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How Al Koken became Smokin’ Al

I recently wrote something about Smokin’ Al Koken, the veteran D.C. sports broadcaster, prompting a question from a reader about the origins of the Smokin’ Al nickname. I didn’t actually know the answer. So I asked.

Turns out the nickname actually was bestowed during the ’80s, when Koken was working as the third sports anchor at WUSA-9, along with the great Glenn Brenner and Ken Mease. Among Koken’s duties was doing live interviews from RFK Stadium during the Redskins’ post-game shows, back when CBS still had broadcast rights to NFC games.

“So [Brenner] comes on the air, getting ready to send it back to me for a player interview,” Koken told me. “And he says, ‘Alright, let’s go back to RFK and throw it back to…’ ”

Then Brenner paused. Koken remembered briefly thinking the anchor had forgotten his name. On the contrary, he was just getting ready to debut a new nickname.

“…SMOKIN’ Al Koken,” Brenner finished.

“He put that real SMOKIN’ in there,” Koken recalled. “I kind of laughed, but that was how it stuck. ”

It stuck, too, because of an assist from the WUSA sports desk, which kept the nickname going over the objections of the station’s news director, who worried that it sounded unprofessional.

“Whenever Glenn threw to him, he’d say SMOKIN’ Al Koken,” said Larry Duvall, then a sports producer at WUSA, and now with Comcast SportsNet. “I would type in ‘Smokin’ Al Koken,’ like it was his official name. The news director would say ‘No, no, no, we shouldn’t do that.’ But Glenn said aw c’mon, keep doing it, so we just kept going.”

When Koken left WUSA, the nickname took a break. But when he resurfaced doing sports-talk at ESPN 980, a caller asked if this was the same Smokin’ Al Koken, and then the name was back. And longtime colleagues say it’s more than just a nickname.

“Even back then, he was Smokin’ Al, Man of Mystery,” joked Alan May, who first interacted with Koken as a Caps player, and later as a Comcast SportsNet colleague. “I’d be out in Georgetown or downtown and I’d bump into Al all the time, and anywhere you went, it was Smokin’ Al. When you walk into a room, everyone knows Smokin’ Al. People at dinner tables will call out, Smokin’ Al!! He’s such a likable guy; I don’t think he has an enemy. He’s always smiling, he’s always in full character. He always makes sure he’s Smokin’ Al.”

The playoff series that begins this week will be the eighth between the Rangers and the Caps; Koken — who will serve as the CSN sideline reporter for home games and the studio host for away games — has been there for all of them. In fact, he’s one of a tiny group of men who have been involved in every season of Caps TV broadcasts, and has fulfilled about as many sports media roles as anyone in this market.

As for the nickname, Koken said it might not have meant as much to him if it hadn’t been bestowed by Brenner, whom longtime D.C. sports fans still mention in reverential tones.

“Because it was given to me by a guy who I think was the greatest, it’s a real badge of honor, a real pride,” Koken said. “That’s why the name stuck — because it was given to me by [Brenner], and because of the respect I had for him.”