"This is Johnny Most high above courtside at the Boston Garden...."
In the sports lexicon, there are two types of homers: homer as in round-tripper, and homer as in biased broadcaster. Johnny Most—irascible, loyal, prejudiced, wonderful Johnny Most—has been announcing Boston Celtic games on the radio since 1953, a few years after they took down the peach baskets over in Springfield, and he is, without question, the ultimate homer. In his green-tinged view of reality on WRKO, every Celtic player is conceived without sin. All others—refs, opposing players, loudmouthed patrons, in Philadelphia especially—are corrupt.
You know what Johnny's 32-year record of distortion has gotten him? Love. You could feel it last Friday evening when he hosted Red Auerbach night at Boston Garden. Boston fans identify with no one, not even the great Cooz, more than Johnny. A kind of cult following has developed among the fans, who tune in just to hear what he'll say next.
Most, who in his early days worked in New York under Bill Stern, has all but ignored TV since Auerbach hired him eons ago. His whole life is radio and the team, for which he has broadcast on five different stations. He's a throwback to another age, when sports announcers were characters, not clones.
One thing different about Most, 61, is his voice, which three generations of fans have learned to imitate. His "Havlicek stole the ball!"—describing John Havlicek's theft of a Hal Greer inbounds pass in the 1965 playoffs against Philadelphia—is probably the Most quoted line. The voice may have been melodious once, but now it's a bark, raspy and urgent, from the back of the throat. For his entire adult life Johnny has been a two-pack-a-day cigarette man—"According to the Surgeon General, I've been dead since 1955," he says—and there are times you can hear him hacking away, hand over mike. If fans in enemy cities stand in front of his position, he'll interrupt his play-by-play to yell at them to "smarten up" or even swat them away with his good hand (his right hand was paralyzed by a stroke he suffered in 1983). Nothing gets in the way of his broadcast. While calling a 1959 playoff game he lost his dental plate, but he says, "I caught it before it fell over the balcony."
Then there's Most's legendary preparation. As in zero. For more than 2,500 games he's brought nothing to the task except a program insert, cigarettes, three or four cups of coffee and "vapor-action" throat lozenges. If a new enemy player is unfortunate enough to be surnamed Jones or Brown, Johnny will make no effort to learn his first name.
Although Most keeps up on the action with his rat-a-tat call and does give credit for outstanding plays made against the Celtics, he's the world's greatest embellisher. The refs pamper the opposition while the Celtics always get mugged. A typical Most game is part basketball, part morality play, part championship wrestling. "People in Boston don't consider a basketball broadcast a basketball broadcast without him," says former Celtic Tommy Heinsohn.
"I'm a one-way street, no question about it," Most says. In the extremely unlikely case any Celtic does something naughty, "I usually find reasonable provocation for that naughtiness." Ask Most if he could make it starting out today in broadcasting, and he's likely to swat you one: "Some professor sits back in a university somewhere and says, 'Thou shalt not be prejudiced.' I wanna know why not? Why can't I be? You can't be with a bunch of guys day in day out, year in year out, and not have affection for them. And if you don't broadcast that way, you're lying."
Most's good-guy, bad-guy outlook can backfire on him, though, when a former villain is traded to the Celtics, or a Boston hero is sent to another team. Because the world is populated by brutes, "big crybabies" and other assorted black hats playing for enemy teams, and because all Celtics are paragons of virtue, this presents a problem. Year before last, for example, Rick Robey, who had been a white hat, was traded to Phoenix for Dennis Johnson, whom Johnny had been calling "Mr. Nasty." Overnight, Robey became the "Baby-faced Assassin" and D.J. became a sweetheart. "There was a mending of D.J.'s ways the moment he came to Boston," Most explains. "That's the angelic influence we have on people." Johnny dubbed Moses Malone "Big Coward" for scuffling with Larry Bird last November. Some other sobriquets applied by Most over the years: The Brat ( Rick Barry) and Roughhouse Rudy ( Rudy LaRusso).
On the side, Most writes free verse. His best poem goes like this: "With the passage of time, the pretty flower wilts and the green green grass is yellowed, but the beauty within me matures and grows, with the passage of time." With Johnny, you never know what to expect. To paraphrase one of his fans, Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, the only thing worse than having heard Johnny Most is never having heard him.