Let's Normalize This: Meet Sarah Kustok, the NBA's First Solo Female Analyst

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2017

E.H. Wallop/YES Network

Rule No. 1 when meeting Sarah Kustok: Never, ever, challenge her to a game of one-on-one, especially when the entire Brooklyn Nets roster is watching from the baseline. Just ask the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy how that will turn out. Rule No. 2: If you're meeting her at an NBA game, don't expect her to have a lot of free time.

On this warm October Sunday evening, a rare day off for the new full-time game analyst for the Nets, I have violated Rule No. 2. Kustok and I are supposed to meet somewhere in the bowels of the Barclays Center—I need her to help fill in some story blanks from a previous interview—but the problem is Kustok doesn't really do days off.

So even for this sleepy game featuring the Nets and Atlanta Hawks, which Kustok's YES Network backup, Jim Spanarkel, will be calling, she only has a few minutes to chat. The reason? She has to stop by the production truck before tipoff.

Now, you might be wondering why an announcer would need to visit the production truck on an off day. Kustok declines to elaborate when asked. A few weeks later, I learn from John Filippelli, Kustok's boss at YES, that she stopped by the truck because she wants to learn more about what goes into producing a game broadcast and see what she can do to better help those behind the scenes.

"In my 35-40 years in this job, I've never had a talent do that," Filippelli said.

It's a two-minute walk from the Barclays Center court, where Kustok is, to the media room, but it takes 15 for her to arrive. Ian Eagle, the Nets’ play-by-play man, had warned me about this, saying, “If you walk through an arena with her you can’t get from Point A to Point B on-time.” It's not that Kustok doesn't value my time; it's just that there are too many people who want to say hello.

When she arrives, I tell her I only have one question. Jeane Coakley, an SNY broadcaster and longtime friend of Kustok's, told me a story about how Kustok donated bone marrow to an in-need child a couple of years back, and I wanted to find out more. Also, I was curious why she hadn't mentioned it in our original interview.

"To be honest, I didn't think of it," she tells me. "But even if I had, I probably wouldn't have brought it up. I'm very private."

Ask Kustok about the NBA, and she'll enthusiastically cite reams of advanced stats or delve into the ways different teams defense the pick-and-roll. Ask Kustok about her career, and she'll happily reminisce how she went from chauffeuring Brent Musburger around Chicago to calling NBA games. Ask Kustok how it feels to be the first woman named a solo full-time color analyst for an NBA team—which is a way of saying she's helping shatter one of society's glass ceilings—and she'll explain how she's sort of torn because she wants to be a role model for young girls but be treated just like any other announcer.

After filling in as a Nets color commentator in the spring of 2015, Sarah Kustok was named the Nets' full-time TV analyst, joining Ian Eagle in September.
After filling in as a Nets color commentator in the spring of 2015, Sarah Kustok was named the Nets' full-time TV analyst, joining Ian Eagle in September.E.H. Wallop/YES Network

Ask Kustok about any of these things, and she's an open book. Ask her about life away from basketball, though, and that's where things can get complicated. 

   

ABOUT A MONTH EARLIER, I met Kustok for the first time.

She walked into a Hell's Kitchen restaurant wearing white sneakers with a black Jordan Brand hat covering her blond hair, a trait that earned her the nickname Barbie when she attended DePaul and played basketball there, mostly because her teammates knew it drove her nuts.

"Anyone who knows me thinks it's hilarious that I'm on TV because 90 percent of the time I'm in sneakers and a hat," she said. 

But Kustok doesn't do insincerity. It's not part of her DNA. You pick this up quickly in conversations with Kustok and the people who know her.

It's a quality, Kustok said, her family imprinted on her as a child. "I'm the reason I am because of them," she said. 

Growing up in the Orland Park neighborhood of Chicago, Kustok would follow her brother, Zak, wherever he went, from the basketball court to the football field to the baseball diamond. He was three years her elder, a stud athlete (he went on to play quarterback for Northwestern) and usually played with other boys his age. Kustok, a competition junkie who played on her school's boys basketball team from fifth grade until high school, regularly joined in.

She earned a basketball scholarship to DePaul, where she became known for her feathery jump shot, the time she tried to refuse stitches after an errant elbow had dislodged her teeth and that Sunday morning open run in which she nearly came to blows with a student after being accused of excessive roughness while boxing out.

Jenni Dant, who played alongside Kustok at DePaul, believes people read too much into Kustok's "blond hair and blue eyes," adding, "What people don't realize, though, is that she's also this ridiculously competitive person that will punch you in the face."

Kustok shot 38.8 percent from behind the three-point arc in her four years playing for DePaul.
Kustok shot 38.8 percent from behind the three-point arc in her four years playing for DePaul.Photo courtesy of DePaul University

Kustok spent four years playing basketball for DePaul and then enrolled in the school's Corporate Multicultural Communication Master's program because she wasn't sure what to do next.

Someone in the athletics department suggested broadcasting, and she was introduced to a producer from ESPN and began filling her resume with the sort of odd jobs that low-level employees in the TV business grow accustomed to: making coffee; buying groceries for the crew; driving around talent, such as Musburger, for the Big Ten Network—all for about $75 for an eight-hour shift.

And she loved every minute of it.

"The rush you get from playing in a game, that feeling of competition, of being on a team, a lot of that translated over to calling games," she says.

She decided to take in everything she could about the industry. She learned what goes into producing a game and cutting tape and what happens behind the scenes. And then, slowly, she started picking up local on-camera work on the sidelines and in the booth.

One opportunity led to another—there was also a one-year hiatus in which she served as an assistant coach for the DePaul women's basketball team—and soon she was on CSN Chicago. Then she was on New York's YES Network, where she quickly developed a reputation as one of the NBA's top sidelines reporters.

"When you would listen to her doing the sideline reports and you hear her reports, they were different than a lot of sideline reports," ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen says. "They were often X's and O's based. They were about basketball."

You could really tell that she played the game and is so curious about basketball," Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson says. But there was more behind the respect she earned among Hollis-Jefferson and his teammates.

"Something that always stood out with Sarah was just, kind of like, she has this natural energy," he adds. "She just cares about people—you can tell."

Her basketball IQ propelled her to the top of her profession. But her empathy is what has separated her now that she's here.

   

A NUMBER OF THE YES analysts for the Nets were away from the team, working NCAA tournament games in March 2015. Filippelli, now YES Network's president of production and programming, had always been impressed by Kustok's passion, her knowledge and her ability to connect with the viewers, so he and the network decided to try her as an in-game analyst.

She showed up for her first game with an array of color-coded notes. Filippelli says he graded her performance that night as a "non-curved B+." That game snowballed into more color commentary shifts the following year and, ultimately, the decision to hand Kustok the gig full time in September.

"Our telecasts were really good before, but—and this is not a knock on any of the people who were doing it before—we felt like Sarah could take us to an even higher level," Filippelli says.

In the months since, Kustok has appeared on what seems like four-dozen podcasts to talk about the promotion. More specifically, to discuss what it meant to her to be the first woman to reach her position. (To be clear, she's not the first woman to be an NBA analystStephanie Ready served as a co-analyst with the Hornets from 2015-17. She's the first to be a team's full-time solo analyst, though in the weeks since, otherssuch as Kara Lawson with the Wizardshave been elevated to similar roles.)

All of this has left Kustok feeling sort of conflicted.

Here's the problem: She's down with helping dispel the myth that women can't analyze basketball. And being a role model for young girls? Sign her up. 

"I don't love all the attention that comes just because I'm a female," Kustok starts. "I don't mind the higher scrutiny, but just, the attention—I like the idea of let's get used to normalizing this, where we just care about whether the person in the job is good or not and not anything else. Like, that's great that you think I'm a great person and happy for me as a woman. But to me, sometimes, it's more important that you believe I have an actual skill set to be in this world."

Kustok has impressed her broadcasting partners with how she incorporates her knowledge of tactics into her work.
Kustok has impressed her broadcasting partners with how she incorporates her knowledge of tactics into her work.Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

She pauses.

"I also love the idea, you know, that young girls and young boys can see that a woman can do this, but that's also a major responsibility and I better make sure I'm good," she says, adding later: "I'd love to get to a point where these questions aren't asked or relevant."

Of course, if she weren't a woman, a reporter probably wouldn't be sitting across from her with a tape recorder.

It's a paradox—one she's aware she's living in.

Kustok is animated when she talks, and I see a green tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. She says it's the only tattoo she has and that the cursive reads the grace of my strength. Grace—or Gracie—is her middle name, and she says it's how her family and friends always refer to her. The line is from a letter her mom once wrote.

"I actually used her handwriting to copy it," she says, "and it's so recognizable to me."

    

SOMETIME DURING THE MORNING on Sept. 29, 2010, a bullet from a .357 Magnum pistol struck 58-year-old Anita Kustok in the face, killing her. Anita, known by those close to her as Jeanie, was a teacher at Riverside's Central Elementary School. She was also Sarah's mother.

Police arrested her husband, Allan, whom she had met on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign nearly 40 years earlier. According to the Chicago Tribune, Allan told authorities he found Jeanie in bed with her arms folded across her chest and the gun in her right hand. But the Cook County medical examiner filed a report doubting those claims, and investigators said they discovered other holes in Allan's story.

Allan was convicted of murder in December 2014 and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Sarah has yet to talk about the experience in public. She was forthcoming about her tattoo, which she got after her mother's death, but she says she'd "prefer not" to discuss anything further, including her decision to take the stand and tell prosecutors that she did not wish to see her father convicted. Some of her friends say it's a topic never broached.

On the morning of Sept. 30, the day after her mother was killed, hundreds of people filed into the sanctuary of Calumet City's Our Lady of Knock Catholic Church to both mourn the death of Jeanie Kustok and celebrate her life.

"Our mom was a force. It was impossible not to be around her and not be your very best self," Sarah said during her eulogy in October. "... You have two choices. You can be sad, feel bad, sit there and miss her. Or you can think of how absolutely lucky and blessed every single one of us are to have had her in our lives as long as we did. She was truly an angel. No more perfect of a life you can live than what she did. Think about that and maybe you can go give a smile, give a hug, go help somebody else."

The message stuck with those who attended. Yet the words Sarah shared before her speech are what some of her friends remember most.

"We're there, bawling our eyes out, and she's greeting us and giving us hugs," Dant recalls. "We're trying to console her, and even then, all she can think about is consoling us and doing so with a smile."

The reaction isn't new to her friends, who have grown accustomed to Kustok's apparent inability to focus on herself, though it does concern them at times.

They want her to be able to put down the hostess hat at her mother's funeral or to allow others at DePaul alumni events to focus on her soaring career for more than 30 seconds before she flips the conversation with an, "And what about you?" And they'd love if she boasted about her most recent promotion as opposed to casually dropping it into a conversation.

But that's not who Kustok is.

Remember the bone marrow donation? Kustok underwent the procedure in December 2015. She had submitted DNA to a national bone marrow registry called Be The Match years earlier as part of an on-air feature when she was working for Chicago's Comcast Sports, and she received a call saying she was a match with a young boy.

Three days before Christmas, Kustok and Coakley, whom Kustok needed to drive her back from the procedure, rented a car and drove 60 miles east to Stony Brook Hospital. The next night, after Kustok spent two hours with a needle in her neck, the two returned to Kustok's apartment. Kustok was back at work the day after Christmas.

"If you have the opportunity to help someone, you don't think twice about it," Kustok tells me. As the tattoo says, grace is her strength.

   

IT'S OCT. 8 IN BROOKLYN, and Kustok is preparing for YES Network's first broadcast of the season. She's sitting among a small pack of reporters in the Barclays Center interview room, with a sheet of white paper full of notes in her lap. 

As Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson answers questions about his team's preseason matchup against the New York Knicks, Kustok takes out a red pen and finds an empty patch of white to jot down additional thoughts.

"That's one of the things that makes her so good," Breen says. "She knows the game but is always trying to learn more." The press conference ends, and Kustok starts to make her way to the court. The clock ticks closer to tipoff. The YES Network camera flips on. Eagle opens the broadcast with a quick introduction.

"I think you know Sarah Kustok," he says to viewers. "She now moves over to this chair, and we're so happy to have you sitting right here."

"It's going to be an exciting season. I'm thrilled to be a part of it," she responds. "And I'm thrilled you're here—you're double-dipping tonight. You already called the Giants-Chargers. And Kenny Atkinson, he likes to make those NFL comparisons."

The tattoo is hidden from camera, but Kustok knows it's there. And anyway, there's no time and no reason for the spotlight to be on her. There's a friend sitting to her right and a Nets game to call.

                         

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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