Talking basketball with the voice of the Philadelphia 76ers, Marc Zumoff

Talking basketball with the voice of the Philadelphia 76ers, Marc Zumoff

When the Sixers got off to their ridiculous 3-0 start the season, the people I was happiest for (besides myself) were our long-suffering TV announcers, Marc Zumoff and Malik Rose. Zoo and Malik, who wear their hearts on their sleeves as much as any other announcing team in the Association, seemed to take the anguish of last year's disappointing season harder than anybody, and that made their elation at this year's improbably exciting opening stretch all the more palpable and gratifying.

I had the chance to catch up with the incomparable Zumoff, who's in his 20th season as the Sixers' play-by-play announcer, before the Sixers' game against the Cavaliers on Friday. We talked about those first three games, about the leadership potential of Nerlens Noel, and about his own celebrity as the voice of the Sixers, and much more.

Check out our conversation below, and wish Zoo, Malik and the rest of the 76ers luck tonight at home against Malik's old team (and the defending Western Conference champions), the San Antonio Spurs--they might need all the help they can get. And if anyone does have any good Zumoff drinking games to share, please let me know, otherwise we here at the Level might have to invent one.

So, I think you had my favorite line of the season so far, when Spence hit that shot late in the Bulls game: "Malik Rose, can you stand it??"

And he said "No, that's why I'm sitting next to you!"

Was that just off the top of your head, or was that a long time coming?

No, I mean, it was off the top of my head. Just about everything we do is off the top of our heads. That's what's great about working with Malik, is that if something flies off the top of my head, he's there to grab it and slam dunk it.

What was going through your head when you came up with it?

Nothing in particular. I think this was the third straight game...first of all, they were already 2-0, threatening to go 3-0. This was the second good team they were on the verge of beating. And they came back in every game. So the surprise start, the third straight comeback potential win, and just the way that they were doing it. You know, the Michael Carter-Williams thing...just a lot of surprises through the first three games. So I'm looking at Malik, saying..."What's up with this? Can you stand it?"

You've been covering the team for about 20 years now. Have you ever seen anything like this before, the 3-0 start? Anything this surprising?

[Pauses]. Well...just trying to think, you're asking me to go through a lot of years! Uhh, no, quite frankly. I would say those first three games were about as much fun for a three-game set--good team, bad team, average team--that I've ever experienced.

Was there a moment in the Miami game where you thought "Wow, this could actually happen?" With the fast start, and the Heat come back...you must have thought it was over.

Well, I actually thought throughout the entire game that Miami was going to be Miami! That they were gonna win! And there's no reason to think not, because except for that one playoff game on Easter Sunday, the Sixers had never beaten the Big Three in a regular season game, so I'm just sitting there, like a fatalist, thinking "All right, this is exciting, this is fun, they're playing great, they're hanging in..." And they were I think down nine at the end of three, so...but what a wild game, when you think, up 19-0, they'd made their first eleven shots, then they're suddenly down nine after three, then they come back and win.

Did you see any of this coming with Michael Carter-Williams? I'm sure you got to see a bunch of him in the pre-season, but I don't think any of us really saw him getting of to the start that he did.

Well, I'll tell you that I'm the wrong guy to ask, because I don't watch college basketball. [But] the conventional wisdom was that he needed help with his shot, that he was turning the ball over, that he only had a couple years in college and...you know, he wasn't the top pick of the draft, he wasn't in the top ten, he was the 11th pick. So I think everybody was going to be patient with him, and let him learn the program. The fact that he came out and did what he did was a real special moment.

Evan has gotten out to a hot start this year. Do you see anything different in this game, or do you just think he's hot right now, and he'll come back to earth in a little while?

Yeah, I think his shot selection has been a lot better. I think he made it a point during the off-season to get all the way to the rim, he's been getting a lot of points in the paint. He's been using his body, fortunately he's been taking a lot fewer threes...I think that's really helped him a lot, and that's why he's shooting the way he is.

Have you gotten a chance to spend much time with Coach Brown? Gotten a sense of how he's trying to change the culture around here?

Well, it's funny, we had a talk about that even before the pre-season started, and I'll just quote him saying "It takes a while for that to happen. It takes players, it takes commitment, it takes a certain kind of player that you have to begin to get in here." And I'm not saying that these guys can't be part of that, what I'm saying is that's a process that has to evolve over some time.

So when you look at the situation where [Coach Brown] came from, with the Spurs, that culture was established by two guys who have been there for almost a generation. They've won four titles together. So that is the culture.

Well, it helps to have Tim Duncan to start with.

Well, that. And you know what really helps? When you get a guy in, and maybe that's Michael Carter-Williams, maybe it's the next guy, who's the alpha male or close to it, who helps him with that locker room. That's going to be key, and I think Gregg Popovich will tell you that with all the players that have come in and out, the fact that he can yell at Tim Duncan, and you're a free agent or a rookie saying "Wow, he's yelling at a hall-of-famer! Well..." THAT'S the culture. And that's something that it's gonna take Brett Brown a while to establish.

Have you gotten to see Michael off the court at all? Do you think he's going to be that kind of leader?

You know, I wasn't quite sure. I have to be quite honest with you, and...he's a while away, and he hasn't even played a minute yet, but Nerlens Noel. When I spoke with him during the off-season and I remarked at the fact that he was going to be traveling with the team, kinda working out and rehabbing on the side. He said "Yeah, it's really important for me to be with the team, because I watch Oklahoma City and Miami, and those guys are together off the court, and I think that's really important." And I'm saying to myself, here's a guy who hasn't played a second in the NBA, who's 19 years old, and he's already...

He gets it.

Right! And he's trying to figure out what makes [these teams] good, other than their talent. And to me, that was something special. Now, can Michael Carter-Williams do it? Well, I love his leadership style on the floor, in that he doesn't seem to be the prototypical kind of scoring guard. He can score, but it seems like he's looking for other guys, he's got great court vision, and I think if he can continue to show that, be unselfish with the ball, that will make him in some ways the de facto leader.

Do you have any idea where the team goes from here? .I think most people before the season assumed that they'd be piling up the losses in an attempt to do better in the draft next year, but do you think this has changed the course at all?

Well, I think it does from the standpoint that if you're a young player, you can hopefully seize on to the fact that you came back against Miami, you came back against Chicago, you came back against Washington on the road, you've done some positive things. Because what happens is that confidence, even in good players, will ebb and flow. So when it's ebbing, a lot of times what they'll do is show you footage of you succeeding so you can kind of remember what it is that you did.

So hopefully they'll be able to latch onto that stuff, and so in those moments when maybe there's a losing streak, or they're struggling, or maybe there's a 5-20 down the road for Michael Carter-Williams, he can say "Yeah, but I played really well against the Heat, I played really well against Derrick Rose, I was able to win a game on John Wall's home court, and hopefully I can recapture that."

Did you get the chance to spend much time with Andrew Bynum when he was a Sixer last year? Get much of a sense of him as a person?

You know what? He seems like a really bright guy. And I would like to think that had he been able to play, he could. I think a lot of Sixer fans were put off by the whole bowling thing. And I think that's what turned a lot of people off, saying "Well, if this dude can go bowling, he can certainly give it a try on the court!" I think the fact that he did get surgery, that he seems to be trying with Cleveland, is some indication that he might have something left, but if his knees cause his problems..here's a guy who's had knee problems coming out of high school, the fact that he has them now does not bode well for him.

Last year was pretty hard for all of us, but I felt like it was especially hard for you guys, because you had to watch all these games, with all this expectation, and it was so disappointing. Was that the hardest year you can remember covering?

Well, I've had some difficult years. You have to remember that my first two years, there was a 24-win team and an 18-win team with John Lucas. One year we had 24 players....at least last year, the problem with last year was that Andrew Bynum was a huge distraction the entire year. And because of that, it really cast a pall over the entire season. And people were saying, "This guy isn't going to play!" Which he didn't. "You've really torn up your team!" Which they did, giving up Andre Iguodala, Nik Vucevic turned out to be a really good player, a young guy in Moe Harkless...it really made it rather difficult.

But you know, we kinda hung our hat a little bit on Jrue Holiday, that he was an all-star, we were hoping that Evan Turner would eventually turn the corner like he is this year. But I would have to say quite honestly, that those first two years here with John Lucas were some of the toughest, if not the toughest, that I've had in my career.

So I had a theory that I wrote about, and I'm curious for your take. Which is that all in all, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Andrew Bynum trade was actually a good thing for this team, because it kind of allowed them to hit the reset button. Whereas they had kinda been spinning their wheels for the last six or seven years, since the Iverson trade, and this forced them to bottom out, take a good hard look at themselves and say "Is this really where we wanna go?"

Well, I think that's a great point, and I'll take it a step further and say that not only do I agree with you, agreeing ostensibly with what Sixers management did, but the fans have bought into it. To the point where they're saying, you know...this "Winless for Wiggins" stuff, and all that, which I don't necessarily advocate, but they understand that this is a rebuilding year, that they're going to have to make some sacrifices.

And that's why Brett Brown has been so great through all of this, because all he's really talked about is culture recreation and player development. So if they can accomplish those two things, where you're seeing some baby steps with some of these young guys, and you see the evidence that culture has been changed, it'll be a successful year.

It seems like Malik has really caught on. You had a revolving door there with the color spot for a while...what is it about Malik that you think has made him stick?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. I think first and foremost, he and I have a nice vibe. He's a great guy, without ego, and I'm sitting here saying "This guy played 13 years in the NBA, won two championship rings...what does he care about a 50-year-old guy from Northeast Philly?" But it just so happens that he does, that we connect on a lot of different levels. That's the first thing.

The second thing is that he knows the game, he's very smart, and he's got a marvelous sense of humor. When he comes up with some of the stuff that he comes up with, he lights up Twitter, because people can't believe that he's said some of the stuff that he's said. So I try to just let him be him, because quite frankly I think that if he's successful, then our broadcast is good. And the thing that I like the most is when people come up and say "You and Malik sound good together." I'd rather hear that phrase from somebody than anything else.

And it's clear that you guys really care. You can hear the pain in his voice when the Sixers miss a defensive rotation, don't get out to a three-point shooter, stuff like that.

Right. And I think a lot of that is the fact that he's a Philly guy. And even though he never played for the Sixers, I think the Sixers have always held a special place in his heart. And you know, I go back to the first year of the team. I mean, when I was a kid, my father took me to Convention Hall, and I saw a game when they first arrived from Syracuse, in 1963. So I've seen Sixers games every year, I've followed the team every year, so for me....it pulses through my veins.

Do you get a lot of people coming up to you, reciting your own catch phrases? People asking you to record things on their answering machine?

You know, I do, and it's kind of otherworldly. You have to remember, I was a kid who grew up in Northeast Philly and I had kind of like a low self-concept, and I got picked on by kids, and wasn't the world's greatest athlete...so what I did was, I would announce games on TV, or  announce games from the stands, and a lot of what I did just sitting by myself in my room, I do now before 50,000 or 100,000 people a night. So to have people coming up to me saying "say this" or "say that," it's surreal.

What's the most frequent request that you get?

Uh, I'll give you the top several. I'll say a lot of people like "We're running tonight!" A lot of people like "[Somebody] for three! YES!"  "Lock all windows and doors" is a very big one, "Hang on Malik, we're coming in for a landing..." So, again, these are just things that are coming off the top of my head, and to think that people are latching onto this is really bizarre.

Have you heard about any drinking games? Anybody ever say "Well, anytime you say [this], take a shot"?

[Laughing] No, none of that! None of that.

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski woke up Saturday and drove to work in Voorhees, New Jersey.

It was just an ordinary morning for the 23-year-old, a Temple graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

Little did he know, in a couple of hours his world would turn upside down.

Semborski, who works for Snider Hockey and at Flyers Skate Zone running goalie clinics and roller leagues, hadn’t played competitively since suiting up for the Owls’ club team in the spring of 2015.

That was until Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, where, someway, somehow he was draped in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and squaring up blazing shots off the sticks of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, just to name a few.

Quite the promotion, huh?

“It’s surreal, really,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

Could anyone?

“I couldn’t imagine the rush,” Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling said.

Incredibly and astonishingly, Semborski turned into an NHL goaltender for a day as Chicago’s second string to Darling, who suffered a 3-1 loss to the Flyers.

How Semborski was found and summoned by the Blackhawks is still somewhat of a mystery, even to the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, native himself. Once Chicago received word that regular starter Corey Crawford had to suddenly undergo an appendectomy at a Philadelphia hospital, the Blackhawks started scrambling for an emergency backup to Darling.

“I was at work, at the rink in Voorhees just coaching,” Semborski said. “My boss called me and I missed it. I walked off the ice and started talking with someone from the Flyers, he started asking me, ‘Where’d you play hockey, what’s your playing history?’” 

Semborski was confounded.

“I didn’t even know what he was getting at,” he said. “I asked, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Chicago needs a goalie.’ I just lost it. He said, ‘Go home, get your stuff and if they’re going to use you, they’ll call you.’ I left right away.

“I was like, OK, this probably isn’t going to happen, there’s no way.”

Ten minutes later …

“I’m in the truck and I got a call from Chicago,” Semborski said.

Who was it?

“I just know his name’s Tony,” Semborski said. “That’s all I know.”

How the heck did the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups since 2010, find a regular, hard-working guy living in Manayunk to be their reserve netminder?

“No idea,” Semborski said, still in awe talking after the game outside the locker rooms. “I think it had something to do with me working with Snider Hockey, working at Voorhees. They asked around and people just threw my name out I guess. I really don’t know how it happened. I’ll have to get to the bottom of that and thank some people. I have no idea who gave them my info, but whoever did, thank you, because it was awesome.”

So Semborski hustled from Voorhees to Manayunk, packed up his gear — including his old Temple mask, sporting the words “Philly Proud” and “Temple Tuff” — and quickly made his way to the Wells Fargo Center. He arrived around 12:30 p.m. before puck drop at 1.

“I hit some traffic on 76 (Schuylkill Expressway), of course,” Semborski said. “I got here as fast as I could in my street clothes. No time to put on a tie.”

Once Semborski signed his amateur tryout, it became real. He walked into the visiting locker room and there were the Blackhawks and his NHL jersey, a makeshift uniform with Crawford’s No. 50.

“It was hanging up when I got in there,” he said. “I guess they took Crawford’s and threw a name on it and made it work.”

Prior to hitting the ice for warmups, Semborski got acquainted with his teammates.

“Dream come true,” he said. “That was so cool, just hanging out with those guys. They made me feel welcomed right away, started joking around.

“When I got there, they put my number on the board and said I’m throwing in $200 for the holiday party. That was pretty good. I told them, ‘You better take credit because that’s all I got.’”

What about his big-money contract?

“No, I should be paying them for this,” Semborski said. “That was awesome.

“I signed some stuff when I came in, I don’t know what it was. I’m happy with a hat and the memories.”

Especially taking the net in warmups.

“I was a bit rusty, but no matter how much I play, I’m not going to be ready for them,” he said. “It was fast and I couldn’t even catch my breath because I was trying to take it all in. That was the best 20 minutes of my life out there skating with them.

“You’re playing against the best guys in the world. I knew I wasn’t going to stop most of them. I was lucky if it hit me.”

As for the game, Semborski didn’t play.

“Well you almost saw it,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said, referring to his frustration with a three-goal second period by the Flyers.

“That probably would have been a big mistake,” Semborski said with a laugh.

“That would have been so cool, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The experience was awesome.”

What did Quenneville think?

"That’s part of the process with all of the teams, they have the local amateur guys or sometimes guys who have played pro before," he said. "But with our cap situation, we needed an amateur, so he fit all the criteria and it was a good opportunity for him. ... It’s kind of a cool experience for the kid."

So Semborski sat on the bench, padded and ready. He smiled and watched, supporting his new team.

He, of course, is a Flyers fan, but …

“Not today,” he said with a smile. “Every other day, yeah, but not today.

“When I first got out there, I was like, ‘Alright, if [the Flyers] score, don’t stand up. Just relax.’”

Semborski admitted to Chicago breaking his heart in 2010 when it beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final.

“That was one of the hardest things I ever watched,” he said. “But today, that’s all forgotten. I’m a ‘Hawks fan today.”

Afterward, Semborski said his phone was flooded with 70-something text messages and 20-plus phone calls.

“I’m going to have to start calling some people,” he said.

His first will probably be to a special loved one.

“It’s my dad’s birthday,” Semborski said. “So, happy birthday, Dad. Best present ever for you.”

Temple, Matt Rhule deliver AAC championship with win over Navy

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USA Today Images

Temple, Matt Rhule deliver AAC championship with win over Navy

BOX SCORE

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The genesis came nearly four years ago when Matt Rhule walked down the cheerleader and band-lined hallway at the Liacouras Center, greeting fans and shaking the hands of those who took the time to come as he made his way to the to the podium for his introductory press conference. In previous days, he was named Temple’s head coach after leaving the previous regime at Temple for a one-year stint on Tom Coughlin’s staff with the New York Giants.
 
When Rhule spoke that cold December day in 2012, he promised he would bring Temple a championship. Any type of championship. Hardware that the long-suffering program, its players, its fans and its alumni could be proud of.
 
Along the way, there were bumps in the road that brought ridicule to that promise.
 
There was the 2-10 season from hell in 2013 that included losses to Idaho and Fordham. There was the 6-6 season of frustration in 2014 when Rhule had to tell his players, notably his heartbroken seniors, that no bowl wanted anything to do with them even though they were eligible to play in one. There was the hoopla of a dream 2015 season that ended with the nightmare of losses to Houston in the conference title game and Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl. And then there was earlier this season when the Owls seemed without a sense of direction after a painful 3-3 start.
 
But through all of the muck and grime, Rhule kept his players believing in his promise.
 
And on Saturday afternoon, nearly four years to the day he made that promise, he and his players delivered, at the Naval Academy, of all places.
 
Phillip Walker, the four-year starter at quarterback who’s been with Rhule the entire way, was stellar with 16 completions for 199 yards and two touchdown passes and Temple’s defense shut down No. 19 Navy’s vaunted rushing attack as the Owls won the American Athletic Conference title game on Saturday with a 34-10 victory at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium (see Instant Replay).
 
The triumph pushed the Owls’ record to 10-3 and marks just the second conference title in Temple football history and first since the Owls brought home a Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 1967.
 
“For me, it means the promise has been fulfilled,” Temple’s victorious head coach said after the game. “[Athletics officials] were sitting there with me there in the locker after we lost to Fordham our first year. And to bring it full circle, so that to me, is almost a relief of a job well done.
 
“But the true thing for me about this is just to have these players to be able to call themselves champions. That’s the way they live their lives. When you win this conference, you’ve done something special. This a fantastic conference with great teams from top to bottom.
 
“For us to say we did it, that’s the accomplishment. … The competitors we have on our team, the men we have on our team – they were ready to take one more step. And that’s what they did. ”
 
It’s fitting that the seniors who’ve been with Rhule the last several years led the Temple charge from the moment the ball was kicked into the windy air on Saturday.
 
Walker took command on the game’s opening drive with five completions, including a huge 4th-and-7 throw to Keith Kirkwood after Kirkwood dropped an easy catch on the previous play. Walker and Kirkwood later admitted the Owls ran the same play again on fourth down. One play later, Jahad Thomas, another senior, scampered into the corner of the end zone from 15 yards out to open the scoring.
 
On the Owls’ next drive, Walker hit Ventell Bryant on an out route for a 22-yard touchdown that made the score 14-0 in favor of Temple.
 
As time wound down in the first, Temple junior safety Sean Chandler made a touchdown-saving tackle on Navy’s Dishan Romine at the Temple 25-yard line after a 34-yard catch. On the next play, Chandler stripped Navy’s Darryl Bonner after a screen pass and the Owls recovered at their own 30.
 
On the ensuing drive, Walker threw a lovely deep ball with perfect touch to a wide-open Kirkwood, who glided into the end zone and put Temple up 21-0 just over a minute into the second quarter.
 
You could have started polishing the trophy then and there because the rout was on.
 
“This means a lot to the program,” Walker, the namesake of numerous Temple quarterback records, including touchdown passes (72), completions (802) and passing yards (10, 272) said of Temple’s win on Saturday afternoon. “I told Coach Rhule before I got here that this was going to happen. That was the process of me just trusting and keep doing what I’ve been doing. I go out there every day and bring my effort and my energy every day. And hopefully everyone else around me will follow.
 
“Going in there every day and playing and competing at a high level, it shows that we had a really good team that was capable of doing a lot of good things.”
 
Thomas and Walker were teammate’s at North Jersey’s Elizabeth High School before coming to Temple four years ago. Their high school careers followed the same story arc of their college careers – misery as freshmen, improved mediocrity as sophomores, falling just short as juniors and championship glory as seniors.
 
“You definitely hit lows coming from an 11-0 season in high school to a program that was known for losing,” Thomas said before he boarded the team bus Saturday evening. “But we know with all the young guys we had coming in that we had an opportunity to be something special as we got older.
 
“So we just worked and worked in the offseason and continued to get better. We continued to buy in to Coach Rhule’s process. And now, as seniors, we won.”
 
Needless to say, Temple’s defense did more than its fair share against a Navy team that entered second in the nation with 342 rushing yards a game and dropped 75 points on SMU last week.
 
Facing that potent Navy attack and the mental roadblock of the 328 yards a similar-style Army team ran for in a season-opening 28-13 defeat at The Linc, Temple stuffed Navy to the tune of 168 yards on the ground.
 
Navy senior quarterback Will Worth, who entered Saturday leading the nation with 25 rushing touchdowns, injured his ankle in the second quarter and did not return. He was replaced by sophomore Zach Abey. But still, quite the impressive showing from Temple’s defense nonetheless. Or a “good ole fashioned butt whipping,” as Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo put it.
 
“We just made it simple. Just don’t overthink it,” Temple senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said of the Owls’ Saturday performance against Navy’s triple option. “It’s football at the end of the day.  Everybody did their job, just like coach was saying.
 
“This is a program that has never won. So to actually see it happen is just unbelievable with how far we’ve come. There’s a lot of people involved in that. Not just us, but the previous years before us. And it’s incredible to see this happen.”
 
While the Owls will soak in the feeling of championship glory Saturday night, they’ll find out their postseason fate on Sunday afternoon when the bowl selections are announced.
 
And that’s where things get interesting.
 
As a conference champion, Temple is eligible for the New Year’s Six at-large bowl bid to the Cotton Bowl. And the Owls should be in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings after stomping the No. 19 team in the country on its home turf.
 
But No. 17 Western Michigan of the MAC completed its season with a spotless 13-0 record after holding on for dear life against Ohio in Friday’s conference title game in Detroit.
 
So now it’s up to the committee to weigh the resumes of 10-3 Temple and 13-0 WMU for that Cotton Bowl berth. And not to get too far ahead, but that berth could well mean a meeting with Penn State if the Nittany Lions don’t represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
 
WMU’s signature wins this year are victories at Northwestern (6-6) and at Illinois (3-9), both of the Big Ten.
 
The Owls’ top wins are at home against then-No. 24 South Florida (10-2) and Saturday’s triumph at No. 19 Navy (9-3). There was also September’s seven-point defeat at No. 7 Penn State mixed in there as well, if you want to discuss strength of schedule.
 
While logic with the records says the odds may not be in the Owls’ favor, Rhule left his message for the committee on Saturday evening.
 
“I think we can say we’re one of the top teams in college football right now based on the way we’ve played,” Rhule said.
 
“I’ll never talk down about another team. And I think any team that goes undefeated, I wish them all the best. But we are the sixth power conference. If you win this league, you should go to a New Year’s Six Bowl. That’s neither here nor there. And when you’ve seen what [AAC] teams have done in New Year’s Six Bowls, you should want to have us there.
 
“Over the last half of the year, I would say we’re as hot as any team in the country. Again, I’m not saying anything negative about anyone else, but we should be playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl."