Tributes to Marv Albert overlook role in sexual assault case

America at Large: voice of the NBA has been routinely described as an icon, a legend

Marv Albert became synonymous with the NBA, his distinctive catchphrases segueing from the court into popular culture. File photograph: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Marv Albert became synonymous with the NBA, his distinctive catchphrases segueing from the court into popular culture. File photograph: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

 

All week long, the tributes have been coming for Marv Albert. The moment news leaked of his impending retirement as the voice of the NBA, he was being routinely described as an icon, a legend, one of the most storied broadcasters ever.

In the 58 years that have passed since he called his first New York Knicks’ game at just 21, Albert became synonymous with the sport, his distinctive catchphrases segueing from the court into popular culture. The only jarring note was that quite a few paeans to his longevity somehow didn’t see fit to mention his starring role in an especially lurid sexual assault case.

In May 1997, he was charged with forcible sodomy, biting a long-time lover multiple times on the back, and then forcing her to perform oral sex on him in a Virginia hotel room. According to the testimony of Vanessa Perhach, Albert was angry because, while he’d been busy working the Knicks versus the Washington Bullets, she had failed to find another man to join them that evening for a threesome.

In the months between his arrest and the start of his trial, his name also turned up in the black book of Mistress Hilda Pierce, a New York city dominatrix who was mysteriously shot dead in her Upper West Side apartment.

Born Marvin Aufrichtig into a Hungarian family in Brooklyn, he got a job running errands for the Dodgers at 14, just before they alighted to Los Angeles. There followed a stint as a ball boy for the Knicks where he eventually became statistician to Marty Glickman, the famed commentator who got stuck in a blizzard one night in the winter of 1963 and sent word the kid now known as Marv Albert should take his mike for a game against the Celtics. He went on to cover umpteen Super Bowls, Stanley Cup finals, World Series. major boxing fights, and even Wimbledon.

His schedule was so over-packed that he titled his autobiography (ghosted by Rick Reilly), “I’d Love To, But I Have a Game . . . ”, the sentence he trotted out most to friends and family when explaining his absences. Then, at the peak of his career, he sent a text to Perhach, asking, “When are we going to meet? Got somebody to take the tickets? And, oh, by the way, do you have somebody for the threesome?”

Suddenly, he was holding press conferences protesting his innocence and declaring the encounter to have been entirely consensual. The prosecution was requesting impressions of his teeth, legal experts were pointing out the maximum sentence he faced was life, and, through it all, his various employers stood resolutely by him as he awaited his day in court.

The proceedings began with an opening statement from the prosecution that included allegations Albert regularly beseeched Perhach to bring women’s underwear for him to don during their encounters. On day two, she took the stand herself and told of his frequent requests to find men with large penises to join their fun. Salacious tabloid fodder that was not damning evidence of anything but his rather eclectic attitude in the bedroom. Then, in the best traditions of every courthouse drama, the prosecution sprung a surprise witness on the third day.

Patricia Masten was a concierge with Hyatt Hotels who testified about being invited to Albert’s suite one time in Texas to assist him sending a fax. When she got there, he emerged from the bathroom dressed in women’s panties and a garter belt and forced himself on her. As she struggled under the attack, Albert started to bite her. Trying to wrestle free, she grabbed his toupee, lifting it clean off his head. At which point, clutching the wig, he ran from the room and she made good her escape.

Amid speculation about whether his hairdresser might be called down from New York to testify about how the peculiar application of his rug made ripping it off impossible, Albert struck a deal the very next day. He pled guilty to assault and battery while the more serious felony charge of forcible sodomy was dropped.

Reputation rehab

“In the past, there was consensual biting,” said Albert, before the judge sentenced him to 12 months suspended, a $2,500 fine and psychological counselling. “On this particular evening, I did not realise until her testimony that she felt she was harmed. For that I am sorry.”

Initially fired from the airwaves, Albert’s stay in professional purgatory was obscenely brief. Within weeks, a series of soft-focus media appearances began his reputation rehab. On “60 Minutes” with Barbara Walters, he denied large portions of the case against him and called Perhach a liar. On “The David Letterman Show” where he was a guest over 50 times, he declared the whole thing a set-up, motivated by his jealous accuser being aggrieved that he was marrying another woman.

“Man!” joked Letterman. “Wow! The only thing I’ve bitten during sex is my lower lip.”

The audience lapped up the old pals’ double act, guffawing throughout a 20-minute cameo spent downplaying the assault and disparaging Perhach. The contrived public relations blitz worked a treat. By the start of the next basketball season, Albert was back calling New York Knicks’ games and, six months later, he returned to national television. As with so much of the fulsome praise of his career this past few days, it was like nothing untoward ever happened.

Except, of course, it did.

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