Phil Chenier, 'taking it one year at a time' for 25 of them
The Wizards, as you well know, recently broke the franchise record for consecutive losses, and are jumping into the deep end of the lottery for the second year in a row. Not many people have had a better look at this desolation than Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier.
"At this time of year, with as challenging as this season has been, if I was working with anybody else I'd probably have been picked up for manslaughter by now," said Buckhantz, the junior member of Comcast SportsNet's broadcast team. "But Phil, despite everything we've been through, at the end of the year, you just want to give him a big hug."
Well, Friday night, the TV analyst will get an arena-wide sweaty embrace in the form of Phil Chenier Night. There will be a pregame ceremony, appearances from former teammates such as Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld and former co-workers such as Mel Proctor, and vintage memories throughout the broadcast. The pregame event will be emceed by Buckhantz, a man who idolized Chenier as a teenager and once went to every sporting goods store in Arlington in search of Chenier's low-top mesh-nylon Nikes.
"Who would have thought, over 25 years later, we'd be sitting side by side and working together?" Buckhantz mused. "For me, it's the biggest thrill in the world."
Chenier's entrance into the industry was hardly preordained. Not long after his NBA career ended, he received a phone call from James Brown. The up-and-coming broadcaster was doing games both on the black college circuit and for the Washington Bullets, and he wanted to see if Chenier would be interested in filling in when he had a conflict.
Chenier was working for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, and he agreed to fill in for Brown, doing maybe 15 or 20 games over the next several years. Then he heard that the Bullets were going to be part of a new cable network and might need an analyst. He called Unseld, and soon was offered the job with Home Team Sports without even going through an audition. His supervisor thought it might be some nice publicity, and the gig required hardly any travel, so Chenier accepted.
"I was taking it one year at a time," he told me.
That was 25 years ago. Since then, Chenier has worked games with Brown, Jon Miller, Proctor and Buckhantz. He's watched playoff teams led by Bernard King and Chris Webber and Gilbert Arenas. He became the director of student activities at Howard Community College, and then retired into life as a full-time broadcaster. He's gotten kicked out of cabs when Buckhantz angered drivers, and pranked his partner with late-night hotel high jinks. He's seen more than a dozen coaches, hundreds of losses, and slightly fewer wins.
He has buddies from the league who went into the broadcast booth and saw slightly more success. Ron Boone from the Jazz. Stu Lantz from the Lakers. Austin Carr in Cleveland. These are teams that go to the playoffs annually; the Wizards will finish with a losing record for the 17th time in 23 years.
"Yeah, you look around sometimes and say, 'Man, I sure wish my team could do that,' but I wouldn't have it any other way -- other than winning, of course," Chenier said. "I'm a positive person. This is my team, I'm thinking all positive, because I think that positive energy might have an influence some kind of way." And so, 25 more years?
"I think that would take me to about 85," Chenier said. "Hey, just take it one year at a time, right?"