During the most memorable moment in the history of Washington pro basketball, Phil Chenier was watching in street clothes.
The Bullets clinched their only NBA title in Seattle in 1978, setting off a wild celebration that streamed from the court into the locker room. But Chenier — a star shooting guard who had averaged at least 19 points per game the five previous seasons — was out with the back injury that eventually derailed his playing career. So as he stood in the Seattle Center Coliseum stands, someone suggested he go down and join the celebration, but a security guard didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t let him through.
Chenier finally made it to the locker room, but he wasn’t sure whether he belonged.
“I always remember having really mixed feelings, really confused feelings,” Chenier recently recalled. “They were celebrating, and I just felt like I was out of it. So I just went back to the hotel and got my bags.”
Because of his injury, Chenier never regained his stardom or even a regular starring role. But he also realized he didn’t want to be exiled from basketball arenas, from the friends, the camaraderie and the stories.
Which helps explain why Wednesday night, on his 63rd birthday, he began his 30th season as color analyst for the franchise’s television broadcasts.
“I was just in it because I wanted to see basketball games, [because] I couldn’t play anymore,” he said. “Even now, when I’m sitting next to [partner Steve Buckhantz], I can feel myself moving with the players, seeing what they’re trying to do. If I tried to do anything more than that, I’d hurt myself. But I’m living through these players is what I’m doing.”
Combine his broadcasting tenure with the two seasons he starred for the Baltimore Bullets and the six-plus seasons he spent playing in Washington, and you could argue that no figure outside Wes Unseld embodies D.C. pro basketball better than Chenier.
“He’s been more closely associated with the team than any other ex-player, and he’s still, if you will, part of the team,” said Buckhantz, his longtime broadcasting partner and best friend.
“He is an iconic figure in our community,” team owner Ted Leonsis wrote in an e-mail, “and for 30 years has really been the one constant and dependable figure for the Washington Wizards.”
“Through all the years, through all the bad players and coaches that have come and gone, through everything that has been awful, Phil has been a constant,” said Danny Rouhier, host of a midday sports-talk show on WJFK (106.7 FM) and a lifelong fan of the franchise. “In terms of folks we would see and hear on a semi-daily basis, to me, he is that organization.”
Multiple generations know Chenier the Comcast SportsNet analyst, not Chenier the silky shooting guard with the otherworldly jump shot. He scored more points in a non-overtime game than anyone in franchise history — 53 — and without the benefit of the three-point line. He remains in the franchise’s top 10 in points, made field goals and several other categories.
“He’s the best pure two-guard that has ever played in this organization, for sure,” said Kevin Grevey, the man who took Chenier’s spot in the starting lineup during Washington’s NBA title run. “There was nobody better. And I had to guard this dude every day in practice. When I would go on the court and guard two-guards around the NBA, they were inferior to Phil Chenier every day in practice. . . . Phil had special gifts that no one else in the league had at that time.”
But Chenier never bothered to come up with a post-basketball plan. He had studied criminology at California but left before finishing his degree, taking advantage of the NBA’s new hardship provision. As the repeated back issues submarined his career, Chenier played briefly with the Indiana Pacers and gave it one last shot with the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, near where his mother still lived and where he planned to settle. He retired in 1981, just 30 years old, and began reaching out to companies in the Bay Area while contemplating a return to school.
But the cost of living seemed exorbitant, and his three children were happy in Columbia — where he moved after the Bullets left Baltimore following the 1972-73 season — so Chenier decided to remain in the Washington area. James Brown, then a fledgling broadcaster, suggested Chenier provide color commentary for HBCU basketball broadcasts on BET, which put him in position for the Bullets job when Home Team Sports began its first full season of coverage in 1984. Chenier got the position without an audition and never left.
“You know what, my dad’s loyal,” explained youngest daughter Adelle, whose inquiries about whether her dad might try coaching or some other pursuit were always shot down. “I think each year he has grown to appreciate it more and more. If it’s a good fit, his philosophy is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Chenier doesn’t scream or shout and rarely even raises his voice. It’s a style that reflects both his personality and his basketball game.
“That ease and that grace that he had a player, I see it transcend into the way he broadcasts,” said Grevey, who maintains that Chenier’s jersey should be hanging from Verizon Center’s rafters. “He’s not choppy. He’s not real up and down. He’s not real boisterous on a call. That beautifully succinct ease that he has on the air kind of reflects the way he played.”
“He’s very easy to listen to, and that’s one of the reasons why he does such a good job,” said Buckhantz, who tabbed Chenier as the best man at his wedding. “He’s not the quintessential broadcaster; he’s not spewing and screaming and yelling and doing a lot of things that some of those guys who happen to be ex-athletes do. . . . To me it’s much more effective to have someone who is calm and well spoken and has a nice voice and knows the game, and I think that comes across to the viewers. I think they appreciate the fact that he doesn’t drive you crazy.”
Local basketball fans — who have witnessed just six winning records during Chenier’s 29 seasons as a broadcaster — seem to agree. Chenier, who said he would do his broadcasting job for free, knows younger viewers often think of him as a talking head more than a shooting guard — “I do find it amusing,” he said. But they appreciate him just the same.
“It was almost like he was your favorite relative, just coming over to dinner to talk hoops,” Rouhier said. “Through all the badness — and there’s been so much badness — he’s been tremendous. Consistently tremendous.”