Temple Review – The Call Man: Spring, 2001

Written by Marie Gehret
Temple Review
Spring, 2001

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Moniker meister Marc Zumoff is the bombastic, golden-tongued, verbally flamboyant, play-by-play announcer of the Philadelphia 76ers.[/quote]

With 2:08 remaining on the game dock -and down five points -the Sixers have possession. Superstar guard Allen lverson brings the ball up court. He dribbles. He fakes. He cuts around and through a swarm of defenders.

At-home viewers watching lverson’s physical acrobatics are simultaneously listening to the verbal acrobatics of Marc Zumoff, BA SCAT ’92. “Iverson, with his high beams on,” Zumoff announces as the wide-eyed guard drives down the lane to make an effortless layup. “Yes!” he roars as the “rock” drops through the “macrame.” A victory is within reach, though he never had a doubt about the outcome.

Dynamic is the style of Zumoff’s play-by-play; whether he’s touting the shot- blocking prowess of forward George Lynch, whom he calls “Nails,” or describing an out of-this-world play by lverson. Zumoff’s flamboyant expressions and signature phrases trip off his tongue. “Bald is beautiful,” he bellows when dean-shaven Matt Geiger dunks the ball. “Two from Lynchburg,” he declares when forward George Lynch nails a 15-footer. “Hill, going to work in the weight room,” he declares as power forward Tyrone Hill out-muscles his opponent to grab a “man’s” rebound. “Turning garbage into gold,” he exclaims when a player cleans up a teammate’s errant shot to score.

Much of his clever verbiage is spontaneous; however, he conceived an unforgettable nickname in 1999 while musing thoughtfu1ly in a hotel room. Born was “Flight Brothers,” a term he coined to describe the aerodynamics of Iverson and now ex-Sixer Larry Hughes. Iverson would throw a lob to the basket; Hughes would take off at the top of a the key; catch the ball high above the rim, and dunk it emphatically.

The voice of the 76ers since 1994, Zumoff is fulfilling a childhood dream that began some 30 years ago. As a Northeast Philadelphia schoolboy; he reveled in listening to Sixers and Flyers games on the radio, and sometimes his dad took him to Convention Hall to see his heroes in person: Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and other 76er greats who brought glory to the city with a title in 1967.

But even more than the players, Zumoff idolized the men off the court: the announcers whose familiar voices and familiar sayings brought games alive to hundreds of listeners, including young boys like himself. These broadcasters – with characteristic inflection and color – had a the ability to make the athletes seem superhuman and s each play more electrifying than the next.

By the fourth grade, Zumoff was concocting his own makeshift productions. With his tape recorder spinning, he would tune his TV to Channel 8, a static-heavy station that represented the din of a fictitious crowd, and then announce, extemporaneously; an imaginary game. To underscore spectacular plays, he would crank up the static in the background and unleash the exultation of some 17,000 fans.

Often collaborating with him was his friend Larry Rosen, , another die-hard sports enthusiast and now the director of broadcasting and video production for the Baltimore s Ravens. Says Rosen: “I met Marc when I was 11. I knew then that I wanted to be a broadcaster, and Marc knew that he did too. We used to do fake broadcasts …[and] watch 76ers games together in Marc’s house. When we got to go to a game, we would enjoy seeing the players, but we would freak out to meet the broadcasters.” Some broadcasters enter the business because they were once athletes, but that was not true in Zumoff’s case. On the court, he was – well – less fluent than the other guys. “When I was a kid, I was kind of chunky and nerdy and was never really groomed in any way to play sports,” he says. “When the kids in the neighborhood played stickball, I was the guy who kept the stats and the standings and announced the games.” (Today; he is remarkably fit, and enjoys running, working out, and playing golf and softball.)

In 1973, he entered Temple’s radio, television, and film (RTF) program. Rosen, BA SCAT ’84, did, too, and they shared an apartment as they worked their way through school. Zumoff finally hit the airwaves at WRFT, a small radio station on Temple’s Ambler campus where he dee-jayed and did news reporting (and where he now serves as an adviser) .A stint at Temple’s public radio station on Main Campus, WRTI, also afforded him the opportunity to do live sportscasts and collaborate on the news program The Evening Report. “I’ve always felt that getting to do a big event on a big medium helps you to grow up,” he muses.

He was also growing up professionally in a course taught by Bob Bradley; a 30-year KYW- TV veteran. “An amazing amount of the material and concepts he taught me I still use today;” says Zumoff, who likewise credits Bill Bransome (a longtime Philadelphia radio/TV personality) and Mike Emrick (a former Flyers announcer) as being role models.

Valuable lessons also came from Dr. Gordon Gray; now a retired chairman of Temple’s RTF department. Gray recalls: “Occasionally a student came to our program with on-air skills already well honed. Marc was one of those students. His natural talents, his intense interest in sports, and, I suspect, considerable prior work on his own, made him a good prospect for a successful on-air broadcasting career. He, of course, has lived up to expectations.”

As a college senior in 1976, Zumoff needed an internship in commercial radio to round out his resume. Larry Rosen came to the rescue and got him an interview at KYW Newsradio. Zumoff was hired as a desk assistant, which he describes as “the lowest form of life there.” He hustled about getting coffee and doing anything he could do to impress his super- visors. They were indeed impressed and offered Zumoff an unpaid two-day-a-week on-air gig. The bad news was that it was the red-eye shift: from midnight on Fridays to 8 a.m. on Saturdays, a time when most of his classmates were “out partying.”

The fast -paced environment and constant breaking news also helped him to think on his feet. His very first shift on the job was the night Jimmy Carter was elected and proved to be a professional challenge for which no classroom could have fully prepared him. In 1977, a few credits short of graduating (he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1992), Zumoff went looking for a paid, on-air job as a radio broadcaster and found one in Trenton: WBUD. For eight hours a day he read wire-service copy; with just two commercial breaks an hour. He paid his dues there and at two other Trenton radio stations: WKXW and WHWH.

His proverbial big break came two years later when the Major Indoor Soccer League came to town in the form of a new franchise called the Philadelphia Fever. A Temple chum, Rob Grossman, BA SCAT 75, then the Fever’s PR director and now the national sales manager for WXTU- FM in Philadelphia, told Zumoff that the team needed a full-time TV announcer.

Since Zumoff had no television experience, he used a little ingenuity: “One night, Rob and I paid a janitor to let us into the Fever offices when no one was there. We watched a video tape of one of the games. I didn’t know any of the players or any of the terms.” The result was that he made a good-enough demo tape to warrant an on-air audition that was scheduled during the Fever’s season opener and would air locally on WPHL-TV 17.

The intensity of Zumoff’s do-or-die audition was exacerbated when the regular color guy (the commentator-analyst who pairs with the announcer) got sick. The station called in veteran Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas to fill in. “I think the reason they did that- Harry really didn’t know that much about soccer -was that in case I hyperventilated and fainted on television, Harry would be there to dean up the mess,” Zumoff says. But there was no mess. Zumoff’s performance was “pretty good,” according to Kalas who took his protege-for-a-day out to dinner afterward.

For the next two years, Zumoff “had a blast” calling the games and becoming, in a sense, the “Gene Hart of the Fever.” The late Hart was the Flyers’ television play-by- play announcer from the team’s inception in 1967 until 1999. Zumoff took “very seriously” the Fever’s charge to emulate him.

Zumoff’s telecasts caught the attention of PRISM, a sports and entertainment TV network that was later bought out by Comcast. He was hired in 1982 to host “PRISM Extra,” a daily sports report, twice a week. By 1983, Zumoff was a full-time anchor/producer, one of Philadelphia’s most visible sportscasters, and a newlywed. (He and his wife Debbie have since become the parents of two sons: Jacob and Pace.)

In 1989, the year the couple’s first son was born, Zumoff was nominated for a regional Ernmy Award by the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. He earned five additional nominations between 1989 and 1991 and has since captured seven awards. As Zumoff mounted his career at PRISM and its sister station where he did sideline reporting for the Sixers and produced some of the team’s ha1ftime and pre-/postgame shows -he received another career boost ” due to a tragedy: Jim Barniak, the voice of the 76ers and a long time sports director at PRISM, took ill and passed away shortly thereafter. For the next two seasons, Zumoff shared the Sixers’ play-by-play duties, often with stand-in Andy Musser, a regular Phillies announcer. But the Sixers still hadn’t named a permanent “voice.”

He explains what happened next: “Sixers TV producer Jon Slobotkin, who is one of my good friends and a fellow Temple grad, was sitting with me in our offices on August 17,1994 when the phone rang. It was the call offering me the job as the Sixers “voice.” Jon marked down the date and the exact time that I got that call on a little piece of paper.

I put it in a frame and it’s up on my wall at home.” (Slobotkin, BA SCAT ’85, is currently a television producer for the Phillies.)

When Zumoff reported for duty at the start of the 1994-95 season, he was paired with Sixers color commentator Steve Mix, a 13-year NBA forward and former 76er. “And we’ve been joined at the hip ever since,” he quips. They’re friends off air as well.

“Marc & Steve,” as they are known to Sixers’ fans, have a rare on-air chemistry that combines repartee, inside humor, and insightful basketball analysis. They complement each other well, as Zumoff explains: “1 think the thing that helps is that we’re pretty much opposite. He played the game; I didn’t. He’s from the Midwest; I’m from the East. And for the way he played, I have a respect for him. I think I he respects me for what I do professionally; We kid each I other about our differences, about our shortcomings, and we don’t take it personally. It’s like a married couple.

“Right from the start, we clicked pretty well,” Mix confirms. “Anytime you work with a new partner, you feel uneasy at first. You have certain concerns: Are we going to 1. mix? Am I going to step on his words? Is he going to pick up where I left off? But right from the git -go, we seemed to understand each other and get along.”

Mix adds, “There is no real formal training for ex-players who become analysts. Marc went to Temple and learned to do it correctly; He’s helped me tremendously from the television aspect:”

Their repartee is one reason why veteran Philadelphia a Daily News sportswriter Phil Jasner, BS SBM ’64, likes the twosome. In fact, many Philadelphians can relate to them, Jasner says: “People do identify with their local broadcasters. They identified with Merri1l Reese, the late Richie Ashburn, and still with Harry Kalas. Marc is one of the a new kids on the block, but the same identity is there. Sixers’ fans know that when they turn on the game, Marc and Steve will be there. And the dyed-in-the-wool fans think of them as family and want to know what they think and what their interpretations of things are. Marc welcomes you into that family.”

The NBA regular season is 82 games long, from November to April. It is a grueling schedule for the players as well as the on-air and behind-the-scenes crews who travel with the 76ers and produce broadcasts night in and night out on Comcast SportsNet or on UPN-TV 57. Zumoff rarely misses a game, no matter the circumstances. “I’ve done games when literally I had 25 percent of my voice,” he says.

His job-related traveling takes a toll on his family who, ironically, is tepid about basketball and only attends a handful of home games. “My wife is an absolute saint. .. and never complains because she realizes this is a dream of mine,” he notes. While he is away on a road trip {some- times for up to a week), his wife takes care of the day-to- day issues of family life; she also works full time as an executive VP of a tracing firm in West Conshohocken. The arrangement is not completely lopsided, though: he makes up for lost time during the off – season.

On a typical game day; Zumoff leaves his Montgomery County home in the morning and heads to the gym of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where the Sixers hold shoot-arounds. Then he’s off to the First Union Center, the arena that the 76ers and Flyers share in South Philly: During the drive, he phones Mix and his television producer, Shawn Oleksiak, BA SCAT ’87, to discuss that night’s match-up. They plan pre-game interviews, the opening of the show, and the “game tease,” a 30-second spot which introduces the telecast with voice-over narration, video clips – and theater.

Preparing for the broadcast takes up the next two to four hours. Zumoff creates a spreadsheet that contains back- ground information on both teams, the latest injury reports, records, stats -the gamut. “It looks pretty overwhelming, but it all makes sense to me,” he says. “This is my baby. This is what I spend my time on and have in front of me during the game.”

On-air patter originates from interesting trivia and statistics, which Zumoff uncovers by doing research via local and national newspapers, magazines, game notes issued by both teams, and the Internet to access the hometown papers of the opposing team. Then he crams. “The funny thing is, it’s sort of like studying for a psych test in that you know the stuff and then after you take the test, you forget a lot of it,” he admits.

Zumoff is “knowledgeable” and “incredibly prepared,” Jasner assesses. “I love the way he communicates things.

He knows what it is to come up the hard way and do all the little jobs that got him where he is today…and he’s always looking to learn. I have great respect for people who do their homework, and I don’t know any other broadcaster who does his homework better than Marc.”

“I spend a lot of time watching other NBA broadcasts,” notes Dave Coskey; senior VP of the Sixers, “and can say without a doubt that Marc is one of the best broadcasters in the game today: This is a testament to his work ethic more than anything else.”

Zumoff and Mix host the entire show live: unrehearsed and unscripted. “You’re always walking the tightrope,” Zumoff says about the intense, often frantic environs of a near three-hour telecast. Anything can happen and, some- times, anything does. “It requires a level of concentration that’s so high, you literally feel like you’re high because your senses are everywhere,” he explains. “You have a stat guy who’s feeding you things. You have a computer with a live, real-time score box. You’re interacting with your partner. The refs are making calls. The coaches are arguing. The players are arguing. Somebody’s calling a time-out. There’s a rule you don’t know..:”

All the while, he must reiterate the score and the game/shot clocks – and ease into commercial breaks.

“Marc is tremendous. He has a complete grasp of the medium of television,” notes Oleksiak, who has produced the Sixers’ telecasts for more than six seasons. “Life as a producer is made easier when the talent understands the mission. He’s not out there trying to make himself the star.”

Zumoff remains chipper even when the Sixers experience an ignoble defeat. He beams with infectious enthusiasm for the team’s “yeoman-like” efforts. It is an attitude, he says, that trickles down from team president Pat Croce. Lately; Croce and Zumoff’s enthusiasm is justified: the Sixers are winning big after a long drought. In 1999, the team made the playoffs for the first time since the 1990-91 season, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference. Last season, they improved their record by placing fifth in the East and making a respectable run in the postseason. Better yet, the 76ers broke a franchise record last November when they started the 2000-01 season with a perfect 10-0 record; since then, they have managed to clinch the No.1 spot in the NBA for weeks at a time. Contributing to the team’s newfound success is former Owl Aaron McKie, who was the NBA player of d the week in late December.

Zumoff says that his optimism stems from being a genuine 76ers fan, an admirable trait in a city where the fans’ crassness is as legendary as the star athletes.

Dave Coskey considers Zumoff “one of the most valuable marketing tools we have at the Philadelphia 76ers.” And that, Coskey says, “is a pretty bold statement given the fact that we have been quite successful in re-imaging and re-marketing the 76ers throughout the past four seasons. l strongly believe that our television broadcast is our best way to communicate with consumers.”

Zumoff also has made a name for himself outside the Philadelphia market. Turner Sports hired him as a side- line reporter for a few nationally televised NBA games and, last February, invited him to call a game on TNT with venerated analyst/ex-coach Hubie Brown. But breaking out of the local market doesn’t interest Zumoff.

“Marc is a 44-year-old man who’s never left Philadelphia, the fourth-largest market,” Rosen notes. “That’s extremely rare. He’s had a dynamic career in his hometown. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone else who is living out his childhood dream so specifically and elaborately.”

Zumoff plans to remain the voice of the Sixers for as long as they’ll have him. He ultimately hopes to join the ranks of the epic sportscasters he so admires. “I would like to be remembered as a guy who was passionate, always came prepared, always was enthusiastic…and someone who took time to interact with the people who loved the team. Gee, that’s a lot to get on a tombstone.”

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