John Sterling’s long and colorful life in broadcasting has placed him at countless memorable events, including the past 30 years calling games on radio for a certain pinstriped baseball team in the Bronx.
So what ranks No. 1 on his personal list? Perhaps Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS? Or one of those comebacks against the Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series? The Jeffrey Maier game in 1996? A perfect game by David Wells or David Cone?
If not the Yankees, then perhaps the Nets’ victory over the Nuggets to clinch the 1976 ABA championship?
None of the above, as it turns out. It was May 22, 1988: Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinal at Boston Garden between the Celtics and Hawks, whose games Sterling was calling at the time.
The Celtics won, 118-116, after a duel between Larry Bird, who scored 34 points, and Dominique Wilkins, who scored 47.
“The best game I’ve ever broadcast in my life,” Sterling said, recalling that the Celtics used to locate him at a courtside table right at center court. “It was like I was in the game. It was fabulous. Utterly, utterly fabulous.”
He proceeded to name the 1987-88 Hawks’ 10 most prominent players off the top of his head: Wilkins, Doc Rivers, Randy Wittman, Kevin Willis, Cliff Levingston, Tree Rollins, Jon Koncak, Antoine Carr, John Battle and Spud Webb. “What a great team,” he said.
Why bring all of this up in late 2018?
Because on Sunday afternoon, Sterling will return to basketball — an early love as a fan, player and broadcaster — to call a game at Barclays Center featuring the two teams with which he was most associated, the Hawks and Nets.
“It’s a kick; I love basketball,” said Sterling, who will work with analyst Sarah Kustok on YES.
He said that early in his career, he tried to find a pickup game in every town he visited. But all of that ended when he badly hurt a knee in a charity game at Fordham. (He could not recall when.)
“Basketball has been part of my life since I was 6 or 7 years old,” said Sterling, 80, who grew up in Manhattan. “I was meant to play. The only problem is that I was great when I was 10, 11, 12 and then everyone caught up to me when I was a teenager.”
He recalled his friend Kevin Loughery, who among other teams coached the Nets and Hawks, telling him, “You’re OK; you’re not embarrassing.”
This will not be the first time Sterling has called a Nets game for YES. He did so on a least a couple of occasions in the early-to-mid-2000s. But he has not done one since at least 2006.
Sterling originally called Nets games from 1975 to 1980, a period during which they moved from the ABA to the NBA and from Long Island to New Jersey.
After a year with the Bullets, he called Hawks games from 1981 to 1989, memorably saying of Wilkins, “Dominique is magnifique!”
Sterling said he jumped at the chance to work Sunday’s game when approached by John Filippelli, YES’ president of production and programming. When the assignment was announced in October, he said it was like “coming home again.”
His trove of basketball memories runs deep. He recalled being at Madison Square Garden when the Bullets defeated the defending champion Knicks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 1971. Sterling called the Yankees’ Series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Braves in 1996 the most memorable overall night of his career, but that Hawks-Celtics game still reigns for pure competitive excitement.
He said people come up to him often in Boston wanting to talk about that game as much as ones between the Yankees and Red Sox.
“It’s been somewhat dormant,” he said of his basketball jones. “Do I love basketball? Yes. Do I watch it? Yes. Do I listen to it? Yes. Did I play it? Yes. Did I broadcast it for years in the NBA? Yeah. So it’s a kick.”