McCoy: “NBA announcers have to be courtside, not in the rafters”
You won’t hear any criticism of Al McCoy. He's not only been an institution in Phoenix for more than 50 years, he's also had the respect of the NBA since joining the Suns in 1972. Despite his lofty dean-like status , Al is always welcoming and encouraging to new announcers. Cockiness is never part of his makeup.
In the team’s early years, McCoy handled more than just play-by-play. He had responsibility for ad sales, production and station negotiations. Reminiscing, Al says the Suns were then made up of 8 or 10 employees, now it’s something like 200.
McCoy is a throwback in many ways, equally as comfortable broadcasting sporting events as he is hosting a music show or talking up longtime sponsor Sanderson Ford. Ask him about Harry James or Jo Stafford and he will share war stories of yesteryear when he played the piano at nightclubs to put meals on his table.
And for someone born in 1933, he sounds like a man thirty year his junior.
Beloved in the Valley of the Sun, the McCoy name now lives in perpetuity. At a home game in 2017, the team recognized his five decades behind the microphone, installing him in the Suns’ ring of honor. The crowd roared when the name McCoy was affixed theatrically to the upper facade.
He arrived in Phoenix in the 50s, did disc jockey work, called games for minor league baseball’s Phoenix Giants, football and basketball for Arizona State and yes, hockey for the Phoenix Roadrunners of the Western Hockey League. It was then that a young man from Northern California knocked on his door, looking for a break.
Mike Lange badly wanted to call hockey on radio. Lange came to Phoenix with nothing in his pocket and a love for hockey in his heart. McCoy took him under his wing, initially had him do stats for the broadcasts, then color and finally play-by-play. Lange later moved on to fame in Pittsburgh where he’s been with the Penguins since 1974 and has been honored by Hockey’s Hall of Fame. Lange credits McCoy for giving him his first break and launching his career.
Al himself was honored by Basketball’s Hall of Fame for his distinguished broadcasting career. Al penned an autobiography, The Real McCoy, that reads in the soft and folksy twang, redolent of his farm-town roots in Iowa.
Basketball keeps broadcasters young. ESPN’s Hubie Brown turns 85 in September and the exceptional Ralph Lawler of the Clippers will be 80 later this month.
Al turns 85 on April 26th. His play-by-play call is still sharp, although he carps, and rightfully so, about the impossible vantages radio announcers are now assigned around NBA arenas.
Al shared thoughts with me recently:
ESPN occasionally has its play-by-play announcers in the studio instead of having them travel to the venue. Given the poor broadcast locations NBA teams give radio today, would you prefer the studio?
NO WAY! The NBA has to be broadcast live from a courtside position, not from a studio or up in the rafters. To do the proper broadcast and be on top of the game you need to be courtside.
You’ve completed your 46th season as the Voice of the Suns. Your voice is in fine fettle. Traveling an NBA schedule though is exhausting for a man half your age. When broadcasters Vin Scully, Ken Harrelson, Bob Uecker and Slick Leonard got older, they reduced the number of road games they broadcast. How much longer do you want to call a full schedule? Have you thought of retirement?
My agreement with the Suns this past season was to have an option to miss a road trip or a game but my goal is to always call all games home and away. I don’t know what retirement means - don’t feel ready for it.
For years and years, you simulcast, doing TV and radio. Do you miss it? Can simulcasts work today?
The Suns did simulcasts for many years. In those years, I would often check other teams’ telecasts and I felt that our simulcasts were better than most. Fans liked them because we talked about the game (to serve the radio audience) not about where we were playing golf or going out to dinner. However, now that former players are doing color, simulcasts probably would not work. (No NBA team does simulcasts anymore.)
Radio is a play-by-play medium. In a world of short attention spans, does radio need color commentators or are they extraneous?
Doing games on radio, I like having a color guy. I think that hearing just one voice on a nearly three hour broadcast is a little much. Analysts provide another voice and help on pre and post programming. I have worked both with and without an analyst and would prefer to have another voice with me.
Five decades in the NBA! From 1972 to today, the game has changed drastically. What are your thoughts?
The biggest change is that teams today draft players out of daycare centers. It has effected both the pro and college game. Not for the better. Also, the 3 point shot has been the biggest change in how the game is played.
From John MacLeod to Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns have had some good coaches. Which of them did you enjoy being around most?
With the Suns, I have enjoyed a great group of coaches. In addition to MacLeod and Fitzsimmons, we’ve had Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry.
You’ve had some colorful players starting with Charles Barkley. Who were your favorites?
The Sun have had some of the very best. Where do you start? The original Sun, Dick Van Arsdale. After his playing days, Dick worked with me on the broadcasts for 15 years. We had Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins, one of the league’s greatest. Then where do you stop? More Hall of Famers, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Dan Majerle. Then, yes, Sir Charles Barkley.
Other players come to mind, Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers. I could go on and on.
You’re a bit of a renaissance man. You’ve hosted music shows. You play the piano and you’ve done all sports. When you were a kid, the NBA was hardly an embryo. What sport did you dream of broadcasting and is there anything else in your long career you wish you had done?
When I was growing up on a farm in Iowa, baseball was the big game on radio. The first announcer that I followed was Bert Wilson, the radio voice of the Cubs. I also listened to Cubs’ and Bears’ broadcaster Jack Brickhouse and of course Harry Caray in St. Louis. I followed them all; Don Dunphy on those great championship fights and the dramatic Bill Stern. Yes, I was a radio buff, lived by it and followed sports and the announcers who broadcast them.
Who was the better clarinetist Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw?
My professional goal was to become a sports broadcaster. My second choice was maybe to be a singer with one of my favorite big bands: Harry James (trumpet), Woody Herman (sax or clarinet) or Tommy Dorsey (trombone). Who knows? You might never heard about Frank Sinatra!!
As for Goodman and Shaw, I think Benny was probably the better player. Oh, Artie Shaw had his way with beautiful women. That might give him the edge!! (Shaw was married eight times).