New York is a sports radio town, which makes it kind of a big deal that one of the signature voices of New York sports radio over the last half century, Marv Albert, has just retired.
Albert, who turned 80 last month, finished his run with a very good, not perfect, record.
He went out by calling the deciding game of the NBA Eastern Conference finals Saturday, between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks. That correctly reflects the fact he spent much of his career calling national games.
He called eight Super Bowls, nine NBA finals and seven Stanley Cup finals. He has called Wimbledon tennis championships and joined two World Series broadcasts, in 1986 and 1988.
When you think how many sports announcers would give up pizza for the chance to make even one of those calls, you get an idea how respected Marv Albert became in his chosen profession of describing athletic events to radio listeners and TV watchers.
Brief aside: It’s harder than it sounds to do it well.
To sports fans who lived around New York in any of the last third of the 20th century, however, Marv Albert wasn’t a national announcer.
He was the voice of the basketball Knicks and the hockey Rangers, the teams that own their respective sports in New York. Marv Albert made himself part of that ownership — not by being loud and self-promoting, just by being good.
When the Knicks won the NBA title in 1970, Albert painted the picture of Willis Reed limping out to inspire the Game 7 clincher. When the Rangers broke a 54-year drought by winning the Stanley Cup in 1994, regular play-by-play announcer Howie Rose made the extraordinary gesture of turning the mic over to the revered Albert for the third period of the deciding game.
It was Albert who told radio listeners how the Rangers hung on to win their first Cup in forever.
Albert called Rangers games from 1965 to 1995 and Knicks games from 1967 to 1986. He also called the football Giants from 1973 to 1976, but it was the winter sports that enshrined him in New York sports radio.
Quite a few of New York’s legendary sports announcers, including Mel Allen and Red Barber, came up from the South. Many subsequent announcers, including some of the best, sounded like they could have been from anywhere.
Marv Albert sounded like he was from New York, which he was, having grown up in Brighton Beach. He spoke fast and sharp, like Brooklyn. He wasn’t so New York that he couldn’t work outside the city, but to New Yorkers there was no question he was one of their own.
He polished his broadcasting skills at Syracuse and NYU. Like all the great broadcasters he developed a signature sound, which might be described as enthusiastic and economical.
He had the shortest signature phrase in the history of broadcasting: the single word “Yes,” often drawn out to more like “Yessssss.”
In a profession where too many announcers invent some long phrase and then try to plug it in, Albert found one perfect word. Walt Frazier hits a jump shot. Mark Messier scores a goal. Yes! That says it all and it never intrudes on the moment, never makes it sound like the announcer is making the moment about his phrase.
His descriptions were direct and clean. One of his hockey favorites, “Kick save and a beauty,” fell into the general hockey vernacular.
Still, what sustained Albert’s career, and got him all those national gigs, was a level of enthusiasm that never sounded manufactured. As a former ball boy for the Knicks, Albert did what it was like to want to win, and when they were playing well, his excitement was visceral.
That made him a homer with a difference. He wasn’t a blind fan. He was the kind of fan who got concerned when something was not working, and one of the reasons he lost his encore gig with the Knicks in 2004 was his on-air laments about the team’s subpar play.
He was engaging enough to became a brand and a personality, guesting 53 times with David Letterman.
Celebrity can be a two-sided coin, however, and in Albert’s case, that’s part of the reason that any salute to his career and retirement isn’t all bouquets.
Acute observers will note a gap in Albert’s broadcast career from 1997 to 2000. That followed a widely reported and rather sordid tabloid case in which Albert’s former girlfriend claimed a February 1997 sexual encounter was not fully consensual.
Albert said it was. Then another woman came forward with a similar claim from 1993 and Albert eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery. He received a 12-month suspended sentence, and NBC dropped him from its broadcasts.
NBC brought him back in 2000, saying essentially that he had done his time. He had gigs after that with CBS, ABC, TNT and Westwood One, where among other things he called Monday Night Football.
That is to say, the business and probably most fans forgave him. Still, the Trevor Bauer case and the release of Bill Cosby are among the ongoing reminders that America and the world continue to wrestle with the manner in which women have too often been treated. Part of Marv Albert’s story puts him in that picture as well.
On the happier side, he spent most of his life conveying the pure fun of sports to millions of sports fans.