That’s not quite the weapon of choice used by the Washington Wizards to silence their long-time television play-by-play voice, but Steve Buckhantz clearly deserved far better from this team and the cable outlet that will carry its games next season.
NBC Sports Washington announced Wednesday afternoon that Buckhantz, the team’s broadcaster for the last 22 years, will be replaced next year by Fox Sports announcer Justin Kutcher. His hiring comes almost four months after NBC Sports Washington confirmed in March that it was not going to exercise the one-year option remaining on Buckhantz’s contract.
“It’s truly hurtful,” Buckhantz tells City Paper. “After 22 years, I was turned away with little or no fanfare. I wanted to at least be able to say goodbye and tell everyone, the fans, our viewers, how much I appreciated the opportunity to do what I’ve been doing.”
In March, NBC Sports Washington’s new general manager, Damon Phillips, said he was exploring other options for television play-by-play. He did not dismiss the possibility that Buckhantz could still return for the 2019-20 season, but it was perfectly clear that was a remote possibility, if not an outright lie.
So, too, was his insistence to several media outlets, including City Paper, that this would be his decision to make, and his alone. Clearly this dagger (Buckhantz’s signature call when a basket clinched victory or defeat for the Wizards) was wielded by someone far above Phillips’ pay grade.
Phillips did not return a call to his office on Wednesday.
“We are tremendously excited and proud to unveil a dynamic new team to provide NBC Sports Washington’s live coverage of Wizards basketball,” Phillips said in a statement. “Justin’s skill, dedication and tremendous body of work have established him as one of the preeminent sports announcers nationwide. His impressive background and passion for basketball, combined with the considerable NBA and Wizards knowledge Drew [Gooden] and Chris [Miller] have accumulated, will result in a high-quality, entertaining product for fans.”
Phillips may well have been the one to officially inform Buckhantz that his services would no longer be needed. And he may well be the man who decided that Kutcher, one of a dozen people he interviewed, would be the new TV voice of this hapless and seemingly hopeless franchise.
But the true villains of the piece are lurking elsewhere. That would be team owner Ted Leonsis and his 30-something son, Zach. Sources have indicated they believe that millennial Zach, listed as senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Monumental Sports & Entertainment and general manager of Monumental Sports Network, was pushing for a change. And his father obviously acquiesced.
If so, shame on both of them, for the way they allowed Buckhantz to dangle in the wind for so long, and the gutless way they’ve handled the firing.
Says Buckhantz, “If this was NBC Sports Washington doing this and Phillips had gone to Ted and said, ‘We’re looking to make a change with the hockey broadcast,’ you know Ted would have looked at him right in the eye and said, ‘No, that’s not happening.’
“This was a team decision, and make no mistake about that. The owner makes these decisions. And by the way, [Leonsis] also owns 33 percent of NBC Sports Washington.”
Buckhantz said on 106.7 The Fan that he has not heard from Ted or Zach since the process began. Phillips later told the radio station that “anyone with knowledge of this process and how we operate our business, knows that talent decisions are made by the TV network, not the team. That may not be the case in other NBA markets, but that’s how it works here.”
Calls to Leonsis’s office and to Scott Hall, vice president for communications for the Wizards, were not returned Wednesday.
Buckhantz surely will find another good broadcasting gig again, but it will never be quite the same as his Wizards tenure. The Northern Virginia native has often described his role with the team as the dream job of his life. And his good work for so many years of having to describe so much dreadful basketball clearly was appreciated by the few fans still remaining who watched the telecasts in the first place.
He was totally informed, prepared, and entertaining. Of course he wanted the Wizards to win, but he was never a see-no-evil homer and could be critical of the team he covered without ever sounding shrill or mean-spirited. He had wonderful chemistry with his long-time analyst, Phil Chenier (also sadly pushed aside two years ago), and worked well with Chenier’s replacement, Kara Lawson, who was hired as an assistant coach by the Boston Celtics last month.
Essentially, Buckhantz was the consummate professional in every way. And I suspect Wizards fans be voicing their displeasure over this travesty at shrill levels for quite some time.
I know nothing about Kutcher, his replacement, other than what I read in the Post. He’s 39, has done play-by-play on a variety of sports for 17 years, the last seven with Fox Sports.
“I know that everyone’s going to be like, ‘Who is this Justin Kutcher guy?’ I get it, I totally understand it, and, frankly, I’d be the same way,” Kutcher told the Post. “If it were my team and I had this allegiance to a broadcaster for over 20 years, change is tough. I’m not looking to be him. I have the utmost respect for what he’s done.”
I’m sure Kutcher is competent enough, but he better have a some seriously thick skin as well. With the woebegone Wizards these days, you never know when that dagger might strike next.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.