Marc Zumoff signed a three-year contract with NBC Sports Philadelphia, to remain the 76ers’ play-by-play voice, in 2018, and it was then that he and his wife, Debbie, began to discuss when he might leave the only job he had ever wanted. The prospect did not sadden him, even last Tuesday, when he made the official announcement that he was retiring. He is 65, and he wanted to leave while he was still at the top of his game, while he still possessed the same vitality and viability that he did when he started all those years ago, lest he begin misidentifying players and reacting too slowly to the action and making the mistakes that older broadcasters can tend to make.
So, as the 2020-21 season approached, Zumoff came to accept that it would likely be his last. Because of the pandemic, he was no longer traveling with the team, no longer taking road trips to Oakland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, or even short ones to Boston or New York. He and Debbie had moved to Margate, and it took him just an hour to drive to and from south Philadelphia, no traffic to fight, less time away, and the transition to the next stage of his life grew easier for it. For his 27 years calling Sixers games, he had never been offered a national job, and he wouldn’t have been tempted to take one even if he had been. He’d never had any desire to work anywhere or do anything else. When it was time to walk away, there was no hesitation in his first step.
“There are only 30 jobs like this in the entire universe, and I ended up broadcasting the games for the team I grew up rooting for,” he said in a phone interview. “I had reached, in my mind, the pinnacle of my profession.”
Working on a dream
Picture it. Just picture it: Marc Zumoff in his adolescence, chubby and awkward and so self-conscious, growing up on a cul-de-sac of twin-style homes in northeast Philadelphia. His mother, Sylvia, is a homemaker. She sits with him every night after school, helping him with his homework. His father, Bruce, is a salesman. He goes door-to-door, selling home goods, and Marc sometimes accompanies him, walking with him all day in freezing cold or pouring rain, learning a work ethic.
He spends much of his summers alone, playing basketball on the telephone-pole hoop outside his house, because his parents can’t afford to send him to camp with his friends. He spends his winters immersed in the Sixers, in the exploits of Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, watching every game on his family’s television, calling them to himself, sometimes cranking up the volume so that the static from the fuzzy UHF feed sounds like a crowd’s roar, sometimes turning the knob all the way to the left, until the television is silent, so that he can hear what he sounds like and imagine that all of Philadelphia is listening to him.
Some of us have been that kid, too.
It is one thing, though, to dream of becoming the Sixers’ play-by-play announcer. It is something else to know that you have reached the point in your life and career that you are capable of becoming the Sixers’ play-by-play announcer, that you possess the seasoning and the talent and the knowledge to thrive in the role, that you really can do it. Zumoff needed 13 years as the team’s pregame host, on PRISM. He needed to bend the ears of Julius Erving and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and Billy Cunningham and Don Nelson and Moses Malone before and after he interviewed them on camera.
He needed the friendship of his longtime producer, Tony Irving, a north Philadelphia native and NBA enthusiast, who had played basketball as Zumoff never had and who, before he died of a heart attack at 41 in 1999, gave him a feel and appreciation for the game as Zumoff had never experienced it: on the playgrounds, shirts vs. skins, winners stay on, competing as if your life depended on the game’s outcome because you didn’t want to give up the court. Only then, in 1994, could Marc Zumoff say he was ready …
… except the Sixers weren’t. They won 24 games in Zumoff’s first season as their play-by-play man, 18 in his second, 22 in his third – the worst portion of a stretch of seven consecutive losing seasons, of watching Shawn Bradley chow down on cheesecake to gain weight only to throw it up, of seeing the team use first-round picks on Sharone Wright and B.J. Tyler, of knowing the team couldn’t and wouldn’t attract any decent free agents, of hoping the Sixers would someday draft a savior.
“I’ve learned over the years that I’m not responsible for the product on the floor,” he said. “Whether it’s good or bad, I’m just there as a front-row eyewitness to bring it all to the fans. remembering all of that, I did what I had to do.”
So what did he do? He concentrated on new players who joined the team and young players who improved, and he could tell the stories and revel in the greatness of the Hall of Famers who came to town just once or twice a year: Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Malone and Stockton. And after that savior – Allen Iverson – finished his 10-year tenure here, Zumoff could draw on the experience of those lean years when Sam Hinkie initiated “The Process” and tore everything down for the sake of building it back up.
And maybe all those long and hard seasons were the most valuable of all for him as a broadcaster, because he and Sixers fans were going through them together for 82 nights a year, because he wasn’t just the team’s voice – he was their voice. And maybe that shared experience of enduring all that losing and hopelessness made the relative success that the Sixers have achieved over the last quarter-century that much sweeter, the bond between him and those fans that much stronger.
“If fans can hear that I’m frustrated or that I’m disappointed or that I wish things were better, I think they find security in that,” Zumoff said. “’Oh, you know what? I’m not the only one out here suffering. Here’s someone on the front lines who is verbalizing my frustration and my disappointment.’ By the same token, when Seth Curry makes a big three in the midst of a run in a key playoff game and I’m out there rejoicing, they’re rejoicing as well.
“What it boils down to is that they’ve invited me into their home for the purposes of watching a team they’re very passionate about, and they want to know, whether it’s bad or it’s good, when they’re frustrated or they’re elated, I’m there with them, providing a soundtrack that reflects all of that.”
‘This was nirvana for me’
What now for him, with so much time open to him? He wants to read more, particularly about soccer and politics. He wants to cook more. He wants to take up the flute, which he hasn’t played since eighth grade, and Spanish, which he hasn’t spoken since ninth grade. He wants to travel with Debbie.
He wants to speak to elementary, middle, and high school students, especially the ones who are just like he was, the “ugly ducklings,” to let them know that it’s OK not to be part of the cool crowd, to inspire them to follow their own paths. And he will turn on his television 82 nights a year and watch every Sixers game … not as their voice, but as the fan he has always been. “This was nirvana for me,” Marc Zumoff said. This was a hell of a ride for a kid, all alone in a cul-de-sac, who got to live the dream.