This Wizards season has been bursting with firsts: the first division title since 1979, the first 47-win season in just as long, the first time earning home-court advantage in an opening-round playoff series in decades.
Now add a “last” to the list; this will be the last season Phil Chenier serves as the team’s primary game analyst for CSN. No replacement has yet been named, although the network has identified a handful of candidates and expects to audition them during the offseason.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill broadcasting transaction; it’s a seismic change involving the only full-time color television analyst in Wizards franchise history. Chenier, the dean of Washington game broadcasters, got the Bullets color job without an audition when Home Team Sports began its first full season of coverage in 1984. (Wes Unseld had been HTS’s television analyst for its less robust schedule the previous season.) And then Chenier stuck, through 33 seasons.
In the process, he became a friendly constant for Washington fans through decades of mostly disappointment: always genial, always smiling, never angry, never cynical. If there are any men more closely associated with this franchise’s history than Chenier, you could count them on one hand.
This summer, though, with Chenier’s contract set to expire, executives at CSN decided they should seek a fresh voice, although the decision didn’t become public until this week. Working with Monumental Sports & Entertainment, they created a new job for Chenier spanning multiple organizations. He’ll be a CSN studio analyst on pre- and postgame shows and other content, will sit in on occasional three-man booths, will do on-air work with Monumental Sports Network (including content focused around the upcoming 40th anniversary of the team’s only title), and will serve as an alumni ambassador and a representative for the team’s alumni operation. He’ll remain on the broadcasts through the rest of this season, and for CSN’s first-round playoff broadcasts.
Chenier, 66, said in an interview this week that he would have enjoyed remaining on the game broadcasts. But if you think his message would be one of bitterness or disappointment, you probably haven’t spent much time around Phil Chenier.
“You know, at some point, in some kind of way, this was gonna come to an end. I’m glad it’s not because I’m dying or something,” he quipped. “It’s a company decision, and they were gracious enough to have me stay around and do some other things to stay involved. Everybody has to come to the realization that all good things must end.”
Drafted by the Baltimore Bullets out of California in the 1971 hardship draft, Chenier became one of the greatest shooters in franchise history. He averaged at least 12 points in each of his first seven seasons, was the second-leading scorer on the 1975 team that advanced to the NBA Finals, twice finished in the top 12 of MVP voting, and remains in the franchise’s all-time top 10 in points, games, minutes, field goals, free throws, assists and steals.
“Phil had special gifts that no one else in the league had at that time,” teammate Kevin Grevey once said.
A back injury eventually derailed his career, keeping him sidelined when the Bullets finally won a title in 1978, and after bouncing around the league, he retired in 1981 at the age of 30. His plan had been to move home to northern California, but his kids were comfortable in the D.C. suburbs, and a young James Brown helped Chenier get a gig announcing local college games. Soon after, he latched on with Home Team Sports, and generations of Washington sports fans came to know him more as a smiling face on television than as a deadly shooter.
Chenier’s partnership with play-by-play man Steve Buckhantz, formed in 1997, only enhanced his stature. The two became inseparable, with Chenier serving as the best man at Buckhantz’s wedding, and their on-air chemistry and frequent laughs reflected that friendship. It’s incredibly jarring to think of Buckhantz introducing a different partner next fall.
“I’ll be critiquing him quite heavily,” Chenier joked of Buckhantz. “But we’re friends for life, so I don’t see that changing at all.”
The analyst said he isn’t sure what next season will be like. “After 30-something years, it’ll be curious to me, too,” he said. He said he hadn’t spent much time thinking about the end of his game broadcaster career, and that calling games this season didn’t feel different from the seasons that came before.
“But now, as it’s winding down, I guess I’ve thought a lot about it,” Chenier said, pointing out that last week was his final West Coast swing with the team. “And yeah, I got a little melancholy.”
Chenier also said he didn’t consider walking away next season, since “I liked the idea of being with both of these entities that I’ve been with most of my adult life.” He said he’d be happy to offer guidance to the second full-time TV color man in Wizards history, although “a lot of times people want to try and go through these new waters by themselves,” he said. And he still seemed either uncertain about or uncomfortable with his importance to this fan base over four decades.
“I guess I haven’t looked at it quite from that perspective,” he said. “Sometimes I guess we fail to see the kind of connection we make. Because we’re on the TV, but we’re not really — at least me — not really understanding the full impact of reaching out to thousands of people.”
So we’ll let others say it then.
“We have been honored to have Phil represent us with the utmost class as an ambassador on the court, over the airwaves and in the community for 42 years,” Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis said in a statement. “We thank him for his unparalleled contributions to our team and his unique ability to maintain relevance and be in tune with multiple generations of our fans over his career as a player and a broadcaster. I look forward to working with him for many years to come.”
“Phil epitomizes professionalism and class as an analyst, colleague, mentor and advocate for the Wizards and the sport of basketball in this region,” CSN Mid-Atlantic President Rebecca Schulte said, also in a statement. “His impact over more than three decades with the network and 40–plus years with the team is unmatched, and we look forward to his contributions in new roles.”
For this viewer — an out-of-towner who’s seen modest Wizards peaks surrounded by unfortunate valleys over the last 2o years — Chenier came to represent the best of the Wizards fan base: good humor, no pretense and an utter love for the game of basketball. I can’t imagine turning on a Wizards broadcast and not hearing his voice.
While CSN hasn’t released its potential candidates, a number of prominent former Bullets/Wizards players have gone into broadcasting in recent years, including Chris Webber, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Antonio Daniels.