The Voice of the Celtics
With the NBA season finally upon us, I find myself thinking about an NBA legend who never laced up the sneakers – legendary Celtics announcer, Johnny Most. I’ve written about sports voices before, those I loved (Dave Zinkoff) and those I hated (John Sterling). With Johnny Most, I had trouble deciding.
People routinely called Most’s voice “gravelly.” Gravel should have sued. For decades Most was a spectacularly successful radio voice despite sounding like he gargled with Drano. He was a sports version of Bob Dylan, his non-sonorous voice somehow dovetailing with his message. The message was straightforward: Celtics good, opponents evil. Celtics fans loved him because of his shameless hometown bias, whereas others like me came to appreciate him despite it.
But Most’s Manichaeism alone didn’t make his name. Many announcers are devoted homers, but few become legends. Most succeeded because a wacky sense of humor leavened his almost clinical paranoia. It’s hard to know whether he was trying to be funny, but it didn’t matter. Most skewered those he despised with a zany wit.
He hated opposing teams (I could stop the sentence there) playing at a deliberate pace, often saying, contemptuously, that a guard bringing the ball up court “fiddles and diddles.” Once, when World B. Free dribbled in place while the shot clock ran down, Most lost it. “Free fiddles and diddles. [Pause.] Now he DADDLES!!!”
He could not abide opposing players who whined about calls. “Rick Barry just informed the official that he has not committed a foul in his 16 year career, and the last play was no exception.”
For some reason, he despised opposing coaches (I could stop the sentence there) standing up and approaching the court. One game, he seemed convinced that the Warriors had an unfair advantage because, their coach, Al Attles, was too close to the action. “It’s 6 on 5 out there, Attles is double-teaming Havlicek.” Later in the game, he became absolutely apoplectic. “Attles is almost at halfcourt. [pause] NOW HE’S IN THE FORECOURT!!!”
At times, Most’s description of games bore little relation to reality. Once he got it in his head that an opposing player, a physical though innocuous center named Jim Eakins, was beating up on his Celtics. In a typical sequence, he’d report: “Cowens goes up, hacked by Eakins, Silas gets the rebound while elbowed by Eakins, sends it out to White who is creamed by Eakins.” Listening on radio, you had to imagine Jim Eakins as akin to a hockey goon sent out to hit everything that moves, while the officials mysteriously acquiesced. Such was life on Planet Most.
The obsession with those meanies who pushed around his poor Celtics drove Most to unpleasantness. “It says in the program that Kurt Rambis is from Santa Clara, but he actually emerged from the sewer.” He famously dubbed the Bullets’ rugged pair, Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn, “McFilthy and McNasty.”
I once went down to courtside to see Most after a game, as he signed autographs and chatted with fans. It was a love-fest, until one fan confronted Most with his hypocrisy.
“You’re always talking about Ruland and Mahorn, how come you never say anything about Robey?” (Rick Robey was a Celtics’ tough guy, the kind of player Most hated in any uniform except green.) Most rolled his eyes, as if he’d heard this question a million times. Still, he answered agreeably.
“Rick’s a different kind of cat,” he graveled. “He’s physical, but he isn’t out to hurt anybody.”
You almost got the sense that he believed it. Indeed, he was either the world’s greatest actor or he believed his entire shtick – the Celtics really were the good guys in some cosmic melodrama, facing a conspiracy involving the league, opponents, and the referees.
In the end, a lifetime’s consumption of coffee and cigarettes took its toll and he half-lost his voice. He had trouble getting through a game without a few involuntary squeaks. But Most soldiered on, even when vascular disease led to a double amputation. The ravages of time did nothing to modulate the wit, zest, or paranoia. Legless and almost voiceless, but defiant of pity, he kept right on boosting the Celtics and zinging their opponents.
Today, too many announcers emulate Most’s unapologetic home-town cheerleading. They shouldn’t. It’s unprofessional and wears thin. But that doesn’t mean Most did wrong. You wouldn’t want boxers to mimic Muhammad Ali’s obnoxious predictions-in-verse or pitchers to talk to the baseball like Mark Fidyrich, but we’re grateful for Ali and Fidyrich. Johnny Most belongs in that company, a one of a kind character whose outrageousness enriched the world of sports.