes 82 days a year, during which we join McCoy in indulging in the gift that is Phoenix Suns basketball. Through the ups and the downs, the thick and thin, the NBA Finals and the NBA Draft lottery, changes and triumph, there has always been a single constant: Al McCoy.
“Al loves the Suns and enjoys every minute of every broadcast,” said Jerry Colangelo, former Suns owner who was also coach and general manager during McCoy's tenure, and current Chairman of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. “Someone once told me that there are coaches that come and go, there are players that come and go, but announcers become the identity for a team. It's amazing the major contributions he's brought to the Phoenix Suns franchise. Why is he still doing this? He's still doing it because he loves it. He wouldn't rather be doing anything else. I thank him personally for helping build the Phoenix Suns franchise, because he was selling the Suns franchise all those years.”
How do you tell the story of the man who is synonymous with storytelling? Where do you begin to explain the history of a man whose impact and legacy across the Association somehow far exceeds the 50-year commitment he's dedicated to it?
Like any good story, it's best to start from the beginning.
McCoy grew up in Williams, Iowa, a small farming community a shade less than 100 miles north of Des Moines with a population of 307, according to the 2020 census. Growing up on a farm in rural Iowa in the 1940s meant a lot of things – namely growing up in a home without electricity – but none greater than establishing an unrivaled work ethic that remains with him to this day. While he lived without what we've come to consider some of life's most basic amenities, what he didn't lack were big city dreams. With his trusty handheld, battery-operated radio in tow, McCoy grew up idolizing Chicago Cubs baseball play-by-play broadcasters Jack Brickhouse, Bert Wilson and Harry Caray.
“We didn't have electricity, but we had a battery radio. I got hooked on radio very early as a kid and particularly listening to sporting events. Then it was mostly baseball. I followed the Cubs and college football at that point in time,” McCoy said in an interview with ABC15 in 2021. “That's where the so-called name announcers were, and I listened to all of them. Very early as a youngster, I thought, 'Boy that would be great. Wouldn't it be great to be at the Garden in New York and do games there, or Chicago Stadium?' not realizing that maybe I'd be there someday. But at an early age, I guess I got the bug.”
With the itch for the microphone instilled within him, McCoy began his broadcasting career in 1951 at KJFJ Radio in Webster City, Iowa, as a freshman at Drake University. Spending the next several years honing his craft, McCoy found his way west to Phoenix in 1958 to become the play-by-play voice for the Triple-A Phoenix Giants baseball team and the Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey club.
"Al loves the Suns and enjoys every minute of every broadcast”
- Jerry Colangelo, Former Phoenix Suns Owner
McCoy, despite finding success in the city's minor league sports scene for over a decade, always claimed basketball as his first love. It came as no surprise then in 1968 when Phoenix was awarded an NBA franchise that he knew he had to get involved. While he couldn't get his foot in the door right away, he was eventually able to get his demo tape in the hands of Jerry Colangelo. McCoy called a Suns game for the first time in a preseason game on September 27, 1972, and hasn't looked back since.
“It doesn't seem like that long ago when I met with Al and gave him the opportunity to get in with the Suns. He had some local appeal as he had done some Minor League Baseball and some hockey on the radio here in town.,” Colangelo said. “It was a brilliant move, not on my part, but on the part of people making recommendations on his behalf that he was a great play-by-play voice. He has developed into a Hall of Famer with how good his career has gone. I couldn't be happier for him as not only a talented broadcaster, but also as a Hall-of-Fame guy. He's represented this city and this state like very few people have. He's done an incredible job selling basketball in this city on behalf of the Phoenix Suns.”
During the 1975-76 season, just three years four seasons into his NBA broadcasting career, McCoy found himself on the national stage for the first time as the upstart Phoenix Suns, a team no one predicted would even be in the playoffs after posting a 42-40 record in the regular season, came alive in the NBA Playoffs. Phoenix was able to take down Seattle in six games in what was the first playoff series win in franchise history in the Western Conference Semifinals, followed by a seven-game series victory over top-seeded and reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the conference finals to secure a berth in the NBA Finals against the 12-time champion Boston Celtics.
“It was a unique team. They had quite a few injuries that slowed them down,” said McCoy. “Coach John MacLeod, who was a tremendous innovator and really had the ability to get a team ready to play, I thought was really responsible late in the season for firing up the team and setting a goal of making the playoffs, which they did. I think it was the biggest surprise in the history of the franchise, a team no one expected to go anywhere and at that point an NBA team that most people didn't even know about went to the NBA Finals.”
Little did anyone know that the “Sunderella” Suns would be part of one of the most memorable championship rounds in NBA History. McCoy will forever be remembered for his call in Game 5 of that series at the Boston Garden when he had to fling an inebriated fan off his lap as he was describing “The Shot Heard 'Round the World,” by Suns forward Garfield Heard that sent the game into the third of three overtimes.
Al, of course, tells the story like no one else can. To this day, he still recounts Game 5 of the 1976 Finals as the most emotional game in the team's history.
“It was an unusually hot and humid day in Boston,” remembers McCoy. “There was no air conditioning in the Boston Garden. When I got to my broadcast location I saw that they had actually sold the seats right next to me. These four young guys came in, sat next to me with their big bags of beer, wine and chips and dip ready for a party.
“I did the game with these guys banging on my arm every time Boston had a very good play and of course when (Gar) Heard hit the 'Shot Heard 'Round the World' one of them passed out on my lap. You don't forget those nights too often. That was something unbelievable.”
"Someone once told me that there are coaches that come and go, there are players that come and go, but announcers become the identity for a team. It’s amazing the major contributions he’s brought to the Phoenix Suns franchise."
- Jerry Colangelo, Former Phoenix Suns Owner
Despite losing the game in the third overtime and ultimately the series in the following game in Phoenix, the Suns had captured the heart of the city and paved the way for McCoy as one of the most legendary voices in sports history. As he continued to grow in his career, so came his confidence behind the microphone. Over time, he started to introduce nicknames and monikers for players, coaches and the game itself, further endearing himself with the fanbase.
“The way he came up with nicknames for players was amazing. 'Sweet D' for Walter Davis, 'Oklahoma Kid' for Alvan Adams and 'Kamikaze Kid' for Ronnie Lee, and the list goes on and on,” Colangelo said. “Al came up with all of that and it was all positive. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say a bad word about Al McCoy. He is very much loved by all the fans who have enjoyed him over the years.”
While McCoy has hit the airwaves with a number of classic catchphrases over the years such as “Zing go the Strings,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” none have withstood the test of time and captured the attention of Arizonans quite like his signature call of “SHAZAM,” an homage to his childhood that has now become synonymous with Suns success. McCoy was able to add his go-to call to his repertoire just in time for the introduction of the three-point line for the 1979 season and has been a mainstay ever since.
“Most baseball announcers have a call they use, like, 'It might be! It could be! It is!' or 'It's going, going, gone!', so I started thinking,” said McCoy. “I don't like to admit this, but as a kid growing up as a farmer, I used to read comic books. And one of my favorites was Captain Marvel. And he was kind of the Superman type. And a little guy named Billy Batson who was actually a radio reporter, became Captain Marvel, when he said, SHAZAM, which was the first letter of Socrates, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Mercury, and so on. I thought, hey, that might be something because when he says SHAZAM, it's excitement and lightning and thunder and all this goes off. I decided I would use that thinking that maybe there'd be two or three a game. And, of course, that first year that the three-point shot was in I think the Suns took three all year.”
With his foot in the door, an NBA Finals appearance under his belt and a catchphrase in hand, McCoy had his career foundation in place for the decades that followed. He would use his platform to help bring the Phoenix Suns players, coaches and organization to new heights and further launch his Hall-of-Fame career.