Glickman

There’s an exchange in Sports Night where anchor Casey McCall questions producer Dana Whittaker’s decision to air a particular interview, unflattering to a famous baseball player.

Casey: “It’s just not necessary.”

Dana: “Neither is sports.”

Sports aren’t necessary. Despite their ubiquity, popularity, and enduring corporate juggernaut status, sports are games, played by rich, entitled athletes and providing nothing apart from entertainment. They are a diversion elevated to cultural significance by writers and businessmen eager to invest these children’s games to lofty status for their own (usually financial) reasons.

And yet...

So many of the most memorable moments in the lives of even the casual sports fan are marked by sporting events we played in or, more likely, experienced vicariously. The reasons why are as individual as, well, individuals, but it’s undeniably true that our identification with a team or an athlete is a powerful one, linked to the narrative of our lives we craft for ourselves. We give our proxy to those athletes who, due to similarity or inspiring backstory or simple geography, we identify with, and then their fate is linked to ours. The new HBO documentary Glickman presents an entertaining portrait of a man who, both in his athletic career and his much longer tenure as a pioneering sports broadcaster, embodied both sides of the enduring appeal of sports. In its brisk, unapologetically reverent eulogy of the unassuming Marty Glickman (who died in 2001), the film presents an equally unostentatious case for why sports, and the people who revere them, hold such power.

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, the young Glickman emerged in 1930s New York as a schoolboy phenom, excelling in football, basketball, and especially track and field where, at 18, he found himself bound for the 1936 Olympics. The Berlin Olympics, hosted by Adolf Hitler. While black teammates Jesse Owens and Mack (big brother of Jackie) Robinson shattered records and spoiled Hitler’s imagined exhibition of Aryan athletic superiority, Glickman and fellow Jewish runner Sam Stoller were pulled at the last minute from the relay lineup by coach Dean Cromwell and American President of the International Olympic Committee (and avowed Hitler fan) Avery Brundage in what the film presents as an unambiguous sop to their host’s prejudices. (Owens, slotted to replace Glickman, protested but was overruled.) Speaking of the incident in interviews throughout the film, Glickman displays an empathetically human hurt, looking back at his younger self with a protective disappointment, as if it happened to someone else. (Which fits, as the Glickman we see through most of the archive footage is a balding, portly, mustachioed gent. The young Glickman is shockingly, heartbreakingly athletic and innocent, his 5’8” frame chugging along with exuberant ease, blithely confident in the fact that his gifts will last forever—and overcome anything.)

The theme of prejudice as antithesis to the ideal of sports runs through the film, but never becomes heavy-handed or pedantic and that’s mainly because of Glickman himself. When he speaks of the Berlin travesty or his inability to stand up for a black football teammate at Syracuse (which he tearfully presents as the greatest failure of his life) or his last-minute ouster from the initial NBC national basketball broadcast team (again presented convincingly as a result of anti-Semitism), Marty Glickman’s anger is tempered with an undercurrent of sad disbelief. Sports should be a place where everyone is equal, where the best athlete is the best athlete, and where racial, religious, or national differences are subsumed by the respect granted to one’s competitors. As Glickman puts it upon his return to Berlin’s Olympic stadium, this time as an old man, “How could those no good sons of bitches could have kept an 18-year-old kid out of the games?” It’s something both naïve and profound at the same time—sort of like sports.

Returning home, Glickman worked his way up the New York sports broadcasting scene, eventually becoming the metropolis’ most beloved announcer. Over his 60 years in the business, he held tenure as the play-by-play man for the Knicks, Jets, Giants (“the New York football Giants” as he would say), and Rangers. In addition, he called thousands of horse races and college basketball games, and he created an audience for high school sports with his long-running “High School Game Of The Week” broadcasts where he brought the same level of enthusiasm for a high school football game as he did to the pros.

It’s here that Glickman brings in the traditional roster of testimonials, from respected sports journalists and broadcasters like Bob Costas, Marv Albert (a Glickman protegee), Peter Vescey, Gayle Sierens (the first female NFL play-by-play announcer, mentored by Glickman), Mike Breen, Frank Gifford (whose Giant games Glickman called before Gifford moved to the booth), as well as NBA commissioner David Stern, and celebrity fans Elliot Gould and Jerry Stiller, and former athletes Oscar Robertson and the still-formidable-looking Jim Brown (a fellow Syracuse football star). They’re all effusive in their praise for Marty Glickman, which isn’t shocking. What’s impressive is that Glickman is refreshingly specific about exactly why Glickman was such a great and revolutionary sports broadcaster. As Costas explains, Glickman was the first basketball announcer to “lay out the geography of the court,” which “allowed someone listening on the radio to picture the positioning of the players.” Which may seem elementary, especially as we watch innumerable games at home in high definition, but Glickman, in the infancy of sports broadcasting, knew that his depiction of the action on the court (or diamond, field, track, or rink) was truly the only link fans had to their teams and his ability to, again as Costas puts it, create images in “the theater of the mind” would be the only experience an overwhelming majority of sports fans would ever have of their beloved teams. Marty Glickman took that responsibility seriously and dedicated himself to creating the most vivid portraits possible.

To that end, Glickman is credited with literally inventing much of the basic vocabulary used to call games. Apart from inventing the term “swish” among many others, Glickman, heard in snippets throughout the film, is masterful in painting very specific pictures of each action on the field, all while keeping up his signature snappy delivery. (I especially liked the clip where Glickman describes a Giants’ TD catch, clarifying it was caught, “with one hand, with his right hand”—as someone who listens to a lot of radio sportscasts, that level of writerly detail is most welcome, and sorely lacking.)

Ultimately, of course, it’s just sports, but as the subtext of Dana’s riposte states, there’s something essential in the inessential. The film closes with the elderly Glickman receiving an award, and apology, from the IOC for his and Stoller’s treatment at the Berlin Olympics. In his speech, the ever-unassuming Glickman tells the story of the brief, necessarily wordless encounter he had with a young Japanese sprinter before the war, and how, even as a battle-hardened WWII marine, he still wept when he heard that man had been killed in battle. The lesson he took away from that, “That’s what sports can do—the love we feel for each other” sounds hokey and pedestrian, but coming from Marty Glickman, it has the force of Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein talking about the girl in the white dress.

Like a testimonial chorus proclaims late in the film, Marty Glickman was a mensch, and Glickman is a fittingly warm and generous tribute.

Stray observations:

  • As a lifelong sports fanatic (although not a New Yorker), I must have heard Glickman call any number of games, but I couldn’t place him until the end credits played the commercial where he calls a Matchbox car race. Cue a huge, goofy grin.
  • The film’s brief story of the ultimate fate of former Glickman track opponent Lou Zamperini should be the subject of its own documentary.
  • Glickman was also instrumental in creating HBO sports coverage, a potentially self-congratulatory fact for an HBO documentary until the film reveals that his early need to fill time included polka contests, dog shows, and flaming high divers.

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