PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 15: Marc Zumoff is seen before the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Philadelphia 76ers on January 15, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
It was the late ‘60s, and everything was on the line for the 76ers. They’d turn to stars Hal Greer and Wilt Chamberlain to get them the bucket they needed, and a young Marc Zumoff would make the call: “Greer to Chamberlain, Chamberlain hook shot, gooooood!”
Except, Zumoff, had no idea whether or not Chamberlain had made his shot. He didn’t even know if he’d taken it or so much as received a pass from Greer. In those days—long before ESPN and NBC Sports Philly—Sixers games were only occasionally broadcast on TV. So instead of watching the game, a middle-school-aged Zumoff would turn his TV to channel 8, then nothing but static. The future Sixers play-by-play man would make up the events of the game in his head, call the plays into a tape recorder and then turn up the volume on the static to simulate crowd noise.
The man who’s affectionately known as “Zoo,” admits that this routine was “kind of geeky.” Maybe so, but his obsession with the 76ers and broadcasting eventually led him to a gig with the team in 1983. This past season, he celebrated 25 years as the team’s play-by-play announcer, a stretch during which he won an astounding 19 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards for best sports play-by-play broadcaster. Now Zumoff is just weeks away from calling what has the potential to be the most successful 76ers season at least since his favorite with the team—the Allen Iverson-led 2001 NBA Finals run—or possibly since his first when the Sixers last became NBA champions.
The Sixers’ last championship was so long ago that the team hoisted the Walter A. Brown Trophy after sweeping the Lakers, not today’s Larry O’Brien Trophy. Zumoff was in his first season as the 76ers’ pre-game, halftime and post-game host on the now-defunct PRISM Sports Network. In the seasons since, the Sixers have spent time as everything from championship contenders to league doormats. As Sixers fans surely noticed over those years, Zumoff says his passion has never wavered regardless of the on-court product.
“For someone who grew up rooting for the Sixers, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, who remembers the team moving from Syracuse in 1963, it’s never been lost on me what an unbelievable treat and privilege it is for me to be the TV voice of the 76ers,” gushes Zumoff. “So, whether the team is winning 10 games or 50 games, my enthusiasm does not change at all.
“Now, that said, if you’re winning 10 games as the team did in ‘15, ‘16, there are the challenges that are inherent with that, which includes emphasizing individual stories, maybe talking a lot more about the opponent. Whatever it is that I can do to keep people interested and engaged, it was incumbent upon me to do as a professional.”
But with the infamous tanking era known as “The Process” now well behind the Sixers, Zumoff, like almost anyone who follows the NBA, expects big things of the team this season. Most sportsbooks have their over/under win total pegged around 54 or 55 games. Most fans and pundits, both locally and nationally, expect the 76ers to compete for a chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
The team may have lost “closer” Jimmy Butler and sharpshooter JJ Redick in the offseason, but it added veteran big man Al Horford and promising young guard Josh Richardson. Superstar center Joel Embiid and the wildly talented but confounding point guard Ben Simmons are still here, the latter having been extended on a new deal. And the starting five is rounded out by forward Tobias Harris, returning on a five-year $180 million contract, the biggest in franchise history.
“Last year’s Sixers team was very good, evidenced by the fact that they won over 50 games and went two rounds in the playoffs,” says Zumoff. “I was always concerned about them defensively, and it’s pretty clear that Elton Brand and the Sixers management team saw the same thing. And I think what they did was they went out and made the team that much better defensively, while not really sacrificing offense unless you consider the three-point shooting. Certainly, in that regard, JJ Reddick is a big loss.”
But when you tabulate the team’s offseason losses and additions, is this year’s team more talented than the one that lost to the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Kawhi Leonard’s heartbreaking, quadruple-doink, three-point buzzer-beater? Zumoff knows better than to fall into the trap of predicting how many games this 76ers team can win, but he sees a better team now than the one Leonard sent packing.
“I think, all in all, they ended out very well,” says Zumoff. “And now with the Golden State Warriors not being the Warriors anymore, and the defending champion Toronto Raptors losing their best player, it’s wide open. The Sixers have gone for it, and they have an opportunity now to win their first championship since 1983.”
Despite all the offseason changes, the core of the team remains Embiid and Simmons for the third year in a row, and top bench players Mike Scott and James Ennis are each returning for a second year. This sort of stability has allowed fans to feel an attachment to the team and its players that it couldn’t during The Process era when the roster experienced unprecedented turnover and featured a dearth of star power. But regardless of who’s been on the team and for how long, Zumoff has had no trouble befriending them.
“It’s always been easy for me to make friends with guys,” he says. “And by friends, I mean having a professional relationship with them. So typically, I will interact with players before games, after games, before and after practices. We might catch a quick conversation in a hotel or on a bus or on an airplane, that sort of thing.”
Zumoff has gotten close to all of them by explaining that, as the voice of the 76ers, it’s his job to promote the team and the players. These days, though, they need little promotion to win over the fan base. While the team that plays its home games in the stadium next door to the Wells Fargo Center may always be number one in Philadelphians’ hearts, these 76ers seem to have far surpassed the other two teams in town in terms of fan enthusiasm. It’s conceivable that an NBA Finals run could even allow them to approach Eagles-level popularity.
“Our fan base is more galvanized than at any time in the team’s history,” says Zumoff. “And I could say that strictly from a quantitative standpoint, in that not only don’t I remember us selling out every game in a stretch like this but the fact that they had a waiting list for season tickets? I mean, even in ‘82, ‘83 when they were on their way to dominating the NBA and going to the championship, their percentage of sellouts was not what it was even just last year. And there certainly was not a waiting list for season tickets.”
Like Zumoff, fans would likely point to the 2000-2001 team as the most exciting in memory. That year, the diminutive Allen Iverson reached a global stardom that was arguably bigger than any athlete in Philadelphia history. The (generously listed) six-foot guard almost single-handedly led the Sixers to a Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Lakers. Kids everywhere were wearing Iverson’s jersey and sneakers, and seemingly every other car in the Delaware Valley had a 76ers window flag whipping in the wind.
“So, I’m very much into the now, and I am as excited about this team as I’ve been in a long time,” prefaces Zumoff before recalling his favorite Sixers era. “But I have to go back to the late ‘90s, early 2000s with Allen Iverson and what he did. Just the improbability of their run in 2001, and the way it captured the city, and the fact that they were led by this guy who was maybe six feet and maybe 165 pounds, who played such a daring brand of basketball that really endeared him to our audience. Because we always see ourselves like Rocky, like the underdog. And [Iverson] physically and in every which way was perceived as the underdog. So we really latched onto him.”
Iverson may not have looked or played like the prototypical NBA stars of his day, but he made it work and won the city’s heart. Overcome by how lasting that love has been, Iverson last month told screaming fans at 97.5 The Fanatic’s Fan Fest that they “love too hard.”
For a city with that kind of unbridled fan enthusiasm, it’s probably not possible for Zumoff to love the 76ers too hard. But he certainly seems to love them and his job broadcasting their games as much as anyone could. Judging from the fan reaction he himself got while being honored for his 25th year calling games last season, there seems to be plenty of love to go around.