Zumoff the one constant of Sixers’ ever-changing landscape 10/31/13

BY CHUCK DARROW, Daily News Staff Writer darrowc@phillynews.com

Posted: October 31, 2013

IT IS WITH alarming – and depressing – frequency that we read or hear accounts of tragedies perpetrated by people who have been bullied as children. Happily, Marc Zumoff’s story has had a much happier outcome.

Tonight on Comcast SportsNet, Zumoff kicks off his 20th season as the 76ers’ television play-by-play announcer – a run that puts him in the exalted company of such beloved “voices” as Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn, Gene Hart and Merrill Reese. Oddly enough, his longtime success as a member of a such an exclusive fraternity might be a result of the torment he suffered at the hands of other kids.

During a recent chat at a Starbucks not too far from his Montgomery County home, Zumoff spoke of being a frequent target of both verbal and physical abuse while growing up in the Far Northeast. But what likely stung the youngster most of all was his exclusion from neighborhood sports.

“I was one of the worst athletes anywhere,” related Zumoff, who unabashedly described his younger self as a “fat kid.” But rather than withdraw and plot revenge, Zumoff, as they say, turned lemons into lemonade

“I would sit on the sidelines and announce their games,” he recalled. “I’d keep these beautiful stats and standings, and they loved it. They loved the fact I was like the ‘broadcaster.’ ”

As such, he reasoned, “In some ways, I have them to thank for what I am today. Maybe I wouldn’t have been sitting on the sidelines doing play-by-play of stickball games or street football” if he had played more.

Not that providing the details of a stickball game was any kind of entree into the world of professional broadcasting. Like everyone else in his field, Zumoff had dues to pay. Unlike so many others, he never had to leave his home turf to pursue his career dreams.

After graduating Temple University, where he worked at WRTI-FM, the campus radio station, Zumoff found a news-reading gig at Trenton’s WBUD-AM (now WFJS). That led to a spot at WHWH-AM, where he broke into sportscasting by calling Princeton University basketball games.

As the ’80s dawned, Zumoff found himself at KYW-AM; he was there when the call that would change his life came from his friend, Rob Grossman, at the time the public relations director for the long-defunct Philadelphia Fever, an indoor-soccer franchise.

Grossman advised him the team was looking for a TV play-by-play announcer for their games on Channel 17 and PRISM, the Ed Snider-owned forerunner of Comcast SportsNet, and tutored him on getting the job. Despite the prep work, the pressure was on Zumoff. At a dinner meeting with then-general manager Zvi Shoubin, he was told he would be given a one-game tryout. “If you pass it, you’re in; if you fail it, you’re out,” was the admonition from the TV executive.

Zumoff headed to the game in Hartford, Conn., with enough trepidation and insecurity to fill his hotel room. What awaited him there did nothing to alleviate his concerns. Because he was a newcomer to TV, the station decided to have a more seasoned broadcaster join him for the telecast.

“I get down to the hotel lobby on Sunday, game day, and who did they send to do the game with me? Harry Kalas,” he recalled. “As if I wasn’t scared enough, double it, because Harry’s sitting next to me. But we did the game, and nobody got hurt, and Harry took me out to dinner afterward. It was one of the highlights of my life.”

The Fever folded after the 1982 season, but he hung on with Channel 17 as a staff announcer, reading movie promos. Around the same time, Jim Gray, who went on to cover the World Series, Olympic Games and other nationally broadcast events on a variety of networks, including Fox and NBC, was hosting the Sixers’ halftime segments. He left, and the team gave the job to Zumoff. In 1994, he was promoted to TV play-by-play announcer.

Zumoff who, with his wife of 30 years, Debbie, has two sons, Jake, 24 and Pace, 20, takes great pride in being part of a 30-person fraternity – as he likes to say at speaking appearances, “There are more U.S. senators than NBA announcers.” But the sorry truth is that he has spent most of his time behind the microphone observing a pretty miserable franchise, one that has made it to the NBA Finals only once during his tenure. And though he’d obviously rather be wearing multiple championship rings, Zumoff insisted it really isn’t all that important to him in the overall scheme of things.

“Having come from a modest background and rooting for the Sixers and now doing their games, the experience has been such a privilege – and so surreal – that no matter what happens on the court, I’m delighted to be there,” he said.

“Like any fan, you deal with the highs and the lows. That fan in me helps to fuel my excitement, my passion that I hope comes through on a nightly basis. Being a fan, I can put myself in the shoes of a Sixers fan and view the game that way.”

Besides, he added, “Here’s the bottom line: I’m paid to be there. I travel first-class on the charter. I stay in five-star hotels. The team treats me great. And then May, June, July, August, September, if I want to, I can sit around in my sweats and watch ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and then walk out to the mailbox every 2 weeks and have the privilege of being paid.”

Since he took over play-by-play duties, the 76ers have had three owners, six general managers and 11 head coaches (not to mention a revolving-door roster of players). So amid such organizational turmoil and turnover, how has Zumoff managed to remain the team’s one constant, as far as the public is concerned?

“Marc is the consummate professional, and he’s a better man than broadcaster,” said Shawn Oleksiak, CSN’s senior executive producer of live events.

“The thing about Marc is that he’s always working, always striving, always trying to get better. He’s prepared. He has over 2,500 games of experience at various levels of sideline reporting and play-by-play, and he just gets better all the time.”

As far as “Zoo” – who professes no desire for a network gig – is concerned, a good deal of the credit goes to the people both in CSN’s executive suite and on his broadcast crew. But beyond that, he tips his hat to his upbringing and his ability to keep things in perspective.

“My parents brought me up to work hard,” he said. “I’m a Philly guy. I grew up in a twin [home] on a cul de sac in Northeast Philly. The ‘Philly way’ is in my DNA. I try to put in the work, I try to put in the time, I don’t take any shortcuts.

“I think I try to be a team player and I try to see a bigger picture and just realize it’s not about me, it’s about the entire presentation.”

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

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