Steve Buckhantz will be honored as the 2018 D.C. sportscaster of the year at the National Sports Media Association’s awards banquet in June, but two months after NBC Sports Washington announced plans to audition others for the Wizards’ television play-by-play role, it remains uncertain whether Buckhantz will have a job come the fall.
People familiar with the interview process said Buckhantz still could return for his 23rd season calling Wizards games, but NBC Sports Washington is considering 12 candidates for the position, including NFL Network host Dan Hellie and NBC Sports Bay Area anchor Dave Feldman. The Athletic first reported Saturday that Hellie and Feldman, both of whom have D.C. ties, are candidates for the job.
“When you’re wanted by someone and you’re very popular, it’s a great thing, and when you’re not, it’s not so great,” Buckhantz said in a phone interview. “It shows you that, really, you have to live in the moment because all the accolades in the world that you get are fabulous, but it’s sort of, what have you done for me lately? It’s who wants you and who doesn’t. … I’d like to think I’ve made an impact in this market after 35 years.”
There’s no question Buckhantz has made an impact on the legion of viewers who have welcomed him into their living rooms over the past two-plus decades. The news that NBC Sports Washington opted not to exercise his third-year option by its March deadline sparked criticism from fans and media members, including ESPN “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt. The backlash, much of it directed at Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports and Entertainment has an ownership stake in NBC Sports Washington, prompted the network’s general manager, Damon Phillips, to attempt to explain the decision.
“I think it’s important that you know — and that fans know — that as the GM it’s really my responsibility to make sure we have the right talent,” Phillips, who joined NBC Sports Washington in early 2018, told The Washington Post in March. “These decisions, they start and they end with me. We are performing our due diligence and exploring all options.”
Buckhantz never referenced his contract situation or his uncertain future with the network on air, and he signed off from his final Wizards broadcast of the season with a simple message: “Hope you have a safe summer, everyone, and hope to see you in the fall.” Buckhantz said he has purposely avoided social media since thanking several of his supporters on Twitter in April, and he suggested that he is less confident about calling a 23rd season than he was when he was first informed the network wasn’t picking up his option. Still, he would like to return.
“I would go back and do the job because that’s my passion,” said Buckhantz, who will turn 64 next month.
A D.C. native who was raised in Northern Virginia and graduated from James Madison University, Buckhantz joined what was then Home Team Sports as the Bullets’ play-by-play voice in the fall of 1997 after 13 years at WTTG (Channel 5), including the past 10 as sports director and lead anchor. He would call games for the team he grew up rooting for alongside former Bullets star Phil Chenier for the next 20 years, until Chenier was replaced in the analyst’s role by Kara Lawson before the 2017-18 season. Buckhantz’s agent, Phil Hochberg, said in March that he was told that his client’s chemistry with the 38-year-old Lawson was among NBC Sports Washington’s potential concerns with the pairing going forward.
“The difficult thing for me with this situation is I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near over the hill or not able to do my job,” said Buckhantz, who was inducted into the D.C. Sports Hall of Fame last year. “There’s 29 other guys that do the job that I do, and in many of the cases the guys are much older than me and still working. That’s what makes it really puzzling to me."
Both Hellie, who turns 44 this month, and Feldman, 53, are well known to local fans from their time in D.C. Hellie, a Magruder High graduate, accepted a job with legendary WRC sportscaster George Michael in 2006 and spent seven years at the station before leaving to take a job at NFL Network in 2013. Feldman, a Palo Alto, Calif., native, arrived at WTTG as an anchor in 2000 and was named the station’s sports director the following year. Feldman served in both roles until 2012, when he returned to Northern California to take a job at what was then CSN Bay Area. In addition to his role as a sports anchor with the renamed NBC Sports Bay Area, Feldman does play-by-play for college basketball games on ESPN.
Phillips said in March that NBC Sports Washington did not have a deadline for naming its play-by-play voice. The news that the 2016-17 season would be Chenier’s last did not become public until April 2017. Lawson wasn’t announced as Chenier’s replacement until late September of that year.
Meanwhile, Buckhantz has started exploring other options in the event he isn’t brought back, and he hasn’t decided whether to attend next month’s NSMA awards weekend in North Carolina.
“If they go with somebody other than me, that will be sort of ironic,” he said, “that I was voted the D.C. sportscaster of the year and I’m looking for work.”
Dan Steinberg contributed to this report.
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