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Marv Albert, memory & gaslighting

It’s complicated. Or not.

Magic v Warriors Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The final day of the 1991 regular season was a Sunday. NBC had Chicago hosting Detroit. I’d grown up following the NBA in the newspapers and only that year started watching games regularly. I’d be in church during the game, so I set it to tape. I’d seen Michael Jordan dunk a million times in highlight videos — the kind you could rent from the supermarket video section for $2.18 — but never in a game.

We were staying at my grandparents’ house. As the only son, I was given the back room for myself while my parents shared one room and my sisters another. This worked beautifully, since the back room had a TV and a VCR. Late that Sunday night I watched the game, and yes it happened: Jordan got loose on a breakaway and dunked. The dunk unquestionably ranked near the bottom of MJ’s all-time efforts — he took off of two feet maybe just outside the paint and threw it down. Nothing to write home about. Still. This was Michael Jordan dunking. I rewound and rewatched the whole sequence a hundred times. I Zapruder’d that shit. Whatever I was hoping for wasn’t there. But I kept looking.

Right as Jordan was breaking free on the breakaway, Marv Albert was talking about Chicago center and one-time Knick Bill Cartwright having struck a Bulls’ ballboy. The rapid shift in focus is dizzying: in a literal instant, talk of the violence evaporates like mist in the light of a performer at the top of their game giving the people what they want.

Six years later Albert would be the talk of the town, the sports side and the non-, because of his own act of violence. Two years later, after being fired by NBC because of his crime, Albert was back at the top of the game, calling the NBA Finals yet again. Three years later, the voice of the Knicks was fired by James Dolan for criticizing the worst Knick efforts in almost 20 years. 18 years later, Albert’s retired. It’s been three days since his last broadcast, Milwaukee’s Game 6 win over Atlanta to advance to the Finals, and I still don’t know how to go about knowing how to feel.

That night back in 1991 I watched the game with the volume low while I recorded myself doing commentary. Before I ever dreamed of being John Starks or Pat Riley, I wanted to be Marv. He was a hero to me, a downstate NY kid whose family moved upstate after facing discrimination, only to immediately encounter even more in a place that’s culturally anti-NYC. Sports was the biggest thing in my life as a 12-year-old; the fact that Albert was the voice of the Knicks, the voice of the NBA, the voice of so many Buffalo Bills/N.Y. Jets games, the radio voice of the N.Y. Rangers...I assumed the only reason Albert wasn’t also the voice of the Mets and/or Yankees was because at some point he had to sleep.

I was frustrated a lot as a kid by things I didn’t know how to talk about. Since I couldn’t get out what I wanted to say, I compensated by not shutting up. I talked constantly in class. Talked back to cops, bus drivers, strangers. I played first base that year and opposing teams complained to the umpires about how much I talked to their baserunners. I said something so rude to my father one day he nearly killed me while my mother was literally up on his back trying to hold him back. I laugh about it all now. I didn’t then. It hurt.

Albert was masterful with understatement, something I admired; I saw someone who seemed deliberate and confident, someone self-aware who also had some showmanship. To hear him greet an especially ill-fated airball or brick with a short and sweet “Whoa!” was so precise I couldn’t help but feel personally affirmed. Brevity requires confidence in the weight of one’s words; if I couldn’t give voice to what was inside me, I at least knew the first step in the journey there. When you speak, show confidence. The rest will catch up someday.

Four months after the clip above, in which Albert asserts his innocence, and two days after lurid details of his sex life began leaking out into the world, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery against Vanessa Perhach. That same month I was brought via ambulance to a psychiatric ward. Upon hearing about my revelations of suffering sexual violence, some of the people closest to me told me what I said happened never did, that my “memories” were really subliminal messages from the Tori Amos music I listened to. Albert, after hearing a recording of Perhach’s conversation with the police the night of his arrest, dubbed it “an Academy Award performance.” The man who admitted he done it six months after doing it first tried to smear the victim as a liar. To get enough people, or enough of the right people, to agree that what she knew had happened to her never did.

I was the victim of sexual violence. Albert pled guilty to sexual violence. So how do I feel warmth as he heads off-stage? I don’t think I’m alone in my confusion. I can still hear Michael Jackson’s music on the radio, but I won’t be seeing Cosby Show reruns anytime soon. Ever, I’d guess. Derrick Rose. Damyean Dotson. Anthony Mason. No two hit the same. Why?

Wanna know a secret? It sounds ridiculous now, but it’s true: one of my favorite episodes of The Cosby Show centers on a family barbecue. All the married couples are fighting, but all resolves amicably, even amorously, thanks to Cliff’s (Bill Cosby’s character) secret barbecue sauce, renowned in the family for its drug-like effect on people’s libido. That’s right: a Cosby Show episode about Bill Cosby manipulating people into sex via something they ingest.

I think back to that Bulls/Pistons game in 1991, and to the quintessential New Yorker who called it, and to me, the 12-year-old diasporic New Yorker recording themselves calling it, the latter longing to be the former. I think about Vanessa Perhach and I think about myself, who at 12 didn’t remember the worst of their past and was years away from re-living it as an adult. I think about Bill Cartwright hitting a ballboy.

I think about power differentials and violence. I think about how I can’t find any details about the Cartwright story on the internet now, about stories that only have a short shelf life to be heard, stories then lost to history. I think about Albert trying to gaslight Perhach into relegating her truth to that same forgotten history. About the ease with which he shifted from the Cartwright violence to Jordan dunking. About how normal we as a society consider something so clearly fucked up.

The old world has its charms, which perhaps charm as much as they do because we know their time is over. Reeses peanut butter cups are many things, but “charming”? A mass-produced monstrosity? No. Excess to that extent is never cute.

The old world ceases to make sense shortly after it’s new. There is I think tremendous hope in that truth. Recognizing that something doesn’t make sense is the first step in clarifying the confusion. Albert means something to me as a voice and as a symbol. He means something else to me as a person — whatever I was looking for wasn’t there. I stopped looking around the time one of my heroes lied about committing violence against someone. I don’t always know what or how to feel, but when I feel it matters — whatever I’m feeling now is usually closer to my truth. The past, then, is but a fig leaf: limited and extremely localized protection while most of one’s self is still exposed and vulnerable.

Marv Albert was in many ways a celebrated remainder of the old world, before Mike Breen’s G-rated stylings or forever fortissimo Kevin Harlan sucking all the air and perspective out of the building. I’ll miss that limited, localized charm. A new world dawns. And yes, it counts.