Work at any job for long enough and you’re bound to find someone who doesn’t like you. It’s human nature, that the grind of any job, day after day, year after year, loss after humiliating loss will make someone look at you sideways. An eye roll. Something.
Not if you’re Marc Zumoff or Alaa Abdelnaby, the tandem tasked with calling Sixers games for CSN Philly. There is not a person in Wells Fargo Center who has a bad word to say about either. Not one. And there’s good reason for it.
Standing courtside with Abdelnaby before Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets was a bit like walking around a small town with the mayor. Standing at 6 feet, 10 inches tall, the second-year color analyst for the Sixers has a personality as big as the gym. He’s magnetic, and everyone from the team owners to the arena ushers made sure to shake his hand, pat his back, and get a smile back.
“I’m loving it. I’m loving every minute of it,” he told me in the tunnel leading back to the Sixers locker room, as we ducked off the court to avoid the blaring pre-game music and the bevy of passers-by who wanted a few seconds of his time. “Because I know, as a former player, what these guys go through and I know how hard it is. I also know in the world of what we do — TV broadcasting — this is a dream job.
“There’s stability here,” he continued. “There is as opposed to, say, working for a CBS, where you’re paid to be objective you’re paid to be right down the middle, you’re paid to be emotionless. Here is the exact opposite. I get to see these guys and be around these guys and know these guys, but we root for them, because I think they deserve it.”
The comment came with another pat on the back from a player walking past. Or maybe a trainer this time. It was hard to keep track.
We spoke about the balance between being a fan of the team — ”I wouldn’t root for a bunch of bad guys. It’s hard to do” — and calling the game fairly. Abdelnaby, who starred at Duke in college (he was in the NBA for a few years already before Christian Latettner’s famed shot at the Spectrum) said he’s called Blue Devils games before, worked North Carolina games as well, and he explained his ability to maintain impartiality in his work, while still being a fan of the team.
“It’s easy to be objective, because I loved basketball more than— before I ever loved Duke basketball. I loved basketball before I met the Sixers guys. The love of the game is paramount.
“I see those guys later after I say something, and nobody’s ever said anything to me about being wrong. Because they know I don’t have an agenda about going after them for any old reason. It’s more often than not justified.”
Reasons for optimism
It’s been a tough few seasons for the Sixers, to say the least, and as Zumoff joined our conversation outside the Nets locker room pre-game, we talked about how difficult this season has been to not only call the games in a season that had such promise, but to serve as the de facto voice of the team every night, while fans were taken on a roller coaster ride nobody could enjoy.
“[It’s] frustrating,” Abdelnaby admitted. “I think the thing that frustrates Sixers fans, or any observer — and I count myself as a Sixers fan now too — you got almost teased. You got a glimpse of what the potential for this team might be going forward and then it got, you know, pulled away.”
“I think there is plenty of reason for optimism,” Zumoff offered. “When you think about — we’ve talked about it any number of times on the air — let’s talk about next season. Good health notwithstanding: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric who seems to be the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year. You have a young kid in TLC [Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot] who is improving, Robert Covington who is on the verge of potentially becoming a very good NBA player.”
“Potentially two picks,” Abdelnaby chimed in. “Two high picks.”
“Correct,” Zumoff replied without missing a beat, the same rapport the two share on the air. “So you have that, and free agency. The Sixers are going to have more cap room than just about any other team, and whatever trades might happen. We are on the precipice.
“To me, as much fun as it would be to have a great team, and I think we will, it’s really fun to anticipate having a really good team and that’s the point where we are now, and that’s been a lot of fun.”
If Abdelnaby is the mayor, then Zumoff is the lifelong city councilman who has dedicated his life to public service. Because that’s what calling Sixers games must feel like at times. Zumoff became the halftime show host the year the Sixers won the NBA title in 1982-83 and was installed as the play-by-play announcer in the mid-90s. He’s seen his share of Sixers highs, but over the last 20 years, there have been far more lows. The Sixers haven’t had a winning record in six years. They haven’t won their division since 2000-01 — that’s 17 seasons ago — the year they lost in the NBA Finals. And through it all, frustrated or not, Zumoff remains optimistic.
“I’ve never forgotten the fact that I’m really lucky to be doing this,” he said. “That I’m a kid who grew up in Northeast Philly and this is what I always wanted to do, that is always my framework, the fact that I’m one of 30 guys who does this.
“That said, when you’re preparing [for a game like the Sixers-Nets] you’re saying to yourself, ‘here are two teams that are not going to make the playoffs, this is a dead end.’ But once you put on the headset. Once Alaa and I are engaged, the adrenaline and all the performance part of it kicks in and you totally forget about it. And you know that the players want to win, so you’re caught up in the competition and you hope, at the end of the night, you did a broadcast and, in the back of your mind you’re hoping that it was competitive and the Sixers won.”
Zumoff is recognized as one of the best in the business working today, not just in Philadelphia but around the NBA. Try to find someone to say something bad about Zumoff, and you can’t. Not in the basketball gym, not in the city, not in the league. His voice is not as synonymous with Philadelphia sports history as the likes of Harry Kalas, no, but Zumoff is a Philadelphia lifer, and wears that with pride — even in the years the basketball team hasn’t delivered.
This season has been, in many ways, yet another where the basketball team hasn’t delivered, so I asked what storyline has proven to be the biggest challenge from a coverage standpoint, game to game.
The Joel Embiid minutes restriction? His absence the second half of the season? Ben Simmons’ stop-and-start-and-stop health prognosis, Jahlil Okafor’s benching, Nerlens Noel’s benching or trade or…wow, this has been a really tough season. So what is it?
“Injuries. At least for me,” Abdelnaby offered. “You can imagine how frustrating it has been for Brett Brown. It seems like every time we come in the building from January on, there’s something else the team has had to deal with. We’ve had to adjust, whether it be our plan for the night’s game — our rundown for pre-game — because something new had just happened.
“So I think that’s gotta be the thing that, when I think back on it, sticks out in my mind. Just the rollercoaster, man. January at 10-and-5 and…it felt like a real team. And then the bottom falls out, to no one’s fault. You can’t blame Ben for being a slow healer. It is what it is. Joel gets hurt playing hard. It is what it is. But…you’re almost crestfallen. You’re thinking,” he said as he flashed a big smile as a reminder of happier days, “and it’s taken away from you. That’s emotionally hurtful.”
“Ironically we’re playing Brooklyn,” Zumoff added, just minutes before a D-League caliber Sixers roster gave up 141 points to the lowly Nets. “It was in Brooklyn after we won that game where Joel Embiid first talked about making the playoffs. And people laughed, but the thing that I said was you need someone to talk like that.
“Much like Jimmy Rollins talked about being a better team in the division than the New York Mets. You need someone to put it out there like that, and that got us all excited, until he got injured and then, to borrow Alaa’s words, we were crestfallen.”
Joel Embiid, the future & a championship era
— NBA (@NBA) January 28, 2017
Perhaps the word for this season, as Abdelnaby put it, is crestfallen. But there’s hope, after all, with a young roster this talented led by a generational player like Embiid might be. So I asked them, watching every game this year and seeing Embiid in just 31, with limited minutes in those, what’s a realistic goal for this franchise? Can this be a championship era?
“Not without Joel,” Abdelnaby cautioned. “But here’s the thing, even without Joel playing — God forbid he gets hurt — the pieces are there for us to be much better than people anticipated without Joel. We’ve won games this year where we walked out of the arena saying ‘wow, okay.’ It’s not just the guys out there, it’s the guys out there with the system they’re running, you know, getting into passing lanes, running down and getting easy buckets. Some enthusiastic, moment-building plays. That’s the way Brett Brown wants to play, so I think to some extent having Joel out of the lineup may allow Brett to do that more.
“So do you need Joel? Absolutely. You can’t do it without him, but I think we can still be very, very good even if he has some pitfalls along the way.
“Let me add this,” Zumoff said, “First of all, Joel has a chance to in some ways redefine his position. His ability to face up and handle the ball…and there was a play this year and Alaa knows exactly what I’m talking about and I don’t remember who it was against, but he filled the left wing, and it might as well have been James Worthy — one of the best players on the court, ever — I mean, it was scary. All of that said, all of that said, he’s developed this enticing game with very little basketball experience and he’s got all the capabilities of leadership and being galvanizing, which every team needs.
“Every team needs to know that there is someone there who is setting the tone, who is at the center of the team’s universe and he has all the makings to be that guy.
Brett Brown: Coach of the Year
“We want our style of play to mirror the personality of the city.”
Coach talks about culture ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/zDAYCGGbJE
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 30, 2017
I’ll admit I’ve been beating this drum for weeks, but — Tuesday’s loss notwithstanding — the signature characteristic of Brown’s Sixers this year is that they will not quit. To their own detriment, sometimes, they will not quit on games they have no business winning. For that, and for what he’s done with this group of players, should Brown be considered for NBA Coach of the Year?
“We were talking about culture, remember,” Abdelnaby said. “It was five or six weeks ago and we ended up winning a game we shouldn’t have won, or a game our fans didn’t want us to win and somebody…I was at the diner! And I’m walking through and some guy says to me, ‘when are we going to start losing?!’ And I said to him, the same thing we talked about last year, it’s a culture. You can’t just turn it on and off.
“Just like last year you couldn’t just hope to turn on the culture, I think right now that culture has been established and it’s hard to just say, ‘okay I’m going to relax now.’ He’s set the bar that high. And when you consider he hasn’t had a steady lineup all season long. Some people know who they have, he — You thought it’s bad for us when we come to the arena, imagine how bad it’s been for him.”
“Let me add parenthetically,” Zumoff unequivocally stated, “I would say he deserves it in the vein of a lifetime achievement award for the last four years, really.”
The Process…of picking a favorite Sixers nickname
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 30, 2017
Abdelnaby is one to drop a good nickname on a player, and the Sixers are certainly full of great nicknames, from The Process to The Homie Dario to my personal favorite for since-traded big man Ersan Ilyasova, The Professional. So what is Alaa’s favorite nickname on the team?
“Oooh, I like The Bus Driver,” he said. “We just haven’t heard enough of it this year because Jah’s kind of been up-and-down. Home Schoolin’. I kind of like that, because Richaun [Holmes] has been bringing it too. I can’t take full credit for that though, one of our cameramen and I were kibitzing about…I can’t take full credit.”
Zumoff did take full credit for his favorite nickname. “There was one phrase that, quite frankly I came up with, was ‘The Flight Brothers.’ That was when Iverson and…Larry Hughes were throwing alley-oops to each other. That was back in the day.”
Their favorite players to cover
Here it is. @TJMcConnell‘s winner.
Buckle up. pic.twitter.com/ZVFmD0r8gV
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 12, 2017
Let’s be real, in Abdelnaby’s time in Philly, the talent level has not been great, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if it took him a minute to share who his favorite player might be. But before I could finish the question, he cut me off with his answer.
“T.J. McConnell. Because he’s the one guy on the team — notwithstanding Joel, but you’ve got to give me I’ve only seen Jo for 31 games; if it was T.J.’s 31 and Joel’s 31 it would be Joel hands down — but T.J. brings it every night, he seems to get the most out of very little. He’s not the fastest, he’s not the strongest, he’s not the quickest guy with the ball, he doesn’t have the meanest handle, but i’d take 15 of him over every guy on the court.”
That makes sense from a guy who, himself, never had top-level NBA talent. Abdelnaby was a journeyman in the NBA, so he admitted that experience has allowed him to share perspective on what it’s like for a lot of the guys on the Sixers, fighting for a spot in the league.
“There are more relatable guys (to my career) because I don’t know what it’s like to be a 10-time All-Star. That wasn’t my role. I was a journeyman. I was a guy that tried to hang on to teams and bring what I could bring, so I know what it’s like to maybe next year not be in the league.
“I see what these guys are going through. Let’s say, right now we’re not playing for the record, because I think if anything this team is trying to not win as many games so they can get a better lottery pick. They won’t say that, and nor should they. But the players can’t play that way. The players gotta play for a job. And I know what that’s like.”
Zumoff has a bit more Sixers perspective, so rather than ask his favorite player on the current team, I asked about his favorite since he’s been covering the team.
“And you can’t say me,” Abdelnaby chimed.
“Those were a magical three games,” I quipped.
“Oh, man,” he said, “those were a magical 10 days.”
“We got stories from those 10 days,” Zumoff joked.
“Yes I do,” Abdelnaby laughed. “Yes I do.”
Answering earnestly, Zumoff said, “you’d almost have to qualify it because I did halftimes for 13 years. To that point, my first year was the championship year in ‘82-83, so you could start to review that. But of course I’m a lifelong fan before that. I go back to the first year, when they came here from Syracuse. I could go back to like Hal Greer, Wilt Chamberlain and those guys.
“As the play-by-play guy, going back 23 years, it would have to be Allen Iverson, only because I think he loved playing more than anybody love doing anything they were passionate about.
“Sure there was the ‘practice’ rant and that sort of thing,” he admitted, “but when it came to ‘it’s time to play’ he would do anything to play. He played hurt, he played ill, and he played with a passion that will always endear him to Sixer fans.”