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The Voice Has Come In For A Landing

Photo courtesy of the Sixers

Why is it that you remember the voice that narrates the play as much as the iconic play, itself? When you search YouTube for a rewind of the moment that is embedded in your memory, you do it subconsciously to feel the emotion of the broadcaster’s call of that play, more than anything. As a child, you recited the signature scripts popularized by that play-by-play sportscaster as you mimic the moment that made you fall in love with whatever game is yours. It’s because without the call delivered by the narrator, the play, itself, blends in with every other play. You don’t need to do much investigation on the internet to figure out that Marc Zumoff didn’t allow the popularity of his voice to engulf him in self-adoration. 

Just take a look at the replies and quotation retweets of the announcement made by NBC Sports Philadelphia this week revealing Zumoff’s retirement. After 27 seasons touching four different decades, Zumoff is turning off the microphone as the television narrator of the Philadelphia 76ers:

Make no mistake, Zu’s gift is his voice. But, his identity is his humility and kindness to colleagues and fans and his love for his friends and family. The man behind the microphone is why this feels like a eulogy celebrating the life of Marc Zumoff. He is far from deceased, though. In fact, he’s retiring because he wants to live. So, this is not a eulogy celebrating a man’s life. Rather, this one is celebrating his career. After devoting 27 years of his life to calling Sixers games, you can’t do much more than applaud and thank Zumoff for his services to you, your friends, and your families on the coldest of winter nights across the tristate area.

Naturally, you can’t help but feel a sense of sadness, though. That sadness speaks to the type of man Zumoff was around the community. Philanthropic events were just one avenue of Zumoff’s kindness. But, the lasting touch of his humility was the way he treated you when you walked up to him on the street. Before I ever knew I would travel a path into sports media, I had a few random encounters with the legendary narrator. The most notable crossing of paths took place on a freezing cold Sunday in Minnesota back in February of 2018. I think you can guess the occasion.

Zumoff wasn’t trying to cover his identity in a public setting under all the layers of clothes. Rather, he was attempting to protect himself from the unbearable temperatures of the Minnesota climate at that time of year. Nonetheless, I could not resist the urge to pursue him–phone in hand–to request a photo. Zumoff took the time from his walk into US Bank Stadium to pose for a photo with another random youngster from the greater Philadelphia area. He even added authenticity, cracking a smile long enough to allow the frigid air to burn his lips. Zumoff, in all of his local fame, did that with countless other observers over the course of his career. That humility didn’t evaporate once he clocked in for work, either. The evidence of that is reflected in the outpouring of thanks and congratulations expressed by his colleagues across social media platforms.

So, with this column, I deliver to you some of the calls that made Marc Zumoff the irreplaceable voice that he was.

HE WON THE GAME!

They say that the media must remain neutral in their commentary on their topics of expertise so as to not jeopardize credibility. Ironically, his inability to hide his desire to see the Sixers win on a night-to-night basis was what made him so great. Perhaps he never tried to hide it, either. Rather, he was just being his authentic self. The raw emotion punched ears everywhere as he delivered the Sixers’ best moments with unrivaled passion and excitement. Take this iconic play by Allen Iverson, for example:

Zumoff’s inflection had a way of synchronizing with the heartbeats of Sixers fans everywhere. The fear of defeat could turn into jubilation as you blinked your eyes.

Got It

The voice also had a way of delivering a gut punch that packed the power of a thousand fists. You didn’t need to see Zumoff to paint an image of how he felt from the broadcast booth. In the biggest moments of games, phrases as simple as “Got it” when non-Sixers connected on field goals were enough to imagine Zumoff buckling over in despair with his hands on his knees. This game-tying triple from Allen Iverson is an accurate demonstration:

The thing about Zumoff was that he never over-did or under-sold a call. An outsider could tune in from across the country and accurately gauge the joy or pain of Sixers fans just by listening to Zumoff’s tone. 

“YES! OH, YES!”

There was perhaps no one in the business better suited for moments in which David beat Goliath. Zumoff’s signature raw “YES!” call iconized Andre Iguodala’s buzzer-beater against the Los Angeles Lakers around 1 AM EST on a March night in 2009.  

Zumoff’s ability to use the right call at the right moment forged his identity with Sixers fans across the world. “YES!” was so simple. Yet, it captured the image of viewers catapulting from their beds and couches in excitement when the Sixers executed down the stretch of close games.

One of Zumoff’s gifts was his natural ability to accurately depict the urgency of the play and then inflect it into exhilaration in the same second. He had a way of always relaying the necessary degree of drama to capture the moment. Allow this narration of Andre Iguodala’s game-winning jumper against the Magic in the 2009 playoffs to demonstrate: 

The sudden jump in his tone as the ball traveled to the basket dragged viewers across their floors. It pushed their noses up to their television screens to make sure they correctly saw the outcome of Iguodala’s shot. When it found the nylon netting, his relief shattered speakers all over the Delaware Valley.

“Show ya luv, Philly! The Sixers win!”

The saddest part of Zumoff’s call coming to an end is that there were not more moments like this one. There was never one in which the night ended with a Larry O’Brien trophy at center court. The Sixers had many inconsequential playoff moments. Zumoff was the loan voice who could deliver an unintelligible call that was easily translatable through the power and authenticity of his emotion. It wasn’t that he intentionally made it difficult to understand what had happened. It was that the noise elsewhere drowned out his narration through the microphone.

But, you didn’t need a word-for-word translation to understand that CJ Watson’s half-court prayer missed the mark, sending the 8-seed Sixers to the second round of the playoffs in 2012:

Perhaps one of Zumoff’s greatest strengths was that he was never satisfied with his résumé. Even during the ugliest of Process years, Zumoff delivered audio with professionalism and care. He adapted to the new age of youthful fans, adopting phrases that were culturally popular so as to resonate with his younger audience.

From an observer’s perspective, that was Zumoff’s secret sauce. He balanced raw, natural emotion with intelligent, understandable commentary. That blend shaped his legend and forged staying power in a highly-selective business. Zumoff might identify himself as a Sixers fan. Maybe he wouldn’t. But, his gift was his ability to capture the game with its proper tone. That tone was the personification of what Philadelphians felt as they took in each and every second of Sixers basketball.

In a way, Zumoff’s greatness is a blessing for the next voice. The objective is not to fill impossibly large shoes. Rather,  it is to strive to be the best version of your unique self as you narrate the game. Judging by the reaction I’ve seen to Zumoff’s retirement and the way he carried himself throughout his career, that would be the way he wants the job done.