The late Red Smith once derided basketball as an "up and down" spectacle, no more exciting or revelatory than watching an expert yo-yoist. Smith said he "would rather drink a Bronx cocktail than speak well of basketball."
Call it Red Smith's loss. Marv Albert's radio broadcast of the seventh game of the 1969-1970 championship series between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers was no Bronx cocktail. It was a 33rd Street Elixir. The game, played at Madison Square Garden, was blacked out. Only 19,500 held the precious tickets. The rest of New York and its environs took to the radio that May night as it had for Joe Louis' fights decades earlier.
Albert, who is now increasingly in the national view covering boxing, professional football and college basketball for NBC, was only 26 at the time, a New Yorker as closely associated with the Knicks as Red Holtzman, Dick Barnett or Bill Bradley.
For an audience accustomed to television, Albert had the task of describing the clash between Wilt Chamberlain's powerful Lakers and the lattice-work Knicks.
"I remember that night so well," Albert says in a voice that betrays the spunk, but not the dropped consonants, of his native Brooklyn. "When I was growing up, the Knicks were so terrible. Awful. And here it was, a game away from an NBA championship."
As a high school student, Albert had been a ball boy for the Knicks, and Marty Glickman, the voice of the team at the time, befriended him. After a few years working as a disc jockey and play-by-play man while a student at Syracuse, Albert became the Knicks' backup announcer at Glickman's invitation.
"I was 19, traveling with the team," Albert says while waiting for an afternoon prize fight to begin in Atlantic City. "Marty was especially happy to avoid the road games and he wanted to give me a break."
Albert started out imitating Glickman's stern cadences but soon began to develop his own style of controlled hysteria.
The night of the seventh game with the Lakers, no one was sure whether the Knicks' center, Willis Reed, would be able to play. But with his knee shot through with cortisone, Reed hobbled onto the Garden hardwood in the middle of warmups.
The crowd exploded with Reed's every movement. Albert described Reed's pained motions, how Chamberlain, Jerry West and the rest of the Lakers tried desperately to avoid watching.
Reed could not jump high enough to clear the shag on a rec room rug, but for the first crucial minutes of the game he was in orbit. Albert was equal to the occasion.
"Reed . . . top of the key . . . shot . . . YES!"
The crowd went ape, and when Reed hit again moments later for a 5-2 lead, Albert's trademark "YES!" crested a joyous, manic din. For the rest of the game, Reed's contribution was to pressure Chamberlain into bad shots, as Walt Frazier scored 36 points with 19 assists to lead the Knicks to a 113-99 win and their first championship.
"I was so thrilled to be a part of that, that it was only years later that I thought of doing other things," Albert says. "In a way it was anachronistic, a radio experience for a generation that really wasn't a radio generation. And I was just in on the embryonic stages, too."
Albert continues to broadcast the Knicks and New York Rangers on New York radio and television and does the local 6 and 11 p.m. sports reports.
More and more, his commitments to the network take him off the local beat. Recently, NBC gave Albert and John Brodie the "B" spot behind Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen, and nearly every weekend he is ringside with Ferdie (The Fight Doctor) Pacheco.
"Ferdie's wonderful, he's nonstop talk off the air," Albert says. "I always tell Ferdie's friends that he's the last one you'd want at your sick bed."
With Howard Cosell having quit the boxing scene, Albert and Pacheco give NBC the edge in the crowded boxing field. Both have a healthy disrespect for the boxing establishment that they periodically express with reports on thumbless gloves and other possibilities for improved conditions.
"I thought Cosell's quitting was a grandstand play. I question his sincerity," Albert said.
"It came at a time when he was looking to cut back, and that was the opportunity.
"But there are so many things wrong with the sport. Records, doctors' reports, they're trying to bend things all the time. Can you imagine that in football? Can you imagine a situation where the Philadelphia Eagles say they're 7-4, when they're really 3-7?"
Both of Albert's brothers are announcers as well. Steve, 33, covers the Nets for WOR-TV and boxing for ESPN, and Al, 36, covers basketball and hockey for the USA cable network. Albert's brothers sound like him and so do a guppy-pool full of imitators.
But the original version is still better than his sound-alikes because his frenzy is not forced. So long as he remains a little out of control, so long as he doesn't start imitating the unctuous "professionalism" of the Keith Jacksons and Brent Musburgers as he ascends the network ladder, he will rate the same "Yes!" he earned one special night 13 years ago.
Redskins preseason games will air on WJLA-TV-7 beginning with a game against the Atlanta Falcons Aug. 6 at 8 p.m. Mike Patrick will do the play-by-play and Irv Cross and Tim Brant will be color commentators.