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November 2, 2011 By:
Memory Lane Fast and Furious
How to squeeze broadcaster Big Al Meltzer's larger-than-life career into a volume of memories? Just open the cover and let the words jump off the page.
They do in Big Al: Fifty Years of Adventures in Sports Broadcasting, a book that bounces with each career step the 83-year-old Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame member has taken before and after arriving in Philadelphia in 1964.
Ironically, it was a year the Phillies blew the pennant, but the year that Meltzer started his first championship season as broadcaster/announcer/analyst in a major league lineup of local stations that would eventually include Channels 6, 17, 10 and 3.
Ah, 3 was the charm, known as the Camelot of coverage for its '70s starting lineup of the venerable Vince Leonard, Mort Crim, weather guy Bill Custer and the woman who would later change network broadcast journalism forever, Jessica Savitch.
Meltzer's family roots were in Russia, with his parents escaping "from Czar Nicholas II, who forced them to live in poverty in the Jewish settlements; it was just like Fiddler on the Roof," he writes.
The Syracuse-born Meltzer melded talent and tenacity in what would be a career that spanned the sports globe.
It all came naturally to the man whose workload filled up with World Series, NBA championships, Stanley Cups, Super Bowls and, of course, Big Five basketball, for which Big Al -- at 6 feet 4 inches, he is big -- is best recalled by many.
"I started broadcasting in Syracuse in 1954," finished in 2004 at Comcast "and in between I got a lot done," he says impishly, not immodestly.
Anecdotes and antidotes to boredom await readers of his book, including this memorable one from 1975: "After the Stanley Cup finals," won by the Flyers, "I somehow was left alone in the room with the Stanley Cup. Just me and the Cup. And it still had some champagne in it. I thought, why not?
"So I took a sip out of the Stanley Cup."
Big Al Perignon: How'd it taste? "OK," he recalls. "I thought, 'I'd like another shot.' "
He got it. Meltzer doesn't drop names -- or drop the ball -- but he is bold enough to drop in stories about some phenoms: Mitch Williams, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Joe Paterno, Dick Vermeil and -- holy "in-again, out-again Finnegan" -- Les Keiter?
And then there was the exclusive Big Al would get with the even bigger Wilt Chamberlain years after Chamberlain's playing days ended; the interview turned out to take place just a few years before Wilt the Stilt died in 1999.
It was only then, during the interview -- "Wilt was 63 at the time" -- that the man who transformed professional basketball in a dipper-dunk of a career "finally came to terms with what it meant to be" the legend that was Wilt Chamberlain.
Who knew that Chamberlain, an Overbrook High School grad who went on to become a famous University of Kansas Jayhawk before joining the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1950s could have been a Pilgrim?
In one of the more delightful revelations in Meltzer's book, he tells how Red Auerbach, coach and general manager for basketball's Boston Celtics, thought of getting Chamberlain -- "a very smart young man," says Meltzer -- into Harvard University, home of the Pilgrims, so he could get territorial draft rights for the Celtics.
As great a player as Chamberlain was, is it possible Meltzer was even better? He laughs at the recollection of challenging Chamberlain -- a notoriously inept foul-throw shooter who tossed underhand -- to a contest at the line. The bet: $1 million.
Meltzer beat him -- luckily, since Meltzer, who once broadcast for the Milwaukee Bucks, had no way to come up with a million bucks -- 8 to 7 out of 10 attempts.
Did he collect? "I'm still waiting," chuckles Meltzer.
Underhanded? There were few greats who could shoot that way in the NBA. Dolph Shayes, who starred with the Syracuse Nationals before that team would pack up its gym bag and come to Philadelphia as the Sixers in 1963, was one of them. "Smart guy," Meltzer says of the then lone Jewish player in the NBA. "For another $500, the New York Knicks could have had him rather than Syracuse. Imagine. A Jewish player on the New York team," such a natural match.
But the Nationals netted him. "Terrific set shot," adds Meltzer, marveling still at Shayes' 30-foot toss ins. Set now to do signings for his book, Meltzer melts at the mere mention of names of friends and colleagues during his career, calling late local sportswriter Bob Vetrone a marvel of a man, and broadcaster Crim, with whom he still stays in touch, better than them all.
"I never worked with anybody that good," before or since he and Mort were part of the Channel 3 throne of Camelot, from 1970 to 1977, which Meltzer also called "the best years of my life in broadcasting."
Nobody does it better, they say about James Bond -- and about Meltzer, when it came to doing the Big Five. "I still hear comments about that," he says of praise bouncing his way decades after the last jump ball he called at the Palestra.
Today, the 10-time Emmy Award winner and Philadelphia Sports Hall of Famer plays them as they lie, on the greens, where the golf ball calls out to the broadcaster on a regular basis.
But the octogenarian has octane to spare, going down memory lane, fast and furious.
And just imagine, he gave up thoughts of a possible career as a dentist after graduating from St. Lawrence University, to eventually cover holes opened by football defensive linemen for the jaw-dropping antics of O.J. Simpson (he broadcast football's Buffalo Bills as well).
But that's OK, concedes Meltzer, tongue in cheek.
"I would have been a terrible dentist!"