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Before Ted Leonsis or the general manager of NBC Sports Washington make any sort of decision on whether to keep Washington Wizards television play-by-play voice Steve Buckhantz on the job, they’d be wise to listen to the words of two local sports broadcasting veterans: longtime sports producer Ernie Baur and Andy Pollin, who has been on local radio as a sportscaster and talk show host for three decades.
They both understand why there’s been a widespread outcry from fans over the possibility that, after 22 long-suffering years, Buckhantz’s contract may not be renewed.
“The one thing that has been constant and reassuring about the mediocrity of the Wizards has been Steve Buckhantz,” says Baur, who worked with such Washington broadcasting icons as Warner Wolf, Frank Herzog, Glenn Brenner, and Chick Hernandez for more than 40 years. “Buck’s inflection, whether the team is winning or losing, is perfect and probably mirrors how the fans are feeling. He also perfectly sets up and weaves the analyst into the fabric of the broadcast.”
“He’s been doing it for 22 years, and nobody has suffered through more hard times the way he has,” adds Pollin. “He’s always been very clear in his lifelong passion for the team, going back to when he was a kid and went and watched the old Bullets and Earl Monroe when they played in Baltimore. Then he gets paired with Phil Chenier, one of his boyhood idols. He’s as invested in the Wizards as much [as], if not more than, anyone who has ever been involved with this team.
“People like his sayings. ‘Dagger!’ is the classic. He’ll often say, ‘How do you like that?’ He’s not a screamer. He understands the television medium where you really don’t have to say a lot. But Buck flows with the game. He doesn’t fake the high level. He gets excited when he should get excited.”
Leonsis owns the Washington Wizards, lock, stock and basketball. He has a 33 percent share in NBC Sports Washington, which televises most of the Wizards’ games. It seems obvious that he and he alone can fix what most observers agree would be an egregious breach of faith with his fans, not to mention a dastardly off-the-court personnel move.
According to a March 6 report in the Washington Post, NBC Sports Washington general manager Damon Phillips informed Buckhantz and his attorney, Phil Hochberg, that the network did not plan to pick up its option on Buckhantz “at this time” because it wanted to assess and review all aspects of the Wizards game telecasts. Phillips, on the job since January 2018, did leave open the possibility that Buckhantz still could continue as the team’s television voice.
A week later, Phillips said the decision on Buckhantz’s return likely will not be made until the offseason. The Wizards once again did not make the playoffs. They end the season with a home game against the Boston Celtics on April 9.
“My passion has always been for the Wizards and our broadcasts,” Buckhantz tells City Paper. “This is where I’d like to be. I’m just hoping we can work things out.”
Phillips also has publicly insisted that the decision on Buckhantz is his and his alone to make because the broadcaster is an employee of NBC Sports Washington, not the Wizards.
“The announcers for our games are NBC Washington Sports employees,” he reiterated in a recent interview. “As the general manager, the decision of who calls our games is the decision of the general manager.”
And yet, if you want to believe that, there’s probably a bridge in Brooklyn you can also have for a song. Phillips seems to be playing the good soldier here, standing up and taking the heat for the team owner.
Surely Leonsis will make this call. He owns the team. The long history of professional sports team ownership tells you that he’s the only decision-maker who counts.
His adult son, Zach Leonsis, is senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Monumental Sports & Entertainment and, according to several sources, may also have a big say in all this.
I wonder if young Zach has ever even heard of legendary NBA play-by-play guys like the late Chick Hearn with the L.A. Lakers, the late Johnny Most with the Boston Celtics, or even still-with-us Marv Albert with the New York Knicks. Each was as identifiable, and, for the most part, as beloved, as any player on the court.
Buckhantz is not yet in that same broadcast Hall of Fame stratosphere, but he’s surely moving in the right direction. After 22 years with this mostly disappointedly mediocre franchise, he’s among the current NBA’s most knowledgeable and entertaining broadcasters, a top-tier talent who deserves better than being assessed or dismissed.
Buckhantz has done fine work for as long as he’s been in the Washington market, going back at least three decades. This is the guy who went on the Channel 5 airwaves one night to break one of the most important stories in Washington sports history—Joe Gibbs’ decision to retire as the Washington football team coach after the 1992 season.
As a Washington area native and graduate of nearby James Madison University, getting the Wizards play-by-play job had always been one of Buckhantz’s life ambitions. His pairing with Chenier was a match made in basketball heaven.
The Wizards sadly decided to break up that duo two years ago, replacing Chenier with Kara Lawson, a star player in the WNBA, an Olympic gold medalist, and an extremely competent broadcaster in her own right. Chenier and Buckhantz had fabulous chemistry, and after two seasons together, there’s more of the same with Buckhantz and Lawson. So why change a good thing that can only get better?
Chenier’s firing proved to be extremely unpopular among longtime fans, prompting a firestorm of outrage. And now, the possibility that Buckhantz may not be back has also produced a similar outcry on social media, not to mention a blistering commentary by ESPN broadcaster Scott Van Pelt a few weeks ago.
A Maryland native himself who once worked for Buckhantz as an intern at Channel 5, Van Pelt declared on SportsCenter that any move to take Buckhantz off the Wizards’ broadcasts was an “impossibly idiotic decision from an organization that has made a few of them.”
Both Hochberg and Buckhantz say in brief interviews with City Paper that they are still hopeful the veteran broadcaster will be back where he belongs next year. And Phillips contends that still remains a possibility.
“We’re looking forward to the end of the season and we hope things will be resolved in Buck’s favor,” Hochberg says. “They’ve assured us the door’s open, and he wants to stay there.”
It’s better that they do it right now. Forget that so-called assessment after the season. That’s an easy way to duck and cover if Buckhantz is let go at a time when Washington turns it eyes toward the Nationals, the NFL draft, and the Capitals defense of the Stanley Cup.
It doesn’t take a wizard of an NBA owner, or his smart son, to figure this out. Give the man a contract—the longer the better—then put a basketball team on the floor worthy of your broadcaster. No dagger necessary here.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.