Thursday, July 29, 2010
The phrase “They don’t make ’em like they used to” is clichéd, trite and often wrongheaded. That said, there will likely never be another NBA broadcaster like Johnny Most. He was the radio voice of the Boston Celtics for almost 38 years, starting in 1953.
Some younger fans might not know Most by name, but they’ve definitely heard his greatest-hits reel from any reputable NBA history documentary: “Havlicek stole the ball!;” “Bird follows his own shot;” and “Now there’s a steal by Bird, lays in underneath to D.J. …”
Of course, the words were secondary to Most’s inimitable voice: a smoker’s rasp twinned with the Runyonesque cadence of his native New York. Listening to Most do a full game is a pure pleasure, especially if the game turned out to be a classic like the Celtics’ 140-139 victory over the Washington Bullets in double overtime on Nov. 7, 1987.
This was Most at his best. It was Boston’s second game of the season, but Most broadcast it like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. That’s even more amazing when you remember that he was well into his third decade of broadcasting. Most’s rat-a-tat play-by-play was perfect for the crispness of the Larry Bird-era Celtics. The game also had three clutch shots in the waning seconds of regulation and the two overtimes, two by Bird and one by the Bullets’ Darrell Walker, which brought out the histrionics in Most.
Most had a dexterity with language that is altogether different from the garrulous slickers behind the mic these days. In the opening minutes, Most called Bullets rookie Mugsey Bogues “a noted plagiarist, he can really pilfer the basketball.” Somehow that came off as humorous rather than obnoxious.
Most is credited with adding the phrase “stop and pop” to the basketball lexicon. Other catchphrases of Most’s never really took, like when he said Bernard King was “fiddlin’ and diddlin’ ” with the basketball on the wing.
Most was also beloved for his humor. When bantering with partner Glenn Ordway about the sparse Washington crowd, Most quipped that “it takes awhile to get here from Europe.” When a referee blew his whistle for physical play under the basket, Most said it “would break a city ordinance if that foul was called on (Bullets center) Moses Malone.”
That also speaks to Most’s blatant lack of impartiality. A broadcaster might be excoriated for that these days, but it was almost expected of a curmudgeon like Most. He was tireless in criticizing officials and the Celtics’ opponents. It was “an injustice” when no foul was called on Moses Malone down low. Bullets guard Jeff Malone was “a good Stanislavski” for selling a foul.
Most never really incorporated statistics into his broadcasts, not surprising because he worked in the pre-digital age when instant numbers weren’t readily available. Who knew that Bird posted a 47-8-7 or Moses Malone had a 32-13 in this game? But Most was great at calling the grittier action on the court: the rugged picks, which players were elbowing each other or who had a solid box-out.
Most’s greatest attribute was probably channeling the feelings of a fan. When the excitement hit, Most’s cigarette-addled voice always hit the upper register. After Bird hit a running three-pointer to tie the game at 119 with seven seconds left in regulation, Most excitedly declared the game a “wing-dingler.” He even mustered some excitement to call the 20-footer that Walker sank to send the game into overtime, although with just a prosaic “And he hits it!” Another running three-pointer by Bird to win the game at the end of the second overtime left Most shouting, “Can you believe it?” over and over.
Again, that was more than enough enthusiasm for the second game of the season. It’s hard to believe that just a few years later, on Oct. 10, 1990, Most would announce his retirement. A streetwise World War II veteran calling basketball games for 38 years, encompassing Cousy, Russell, Havlicek and Bird? The only thing you can say is that they don’t make ’em like they used to.