Justin Kutcher grew up in Connecticut, lived in Charlotte for the past nine years and has never met Steve Buckhantz. But Kutcher, the new Wizards play-by-play voice for NBC Sports Washington, has family in D.C., and they’re big fans of the man who is out of a job after calling Wizards games on the network for more than two decades.
“My brother-in-law said, ‘Honestly, if it wasn’t you replacing him, I’d be upset,’" Kutcher, 39, said Wednesday, shortly before NBC Sports Washington officially announced him as Buckhantz’s replacement. “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. 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.”
NBC Sports Washington also announced former Wizards forward Drew Gooden, who has contributed to pregame and postgame Wizards coverage since 2017, will fill the analyst position that became available when Kara Lawson, Buckhantz’s broadcast partner for the past two seasons, was hired as an assistant coach by the Boston Celtics last month. Fellow former Wizard and fan favorite Caron Butler remains in discussions with the network about becoming a game analyst for a select number of games, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Buckhantz, 64, joined what was then Home Team Sports in the fall of 1997. His future had been in doubt since the network opted not to exercise his third-year contract option by a March deadline. While NBC Sports Washington General Manager Damon Phillips said he “left the door open” for Buckhantz’s possible return and Buckhantz expressed interest in returning, Phillips ultimately decided to hire Kutcher from Fox Sports after an audition process that included 12 candidates.
“In Justin, we have someone who has called big-time games and is able to rise to the occasion when he’s calling games,” Phillips said in a phone interview. “At Fox, he was getting a lot of big assignments. He’s called some big moments, so we’re getting a big-time talent.”
Kutcher, who graduated from Boston University, has 17 years of play-by-play experience. When he was in college, he did stats for Fox Sports baseball regulars Tim McCarver and Joe Buck, and he still considers Buck a mentor. Kutcher’s first job out of school was as the play-by-play man for the San Diego Padres’ Class AAA affiliate in Portland, Ore., a job that paid $500 a month. From there, he called a variety of sports for CSTV, Big Ten Network and CBS Sports Network. In 2012, after four years at ESPN, he joined Fox Sports, where his assignments have included MLB and NFL games, as well as college basketball and football, golf and soccer broadcasts.
Kutcher said his first loves are basketball and baseball, and becoming a team broadcaster has always intrigued him. He said his May audition for the Wizards job, alongside Lawson, “just felt right.”
“It was the perfect blend,” Kutcher said. “It was the right opportunity at the right time.”
Phillips said he was aware of the reaction on social media from Wizards fans about Tuesday night’s news that Buckhantz would not return for a 23rd season, most of it negative.
“There’s an emotional attachment there, so I understand the reaction,” he said. “We wish Steve well in what he does next. The decision came down to what we thought the best broadcast team was going to be for us moving forward."
Buckhantz took to Twitter Wednesday evening to thank people who reached out to him for their “kindness” and “support,” saying it “means the world to me.”
“Was blessed to live my dream for 22 [years],” Buckhantz tweeted. “Sadly the powers that be felt it was time for a change, have not figured out why.”
He thanked former Wizards owner Abe Pollin, former team president Susan O’Malley and former HTS chief executive Jody Shapiro, and he added, “This closes a wonderful chapter but it is not the end of the book. Passion still exists!”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis’s Monumental Sports and Entertainment has an ownership stake in NBC Sports Washington, and during an appearance on 106.7 the Fan on Wednesday, Buckhantz said it was “hurtful” that he has not heard from either Leonsis or his son, Zach.
“I’m not there, and the powers that be, had they wanted me to be there, I would still be there,” Buckhantz said. “So somebody probably, at this point, doesn’t like what I do, and that’s probably the most hurtful thing of this whole process.”
But Phillips, who joined NBCSW in early 2018, reiterated the decision to hire Kutcher was his own.
“Ultimately, as the general manager, this is my call as far as who I think will be the right fit for our game broadcasts,” he said.
Gooden’s hiring was considerably less controversial. When Lawson, who in 2017 replaced Buckhantz’s longtime broadcast partner Phil Chenier, left to join Celtics Coach Brad Stevens’s staff in Boston, Phillips said Gooden was the first call he made. Gooden played the final three seasons of his 14-year NBA career in Washington and has experience in the analyst role after filling in for Lawson toward the end of last season. He credits longtime NBC Sports Washington sideline reporter Chris Miller, who will continue in that role, with encouraging him to get into broadcasting and said he learned a lot from working with Buckhantz.
“A lot of experience, a lot of stories,” Gooden said. " . . . I remember one time in Denver, I was over-prepared for this game, and I probably had five spreadsheets of notes. [Buckhantz] looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Drew, this isn’t rocket science, man.’ He was right, and once I started tapering down on the notes, I was a lot more comfortable.”
Kutcher, meanwhile, plans to begin looking for a place to live in the Washington area next week. His brother-in-law has already warned him that, in filling Buckhantz’s former role, he needs to have thick skin.
“I said, ‘It’s okay, I’m not really on Twitter,'" Kutcher said. “'However, you’re going to have to have thick skin. Between you and my sister, I can’t have you guys creating burner accounts to reply to people.' . . . It takes time to get used to change, but hopefully people watch the broadcast and say this is actually a fun, good listen.”
Kutcher added he could envision himself calling Wizards games in D.C. for a long time.
“I see a fan base that’s passionate, not just about basketball, but all sports, and it’s a situation where I’d love to be there for 30 years,” he said. “I want to have that relationship with the fans, and I want people to know that just as much as they’re cheering for the team, I’m cheering for the team."
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