We all know what legendary New York Yankees radio announcer John Sterling does between March and October, which has been calling every single game for the team since 1989. How Sterling, 80, spends his offseasons is less clear.
This weekend, however, we know that he’ll be doing play-by-play for Sunday afternoon’s YES telecast between the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks, alongside Sarah Kustok and Michael Grady. Sterling hasn’t called a Nets game since at least 2006, according to a YES spokesperson, but jumped at the chance to get back to his basketball broadcasting roots.
But before we worry too much about how Sterling spends his winters, rest assured he stays busy.
“I have no problem filling time,” Sterling told Awful Announcing over the phone this week. “I have no problem entertaining myself. And my world revolves around sports and music all year long, all the time. I am, as they say, plenty busy.”
In addition to going on various shows and appearances and this special basketball game, Sterling helps take care of his four kids, one in college and the others quickly growing up. He’s still a voracious sports fan, consuming basketball, baseball, football and hockey.
“It’s tough to explain. It’s part of me. It’s intrinsic,” he said. “I have a tough time going to sleep ‘til I know the score of the Vancouver-Calgary hockey game.”
Sterling is also an avid listener of old-time popular music, listing Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan as his favorite artists. He also said he enjoys Broadway shows as well, which makes sense given Sterling’s theatrical, often over-the-top nature of calling baseball games, which people seem to either can’t stand or can’t get enough of.
YES executive producer John Filippelli approached Sterling in October and asked him if he’d like to call a Nets game.
“And I said oh my God, I’d love it,” Sterling said. “It wasn’t any deeper than that.”
Sterling had filled in for occasional New Jersey Nets games when YES first launched in 2002, but hasn’t called a game since Marv Albert joined YES prior to the 2005-2006 season for a several-year stint as their play-by-play voice. Sterling also used to call Ivy League games and other college hoops games for YES.
“It’s tough to remember all these things,” Sterling said with one of his familiar full-bodied laughs. “The years keep going by.”
Sterling hosted a talk radio show in Baltimore in the late 1960s and would periodically pepper in some sports talk during his time slots. This got the attention of Baltimore Bullets broadcaster Jim Karvellas, whom Sterling became “bosom buddies” with.
“I was like Uncle John to their two children,” he said.
Sterling would sit with Karvellas during games and sometimes even get on the air. As Karvellas got more golf announcing gigs, Sterling got his first solo play-by-play broadcast in the late ’60s, when the Bullets played a Sunday afternoon game in Boston against the Celtics.
“I’ll remember it ‘til the day I die,” Sterling said. “I loved it. It was exciting, it was thrilling.”
After a year calling the Bullets, Sterling moved to New York to begin a weeknight sports talk show on WMCA in 1971. Frank Messer was calling Knicks games at the time, but he would go to Florida early for spring training. So Messer asked Sterling if he’d be interested in filling in with the Knicks while he was gone, which Sterling answered with a resounding yes.
“So I took vacation days at WMCA,” Sterling said. Before he knew it, he spent two years with the Knicks for their most recent championship season of 1972-1973 and an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Celtics in 1973-1974.
“Two years, thrilling, thrilling, thrilling years,” he said. “I’ve never heard arenas louder than Knicks-Bullets and Knicks-Celtics.”
Sterling called Knicks games from a suite at the very top of Madison Square Garden.
“I can recall giving all I had and being drenched at the end of those games,” he said.
Then WMCA landed the Nets, which Sterling called from 1975 to 1981, and the Islanders. Sterling was there for the ABA’s New York Nets’ transition to the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, broadcasting Julius Erving’s final season with the Nets before his glory days with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Sterling then went on to do eight years with the Atlanta Hawks on TBS and never missed a game, working with Lou Hudson, Charlie Criss, Butch Beard and even Clyde Frazier. He said he could have worked in Atlanta for a long time, but the Yankees and WABC came calling in 1989.
“Frankly I didn’t want to be an old man and say ‘I should’ve done the Yankees,’” Sterling said. “So I rolled the dice. And now it’s been 30 years. So I guess it worked out, huh?”
In preparing for Sunday’s broadcast, Sterling said he went to a couple of Nets games in Brooklyn to see them play live, where he said he can see a lot more than just watching on TV.
“I don’t see speed and strength as much on television,” he said.
The Hawks are so young that Sterling doesn’t know a lot of their players very well, but he plans to have conversations with Steve Holman, his old friend and Atlanta’s radio announcer. They’ll also have dinner the night before the game.
“Basketball now is very much high post pick-and-roll and 3-pointers. So it’s different,” Sterling said. “They don’t call a lot of plays and they do try to move the ball up and down quickly.”
Unlike his baseball home run calls, Sterling won’t plan anything outlandish. But if something comes into his head like his old “Dominique is magnifique” call he used to belt out with the Hawks, he’ll call it as it happens.
And by the way, even at 80 years old Sterling has absolutely no plans of slowing down.
“To answer the question really truthfully, I never plan to retire,” he said.
Sterling said his current role models are Bennett, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, “who are all in their 90s and they’re still working.”
“You know I always figured, as long as I have a voice,” he said, he’ll still be gainfully employed. Even if he couldn’t do baseball anymore, Sterling said he’d go get a job at a radio station. “Now if my voice goes, that takes care of that.”
Sterling said he never had to worry about being motivated, or finding something extra to keep him driven, even after 30 years of not missing a single Yankees broadcast. So as long as the Yankees have him and he can call every game without fail, that’s what he’ll do.
“I don’t plan anything,” Sterling said. “I live life by the seat of my pants and I broadcast by the seat of my pants.”
Here’s to hoping Sterling maintains that mindset during Sunday’s Nets broadcast, that quintessential attitude he’s brought to his broadcasts for over five decades.