There are certain voices of every generation that rekindle someone’s youthful visions of sports. Those men and women are greatly influenced by those who came before them, even if they don’t realize it. You can rattle off the names of legendary sportscasters because they’re the textbook definitions of how to call (or maybe not call) a contest: Mel Allen, Vin Scully, Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and countless more.
Yet, the story of arguably the most innovative sportscaster of all time, Marty Glickman, is virtually unknown to anyone under a certain age. This will hopefully change Monday night as HBO Sports presents a rather informative documentary, “Glickman.” The first documentary from writer, producer and director James L. Freedman – who actually produced a late-night radio show for Glickman as a high school senior – provides insights on the voice that did a lot more than coin the basketball term “swish.”
There’s no doubt that it would surprise viewers under a certain age (say, 35) that Glickman was not just a former athlete — track star, Olympian and elite running back who preceded a few legends at Syracuse — but the first former athlete to make the transition to sportscaster. For those above that age, it’s a walk down memory lane, no matter which sport tickled your fancy.
Interwoven with interviews of Glickman through the latter years of his life – Glickman passed away in 2001 – are insights from a who’s who in media, sports and entertainment: David Stern, Marv Albert, Mike Breen, Bob Costas, Jim Brown, Frank Gifford, Bill Bradley, Larry King, New York Giants co-owner John Mara and even legendary comedian Jerry Stiller. Each shares his own anecdote on Glickman’s groundbreaking lingo for the game of basketball, the direct influence on broadcasting styles and surprisingly affable demeanor in the grittiness of a sports-crazed New York City.
While the entire documentary is thoughtful and informative, there are three notes from the film that stood out about both Glickman and sports play-by-play over the years.
ONE – At the time for reasons that may not make much sense today – unless we’re talking about a Craig James/Mike Leach situation – Glickman’s credibility took a hit as the 1950-51 college basketball point-shaving scandal rocked the city and nation. Because Glickman was the voice of basketball at Madison Square Garden, he believed that by association, the ruins laid by the City College of New York program laid at his feet as well.
TWO – Though he was the longtime radio voice of the New York Knicks and veteran TV announcer as the NBA solidified itself as a sporting attraction, he was passed over as its first true national voice when the league signed its first TV contract with NBC. There were two possible reasons that were given: that he was “too New York” for a national audience and the three non-player faces of the league would have been Jewish (commissioner Maurice Podoloff, head of publicity Haskell Cohen – who came up with the league’s All-Star Game to drum up interest in basketball after the aforementioned point-shaving scandal – and Glickman). Both critiques/forms of discrimination still hold true to some people, but the latter came time and time again, even in a city and business Glickman was almost a saint in.
THREE – His greatest regret was not speaking up for Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a former Syracuse teammate, when it was revealed that he was African-American before the team would play at the University of Maryland. Because Maryland was a segregation state, integrated Northern teams either had to sit their black players or forfeit. Though he knew what it was like to be denied a chance to perform because of his heritage (not able to run at the 1936 Olympics because he was Jewish), Glickman did not speak up for Sidat-Singh because he feared being blamed for the potential forfeit. Sidat-Singh eventually won his wings as a pilot among the Tuskegee Airmen but died during a training mission in 1943.
Ironically using his verbose and heavily descriptive style, Costas said what made Glickman so good was that he not only translated being a former elite athlete to help paint the picture for radio listeners, but he did so in the simplest of manners. There’s a clip of an interview of Glickman where he joked that he disliked how basketball announcers described dribbling:
A dribble is a dribble. There’s a phrase they use now, “He puts it on the floor.” Well for me, putting it on the floor means taking the basketball and putting it on the floor! He dribbles it right-handed along the right sideline, and there you see it, “He dribbles it along the right sideline.”
There’s a history lesson in every HBO Sports documentary, though few of them discuss stories we haven’t already learned over the years. “Glickman” is one of those very few. How the kid once known as “the Flatbush Flash” became an understated legend in sports broadcasting is a story worth your time.