By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 26, 2013 at 4:01PM
When the credits roll on James L. Freedman’s “Glickman” it may be somewhat of a surprise to see Martin Scorsese’s name as an executive producer. Why would the legendary filmmaker have anything to do with a documentary about a sports broadcaster? Well, it’s for the simple reason that the groundbreaking, tremendously popular Marty Glickman is as New York as anything in Scorsese’s films (or the man himself). Both Glickman and Scorsese have the same excitable patter, and it’s not hard to imagine that the filmmaker soaked it up when hearing that voice delivering commentary on Paramount’s newsreels when he went to the movies. Glickman’s story is also one that reflects the difficult journey that immigrants and people of color faced in America in the early 20th century, something that surely must have resonated with Scorsese, but it’s also a tale of triumph and success.
“First jock turned broadcaster, in our industry,” it’s noted early on, and indeed Marty wasn’t born behind the microphone but on the track. His father was notably fleet of foot and his son inherited that talent, but both found themselves on the receiving end of racism due to their Jewish faith. In his native Romania Marty’s father found himself denied a first place medal for a race he had won and given two pennies instead, with the mayor’s son getting the top award. History would repeat itself even more cruelly for his son Marty, in an incident that was easily one of the defining moments of his life.
“I was always aware of the fact that I am a Jew. Never unaware of it, under virtually all circumstances,” Glickman says in one of the many vintage interviews featured in the film. Marty’s speed put him on the radar and in the papers, and he landed a spot on the track team for the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics after a controversial qualifier (in which, Marty was denied a higher finish because of anti-Semitism). Nevertheless he made the relay team of an already hugely favoured squad and at 18 years old, Glickman was on the cusp of greatness. But prejudices of the day, plus Nazi sympathies within the U.S. Olympic Committee — who were looking to minimize Adolf Hitler’s embarrassment, as he was already reeling from Jesse Owens’ spectacular performance — found track coach Dean Cromwell removing Glickman and teammate Sam Stoller from the 4x100 meter relay race were the had been slated to run. Sadly it wouldn’t be the first time Glickman would feel the unfair sting of this kind of bigotry in his career either as an athlete or radio/television personality. (The U.S. Olumpic Committee formally apologized to Glickman in 1998).
Nevertheless, in what would become a defining characteristic, Glickman soldiered on regardless of the obstacles placed in front of him. He attended university, becoming a star football player in the process, but when his small frame wouldn’t work in the big leagues he decided to give radio broadcasting — which he had been doing on the side — his full attention. He was a natural. His recaps of baseball games were so lively that many refused to hear the score first, intsead choosing to listen to Glickman’s summary later that day. He was instrumental in not only popularizing basketball — his commentary from college game double headers at Madison Square Garden are almost directly correlated in the rise of interest — but later in his career he would help broker a broadcast deal between NBC and the NBA, bringing the sport from the bustling metropolis of New York City to the expanse of midwest. But sadly, NBC’s Jewish executives feared they had too many of their kind at the top and dropped Glickman as their national broadcaster. It was there loss. The man would go on to become the defining voice of the New York Giants, New York Knicks and (to a slightly lesser degree) the New York Jets, but why does Glickman matter?
Historically speaking, he essentially invented the basketball vernacular that we now take for granted — “the lane,” “top of the circle” and even the ubiquitous “swish!” — and changed what sports commentary was. It’s not about describing what’s happening, so much as trying to put the audience in the game. Glickman’s delivery and gift for description was so good that you could close your eyes and immediately imagine how the play is unfolding, and where everyone is on the court or field. As a person he generously opened doors when so many had been closed to him in his career. He believed in sports even when it let him down (such as the point-shaving scandal that nearly derailed his career). He mentored a legion of next generation broadcasters and carved out time to shine a light on high school athletes on his own initiative because of an unerring belief that through sport, we can come to better understanding of other cultures and each other. Glickman continued to give the benefit of the doubt to the best nature that humankind has to offer, even when his own experience reflected that was not always the case. (The tale of his one major regret in life will break your heart, perhaps as equally as his story about a fellow Japanese athlete from his youth and World War II).
Freedman, a producer who once worked with Glickman and makes his documentary debut with this film, does an admirable job of capturing the broadcaster, even if the structure is a little old fashioned, moving as it does between vintage footage (which has been smartly assembled) and talking heads. He veers toward hyperbole from time to time, comparing Glickman to the Greek god Hermes, and perhaps overstating his influence on Jack Kerouac, but what he gets right is conveying the spirit of Glickman, the excitement of his work (even if you don’t know your three-point shot from a touchdown, it’s infectious) and the aura of someone who became a legend by not being as manipulative, cheap, mean, blindly ambitious or coldly cruel as so many others around him were. Marty Glickman was simply being the best Marty Glickman he could be. For many he wasn’t just the best Marty Glickman he was simply: the best. [B]