He has called Phoenix Suns games since 1972. And Al McCoy isn't done talking just yet

Bill Goodykoontz
Arizona Republic

Al McCoy has spent the pandemic calling games not in person but while sitting in a room, watching the action on a big monitor.

Anyone who has called a game like that will tell you it’s not ideal, and McCoy, 88, is no different. But he is better prepared than most. McCoy has called Phoenix Suns games since 1972.

“When this started … I said, well maybe because in my early years I recreated baseball games, which I did, maybe this will give me an edge while doing these basketball games,” McCoy said.

That’s right. McCoy used to do play-by-play for baseball games he didn’t attend. He was calling games for the old Phoenix Giants. It was fairly common practice; even former President Ronald Reagan called games that way.

“We didn’t travel all the time with the baseball team, in those AAA days," McCoy said, in the mellifluous tones Suns fans are so used to. “And so we recreated the games.”

In the present, however, McCoy is calling Suns games during their playoff run. Over the years, he’s been part of the TV broadcast, and now he calls games on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, with longtime analyst Tim Kempton.

How McCoy honed his skills as a sports broadcaster

McCoy, who is both a member of the Suns Ring of Honor and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, has been a constant for the team and in the lives of its fans — if you’ve listened to a game for more than five minutes and Devin Booker hits a three-pointer, you know what’s coming next: “Shazam!”

As it should be.

If you’ve listened to broadcasts in other cities, you’ve likely heard announcers prattle on like they were suited up and ready to play. One of the refreshing things about McCoy is that he’s not a homer. This comes from nearly a half-century of experience and seeing just about everything there is to see on a basketball court. It’s been an evolution.

“If we went back to those early years, I was probably more outspoken and more upbeat, cheering for the Suns,” McCoy said.

“But very early in my career, I think I realized that being a ‘homer’ really isn’t something that is going to be a plus for the broadcast, and really is something people don’t want to hear.”

McCoy, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, is a straight shooter. He takes a journalistic approach to calling games. Personalized, of course. “Zing go the strings” and all that. But his honesty is one of the things that’s carried him this far.

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“Now I think everybody that hears my broadcast realizes I’m going to be happier if the Suns win than if they don’t,” McCoy said. “But you can’t disguise what’s going on on the floor. And I’ve told many players about this through the years, that when they’re playing good I certainly report it. If they’re having an off night, I report that, too, because knocking down one shot in 18 tries, you can’t hide that. I think I was fortunate early in my career to realize that people want to hear the facts when the game is being played.”

McCoy saw himself as a baseball announcer when he was starting out, and he still loves the game. He can talk about how much he dislikes the infield shift and the lack of opposite-field hitting, but also why the sport is a favorite of broadcasters.

“I think it’s probably, for announcers, probably the best game. ... You can do so many things," he said.

How the media and the game have evolved

Obviously McCoy, an accomplished pianist, among other things, has interests beyond basketball. He’s curious, an observer, and he has watched as the relationship between media and players has changed over the years.

“Going back a number of years ago, if you had a news story or a sports story … that you were interested in bringing up, you made sure you had checked out every detail to just be certain that if you were going to release a certain story, that it was accurate,” he said. “That’s changed, because everyone’s a specialist now on the internet.”

McCoy has also seen a change in the players themselves.

“Players are just different,” McCoy said. “You’re dealing with a lot younger players." Where players used to spend at least three or four years playing in college, that's no longer always the case, with so many players staying for only a single season before declaring for the NBA draft.

McCoy isn't blaming players, though.

"We have to be honest with ourselves — there are reporters that are looking for something under the table, or make that individual not look good," he said. "And the players realize this can happen and that makes them even more hesitant to reply."

McCoy is no stranger to calling games remotely

McCoy can talk about anything. And he knows what people want to hear, whether it’s during a game or when he’s telling stories about made-up baseball games.

Ah yes, that. McCoy wasn’t being willfully deceitful. Not exactly. Like Reagan, he was just doing what broadcasters did back in the day.

But how?

“For many years, Western Union had a service where they would supply the information to baseball broadcasters,” McCoy said, “and Western Union would have a reporter at the site of the baseball games.” The reporter had access to a ticker tape gizmo that fed information about the game to broadcasters.

“Later on, they stopped the service, and then we would have to use just individuals at the ballpark, getting reports on the phone, which got a little difficult, because I was the type broadcaster that wanted to stay on top of the game,” McCoy said. “A lot of broadcasters would be several innings behind, but I liked to stay on top of it.”

The trouble with this system is that anyone calling a game was dependent upon the person feeding them information. McCoy recalled a game being played in Oklahoma City — where McCoy wasn’t.

“We were using a local guy who would call on the phone and give one of my assistants the information inning by inning,” he said. “When he started to send the first report, he wrote, ‘first ending,’ e-n-d-i-n-g, and I realized I was going to be in trouble with this guy all night long.”

As to whether that long-ago experience inadvertently helped prepare him for pandemic broadcasting, well, not as much as he’d hoped.

“It’s a little different” than recreating a baseball game, he said. “You can’t make things up quite as easily when folks are seeing it on the screen.”

So McCoy does what he’s always done: just keeps talking.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.