Al McCoy, an Iowa kid, turns 90 next week; Scurried early in Phoenix; Retires after 51 years with the Suns

Chick Hearn told me a good number of years ago that the first NBA broadcast he ever listened to was called by pioneer basketball voice, Marty Glickman. Chick’s brief comment sounded more admiring of Marty than historical.

Glickman was creative, spoke clearly, intonated perfectly and mesmerized listeners. Influential? Put it this way. The conceptual framework he built for broadcasting basketball in the late 30s and 40s is still used today, some 80 years or so later.

Today is about the birthday boy. Al McCoy turns 90 next week and is retiring from the Suns at the end of the playoffs. And he’s doing so rather unceremoniously. Maybe McCoy wants it that way. (The Suns lost painfully last night, at home to the Clippers. Yet, wow! Al sounded so fresh! At virtually, 90! He sounds like he can get to 100 easily!)

In the 1990s, he told me that, “Hearn popularized the game in the West and Glickman in the East.” Chick chewed lots of crossword puzzles in his brain to maintain his strong vocabulary. Initially he also wanted to sharpen his quickness to match his manufactured one-liners. The Lakers were his absolute love.

Yet McCoy beat the other two, Marty and Chick, in team seniority. I can imagine that Al is enjoying the very end of a versatile career, the preponderance of which was aided by his first owner, Jerry Colangelo. He hired Al in 1972 to call Suns’ games.

Meanwhile, Phoenix was a fledgling NBA team, housed in a smallish American market in 1968. It would take time for the MLB, NHL, and NFL to recognize Arizona. With the boom of the 1980s and 90s sports became big business there.

The growth enhanced in size and busted out with eye-popping numbers in population, growing as a region from 1980 to 2020, from approximately 1.4 million to 4.5 million. It was the American Dream!

For the teen or kid, the broadcasts sounded like they were coming down from the heavens. It was rare that Al sounded throaty. Rich, warm, and creamy, never overbearing.

As far back as fifty plus years ago, McCoy put his stamp on his work. He was already trusted by Arizonians, having come in the 1950s from Buffalo. In the car driving down, His wife asked him if it’s always so hot.  He grew into legendary status in the Valley of the Sun. He did Arizona State football and basketball, the Phoenix Giants of Minor League Baseball, he’d spin-records on radio stations and hosted musical shows including playing the piano which he still loves to do today.

Still, 51 years with one NBA team? Yes, McCoy has set an NBA record for time in grade.

Most importantly, he’s a good, welcoming and a natural ambassador. Never contrived. It wasn’t until the millennium that local play-by-play broadcasts were available virtually, as long as you had access to SirusXM or a competitor.

Next week, Wednesday, April 26th, McCoy turns 90, and possibly still on-air with his teams in the playoffs. It will require a few Suns’ wins. But I can’t think of any other English-speaking voice still doing play-by-play. Al becomes a nonagenarian next week and historically so! We should all feel as hale as McCoy.

He says that when the Suns play overseas or even in the U.S., fans would invariably come-by to say hello. “It’s very reassuring seeing folks from home when we’re away.” Remember too that the team has been prominent in recent seasons and gaining attention. Road games often come back on radio to Phoenix at 4 or 4:30pm from places like Boston, Miami, Philadelphia or New York. That’s afternoon drive in Arizona.

Next year, the NBA’s out-of-town broadcast veterans arriving in the Phoenix arena, will miss his warm greetings in the press room. They’ll miss Al’s conviviality and camaraderie. McCoy always makes friends and acquaintances rather easily. He has three children and grandchildren. His wife pre-deceased him. Today, he fends for himself, lives alone and cooks for himself too.

McCoy is a model for behavior. He’s humble, comes from a nondigital era, a simpler one, unlike today. Al can answer anything. Not just sports. Ask him who of the two were better on the clarinet, Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw?

Hugh Downs was an NBC star in the 60s. He was well known on the game show, Concentration. The duo got friendly in Arizona and Hugh and Al often lunched before Downs’ death in 2021. Downs died prematurely. Kidding, he was almost 100.

Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons – Missouri Sports Hall of FameLike most play-by-players, his first love was baseball. It drew him to the radio in those small Iowa towns. Al still talks with others about a weekend in San Francisco where he filled in on a couple of Giants’ games. In Phoenix, he simulcast the Suns with Cotton Fitzsimmons. At the time, there was Hearn in LA, King in San Francisco, Hot Rod Hundley with the Jazz and Bob Blackburn in Seattle. Teams have completely moved away from simulcasts. (Fittzsimmons, left)

“The Real McCoy” is the title of Al’s autobiography. It tells the story of an Iowa kid who made it in broadcasting. In ’76, the now deceased coach John MacLeod led the club to the NBA finals, against the Celtics of Jo-Jo White, Dave Cowens, Charlie Scott and John Havlicek against Paul Westphal, Dick Van Arsdale, Alvan Adams and Gar Heard. It brought considerable attention to the first major league team in the Valley.

The Suns were up 3 games to 2, when settling into the Boston Garden for game 6. Al worked alone. “The Suns’ PR man, Tom Ambrose, assisted me.” In the Old-Garden, alcohol was more than allowed. It seemed encouraged and the fans certainly supported the vendors freely. It was raucous, the Old Boston Garden fans were uproarious in the upper seats. Al had to deal with threats and inhospitable remarks throughout the broadcast.

The Suns were defeated in game six, an historic one, a triple OT loss. The NBA was lighting up on CBS. The league’s ratings started to inch their way up. Brent Musburger brought an edge to the national telecasts. The NBA was beginning to blossom. Meanwhile, McCoy held the torch of Phoenix. His tenure lasted from 1972 to 2023, which now is the longest in league history.

Al had good relationships with the coaches he covered, particularly John McLeod because of his long tenure with the club and a reputation for honesty and politeness.

Last year he told me that both his parents lived into their 90s! When his Suns participation ends, we’ll miss Al McCoy! 

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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