Jack Kerouac wrote, “Man, have you dug that mad Marty Glickman announcing basketball games — up-to-midcourt-bounce-fake-set-shot, swish, two points. Absolutely the greatest announcer I ever heard.”
Glickman, a little 5-foot-8 Jewish fellow from Brooklyn, remains legendary to anyone who saw him sprint or heard him speak. In a new HBO documentary, “Glickman,” which has its premiere Aug. 26, he is compared to the Greek god Hermes. “In Greek mythology,” writer, director, producer and narrator James Freedman explains, “Hermes was not just the god of speed but the god of eloquence, the messenger of all the Olympian gods. Few people have ever embodied both these qualities more” than Glickman.
To the delight of those old enough to remember, and for those who never had the chance (Glickman died in 2001 at 83), the film contains spectacular (no other word will suffice) excerpts of his play-by-play urban cadences, orchestral emotions and articulate rat-a-tat in-game patter that journalist George Vescey compares to “the toughness of sidewalks, the speed of Spaldeens,” all subway and soul.
Later, though, he was dropped from national basketball broadcasts because he was “too New York,” too Jewish. As Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown recalled, “Marty [had to] deal with the Jewish situation,” even though “a lot of people don’t think of the struggle that the Jews had, as far as racism and prejudice.”
Two things would come to define Glickman: his passion for sports and his pride in being a Jew. “I was always aware of the fact that I am a Jew; never unaware of it, under virtually all circumstances … I was very proud of the fact that I was a Jew.” For better and worse, others were aware of it, as well.
“I don’t ever remember walking as a young person. I always ran,” says Glickman in archival interviews used in the 82-minute film, whose executive producer is Martin Scorcese.
Glickman ran the 100-yard dash in 9.5 seconds, one-tenth of a second shy of the record. At Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, he starred in football at a time when more than 20,000 people paid their way into Ebbets Field to see that team’s games. Says actor Jerry Stiller, “It was such an anomaly for a Jewish kid. … Marty Glickman was bigger than life in the eyes of people. We were just so proud.” Glickman starred for Syracuse University, and Jim Brown says in the film, “If you look at the history of Syracuse running backs, it’s a great history.” There was Brown, Floyd Little, Jim Nance, Ernie Davis, “and before any of us you had the great Marty Glickman.”
For more than a decade Glickman did Paramount newsreels and re-creation of baseball games (before it was possible to broadcast road games). He called the games of the football Giants in their glory years, at a time when home games were not broadcast on TV and his voice was the only access to the Giants most people had. He later broadcast for the Jets, and even at the height of his fame called local high school football games, at a minimum salary, to help promote the good in the schools. At halftime he’d introduce the school’s chess team, debating team, cheerleaders or glee club. As a play-by-play man for the early Knicks and college basketball at the old Madison Square Garden he is credited with inventing much of modern basketball lingo and even the floor’s geography: “the lane,” “the midcourt stripe,” “the key,” “the wing,” “top of the circle” and “swish” — a word that Larry King says is the greatest radio call of them all. Glickman, says King, was “television on radio.”
Marv Albert, who credits him with “terminology that had never been heard before … There was no one better.” Knicks announcer Mike Breen says Glickman “invented the vernacular… it was like his voice was attached to the ball.” Knicks Hall of Fame member Bill Bradley says Glickman “pervaded the whole way people talked about the game.”
Freedman tells us by phone, “Prior to Marty, a broadcast would sound like this: ‘Smith passes to Jones, Jones to Irving, Irving throws it to Clark, Clark scores.’ You had no real idea where the players were. Marty would say, ‘Jones dribbles up the right sideline, passes it over to the top of the key to Irving, Irving bounce-passes into the left corner to Clark, he shoots, swish.’ He was so specific. Before Giants games, he’d describe the weather at Yankee Stadium, ‘a wisp of wind blows the football off the tee.’ He put you right there.”
It is somewhat ironic to place him on Olympus since, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Glickman and Sam Stoller (the only other Jew on the U.S. team) were abruptly removed from the Olympic competition on the morning of their race because, without anyone quite saying so, if a Jew would win it would embarrass the Master Race. Glickman remembered looking up from the stadium floor and seeing Adolf Hitler, in his special box, staring down. There were those who had urged a U.S. boycott of “Hitler’s Olympics,” but Glickman specifically had wanted to run in Berlin. “I wanted to show that a Jew could do just as well as any other individual, perhaps even better.” That was exactly what others were afraid of.
Sixty-two years later, the U.S. Olympic Committee finally acknowledged the anti-Semitism behind the removal of Glickman and Stoller. Perhaps the greatest villain in the episode was Avery Brundage, president of the 1936 U.S. Olympic Committee, whose “great ambition was to meet Hitler … Hitler was kind of a hero to him,” says Lou Zamperini, a member of the U.S. team, in the film. This was the same Brundage who was president of the International Olympic Committee at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when his callous “games must go on” reaction to the murder of 11 Israeli Olympians by Palestinian terrorists revived memories of his behavior in 1936.
Two weeks after the Berlin Olympics, Glickman was on a U.S. team that ran in another 400-meter relay and set a world’s record.
Years after being unable to sustain a career on national broadcasts, Glickman — who recalled that he was the first Jewish broadcaster to keep his Jewish name, when others such as Mel Allen (Israel) were changing theirs — lived to see a more accepting era in which he was recruited by the fledgling HBO; Glickman’s voice was actually the first voice to be heard on that new national network.
The publishing world, of course, has always been welcome to Jewish stories, and the film follows a recent, albeit modest, wave of retrospectives examining the span and intersection of Jews and sports culture, with books such as “Jewish Jocks,” edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy; “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes,” by John Rosengren; and “Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter,” by Douglas Century. Track-and-field, let alone its history, however, are far from the mainstream sports consciousness, in book or film, and so Glickman, as the years went on, was far better known for his broadcasting than his sprinting. This film does a wonderful job of rectifying that imbalance, restoring Glickman to the on-field glory and legends of his youth.
This is the first film for Freedman, a television writer for more than 25 years, but who started out working for Glickman while still in high school. “I was 17 when I produced his late-night radio show on WNEW. My brother had the job, and I used to sit in the booth and watch him. One day my brother told Marty that he was called up to the army and Marty would need to find another producer. Marty looked into the booth, pointed at me, and said ‘Jimmy can do it.’ I turned around, expecting to see another guy named Jimmy. There wasn’t. Marty taught me how to produce a show, how to get the scores off the wire, write them up, schedule commercials, screen calls; this is pretty heady stuff for a 17-year-old kid. But what I remember about Marty, and this speaks to what a mensch he was, he never treated me as a high school kid but as his producer. It gave me a professional confidence that I have to this very day.”
Freedman was struck by Glickman’s modesty. “People didn’t know about his athletic background because, unlike other ex-athletes in broadcasting, he never referenced himself as an athlete. When he announced games he thought the game should be the story, not him.”
At last, Glickman is the story.