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02 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

Steve Albert




By Thomas Hauser: Sometimes people take good things for granted. Steve Albert is approaching his twentieth year behind the microphone for Showtime Boxing. To some, he'll always be Marv's little brother, part of America's most famous sportscasting family. "People tend to compare me to Marv rather than to all commentators," he acknowledges. "That sets an extraordinarily high standard."

But Steve has set the bar high in his own right. He's so constant and reliable that, yes, there are times when he's taken for granted. But his own accomplishments are worthy of note.

Albert's grandparents were part of the wave of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Eastern Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century. His father was born in Brooklyn and his mother in the Bronx. Steve was born in 1950, nine years after brother Marv and four years after brother Al. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father and uncle owned a grocery store called Aufrichtig's (the family's original name).

"One day, when I was in fifth grade," Steve remembers, "my father sat Marv, Al, and me down in the living room and said 'I want to make it easier for you guys." Then he told us that we had a new name. He and my mother had gone through the telephone book looking at last names that began with 'A' and chosen 'Albert.' The next day, I went back to school and told my teacher, Miss Shaughnessy, that I had a new name. Miss Shaughnessy stood up, turned to the other students, and said, 'Class, Steve has a new name.' The entire class applauded."

Growing up, the Albert brothers spent summers working in the family store, unpacking boxes, stocking shelves, stamping prices on cans, and delivering groceries. But there was a more notable aspect to their upbringing.

"It was a sports crazy house," Steve recalls. "Marv was a good schoolyard basketball player; he had some moves. For me, it was stickball. Al was the natural athlete in the family. Al broke through to the other side."

Al was a roller-hockey star on the streets, a great stick-handler. The problem was, he couldn't ice-skate. Eventually, he learned to skate well enough to play goalie at Ohio University. And he became a good enough goalie in college to get a tryout with the New York Rangers and play for the Toledo Blades in the International Hockey League. But more significantly, from an early age on, it was an extreme passion for each of the Albert brothers to become a professional sportscaster.

"It was all we wanted out of life," Steve acknowledges. "It was a hunger and we drove our mother batty. She hadn't been raised in a sports environment, and I'm talking now about intense sports. Starting when I was around seven. Marv, Al, and I would turn on the television, turn the sound off, and announce the games ourselves. We were a three-man team; and it wasn't just TV sports. When we played ping-pong in the basement, two of us would engage in mortal combat while the third did play-by-play. We did play-by-play of my mother cooking. We did play-by-play of the family eating dinner. Obviously, we were insane. But for us, it was normal behavior. My mother was a typical Jewish mother of that era. She wanted her sons to become doctors and lawyers and had no idea what we were doing. But I think my father had a sense of where it was leading and what might happen someday."

Steve also had what he calls "an addiction to radio." At nights, when he was supposed to be sleeping, he'd listen to ballgames and late-night talk shows on a transistor radio that he kept by his bed. He worked at WNBC radio as a go-fer for Don Imus and Long John Nebel. But the most significant job he had while in high school was as a ball-boy for the New York Knicks.

"The Knicks had home games every Tuesday and Saturday night," Steve remembers. "Marv was doing radio play-by-play by then and learned that there was an opening. I was interviewed by the team's business manager, who called the next day and told me, 'Get your working papers; you've got the job.'"

"Before games," Steve continues, "I'd take players' tickets to the will-call window; run to the concession stand for hot dogs; and stand under the basket to retrieve loose balls during warm-ups before the crowd arrived. During games, I'd sit on the bench and give the players towels and water. The job paid a pittance. Sometimes I got tips from the trainer and players, never much more than pizza money. But it was a dream job for a sports fanatic of my age."

Albert graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1968 and enrolled in college at Kent State. In his sophomore year, he was instrumental in founding a hockey club, largely because he wanted to announce its games. Hockey is now a sanctioned varsity sport at Kent State which hasn't sent a player to the National Hockey League but has seen three of its alumni in NHL announcing booths.

As a senior in college, Albert got his first professional play-by-play experience. Whenever the Springfield Kings of the American Hockey League journeyed to Ohio to play the Cleveland Barons, he'd call the game for WMAS radio in Springfield. That led to his first paying professional assignment, which required him to drive to Hershey, Pennsylvania, in a blizzard for a match-up between the Kings and Hershey Bears. "There was no microphone, no headset, and no engineer," he remembers. "I announced the entire game by telephone. When I wanted to interview someone, we passed the phone back and forth."

It was also at Kent State that Albert became entwined with a pivotal moment in American history On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired on a group of unarmed demonstrators who were protesting against the war in Vietnam, killing four students.

"I was in a two-hour child psychology class when it happened," Steve recalls. "I'm not trying to be melodramatic. But if it had been a one-hour class, I could have been one of the unlucky ones. We were watching an instructional film that had a baby crying loudly, so we didn't hear the shooting but we did hear ambulance sirens. I counted them going by, nine of them. All of us, including the teacher, left the classroom and went outside to see what was happening. People were running around, shouting. Smoke from the shooting was still in the air. I assumed that people were hurt because of the ambulances, but I didn't know that anyone had died. I went back to my dorm. A woman's voice was on the PA system in the lobby, saying, 'Grab anything you can and get the hell off campus right now.' Those were her exact words. I went up to my room, threw some clothes in a small satchel, and left the campus with my roommates. It was like a scene from Godzilla with people fleeing by any means possible. We hitch-hiked to Akron, where one of my roommates lived. He drove me to the Akron-Canton Airprt and I flew home to New York. Meanwhile, my parents were going crazy. This was before cellphones and CNN, and they'd heard on the news that someone from the New York area had been killed. I tried calling them from Ohio but all the phone lines were busy. Fortunately, Marv was working for WHN at the time and accessed the news wires for them."

"The shootings were horrible," Steve continues. "Something like that stays with you forever. But they led to one of those bizarre twists of fate that brings a positive into your life, although the positive was small by comparison with the lives lost. Danny Whelan (the Knicks trainer) heard what had happened and invited me to sit on the bench as an honorary ball-boy for the final game of the Knicks-Lakers championship series. So in a matter of days, I went from the horror of Kent State to watching Willis Reed hobble out onto the court for one of the most memorable games in NBA history."

Albert graduated from Kent State in 1972. For the next three years, he did play-by-play for the Cleveland Crusaders of the newly-formed World Hockey Association. Then he was hired as a television commentator by the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. He was behind the microphone for the last ABA championship game ever; the New York Nets versus the Denver Nuggets in 1976. And in another twist of fate, the play-by-play announcer for the Nuggets was Al Albert (whose sportscasting career had begun when he moved from the goalie's crease to become the radio voice of the Toledo Blades).

That summer, the ABA merged with the NBA. At age 26, Steve was the television announcer for an NBA team. "I felt like Forrest Gump," he says. "I kept falling into these crazy situations."

Thereafter, while putting in thirteen years with the Nets, Steve managed at various times to do television and radio work for the New York Mets, radio play-by-play for the New York Jets, and TV for the New Jersey Devils. He anchored the evening sports news for the local CBS and NBC affiliates in New York; then went out to the west coast for five years as an announcer for the Golden State Warriors. "I even announced tennis on the radio," he says. "In case you're wondering, announcing tennis on the radio is impossible. Finally, the schedule got too crazy for even me to handle and I decided to concentrate on boxing."

As a boy, Albert had watched the Gillette Friday Night Fights on television. But to use his phrase, he was "a basketball-baseball-hockey guy." The first fight card he'd gone to was the March 4, 1968, show that opened the "new" Madison Square Garden. Nino Benvenuti versus Emile Griffith and Joe Frazier against Buster Mathis were the co-featured bouts. His father took him.

"I'd been to the Garden many times before," Steve remembers, "but never for a fight. We were way up in the cheap seats. The fighters looked like little specks in the ring, but the excitement was palpable. My father's father was ill at the time. He was 82 years old and his body was failing. Right before the main event, my father went to a pay phone to call home and see how he was doing. Then he came back to our seats and told me, 'Your grandfather died.' I asked if we should leave and he said, 'No; I want you to see the fight.' So we stayed, but it was a long subway ride home that night."

Years later, there would be a parallel to that moment. Andrew Golota was slated to fight Marcus Rhode in China on April 22, 2000. Steve arrived at his hotel in Gangzhou after a twenty-hour flight and was told to call home. His father, who was 84 years old, had died in his sleep. Albert offered to stay on site, but Jay Larkin (then the head of Showtime Boxing) told him, "No, we'll fly in the Colonel [Bob Sheridan]." So Steve went back to the airport without unpacking and took a long flight home that reminded him of a long subway ride home 32 years earlier. That was one of only two fights that he has missed during his nineteen years at Showtime. The other was when his mother died.

Marv Albert, of course, served for years as NBC's blow-by-blow boxing announcer. Al Albert filled a similar role for USA Network's Tuesday Night Fights. Steve first moved behind the microphone for the sweet science in the mid-1980s when promoter Dan Duva asked him to do blow-by-blow commentary for a syndicated television series called Super Fight of the Month. Most of the shows were club fights promoted by Main Events in Totowa, New Jersey, with a sprinkling of higher-profile cards in Atlantic City.

"I found the sport fascinating," Steve says. "But I didn't think it was going to be a big part of my future. And never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would become the dominant sport in my career. Then, in 1987, I got a call from Jim Spence. He was producing Showtime Boxing, which had begun a year earlier. Showtime was experimenting with different announcers, but each of them had other obligations and Spence wanted someone he could use on a regular basis. They threw me into the fire with the second fight between Evander Holyfield against Dwight Muhammad Qawi [on December 5, 1987], and I've been doing it ever since."

Albert has been behind the microphone to call the action for myriad legendary fighters and countless memorable fights. He was at ringside when Julio Cesar Chavez defeated Greg Haugen in Mexico City in front of 130,000 screaming fans and also when Nigel Benn pummelled Gerald McClellan into submission in London. He has supplied lyrics to the music of boxing for more than two hundred telecasts and three hundred world championship fights. Looking back on them all, the two fights between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson stand out in his mind

"Tyson-Holyfield I was one of the all-time great fights," Steve says. "It was everything that you could possibly hope for in a championship match-up. I remember walking from my room to the arena for the second fight with great anticipation but also thinking that Tyson was going to do something weird that night. When the first bite happened, I was at an angle where I couldn't see it. All I saw was Holyfield jumping up and down like a madman. [Color commentator] Ferdie Pacheco filled in the blanks. Then it happened again and Tyson was disqualified."

"The atmosphere was surreal," Albert continues. "There was a cacophony of sound in the arena. After the telecast, we heard about shooting on the floor of the casino. I didn't want to hang out with anybody. I didn't want to go out for dinner. I went back to my room and lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time. It was an awful thing that Tyson had done, barbaric, disgusting. I felt sullied and dirty. I remember asking myself, 'What am I doing, being part of this? How much lower can a sport go?' Then I started replaying everything that had happened in my head. It was all a blur. I asked myself, 'Did I say the right things? Did I embarrass myself or the network?' I didn't sleep much that night and, to this day, I've never watched a tape of the fight. I've seen still photos and excerpts of the tape but never the whole fight. The one saving grace was, Marv called me up the day after the fight. He's usually my toughest critic. And Marv said to me, 'Congratulations; you've arrived.'"

No profile of Steve Albert would be complete without elaboration upon his relationship with Marv.

Marv Albert is sportscasting royalty. In his mid-twenties, he was the radio voice of the New York Knicks and Rangers. Then he moved to television, calling NFL Football, college basketball, and boxing for NBC. Later, he became the TV voice of the Knicks and, eventually, the NBA Championship Series.

"Clearly, my career was helped by Marv's career before me," Steve acknowledges. "Having him as a brother was like growing up in broadcasting school. From time to time, he'd critique my work. He still does. He's very honest, and I take what he says to heart. Probably, the thing I gained most from him, and this goes back to our father, is his work ethic."

"But there were also drawbacks to being Marv's brother." Steve continues. "It led to high expectations and put a lot of pressure on me. Maybe the best way to say it is that being Marv's brother opened some doors for me, but I still had to walk through those doors and make it on my own. You can't fake it once you get behind the microphone. Either you can do the job or you can't."

And then there's the matter of Marv's much-publicized "sex scandal." In 1997, he was charged with forcible sodomy for allegedly assaulting a 42-year-old woman with whom he'd had a longterm consensual sexual relationship. The complainant appeared to be motivated by anger that Marv was ending their involvement to build a stable committed relationship with the woman who would ultimately become his wife. The case led to a lurid media frenzy highlighted by a series of embarrassing revelations about Marv's sex life. Ultimately, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor and was given a 12-month suspended sentence. Hours after his guilty plea, he was dismissed by NBC. At the same time, he resigned under pressure from MSG Network. Everything he had worked for in broadcasting was gone.

"I felt terrible for Marv when it happened," Steve says. "Professionally, he lost everything. But he weathered the storm, remained calm through the entire ordeal, and took it all in stride with great class. We hung out together and watched ballgames together. The whole family pulled together and supported him. That's what families are for. And at the same time, Marv mellowed out and added new dimensions to his life. Having been in the media world, he understood why the media circus was happening. He didn't like it, but he understood that sex and celebrity sells newspapers and makes people turn on their television sets. He was the flavor of the month. Eventually the circus moved on to something else; and after that, he came back. Professionally, Marv is stronger and busier and better now than he ever was. He still has this great enthusiasm and fire for sports. He loves the life he has and he has never been happier than he is now."

Meanwhile, Steve keeps doing what he has been doing for Showtime for the past nineteen years.

"He's an all-around great guy," says Jay Larkin. "There are no temper tantrums, no prima donna nonsense, nothing Machiavellian or conniving about him. Steve is the consummate partner, very supportive of whoever he's working with. The only thing that people have to worry about when they're with him is doing their job. And he approaches every fight without a hint of bias. No one has ever accused Steve of favoring the house fighter."

Al Bernstein (Steve's current television partner) is in accord and adds, "I've worked with a lot of very good commentators, but none of them prepared for a telecast as exhaustively as Steve. He researches; he studies; he has more notes at ringside than you can begin to imagine. He's the best-prepared commentator I've ever seen."

In the days leading up to a fight, Albert watches tapes of the fighters he's about to commentate upon for hours on end, even if he has called their fights in the past. He makes up charts and reads dozens of articles, both online and in print publications.

"I think my preparation is my greatest strength as a commentator," Steve says. "I'm not as technically savvy about what goes on in the ring as Al Bernstein is. That's why the expert analyst is there. But I do the best I can to bring the information I need to a telecast. Part of what motivates me is fear of embarrassment. Live TV is a risky business; you're operating without a net. So the preparation is a necessary evil. It's arduous and laborious; but when the bell rings, it pays off. I might use only ten percent of what I have, but I never know which ten percent it will be until I'm on the air."

"This is not brain surgery that I do," Albert says in closing. "There are many more important things in life than the outcome of a ballgame or prizefight. But sports is a great escape. It's a departure from the hard realities of everyday life, and I like to think that I contribute to people's entertainment. I know, I enjoy sports. I'm happiest when I'm behind the microphone, and I learn something new every time that I'm behind the microphone for a fight."

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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