Sure, Sarah Kustok’s first season as lead Nets game analyst for the YES Network is a historical sports media milestone, but as historical milestones go it has been lacking in narrative tension.
As her play-by-play partner, Ian Eagle, put it, “It’s been a non-event, a non-issue. To me, that is the best compliment that you could have.”
And that is exactly how Kustok likes it.
Yes, she appreciates the import of being the first woman named a lead, solo game analyst on a regional sports network for an NBA team. “I fully understand why it matters, and it matters to me,” she said.
But she is not a fan of the added attention it has attracted.
“I just want to show up and go to work,” she said before Monday night’s game against the Bulls at Barclays Center. “I don’t like a lot of attention on myself, despite the job and despite that we’re on camera.”
That was impossible to avoid last fall when she got the job, and when it was not clear how viewers would react. Even if YES was confident after her five seasons as a Nets sideline reporter and fill-in work as a game analyst, might some fans push back against hearing a woman in that role?
“At the beginning there was some trepidation on that being a possibility,” producer Frank DiGraci said. “But after the first game, I knew it was gone . . . She’s not a woman doing the game. She’s a basketball person doing the game.”
Kustok, 36, had several things going for her. She was familiar to fans from her reporting work. She was likable and knowledgeable. She was in a relatively low-visibility spot with the Nets, who have struggled on the court and with television ratings.
One more thing: She can and does play, giving her added credibility in a world populated largely by male jocks. Not only did she captain DePaul to two NCAA Tournament berths, but she still is a pickup player with a feathery shooting touch. Two seasons ago, she hustled rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson into thinking she did not know how to shoot, then routed him in a game of H-O-R-S-E. (It’s on YouTube.)
“I 100 percent think that makes a big difference,” she said. “Despite the fact I obviously have not played in the NBA, to be able to play at a certain level within the game, I think that’s a huge part of this.”
Said DiGraci: “She can make 20 in a row right now. She has the pure stroke. She’s always had it. And players see that and assistant coaches see that. Her respect level has never been female/male. It’s been basketball/basketball.”
What matters most, of course, is what she says on telecasts. DiGraci said most new analysts have to learn to keep things simple so as not to talk over the heads of the audience. For Kustok, it was helpful initially to use advanced terminology to establish herself with skeptical fans before dialing back into something more informal.
“She knows her stuff; you can’t fake that,” Eagle said. “People figure it out pretty quickly. She speaks the language.”
Her approach seems to be working. But while she said she appreciates that fans mostly have given her positive reviews, the reviews of basketball people resonate, too.
“Our players, coaches, scouts who watch a lot of our games on League Pass, those who know the game so well, those opinions and thoughts matter a lot to me,” she said. “Flip took a risk. He took a chance making this move. So it’s important to me.”
“Flip” is John Filippelli, YES’ president of production and programming. He said after watching Kustok as a fill-in analyst starting in March 2015, he decided to make it official.
“She’s been remarkable,” he said. “I had high expectations, but she’s exceeded those expectations. She started off really strong, and she’s done nothing but get better.”
Nets CEO Brett Yormark said, “She’s been terrific . . . We are thrilled with where she is and how she contributes.”
Kustok credited DiGraci, Eagle and play-by-play man Ryan Ruocco and the rest of the crew for easing the transition, but she said it surprised her how quickly she felt comfortable.
“I never imagined I would be having this much fun,” she said. “It truly has been something where I’m thrilled every day. I know that sounds like a thing people say, but every day when I get to go to work and come do a game, to me it’s off the charts.”
Kustok is famous for being sought out for pregame hellos, making it difficult to carry on an uninterrupted conversation with her; when the Nets host her hometown Bulls, double that.
“You’re not going to find a nicer person on planet Earth than Sarah Kustok,” DiGraci said. “Everyone loves her. We love her. And that warmth comes out.”
Kustok has dealt with tragedy in her personal life. In 2010, her mother was shot and killed while in bed, and in 2014 her father was found guilty in the incident and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Kustok testified on his behalf at the trial. She declined to comment on the matter.
There is an assumption around YES and the Nets that Kustok is headed for bigger things. She has worked games nationally for FS1 and been on the FS1 studio show “First Things First.”
But for now she is happy at YES, happy with the Nets and happy to be a trailblazer, even if she is ambivalent about talking about it.
“It matters very much to me, because I look at Doris Burke, I look at Ann Meyers Drysdale, and Beth Mowins and Jessica Mendoza in other sports, and that mattered to me seeing those females in those roles,” she said.
“One of the most important things to me being in a job where you are in the public eye is having young girls see someone and have an opportunity to look up to someone and just how you do your job and how you carry yourself.”