Former Celtic announcer Len Berman answers 19 questions
Mike Gorman and Sean Grande are household names amongst Celtics fans today for the way they call Boston's games on the tv and radio. Back in the 1970s, that guy was actually Len Berman. Although he's likely most known for his stint covering NY sports, he actually had one of his first breaks in Boston calling games for the Celtics. Len was nice enough to take some time out to reflect on his time in Boston and what it was like covering Hondo, Cowens, Jo Jo and the rest of the team.
CelticsLife: Everyone from the NY area remembers you covering NY Sports. Channel 4, NBC, “Spanning the World,” the segment that was yours. But what a lot of people may not know is you got your start with the Boston Celtics. Tell us about your time in Boston, when you landed the position and what exactly you were doing for the team.
Len Berman: I was hired by WBZ-TV at first to be a weekend sports anchor in July of 1973 with the understanding that I’d soon move into the weekday chair. I did a few months later. WBZ was airing Celtics games on radio and TV, for the 1973-74 season. I worked with Johnny Most on a simulcast of selected road games.
It was a disaster. Johnny didn’t need a “colorman” and the station cheaped out. They were airing Red Sox games at the time so for the Celtics road games we used the replay equipment which was located back in Boston. So I couldn’t see the replays that I was describing. So in summary, as a kid announcer, I probably didn’t know what I was talking about. And I couldn’t see what I was talking about either. I became the TV play by play guy for the 75-76 season my first of four years on TV.
CL: Today’s telecasts have 2 to 3 guys on them. Were you alone or were you with someone (Bob Cousy perhaps)? What was it like working with Cousy? Did you also have a chance to work with Johnny Most?
LB: On television I worked with Bob Cousy. He was the best. Not only was his basketball knowledge unparalleled he was a terrific guy off the air. I learned a lot from him on dealing with the public. He was a superstar athlete but never acted like a “star.”
Working with Johnny was a trip. He never stopped talking (or smoking) on or off the air. There were times I wondered why the hell I was there?
CL: You worked with Bob Cousy, who always insisted on calling Auerbach "Arnold." Was there any underlying friction between the two, and was that a factor in why Cousy never coached the team?
LB: I was never aware of any friction between the two. I’m guessing Cuz had his fill of coaching after the Royals experience.
CL: Any good Johnny Most stories? And why does that man not have a plaque in Springfield?
LB: Johnny Most was a walking caricature of himself. He’d sit down to do a pre-game show and just basically have the starting lineups in front of him and he would talk forever. In fact I think he’s still chewing off St. Peter’s ear. I had no idea he hasn’t been honored in Springfield. I just assumed he was.
CL: Tell us about your first season and what that was like.
LB: Other than the simulcasts I remember the 1974 Finals against Milwaukee. The Bucks won Game 6 on a ridiculous skyhook from Kareem in double overtime. I remember going into the Celtics locker room and the players all were there answering questions. None were hiding in the trainer’s room. Game 7 was a Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee, an easy Celtics win. What wasn’t easy was getting on the air in Boston that night. I filmed (yes filmed) interviews, caught a flight to Chicago and changed planes for Logan. As we were nearing Boston the pilot radioed ahead to tell my TV crew when we’d be landing. We then had to race to the station and process the film. I made it on the 11pm news with minutes to spare. Crazy for an afternoon game. Today the game would be at night and there would be live hookups to the station. No flights, no film.
Glenn McDonald taking the jumper
CL: June 4, 1976 is considered by many to be the greatest game in NBA finals history, the triple OT affair between the Celtics and Suns. Tell us about that night for you.
LB: The game began at 9pm on CBS. I stayed for a quarter and then went back to the studio to broadcast the 11pm news on the NBC affiliate which ran opposite the game, a newscast watched by nobody in Boston. I then drove back to the game and got there in time for overtime. It was as if I walked through a time warp. A smoky haze was hanging over Boston Garden. I remember Havlicek’s leaner that appeared to win the game in the second overtime, but didn’t. I remember Paul Westphal calling a time out the Suns didn’t have which worked to their advantage. Garfield Heard then hit the tying shot which forced the third overtime. And then Glenn McDonald of all people hitting some key shots to help Boston win the game. What a draining experience…for the fans! Tommy Heinsohn the coach, would later say that he didn’t agree that it was the greatest game of all time. He thought the game was poorly played until it went overtime. My parents had come from New York for the game, it was their first NBA game in person. They thought all games were like that.
CL: I believe you left the team in 1979 which would’ve meant that the team owned the rights to Larry Bird but that he’d yet to suit up for a game. Back then, the 78-79 team was considered one of the weakest in their history. What was it like covering that team?
LB: I had left WBZ before that season. But I was sitting in the draft room when Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird. Everyone gasped. They knew he wouldn’t play for a full year. In fact during Bird’s senior year I was broadcasting the HBO College Basketball game of the week with Tommy Heinsohn! We did a game at Indiana State and Red Auerbach sat next to us at the broadcast table. Even though he had drafted Bird he had never seen him play in person until that night. Red’s jaw dropped. It wasn’t Bird’s shooting it was his passing. I’d rarely seen Auerbach that excited.
CL: You got to cover the team when 3 Hall of Famers were routinely part of Boston’s squad: Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Jo White. Who was the best player in your opinion on those 1970s teams?
LB: I loved just about all of them. Don’t forget Paul Silas Don Nelson and Don Chaney. Every one of them a class act. Auerbach also drafted and traded for character. And it was like family. I remember Silas driving me home from the airport after a game. Not sure that would happen today.
CL: You were there at a key point when Paul Silas was traded for Curtis Rowe. For people too young to remember Silas, how valuable was he to that team and how much did that trade upset the camaraderie of the squad?
LB: You could argue that Silas was the best player, or at least the glue on the two Celtic championships in the 70s. Without his rebounding, they don’t win.
CL: There were 3 Celtics’ coaches during your time with the team: Tommy Heinsohn, player-coach Dave Cowens and Tom Sanders. What kind of relationship did you have with each of them?
LB: Actually quite good. I was basically just a kid when I got to Boston and Heinsohn was an eye-opener. I had heard he wasn’t a friendly guy. Couldn’t be further from the truth. On the road he’d be painting pictures in his room. He was a multi-faceted guy. And of course I wound up broadcasting with him at HBO. Cowens was a trip. A small town guy in the big city. I was always fond of Dave. I wasn’t there for his coaching, but as a player I remember sitting next to him eating lunch in Hartford. He castigated me for putting salt on my food. He told me salt and sugar is the worst stuff to put in your body. I’ve rarely had salt since. And Satch was the sweetest guy you’d ever meet. I actually would up broadcasting a couple of games with him.
CL: How well did you know Red? Do you have any interesting stories to tell us about him?
LB: I knew Red but I’m not sure that other than his players anyone was really close with Red. He had a gruff exterior but it covered up a softer side. He introduced me to Sen. Ted Kennedy at Fenway and told Kennedy I’d be broadcasting his games. I don’t think Kennedy gave a crap. Red bled Celtics green. When another team won the championship, like Portland in 1977, he’d grouse they were “lucky.” And Red would tell everyone who would listen how Russell was so much better than Chamberlain. In later years I came to doubt that.
CL: As a new York guy, how did you feel in your gut when Red had his brief flirtation with the Knicks during the John Y. Brown days?
LB: I never thought Red would go. Ever!
CL: There was a chubby young black kid who began working as a C's ballboy around the time you arrived at WBZ. By the Bird days, he'd traded in the warm-up suit for street clothes, but was still on the bench every home game...He was said to be a troubled kid in whom Red had taken a personal interest. Do you remember this young man, and can you fill in any detail of that tale?
LB: I remember the young man, but honestly don’t remember the back story.
CL: What was the best Celtics’ team you covered?
LB: Clearly the ’76 Championship team was my favorite since I had been their TV voice. In fact when they came home after clinching the title in Game 6 in Phoenix I did a live shot at Logan Airport for WBZ. It was the first live-shot mini-cam remote in station history.
CL: What was your most memorable moment during your time in Boston? LB: I can’t pick one. But the 75 World Series was truly special, as was the “Bucky Dent” playoff game in 78. John Havlicek day was special for me. John let me ride with him and tape his drive from home in Weston to his final game. And at halftime the writers asked me to make a media presentation to John which CBS carried live to the nation. (They gave John a typewriter, can you believe that?) And John gave gifts to teammates as well as the media. I still have the pocket watch he gave me. It has my initials on the outside and inside it’s inscribed “Time for a friend 4-9-78 John.”
For my TV report that night I focused the camera on the crowd while John was speaking at halftime. Fans had tears rolling down their cheeks. I put the scenes to the Chicago song “If You Leave Me Now.” The lyrics were perfect:
If you leave me now, you'll take away the biggest part of me
No baby please don't go
If you leave me now, you'll take away the very heart of me
No baby please don't go
Hondo's gift for Len
CL: You grew up a big Yankees fan; were you also a Knicks’ fan? If so, how challenging was it covering the team and at any point were you secretly rooting against the Celtics?
LB: I had the luxury of working in Ohio in between growing up in New York and working in Boston. While covering Pete Rose and Johnny Bench and the Reds I lost my “fandom.” So when I was broadcasting Celtics games which some of my New York friends saw, they asked me why I was talking so much about Jo Jo and Chaney instead of Frazier and Monroe?
CL: Do you still watch the league today? What’s your take on the game today? Are today’s guys too athletic for guys from the 70s and 80s or are today’s guys too flawed with fundamentals playing in an over expanded league?
LB: I don’t watch a whole lot of NBA today but I continue to be amazed by the likes of Lebron, Curry and Durant. And yes the lack of fundamentals drives me nuts. I forget is travelling 5 or 6 steps these days?
CL: Who is the best NBA player you saw play from 1972 on?
LB: Actually I’ll throw you a curve and say Magic Johnson. Of course Michael was phenomenal. But Magic played all 5 positions that night he delivered the Lakers the title against Philly in 1980. And he was a rookie for goodness sakes…AND the Finals MVP! (I had also broadcast two of his Michigan State games on HBO. I was, and continue to be, very fond of him.)
Len, center, today
CL: You left NBC in 2009. What have you been up to since then? Is there anything you’d like to promote?
LB: I still go Spanning the World monthly on the Today Show. Since January of 2015 I’ve been the co-host of “Len Berman and Todd Schnitt” in the morning on WOR 710 Radio in New York City. It’s not a sports show, it’s general news talk. We air 6-10am weekdays. So these days I’m an early riser.
There you have it. CelticsLife thanks Len for his time and encourages all of our NY fans to give him a listen on 710 AM during the morning commute. We wish him luck with all future endeavors and certainly suggest following him on Twitter.