Fifty years ago this Sunday, in a media world hardly imaginable today, a play-by-play icon got his break. Marv Albert broadcast his first New York Knicks game.
It was long before Americans instantly accessed sports programming around the clock. In 1963, fans settled for a limited number of televised games, often on shadowy black-and-white screens that jittered and fidgeted.
Radio still filled many voids. Ground-breaking play-by-play announcers—Mel Allen and Red Barber on baseball and Marty Glickman on football and basketball—delivered graphic word-pictures that mesmerized New York audiences.
Glickman authored basketball’s nomenclature on radio, and his pioneering broadcasts after World War II fostered interest in the game. One of the early ex-athletes to turn announcer—Glickman, an Olympic track star—first called college doubleheaders and later Knicks games from the old Madison Square Garden at 8th Avenue and 50th Street. By the 1960s, Glickman was also closely identified with his pulsating coverage of the football Giants, whose popularity was starting to surge.
In Brooklyn, meanwhile, a young Marv Albert knew just what he wanted: a career in play-by-play. Albert took a particular shine to basketball, due in part to his fascination with Glickman’s rhythmic, rapid-fire and captivating Knicks broadcasts.
His passion for basketball wasn’t tempered by the fact that the Knicks were occasionally treated like second-class citizens by their owner, Madison Square Garden. To house the circus in the spring, the Garden would occasionally relegate Knicks playoff games to a small, dank and poorly lighted 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.
Albert chased his dream. He became a ball boy for the Knicks in the 1950s and got to know Glickman, who helped him steer his early career. Glickman critiqued the teenager’s practice tapes, gave him an opportunity to assist on game and studio broadcasts and even let the budding announcer read high school scores on the air.
At a time when the AM band still dominated radio, the Knicks found themselves on the air one year and off the next. Only football and baseball had permanent radio homes.
The National Basketball Association was in its 17th season when WCBS Radio picked up the Knicks package in 1962-63. Timing was awful. The club languished through a feeble 21-59 season, the worst record in a fledgling league of only nine teams.
As fate would have it, when announcer Glickman was delayed returning from Europe on January 27, 1963, he convinced his bosses to have Albert, his 21-year-old protégé, fill in for him in Boston, where the Knicks were playing on that Sunday night against the Celtics.
Albert jumped on a New York Central train, showed up at the old Boston Garden and had to work the security guards to let him into the building. His boyish face had made them suspicious of his broadcast credentials.
The game was hardly the highlight of WCBS Radio’s Sunday schedule. In fact, the station chose to run the Texaco Metropolitan Opera live and the Knicks-Celtics game on tape.
At the fabled arena, Albert settled into his seat on the same perch as another man schooled by Glickman, Johnny Most, the gravelly voiced announcer of the Celtics. After spending two seasons as Glickman’s sidekick on Knicks broadcasts, Most moved to Boston in 1953, where his tendentious rasp would become legendary.
Low attendance was the norm in 1963. On the same night in San Francisco, only 2,645 watched the Warriors and Syracuse Nats (now the Philadelphia 76ers), a game in which Wilt Chamberlain poured in 40 points. In Dayton, only 4,183 saw legendary Oscar Robertson score 31 points for the Cincinnati Royals.
Led by Hall of Famers Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy, the Celtics routed the Knicks, 123-110, before only 4,090 fans. Years later, a seasoned and distinctively sarcastic Albert would likely have noted, “They didn’t exactly elbow their way in.”
But wet behind the ears in 1963 and admittedly nervous, all Albert would say afterward is that he “did a bad imitation of Marty.” Yet his precocious flair for play-by-play was redolent in his delivery and it augured a 50-year career that’s still vibrant today.
After the ’63 season, the Knicks bounced from station to station, were off radio entirely one season and then landed at WHN. When he was eventually given the Knicks job in the summer of 1967, Albert ran back to his apartment, closed the door and shouted himself weak. The Knicks were his team!
Fortuitously for Albert, the Knicks’ Walt Frazier and Willis Reed were about to start something magical, and the Garden was about to move to a spanking new building at 33d Street and 8th Avenue.
Because home games were exclusively on cable, then in its infancy and only scantly available, Albert's riveting radio broadcasts became a popular way to follow the Knicks through their championship runs in 1970 and 1973.
When Albert was later hired to do football, first for Army and then for the Giants, Glickman tutored his pupil on the finer points of the game. As Marv’s career blossomed to the national stage as an NBC television announcer covering boxing, the Olympics, the NFL and the NBA, Glickman continued to guide and observe, even in an official capacity as “coach” of NBC’s sports announcers.
Like Red Barber, who hired and groomed a callow Vin Scully in Brooklyn in 1950, Glickman sharpened Albert’s ability to paint graphic descriptions, inflect his voice seamlessly and pause properly for emphasis.
In their heydays, Glickman and Barber weren’t paid enormously. While Albert and Scully were earning big money, the two progenitors lived fairly modestly in retirement, Glickman in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan and Barber in a small, unassuming home in Tallahassee, Fla.
Had Scully and Albert launched their careers today, against the crowded backdrop of brimming sports voices, their names might well be less distinguishable. By excelling during simpler times when there were fewer broadcasters overall, the two talented play-by-play men grew into legends.
When Albert ran into trouble for a sexual misdemeanor in 1997 and lost his jobs at NBC and Madison Square Garden, Glickman was his sounding board, counselor and advisor, encouraging his disciple during his year or so of purgatory.
Albert’s career rose from the ashes in a relative economy of time. He was rehired by the Garden and signed by TNT. After Glickman’s death in 2001, Albert was asked do NFL games again, this time on national radio. Accepting the assignment but somewhat concerned that he hadn’t done football on radio in years, Albert asked his producer for a tape of Glickman's old Giants broadcasts. Even in death, the teacher was there. Marv knew to refresh his skills by listening to the master.
Bonds die hard. Somewhere in broadcast heaven, Glickman is celebrating the golden anniversary of his star protégé’s first appearance on the public stage.