Sports

Marv Albert Invented the Sound of Modern Basketball

The retiring announcer’s descendants are all over ESPN, TNT, even NBA Jam.

Marv Albert standing with headset on courtside, as the crowd cheers
Albert during Game 5 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals at Barclays Center on June 15, in Brooklyn, New York. Elsa/Getty Images

An attention-must-be-paid moment: When the NBA Eastern Conference finals concludes, at some point in the next week or week and a half, it will mark the end of a 58-year broadcasting career for Marv Albert, who is calling the series for TNT and announced his retirement last month.

That’s a remarkable feat of longevity for Albert, who turned 80 early in June. His first professional gig was as a one-time radio fill-in for the New York Knicks in 1963. He started doing play-by-play radio for hockey’s New York Rangers in 1966, and then took the same job with the Knicks the following year, remaining with the team (with one notable gap) until 2004, when he was fired by management for being too critical of the on-court performance. In 1977, he joined NBC, where he’d call boxing, pro football, pro and college basketball, and the 1992 Olympics run of the Dream Team. Albert has done NBA play-by-play for TNT since 1999, and in all, he’s called 25 All-Star Games and 13 Finals.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Longevity isn’t everything, of course. But it’s notably a trait shared by Albert and the other play-by-play GOAT, Vin Scully, who called Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games for two-thirds of a century. Marv belongs in this exalted pairing because, for one thing, he is the sound of modern basketball, imitated by most announcers who came after him (notably Kevin Harlan of CBS and TNT) and by the guy who did the commentary for the video game NBA Jam.

Albert’s technical chops (always on point, economical and precise, rarely makes a mistake, no nonsense but appreciative of drama and the moment) are complemented by his trademark calls (“Yesss—and it counts!”), his equally trademark New York semi-rasp, and his sense of humor, which is subtle and droll in a world where those qualities are rare. Albert projects an air of being amused, which is amusing, and his banter with such partners as Steve Kerr, and Mike “The Czar of the Telestrator” Fratello, and Reggie Miller—with whom he’s been reunited for the East finals—has been toothsome.

Advertisement

A couple of choice lines Albert has gotten off: Once, in a network telecast of a Knicks home game, after a commercial break there appeared a live shot of a bulldog outside Madison Square Garden. The bulldog was wearing a sport coat and a hat, and a cigarette was dangling from its lips. Cut to the booth. After a pause, Marv said to Mike Fratello: “Mike, always so troubling when a dog smokes.” A few years earlier, Albert interviewed St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog when Herzog and Yale president Bart Giamatti were competing to be president of the National League. Albert said, “Whitey, look at it this way, although you may not be looking for a career change, if A. Bartlett Giamatti takes the job […] there would be an opening for you at Yale University.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recognizing Albert as that rare combination of icon and fellow ironist (both men can deftly apply verbal air quotes), David Letterman had him as a guest on his NBC and CBS late-night shows 126 times. I think this was Albert’s greatest influence on sports broadcasting: his smart smart-ass approach. I’d even argue that it set the template for ESPN’s SportsCenter as it developed its sardonic style with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick in the ’90s. Watching the Worldwide Leader in Sports and its competitors today with Albert in mind, one feels certain that the networks are filled with his stylistic descendants.

All of Albert’s obituaries will probably mention a topic in their first sentence that has nothing to do with sports or broadcasting; here is that mention in this article. In 1997, he was accused by two women of biting them without their consent, and by one that he had forced her to perform oral sex. He has always denied that his acts were nonconsensual, but he ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery, was given a 12-month suspended sentence, and was fired by NBC and the Knicks. Almost immediately afterward, he set out on a media tour—where he ripped his accusers and referred to “an experimental phase of my life”—that justly struck some people as tone-deaf. Two years later, both his employers rehired him, which justly struck some people as too soon. To my knowledge, Marv has never subsequently expressed any apologies or regret. In fact, I’m not aware of him, a broadcast partner, nor an interview subject ever referring to the situation on the air, which, given the teasing style Albert has retained, is kind of amazing.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Aside from obituary mentions, how will, and should, this episode affect the Marv Albert legacy? His guilty plea, and the shame that goes with it, are on his permanent record. And there have been no more allegations. On the other hand, his accuser has never withdrawn her accusation of forced sex; and even the behavior he admitted to, had it happened in the #MeToo era, would have exacted a far heavier cost. But in the late ’90s, his career quickly bounced back to where it was before. It seems improbable that his legacy will be further burdened by the allegations. His broadcasts of major historic games are too numerous, his influence on his profession too great, and the memories of generations of fans seem too indelible to ever fully cancel the man. Criminal or not, there’s still only one Marv Albert.

Advertisement

I well remember when Albert started calling Knicks games in 1967. I don’t recall much about the previous announcer, Don Criqui (who went on to a long and distinguished career himself), except that my friends and I made fun of his name, but Marv made an immediate impression. At 26, he wasn’t much older than we were, but the main thing, which I didn’t fully comprehend at the time, was that he was so New York. This was a time in the city when its notable announcers, inexplicably, were Southerners—the Yankees’ recently departed Mel Allen (Alabama) and Red Barber (Mississippi) and the Mets’ Lindsey Nelson (Tennessee). The notable exception was the Bronx’s own Marty Glickman, who called the Knicks pre-Criqui and, for many years, New York’s NFL franchise, always called “the football Giants” even after the baseball Giants had fled to San Francisco.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Not coincidentally, Marty (or “Mahty”) Glickman was Marv Albert’s idol and mentor. As a Brooklyn high schooler, Marv kept statistics for Glickman’s Knicks broadcasts. Albert wrote in his 1993 autobiography, I’d Love to but I Have a Game:

… everything I did or said, I did or said like Marty Glickman. If he twitched, I twitched. If he had two lumps with his coffee, I had two lumps with my coffee. I wrote copy like he wrote copy. I was his alter ego. Sometimes I wonder what my style would have been like if it weren’t for Marty. He hated clichés and hype and I learned to hate clichés and hype. He was the eyes of the listener, so I tried to be the eyes of the listener. He followed the ball. He developed geography of the court. You bring it up along the right sideline. You cross the half-court line, you come across the lane. He brought forth the language of the game.

Advertisement

Marv would develop a staccato style that blended Glickman, Cousin Brucie Morrow of AM Top 40, Walter Winchell, and Howard Cosell (whom he also worked for as a teenager), gradually introduced ironic wit, and was the perfect soundtrack to the Knicks’ Reed-Frazier-Barnett-Bradley-DeBusschere-Monroe glory years, which New York fans of a certain age will still happily bore you about. Most games weren’t televised, and I listened to Marv’s calls on WHN. (A key to Albert’s tight yet descriptive television style is that he cut his teeth on radio.) The culmination was the glorious 1970 championship game, where Willis Reed legendarily inspired the team and the fans by coming out to play when he had been written off with an injury. In his book, Albert says he still gets goosebumps when he listens to his final call: “[Dave] DeBusschere holds the ball. Two seconds. DeBusschere holds the ball. One second. DeBusschere holds the ball. That’s it! The Knicks are the world champions of the NBA!”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Same.

It has been suggested that Albert has lost a step in recent years, that his voice is diminished and he makes a few too many errors. Frankly, I haven’t seen it, and my opinion was borne out when I listened to him call the deciding game of the of the Brooklyn Nets–Milwaukee Bucks Eastern Conference Semifinals series on June 19. To be sure, he did miss a couple of calls. Initially he said a player was whistled for a backcourt violation, then quickly corrected himself. “No, it’s a double dribble.” And then he got a laugh (from me, at least) with a Johnny Carson–esque save: “He picked it up and put it down. Picked it up, put it down.”

Advertisement

And by the way, I appreciated his calling the violation a “double dribble,” which is technically not a thing anymore, having been replaced in the rulebook by the awkward and unalliterative “illegal dribble.” Consciously or not, Albert eschews trendy terminology for the old school. For him, it’s not a “dunk” but still a “stuff,” not a “mid-range jumper” but a “short jump shot.” And such voguish redundancies as “a made field goal,” “the painted area,” “fan base,” and “score the basketball” rarely if ever cross his lips.

Advertisement

When Giannis Antetokounmpo stepped to the foul line, Nets fans started counting in unison—to make the point that the Bucks star habitually took longer than the allotted 10 seconds. Marv made me chuckle when he (correctly) noted, “It’s a quick count.”

Advertisement

The contest turned out to be a classic Game 7. The Nets inbounded the ball down 2 points, with seconds left in regulation. Albert’s call:

“Jeff Green gets it in to [Kevin] Durant. Here is Durant moving on [P.J.] Tucker. He turns, he shoots … YES!!!”

“With one second remaining, one second left, Durant hits a 3!”

(It turned out a few millimeters of Durant’s toe were on the 3-point line, so it was ruled a 2-point shot, and the game went into overtime. In fairness to Albert, the vast majority of the viewing audience made the same mistake he did.)

The man can still rise to the moment. Here’s hoping for a few more like that in the next two weeks.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Advertisement