For the last 20 years, Philadelphia 76ers fans around the world have experienced Sixers basketball while watching and simultaneously listening to Marc Zumoff call the actions of Allen Iverson, Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and now Michael Carter-Williams.
Liberty Ballers caught up Comcast Sportsnet’s Sixers play-by-play man before the team squared off against the Phoenix Suns on Monday evening.
LB: You did a bunch of starting gigs in college and small-time media before becoming the television voice of the Sixers in 1994. As someone who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, what did and does it mean to you to have the position you’ve held for almost 20 years?
MZ: It’s kind of surreal because I can remember growing up in Northeast Philly and just trying to get a Sixers game on TV on UHF using rabbit ears and sort of seeing the basketball game through static and fuzz and watching a black and white picture. And I also remember when I would get those games, turning the sound down and doing the games into a tape recorder. The fact that I’m actually the voice of the team, to me it’s truly been an out-of-body experience.
LB: While you’ve been the steady play-by-play on Sixers telecasts, your color commentator has changed like the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry Potter until CSN recently found the diamond in the rough that is Malik Rose. Why do you think it took so long to find your perfect partner?
MZ: I think that Malik is great because he doesn’t have an ego, he’s smart, he’s funny and that’s not to say the other guys didn’t have that as well. I think that there was just a way that Malik and I clicked that I think makes us a very good team. So, I pretty much focus on that—the fact that we enjoy each other’s company, we view the game similarly, we’re both Philly guys and I’m just really thankful to have him on board.
LB: With League Pass, we’re able to experience local broadcasts from across the League. This season, there seems to be a growing consensus that you, Malik and Molly Sullivan are among the top-5 local broadcast teams in the NBA. What does that mean to you and do you agree with that statement?
MZ: I don’t think it’s necessarily up to me to agree with that. I think that, quite frankly, I’m flattered that people would think that. I’d like to think that the team—I’m really just a cog in the machine. I think that Malik is tremendous at what he does. I think that Molly has really grown into her role and people really like her a lot. She works extremely hard. I think she’s gained the trust of the players and that’s enabled her to really use unique angles in her reporting and I think all of us blended together, that’s what makes us a really good team.
LB: That must take a lot of preparation. What’s your pre-game routine like? How much do you study opponents? Do you watch film? Do you spend the night before games practicing your pronunciations?
MZ: I’m getting to the arena now and it’s 11 o’clock and we have a 7 o’clock tip. It’s about a four-hour preparation period where I have an excel spreadsheet and I go over each player individually, their stats, what they’ve done recently, their backgrounds and in the case of certain players, yes, I do go over pronunciations. But what I do is I really delve into the team, what they’ve done this season, their tendencies, their playing style, their history and in concert with the producer, we come up with a look of a show that we think is going to reflect what we think is going to happen in the game. Now, a lot of times that will change and that’s the beauty of live TV, that you can prepare for the game to look one way and suddenly it turns out to be something totally different and you have to be able to adapt accordingly. That’s what you prepare for as well. You prepare enough background and enough information that no matter what kind of a turn the game takes, you are ready to supply the information necessary to help explain what’s going on.
LB: You’ve developed a lot of signature catch phrases and that’s one of the many reasons you’ve become such a favorite in Philly. What’s your favorite one? Do any of them have any interesting origins of how they came about?
MZ: People ask me about that all the time. The only thing I can say is that I was the halftime host for Sixers basketball for about 13 years and I got a lot of experience writing and scripting different features and I think that allowed me the opportunity to develop a vocabulary, to come up with metaphors and similes and different phrases that are artistic, I guess, in a way. Plus when you’re a TV guy, I think you have to come up with phrases and expressions that can enhance what people can already see. You can tell somebody they got an offensive rebound and a put-back when that’s what they saw on their screen, or you can tell them the Sixers just turned garbage into gold. I think those are the two things that are in play here, I like to come up with things that are different and I have the ability to do so because I’ve done a lot of writing in my life.
LB: You started calling Sixers games just a few years before Allen Iverson arrived in Philly. His impact is still felt on the organization every day. What was it like for you to mature as broadcaster as he matured on the court right before your eyes?
MZ: I think the boat rides with the tide. In the case of Allen Iverson, because of the increased notoriety because of how special a player he was, I think that helped me to get better. I think the increased visibility and notoriety certainly presented its share of challenges and that helped me grow as broadcaster. I think that, in terms of a highlight of my career, certainly his era has to be one of the highlights, only because the team was good, we were watching a Hall-of-Famer and we were watching a guy that was, quite frankly, totally different than any other player we’ve ever seen in the history of the NBA. A 6-foot, skinny scorer who did it in a way that was just phenomenal. When you consider the amount of shots he got up, the energy he played with and how many times he would just continue to pound himself into the lane and take a beating. A lot of people with Allen will point to his lower-than-average field goal percentage, but remember his efficiency was made better by the fact that he got to the line a lot. And even his misses inside would result many times in offensive rebounds and put-backs for our guys. There was a greater efficiency in Allen’s game than I think people give him credit for.
LB: Andre Iguodala will forever be an interesting player in Sixers history. From your point of view, describe his era as the face of the franchise.
MZ: Any controversy was certainly not his fault. I think the controversy was created by a lot of members of the media who, by default, appointed him as the face of the franchise. Once Allen Iverson left, they looked around and said, ‘who’s the centerpiece of this team?’ and they pointed their fingers at him. And, quite frankly, he is the kind of player who is a great compliment to the players around him. Andre Iguodala was a tremendous all-around player. He’s not a scorer, but he does a lot of things very, very well and I think the criticism that went his way was unfair.
LB: The years since Iverson left, the team and organization as a whole has struggled to find its true identity, yet you’ve been there the whole time. What’s that been like to experience that’s still going on today?
MZ: I think now they have an identity. The new ownership is a group of guys that have been successful in just about everything they’ve done in their lives. They are quick studies and I think, after going around the league for a few seasons, have a much better idea of what it is they want to do. So, they’ve put in place a cutting edge team president in Sam Hinkie, he hired a great strategist and teacher in Brett Brown and these two are going to be in place for the foreseeable future. So you have that, you have in all likelihood a cornerstone in Michael Carter-Williams and you have Nerlens Noel who also could turn out to be a cornerstone and you have two  first round picks, both of which could turn out to be lottery picks. You’re going to have a lot of room under the salary cap to perhaps dot your roster with some more experienced players. Not only do you have a management team in place, soon you’ll have the players in place and I think that there’s an over-arching philosophy and desire to have a certain culture that pretty soon will re-identify the Sixers and hopefully re-identify them as a winning a organization.
LB: Coming into this season, we all were expecting a lot of losses. How do you maintain the excellent energy your team brings every night?
MZ: I think it gets back to being a kid that grew up back in Northeast Philly and knowing I’m doing Sixers games, this is the team I grew up rooting for so that’s always special. I could have a real job, you know? Essentially I get paid to watch basketball games. I never forget that aspect of it, so it’s never routine. Then, it does get down to sometime that it’s your job. Your job is to perform and to entertain and the aspects of your job are to get excited. But I’m legitimately excited and happy to be there so it doesn’t take much.
LB: I guess that’s kind of how the players must think, too. They’re certainly not trying to "tank."
MZ: Yea. Let’s hope.
LB: You’ve been around the team for 20 years, what’s been your best memory from the experience?
MZ: My best memory has to be the team’s first playoff series win in eight years in 1998. We were playing Orlando and we split with them down there and then we came home and I think people were just realizing that Sixers basketball was back. From tip-off to buzzer, the crowd was in a frenzy. Allen Iverson had an NBA-record 10 steals. There was near fight in the game, the late Chuck Daly almost got into a fight with, among others, Matt Geiger. The Sixers ended up winning the game and I think that sort of established the fact that after being in the dark for the last seven or eight years, Sixers basketball was back.
LB: Dave Zinkoff's name is forever hanging in the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center. Though you’re a different medium of "Sixers voice," Marc Zumoff should be up there when it's all said and done, right?
MZ: You know, that’s not really something I’ve ever considered. When you think about Dave Zinkoff as a public address man and as a personality, I think he accomplished way more than I’ve accomplished certainly to this point. He went all the way back to the Philadelphia Warriors and he traveled with the Globe Trotters and really became a trademark voice with the Sixers. Except for the fact that both of our names end in "-off," if I can somehow, someway be mentioned alongside him I’d be fairly flattered.