The former nerd from Northeast Philadelphia, gym-fit at 62 and NBA chic, walked into a King of Prussia coffee shop in a sports jacket, stylish sneakers, and tight-legged jeans, his face adorned with metrosexual glasses and a hipster’s stubble.
A few patrons recognized Marc Zumoff. When he ordered a decaf coffee in that clear and emphatic voice that has been the official soundtrack to 76ers basketball since 1994, others did, too.
Zumoff, like everyone around the organization, is riding high this spring. A 76ers team that won a combined 75 games the previous four seasons has suddenly become relevant with a 52-30 record, the franchise’s first playoff berth in six years, and record attendance.
That notable — perhaps unprecedented — bump in Sixers popularity has created more interest in and more demands on the veteran broadcaster. Writers and TV reporters request interviews. In addition to his broadcast responsibilities, he writes for NBCSports Philadelphia’s website, puts together a weekly podcast, and has a growing social-media following to feed.
“I’m happy to be along for the ride,” he said. “I’m loving it. And after these last three or four years, who wouldn’t love it? I’m not sure how much interest there would be in me if we were 30-52 as opposed to 52-30. But all boats rise with the tide.”
Zumoff likes nautical metaphors. Decades ago, back when his 76ers telecast duties were restricted to halftime shows, and his professional life wasn’t so happily hectic, he liked to scuba dive. While he long ago abandoned that pastime, one of its principles attached itself to the veteran broadcaster like a barnacle to a ship bottom.
“There’s something called neutral buoyancy,” Zumoff said. “It’s where you balance yourself in such a way that you’re neither going up nor down.”
Consciously or not, he absorbed that lesson. As the team plummeted to the NBA’s seabed and then dizzily ascended, Zumoff managed to bob along comfortably, his innate enthusiasm a natural flotation device in the erratic waters of pro basketball.
“I’m nothing if not buoyant,” he said.
For fans who suffered with the Sixers through the tankings and spankings and have exulted in 2017-18’s success, the notion that Zumoff has maintained an emotional equilibrium while doing the roller-coastering team’s broadcasts might be difficult to comprehend. But he insisted it was no more difficult calling games in 2015-16 than this season.
“Anybody who complains about any aspect of what it is they do, if they do what I do, they’re never going to be happy,” he said. “This is a dream gig. There are tons of people out there who want my job.”
In those years when ratings, spirits, and victory totals were low, people tended to feel sorry for Zumoff. At the gym, he’d be asked how he could tolerate such suffering – trying to enliven 82 broadcasts for 76ers teams that, with a mostly unappealing cast of characters, won 18, 19, 10 games.
That thought didn’t register with Zumoff.
“Suffering? Listen, there’s only 30 of us who do what I do for a living,” he said. “So for me to say any aspect of my job is suffering would be ludicrous. Chemotherapy, that’s tough. I didn’t mope for a second. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t mad at anybody. I got it. I understood the Process. I was hoping the Process would lead to what’s happening now. And it has.
“Broadcasting for a team that’s losing is just something you have to figure out a way to work around.”
A rabid 76ers fan since the days when he sprawled on the living room floor of his parents’ Northeast Philadelphia twin and, with a cassette recorder that was a bar mitzvah present, aped broadcaster Bill Campbell, Zumoff somehow has managed to do that.
He peppered broadcasts of lopsided losses with background stories on all the players who moved on and off the 76ers rosters. He blended information unearthed at shootarounds. He engaged his color analysts. (He’s had six — Steve Mix, Bob Salmi, Ed Pinckney, Eric Snow, Malik Rose, and, for the last three seasons, Alaa Abdelnaby.)
“There are certain things you can’t control, and I learned long ago that I can’t control what happens on the court,” Zumoff said. “The buzz for me is being live. No editing. No do-over. Getting it right the first time requires a certain level of self-check and concentration.
“The challenge in those few years was, what could I do in 2½ hours to make the broadcast entertaining and informative. My boss, [NBCSports Philadelphia vice president] Shawn Oleksiak, is fond of saying, `We’re not doing a game, we’re doing a television show.’”
Even when the Process was in doubt, even when the team was sinking like a stone in the standings, and even this season when it suddenly surfaced as a contender, Zumoff’s broadcasts displayed a consistency of tone and style.
Still, for all those efforts, ratings for the team’s telecasts slipped in the down years. Not surprisingly, they’ve rebounded with the Sixers’ fortunes. According to NBCSports Philadelphia, ratings were up 45 percent over last year, at their highest levels since 2011-12.
Zumoff’s broadcasting equilibrium is likely the byproduct of several factors — his obsessive preparation, his basketball passion and his understanding of his hometown’s fans.
“He doesn’t get any extra motivation from whether they’re winning or losing,” said Oleksiak. “If they’re winning 18 games or 60 games, he’s always going full bore. He’s all-out. He’s a tremendous professional who’s always going to find an angle. We have an expression that we try to go 82-0 regardless of how the team is doing. Obviously, when they’re winning 52 games there are more surface-level story lines. But they’re there when the team is building or rebuilding, too. You just need to dig a little harder to find them. And Marc does that.”
Zumoff appears comfortable in his skin, as curious and enthusiastic away from the microphone as when behind it. That’s because, he said, an NBA broadcast table is exactly where he was fated to be.
Drawn to “the rhythm of speech” and the appeal of performance, the young Zumoff initially modeled himself after Top 40 disc jockeys. Soon, he was turning the sound down on televised 76ers games and doing the announcing himself. When his parents got him that early cassette recorder, he began to invent games to announce, using the static — or snow — on empty channels as crowd noise.
“It was `Cunningham to Greer. Greer down low to Chamberlain. Chamberlain hook shot. Good!’ And then I’d crank up the snow,” he said.
In the 1970s, Zumoff took a job with Prism doing games of the Philadelphia Fever, a now-defunct indoor soccer team. He later did sports-news updates, the halftime shows and color for Villanova basketball before becoming the 76ers’ lead announcer.
He dived into the job with a beginner’s fervor and 24 years later hasn’t relented.
“Once I put on the headset, I’m thoroughly engaged,” he said.
And once he takes it off, he said, he applies equal rigor to analyzing both his performance and his preparation.
“I’m my toughest critic so I need to know that I did all I can,” Zumoff said. “I’d feel naked in a metaphorical sense if I went on TV without doing my research, without having talked to players and coaches, without having put in the three or four hours before every game that’s necessary to get below the surface. I need to do all that to satisfy myself.”
There are, of course, those who don’t care for Zumoff’s style, who find some of his enthusiasm to be manufactured, who dislike his penchant for catchphrases, who enjoy pointing out his goofs. And, thanks to social media, that criticism can be instantaneous and pointed.
“Some of it is legitimate,” he said. “I do make mistakes. But some of it is somebody just getting something off their chest for whatever reason. Sometimes I’ll try to answer and engage them in dialogue. If it gets to the point where it’s not getting anywhere, then I’ll just let it go.
“It’s all part and parcel of the business. My boss often says, `There are people who like what we do. There are people who don’t like what we do. And there are people it doesn’t really matter to.’ You accept the positive and negative and you move on.”
And so in his 60s now, in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of longevity among NBA broadcasters, Zumoff is living the dream. He’ll announce whatever first-round playoff games don’t appear on ABC.
Then, regardless of what the Sixers do, the networks will take over. Like 10-win seasons, that won’t bother Zumoff.
“Win or lose, this is a great gig,” he said. “All the trips are charters. There’s food, beverages and a first-class seat on the plane. Someone takes care of my baggage. A bus is waiting for me at the airport. I’m staying at the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, or the Peninsula. All my transportation and food on the road is taken care of. I show up and sit in the front row, and there’s LeBron James or Kevin Durant. I’m there and I’m getting paid to be there and, oh by the way, when the team is not playing in May, June, July, August and September, I’m off.
“It’s a dream gig,” he said, “And I’m going to hold onto it for it as long as I can.”