When the Sixers got off to their ridiculous 3-0 start the season, the people I was happiest for (besides myself) were our long-suffering TV announcers, Marc Zumoff and Malik Rose. Zoo and Malik, who wear their hearts on their sleeves as much as any other announcing team in the Association, seemed to take the anguish of last year’s disappointing season harder than anybody, and that made their elation at this year’s improbably exciting opening stretch all the more palpable and gratifying.
I had the chance to catch up with the incomparable Zumoff, who’s in his 20th season as the Sixers’ play-by-play announcer, before the Sixers’ game against the Cavaliers on Friday. We talked about those first three games, about the leadership potential of Nerlens Noel, and about his own celebrity as the voice of the Sixers, and much more.
Check out our conversation below, and wish Zoo, Malik and the rest of the 76ers luck tonight at home against Malik’s old team (and the defending Western Conference champions), the San Antonio Spurs–they might need all the help they can get. And if anyone does have any good Zumoff drinking games to share, please let me know, otherwise we here at the Level might have to invent one.
So, I think you had my favorite line of the season so far, when Spence hit that shot late in the Bulls game: “Malik Rose, can you stand it??“
And he said “No, that’s why I’m sitting next to you!”
Was that just off the top of your head, or was that a long time coming?
No, I mean, it was off the top of my head. Just about everything we do is off the top of our heads. That’s what’s great about working with Malik, is that if something flies off the top of my head, he’s there to grab it and slam dunk it.
What was going through your head when you came up with it?
Nothing in particular. I think this was the third straight game…first of all, they were already 2-0, threatening to go 3-0. This was the second good team they were on the verge of beating. And they came back in every game. So the surprise start, the third straight comeback potential win, and just the way that they were doing it. You know, the Michael Carter-Williams thing…just a lot of surprises through the first three games. So I’m looking at Malik, saying…”What’s up with this? Can you stand it?”
You’ve been covering the team for about 20 years now. Have you ever seen anything like this before, the 3-0 start? Anything this surprising?
[Pauses]. Well…just trying to think, you’re asking me to go through a lot of years! Uhh, no, quite frankly. I would say those first three games were about as much fun for a three-game set–good team, bad team, average team–that I’ve ever experienced.
Was there a moment in the Miami game where you thought “Wow, this could actually happen?” With the fast start, and the Heat come back…you must have thought it was over.
Well, I actually thought throughout the entire game that Miami was going to be Miami! That they were gonna win! And there’s no reason to think not, because except for that one playoff game on Easter Sunday, the Sixers had never beaten the Big Three in a regular season game, so I’m just sitting there, like a fatalist, thinking “All right, this is exciting, this is fun, they’re playing great, they’re hanging in…” And they were I think down nine at the end of three, so…but what a wild game, when you think, up 19-0, they’d made their first eleven shots, then they’re suddenly down nine after three, then they come back and win.
Did you see any of this coming with Michael Carter-Williams? I’m sure you got to see a bunch of him in the pre-season, but I don’t think any of us really saw him getting of to the start that he did.
Well, I’ll tell you that I’m the wrong guy to ask, because I don’t watch college basketball. [But] the conventional wisdom was that he needed help with his shot, that he was turning the ball over, that he only had a couple years in college and…you know, he wasn’t the top pick of the draft, he wasn’t in the top ten, he was the 11th pick. So I think everybody was going to be patient with him, and let him learn the program. The fact that he came out and did what he did was a real special moment.
Evan has gotten out to a hot start this year. Do you see anything different in this game, or do you just think he’s hot right now, and he’ll come back to earth in a little while?
Yeah, I think his shot selection has been a lot better. I think he made it a point during the off-season to get all the way to the rim, he’s been getting a lot of points in the paint. He’s been using his body, fortunately he’s been taking a lot fewer threes…I think that’s really helped him a lot, and that’s why he’s shooting the way he is.
Have you gotten a chance to spend much time with Coach Brown? Gotten a sense of how he’s trying to change the culture around here?
Well, it’s funny, we had a talk about that even before the pre-season started, and I’ll just quote him saying “It takes a while for that to happen. It takes players, it takes commitment, it takes a certain kind of player that you have to begin to get in here.” And I’m not saying that these guys can’t be part of that, what I’m saying is that’s a process that has to evolve over some time.
So when you look at the situation where [Coach Brown] came from, with the Spurs, that culture was established by two guys who have been there for almost a generation. They’ve won four titles together. So that is the culture.
Well, it helps to have Tim Duncan to start with.
Well, that. And you know what really helps? When you get a guy in, and maybe that’s Michael Carter-Williams, maybe it’s the next guy, who’s the alpha male or close to it, who helps him with that locker room. That’s going to be key, and I think Gregg Popovich will tell you that with all the players that have come in and out, the fact that he can yell at Tim Duncan, and you’re a free agent or a rookie saying “Wow, he’s yelling at a hall-of-famer! Well…” THAT’S the culture. And that’s something that it’s gonna take Brett Brown a while to establish.
Have you gotten to see Michael off the court at all? Do you think he’s going to be that kind of leader?
You know, I wasn’t quite sure. I have to be quite honest with you, and…he’s a while away, and he hasn’t even played a minute yet, but Nerlens Noel. When I spoke with him during the off-season and I remarked at the fact that he was going to be traveling with the team, kinda working out and rehabbing on the side. He said “Yeah, it’s really important for me to be with the team, because I watch Oklahoma City and Miami, and those guys are together off the court, and I think that’s really important.” And I’m saying to myself, here’s a guy who hasn’t played a second in the NBA, who’s 19 years old, and he’s already…
He gets it.
Right! And he’s trying to figure out what makes [these teams] good, other than their talent. And to me, that was something special. Now, can Michael Carter-Williams do it? Well, I love his leadership style on the floor, in that he doesn’t seem to be the prototypical kind of scoring guard. He can score, but it seems like he’s looking for other guys, he’s got great court vision, and I think if he can continue to show that, be unselfish with the ball, that will make him in some ways the de facto leader.
Do you have any idea where the team goes from here? .I think most people before the season assumed that they’d be piling up the losses in an attempt to do better in the draft next year, but do you think this has changed the course at all?
Well, I think it does from the standpoint that if you’re a young player, you can hopefully seize on to the fact that you came back against Miami, you came back against Chicago, you came back against Washington on the road, you’ve done some positive things. Because what happens is that confidence, even in good players, will ebb and flow. So when it’s ebbing, a lot of times what they’ll do is show you footage of you succeeding so you can kind of remember what it is that you did.
So hopefully they’ll be able to latch onto that stuff, and so in those moments when maybe there’s a losing streak, or they’re struggling, or maybe there’s a 5-20 down the road for Michael Carter-Williams, he can say “Yeah, but I played really well against the Heat, I played really well against Derrick Rose, I was able to win a game on John Wall’s home court, and hopefully I can recapture that.”
Did you get the chance to spend much time with Andrew Bynum when he was a Sixer last year? Get much of a sense of him as a person?
You know what? He seems like a really bright guy. And I would like to think that had he been able to play, he could. I think a lot of Sixer fans were put off by the whole bowling thing. And I think that’s what turned a lot of people off, saying “Well, if this dude can go bowling, he can certainly give it a try on the court!” I think the fact that he did get surgery, that he seems to be trying with Cleveland, is some indication that he might have something left, but if his knees cause his problems..here’s a guy who’s had knee problems coming out of high school, the fact that he has them now does not bode well for him.
Last year was pretty hard for all of us, but I felt like it was especially hard for you guys, because you had to watch all these games, with all this expectation, and it was so disappointing. Was that the hardest year you can remember covering?
Well, I’ve had some difficult years. You have to remember that my first two years, there was a 24-win team and an 18-win team with John Lucas. One year we had 24 players….at least last year, the problem with last year was that Andrew Bynum was a huge distraction the entire year. And because of that, it really cast a pall over the entire season. And people were saying, “This guy isn’t going to play!” Which he didn’t. “You’ve really torn up your team!” Which they did, giving up Andre Iguodala, Nik Vucevic turned out to be a really good player, a young guy in Moe Harkless…it really made it rather difficult.
But you know, we kinda hung our hat a little bit on Jrue Holiday, that he was an all-star, we were hoping that Evan Turner would eventually turn the corner like he is this year. But I would have to say quite honestly, that those first two years here with John Lucas were some of the toughest, if not the toughest, that I’ve had in my career.
So I had a theory that I wrote about, and I’m curious for your take. Which is that all in all, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Andrew Bynum trade was actually a good thing for this team, because it kind of allowed them to hit the reset button. Whereas they had kinda been spinning their wheels for the last six or seven years, since the Iverson trade, and this forced them to bottom out, take a good hard look at themselves and say “Is this really where we wanna go?”
Well, I think that’s a great point, and I’ll take it a step further and say that not only do I agree with you, agreeing ostensibly with what Sixers management did, but the fans have bought into it. To the point where they’re saying, you know…this “Winless for Wiggins” stuff, and all that, which I don’t necessarily advocate, but they understand that this is a rebuilding year, that they’re going to have to make some sacrifices.
And that’s why Brett Brown has been so great through all of this, because all he’s really talked about is culture recreation and player development. So if they can accomplish those two things, where you’re seeing some baby steps with some of these young guys, and you see the evidence that culture has been changed, it’ll be a successful year.
It seems like Malik has really caught on. You had a revolving door there with the color spot for a while…what is it about Malik that you think has made him stick?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. I think first and foremost, he and I have a nice vibe. He’s a great guy, without ego, and I’m sitting here saying “This guy played 13 years in the NBA, won two championship rings…what does he care about a 50-year-old guy from Northeast Philly?” But it just so happens that he does, that we connect on a lot of different levels. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that he knows the game, he’s very smart, and he’s got a marvelous sense of humor. When he comes up with some of the stuff that he comes up with, he lights up Twitter, because people can’t believe that he’s said some of the stuff that he’s said. So I try to just let him be him, because quite frankly I think that if he’s successful, then our broadcast is good. And the thing that I like the most is when people come up and say “You and Malik sound good together.” I’d rather hear that phrase from somebody than anything else.
And it’s clear that you guys really care. You can hear the pain in his voice when the Sixers miss a defensive rotation, don’t get out to a three-point shooter, stuff like that.
Right. And I think a lot of that is the fact that he’s a Philly guy. And even though he never played for the Sixers, I think the Sixers have always held a special place in his heart. And you know, I go back to the first year of the team. I mean, when I was a kid, my father took me to Convention Hall, and I saw a game when they first arrived from Syracuse, in 1963. So I’ve seen Sixers games every year, I’ve followed the team every year, so for me….it pulses through my veins.
Do you get a lot of people coming up to you, reciting your own catch phrases? People asking you to record things on their answering machine?
You know, I do, and it’s kind of otherworldly. You have to remember, I was a kid who grew up in Northeast Philly and I had kind of like a low self-concept, and I got picked on by kids, and wasn’t the world’s greatest athlete…so what I did was, I would announce games on TV, or announce games from the stands, and a lot of what I did just sitting by myself in my room, I do now before 50,000 or 100,000 people a night. So to have people coming up to me saying “say this” or “say that,” it’s surreal.
What’s the most frequent request that you get?
Uh, I’ll give you the top several. I’ll say a lot of people like “We’re running tonight!” A lot of people like “[Somebody] for three! YES!“ “Lock all windows and doors” is a very big one, “Hang on Malik, we’re coming in for a landing…” So, again, these are just things that are coming off the top of my head, and to think that people are latching onto this is really bizarre.
Have you heard about any drinking games? Anybody ever say “Well, anytime you say [this], take a shot”?
[Laughing] No, none of that! None of that.