Before his 22-year run of sitting courtside and calling NBA games, there was football.
Steve Buckhantz, a James Madison alum well known for his longtime play-by-play role with the Washington Wizards, said the biggest break of his television career didn’t come from the franchise or sport he spent more than the last two decades being part of.
“It was clearly when FOX got the NFL in 1994,” Buckhantz said by phone this week.
He’s returning to his alma mater Saturday to provide color commentary alongside Curt Dudley on the school’s production when No. 2 JMU hosts No. 23 New Hampshire at Bridgeforth Stadium. The game will be televised at 3:30 p.m. on MASN, SNY and streamed online via MadiZONE.
It’ll be Buckhantz’s first time broadcasting football in a few years, he said, having called some Maryland games on the former Comcast SportsNet most recently. But just because he’s been away from the gridiron doesn’t mean he’s unfamiliar with his assignment for this weekend.
Back 25 years ago, Buckhantz made good on his shot to join FOX at the start of its NFL contract.
“I auditioned out in LA,” Buckhantz said. “But it’s funny, I went out there and the other guys auditioning for FOX Football were Joe Buck, Thom Brennaman, Kenny Albert, Kevin Harlan and Craig Bolerjack. They were all these guys with famous fathers.”
Buck’s dad, Jack, was the legendary voice of the St. Louis Cardinals and Brennaman’s father, Marty, was the voice of the Cincinnati Reds while Albert’s dad, Marv, was the voice of the New York Knicks and Harlan’s father, Bob, was in the Green Bay Packers front office.
“When I got home from the audition my father said, ‘Jeez. I’m sorry I’m in the building business,’” Buckhantz said with a laugh. “But it worked out. I got a game that year and it was a Redskins game at Tampa.”
And Buckhantz did a couple more NFL games – he recalled doing one in Atlanta the next season and one in Seattle the season after that – but during those years, Buckhantz’s everyday job was sports director for FOX 5 in Washington, D.C. And on the heels of the doing Washington’s game in Tampa Bay, his bosses didn’t let him go back to Florida the following week when the Bucs hosted the Los Angeles Rams.
“It kept me out of the studio from Wednesday or Thursday on,” Buckhantz said, “and of course that game wasn’t telecast regionally. That was telecast in LA and Tampa, so the people in D.C. weren’t going to see me that weekend, and I think that actually may have altered the course of my career. … I’d like to think that had I gotten to do that second game, I might have been in that same stable with Joe Buck, Thom Brennamen and Kenny Albert, who are all still doing FOX Football to this day.”
Instead, his career took a different path landing play-by-play gigs with the former Big East Network and eventually with the Wizards beginning in 1997.
That job kept him busy, but he always kept his eyes on the Dukes from afar since he said JMU is where he learned how to communicate on air as a play-by-play man and color commentator.
“I remember when we were in LA playing the Lakers and we were in their press room at the Staples Center,” Buckhantz said. “They have huge, giant screen TVs all over the place and in 2004 when JMU won the championship, I made sure that they had ESPN2 or whatever ESPN channel it was on, so I could watch the championship game against Montana. And it was funny. Everyone was like, ‘What are you watching?’ I’m like, ‘I’m watching my alma mater, man. They’re in the national championship.’”
And during his time in Harrisonburg, Buckhantz worked with the basketball teams and has vivid memories of what the athletic department looked like at its beginning stages.
He said he remembers his trip to the Mid-South Coliseum in 1976 when he saw Sherman Dillard lead Madison College in a tough loss against Memphis State, which was ranked nationally. Buckhantz can recall seeing Nancy Lieberman play for Old Dominion when JMU hosted the AIAW Women’s Championship in 1975, too. Then there’s how the football program began, Buckhantz said, with a set of aluminum stands flanking one side of an AstroTurf field after initially playing its games at Harrisonburg High School.
“The football thing is stunning to me,” Buckhantz said about the rise of the program. “We used to watch games from the hill up behind the train tacks before any of that was enclosed. And that’s where you watched the games and it was one of the great parties of all time.
“I remember people saying, ‘Did we score?’ Half of ‘em had no idea because beers were flowing and parties were happening, but it was just a great atmosphere. Now it’s a different kind of atmosphere, but it’s one of watching a good, productive and entertaining football team. So for me, it’s any of those words you want to use – surprising, stunning, overwhelming, shocking, gratifying.”
And that’s what Dudley, the director of broadcast services for JMU, said he hopes viewers enjoy when they watch this Saturday’s game. Both Buckhantz and Dudley can share stories about how the program became what it is now since Buckhantz was part of some of the first, original broadcasts at the school.
“That turn when Madison College became James Madison University in the early 80s, that was the launch point for propelling the program,” Dudley said, “because of what the basketball program did with the win at Virginia and the College World Series. It all happened at a very crucial time. I think it gave the university a sense of confidence that they’d have the opportunity to have a pretty good athletic program.
“So I’m looking forward to the fact that we can keep a game interesting on the air and tie in the current generation whether it’s on TV or online as well as the older generation however they watch the game to bridge the multiple generations of students, alumni and student athletes at JMU, and I think that’s important for the university no matter how old or young of an alum you might be.”
Buckhantz said his primary worry is adjusting to the color commentary role since all he’s done for the last 22 years is play-by-play. Dudley said he’s happy Buckhantz is doing the game with him and excited that Buckhantz gets to visit JMU on a game day.
In his role with the Wizards, Buckhantz didn’t have the time especially this time of year to venture to JMU. But since the organization moved on from him at the end of last year, Buckhantz said he reached out to JMU and let the school know he’d be available if they wanted to include him in any telecasts.
“It is tough,” Buckhantz said about the Wizards letting him go and the NBA season underway. “Difficult would be another word. The way it went about, the way it was handled, the way I left after 22 years without any sort of a goodbye, fanfare or thanks was difficult to handle for somebody that’s been in this market for 35 years. And I’m still a little affected by that. But the outpouring on social media has been overwhelming and that’s sort of where I take my solace. People have been very nice about that.”
He said the other 29 play-by-play guys in the NBA have reached out to him, which helps, too, and that he’s heard from the JMU community as well.
“It’s a real high point of my career,” Buckhantz said, “and to be able to go back and be involved in the broadcast and watch this great football team and just be part of the whole JMU experience, I’m really, really excited about it.”
Dudley said: “It’s unfortunate first of all that he’s not continuing with the Wizards, but we’re very fortunate to have him with us. I’m excited for him, too, simply because I think knowing the emotional connection he has with the university, it’s a great opportunity for him to come back and enjoy something that is certainly near and dear to his heart at this particular level, so it’s quite the natural fit. I’m excited for him. I’m excited for the broadcast. I think it’ll be fun.”