Puck, Not Hamlet

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With the Boston Celtics 2018-19 season about to begin, I found myself recently recalling the exploits of the team’s late broadcaster, the legendary Johnny Most, who held forth “high above courtside” from 1953-90. Ultimately, his unyielding, theatrical narrative – an ongoing saga in which the good guys were forever attired in green and white – was “must-listen” radio. His gravelly voice – thanks to smoking a silo full of Camels over the years – was easily the most imitated voice in New England for two generations.

A well-seasoned storyteller who was well-read and loquacious Most was able to describe in excruciating detail the heroic plight of a “warranted championship team” that even malevolent referees and hooligan thugs couldn’t conquer. As one Boston sportswriter once commented, Johnny didn’t broadcasting a basketball game. He thought he was narrating The Passion Play.” When he died, sports broadcasting homerism in extremis died with him.

 Unlike the sedan-like quality of such lyrical baseball announcers as Vin Scully, Red Barber, and Ned Martin, Johnny Most’s voice sounded like a car crash at a demolition derby. He would sit, emperor-like, in his haughty perch just below the rickety third balcony at the old Boston Garden, inhaling non-filter after non-filter, creating a minefield of smoke that shrouded him in a perpetually dimming stupor. For more than two hours, Johnny then would inexorably describe the proceedings taking place on the historic, parquet floor below, whining over the inequalities of life even as his team won a gaudy 16 championships in 30 years.          

Amidst Buick-sized rats, plastic beer cups, and drunken louts, his grating voice and discriminating commentary became a welcomed adhesive for legions of Celtic fans in what might have been the most flourishing Off-Broadway production in history. There were very few critics; nearly every Bostonian seemed to warm to his antics like a warm southerly breeze. An uncompromising original, Johnny Most made even the most irrelevant game in November seem important.

It is also certain that Johnny’s hyperbolic storylines knew no bounds if he was into it that night. His habit for glorious embellishment would invariably be replicated the very next day in countless schoolyards across the Route 128 area: “Tall Paul Silas snags the rebound, and gets absolutely cuffed in the stomach by Kareem! Oh my goodness! But, of course, Jake O’Donnell isn’t calling anything because there’s no blood on the court! Do you believe that?”

 Even the immortals wore black hats in Johnny’s unambiguous world: “Oscar Robertson gets the rebound…… and puts his left elbow right in the face of Satch Sanders! Right in the face! And Manny Sobel has the audacity to call a foul on Satch! Well, ladies and gentlemen, those of us who have been blessed to see ‘The Lord’ in the flesh know that Oscar Robertson would never, ever commit a foul!”

 One night, I actually heard him bawl: “Gene Shue just gave his Bullets’ players an armful of tire irons so that they may attack anything out there in green and white….knowing that Mendy Rudolph will call it ‘justifiable homicide!’”

Some of the more unique Mostian broadcasts occurred away from Boston when opposing fans learned to unmercifully bait such a polarizing figure with aplomb. Inevitably, after being peppered by coffee cups and cigarette butts throughout much of the game, Johnny would growl, “I just got hit by a bagel! They’re throwing things at me, ladies and gentlemen, because the miserable fans here at the Civic Center are frustrated that their shabby, less-than-mediocre team always loses to the Celtics!”

 It’s not to say that John didn’t have a sense of humor. His recurrent cackle sounded like a Ford Falcon attempting to start on an arctic January morning. When Detriot’s Dave Bing was traded to the C’s in the mid-seventies, Johnny couldn’t wait to sing out, “The ball goes out to Dave Bing. He backs up to the right of the key as Big Red clears the way. It’s Bing from the corner – Bing……..bang!”

In the end, though, Johnny Most’s calls were both original and extraordinary. His signature phrases became compulsory axioms for an entire region of basketball fans:

        “This is Johnny Most high above courtside.”

        “Cousy fiddles and diddles – now he daddles.”

        “Outside to Sudden Sam Jones – SWISH!”

        “Russ blocks Wilt and then gets the rebound all in one fell swoop! What a play by Bill Russell!”

        “Jarring John tricky-dribbles with the ball…”

        “DJ dishes it off to Larry for the three-pointer. It’s Bird-time!”

        And, of course, his nightly sign off, “This is Johnny Most – bye for now.”

In every way, Johnny Most was our Puck to Vin Scully’s Hamlet.

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