Bad Times And The Sixers’ Broadcast Tradition

Marc Zumoff, Malik Rose, Molly Sullivan

What a week. The whole country is on to it now. And once something gets national media attention, there’s no telling where it goes. Michael Carter Williams and Ellen DeGeneres. The reverse-fantasy match-up of the Sixers and Kentucky. Eric Bledsoe and Nerlens Noel. Even Nate Silver, the Harvey Pollack of politics, has weighed in. Apparently, the Sixers would beat Kentucky after all. Glad that’s settled.

Even NBA-TV game announcers are opining freely regarding the Sixers and tanking. The Phoenix Suns announcers were diplomatic on Friday night, even compassionate. But they couldn’t overlook what they were watching. They complimented Sixers fans for attending the game, whose attendance the Suns’ play-by-play guy said was “generously” put at 14,000. These guys proved very adept at finding discussion subjects that did not involve the subject of the broadcast – predictably, they absolutely love cheesesteaks. The Knicks’ top-flight tandem of Mike Breen and Walt Frazier were just a tad more blunt on Saturday night. Breen said at one point that in his years of broadcasting (there have been 19 of them – I looked it up) he’s never seen an NBA team so lacking in talent. Walt Frazier made several like-minded comments in his usual garrulously loquacious way. At the same time, the Knicks TV broadcasters were not exactly complimentary of the Knicks’ effort.

So you know it’s bad when you get sympathy from Ellen, derision from an another team’s player, some vaguely satirical statistical help from the inimitable Nate Silver, and discouraging words from opposing teams’ announcers. I’d discuss the comments of the Sixers’ outstanding television duo of Marc Zumoff and Malik Rose at this point, but I don’t have enough of a sample. That is because NBA-TV nearly always chooses to air the broadcasts of Sixers’ opponents (this is a pet peeve of mine, and I will deal with it another time). But since I’m more often viewing the other team’s broadcasts – generally inferior to the product of Zumoff and Rose – I will now pivot from the discouraging words to recall a little 76ers broadcast history.

During the 60’s, when the Sixers were battling it out with the Bill Russell-led Celtics, the radio broadcasts were fantastic. In fact, I’d say they set a grand tradition and a high bar. Andy Musser and Sonny Hill called the games on radio during the Wilt era, and made it exciting. Andy, who passed away in 2012, perfected the art of bringing the fast-break to you in a rising crest that ended with “he lays it up and in!” Ok, you had to be there listening. And Sonny Hill was downright professorial in his commentary; at the same time he wouldn’t hesitate to be critical of bad effort or poor play. Sixers’ home games were not on TV then – at least not in South Jersey, where I lived. Andy Musser and Sonny Hill made it feel as though I was there, and the raucous crowd at Convention Hall, and later the Spectrum, also came through clearly.

On the road in the late 60’s, the TV broadcasts were mostly the job of Big Al Meltzer and Bob Vetrone. They were a perfect team. Big Al displayed a wry sense of humor that he tuned up nicely during boring blow-outs. Bob Vetrone seemed to me a patrician-like presence in comparison, always ready with statistical info or careful analysis of the opponent. They seemed to be having a beer with you as you watched the game. Neither got in the way, but there was no mistaking their nice influence on the experience.

In the 70’s Bill Campbell was there on radio. Bill was there for the best of times as well as the worst. He called the games of the Warriors, including Wilt’s 100-point game, and returned to call Sixers’ games from 1970 to 1976. Alas. he had the task of making the ‘72-’73 season interesting on radio. Talk about a workmanlike job. No matter that the team was worst in league history to that point – Bill Campbell was still bringing his “A” game.

The tradition of excellence in basketball broadcasting continues in Philadelphia. Zumoff has been doing a terrific job on TV since 1994. In 2001, I attended game 7 between and Sixers and Milwaukee. The Sixers having advanced to the NBA finals and most fans having left the arena, Marc Zumoff was standing on the scorers’ table and (I thought) looking in my direction giving one more fist pump. And during this year, with the very capable assistance of Malik Rose, Zumoff is bringing his “A” game too.

Tom McGinnis has been carrying on in the great tradition of Andy Musser and Bill Campbell since 1995. He brings a strong voice and articulate description to the game. Radio still is strong with announcers like McGinnis.

The Sixers – and I’m talking the management – are not just tanking. They’re in deep tank. They’ve managed to bring dubious attention for hard-striving young players. They relieved the roster of its veterans and even let go of a wonderful anthem singer. I don’t know what’s being developed for the franchise. I’m an agnostic about that. But comfort can be found in the high quality of the broadcasts of the games. Let’s hope those guys stick around.