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Will Marv Albert be the First Network Play-by-Play Announcer to Call Games in his 80s?

The Voice of the NBA turns 77 next month

marv albert

The pioneer and icon Marty Glickman showed him the ropes. Marv Albert was more than ready. It didn’t take much time before his name sprouted like skyscrapers off the Manhattan streets. As Madison Square Garden rocked so did his Knicks and Rangers radio broadcasts. Marv was a star.

These were the days when video coverage of games from Madison Square Garden was available only on cable; still a media novelty in the late 60s and early 70s. But limited to parts of Manhattan, the metropolitan area hung on Marv’s every word on the radio.

Marv was still in college in 1963 when Glickman had him broadcast a Knicks-Celtics game on New York’s WCBS. By his own admission, he was scared out of his wits; sitting at the Boston Garden not far from the beloved Celts’ voice Johnny Most.

If ace Bob Feller was on the mound at 17, there was Vin Scully in the Dodgers’ booth at 22. If eye-popping LeBron James was a phenom at18, there was Marv Albert behind a mic at 21.

Everything about Marv’s youth and rise were remarkable. And If you’re good, you get lucky. Marv rode the coattails of successes of the Garden’s teams.

After doing Army football for a season nationally, he was voice of the Giants at 32. He then started doing television of regional college basketball games. In time, he also anchored sports on WNBC TV’s 6 and 11 o’clock news.

New York is a prosperous place to shine. The biggies in the suits watch every day. Before long, Marv did the NFL and boxing nationally for NBC. Another huge break occurred in the 90s when NBC got NBA rights. While Dick Enberg was the network’s lead voice, Marv was the NBA thoroughbred already in the stable. So his career grew in lockstep with Michael Jordan’s whose soundtrack he essentially voiced. Life couldn’t have been better.

It came to a screeching halt in 1997 when Marv was involved with a woman and guilty of an indiscretion. He was almost immediately dropped by NBC and MSG. Marv then smartly stayed away from the public limelight.

Americans get a charge from the downfall of a public figure but they’re also good about forgetting and forgiving. Not long after his precipitous fall, Albert rose from the ashes and was given the mic again at center stage. He was back in the good graces of his previous employers and he began to reinforce his legacy as the ultimate television voice of the NBA.

But now Marv fights a battle that no one has won yet; Bernard Kalb called it the tyranny of the clock. Albert is fighting odds that are not promising. He’s the road team going into the old Boston Garden to win a seventh game of a playoff series. 

History doesn’t bode well. There’s never been a network play-by-play announcer who maintained prominence deep into his 70s. They’re generally gone, retired or put out to pasture. Think of the big network names of the past who’ve faded off screens as they got older; Verne Lundquist, Tom Hammond, Curt Gowdy, Keith Jackson, Mike Patrick, Pat Summerall, Ray Scott, Dick Enberg and Jim Simpson.

Brent Musburger is gone too, someone who’s called NBA titles, Final Fours and college football championships. But he’s versatile and equally comfortable in a studio, on the field or in the booth. Smartly, he took his wares to Vegas and is vibrant on VSiN. The Supreme Court vote on gambling won’t hurt him either.

Announcers will tell you that they or their wives will know when it’s time to quit. But it doesn’t work that way. The networks know first. Announcers can be in denial. Aging, fading voices and mistakes tend to intersect and load on executives’ radar screens. Still, if Marv maintains his sharpness, his health holds up, his voice remains in sufficient fettle, he might be the first to call network games in his 80s. He turns 77 next month and told the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand that he feels 35.

If there’s any one guy who can break new ground it’s Marv. He defied odds at the front end of his career and now he’s at the precipice of doing it on the back end.

Vin Scully was remarkable. His word retention and retrieval were flawless at 89, his last season with the Dodgers. Like Scully, the Suns’ Al McCoy is an inspiring story. Imagine, he still hops on and off midnight charters, has his routine uprooted, sits in the nosebleeds and paints beautiful pictures on radio. McCoy turned 85 in April and works a full and enduring NBA schedule. Locally though it’s one thing. Network is another. There are no lifetime play-by-play contracts.

Maybe 80 is the new 70. But if Marv slips, would fans rather have a new commoditized voice or Marv at 90%? Ask NBA fans who the announcers are on Turner, they’ll likely have an immediate opinion of Kenny Smith, Shaq and Charles Barkley. Play-by-play and color teams are not quite the focus they were.

Retirement is one of those things. Keith Jackson enjoyed special time with his bride, soaking in Southern California sunsets. Enberg kept active writing and looking forward to teach before his sudden death in December. Some announcers can’t retire. They’re just so identified with their work that they can’t move on.

Network play-by-play announcers are always under the microscope. It’s a different day. Social media lets nothing slip. Then the networks pounce.

 

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David J. Halberstam
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.

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