Meet Sarah Kustok: Basketball Lifer
Sarah Kustok has quickly become a fixture on Brooklyn Nets broadcasts with her quick wit and insightful analysis that stems from a career both playing and coaching the game.
But Sarah’s path to broadcasting has also been as windingly diverse as her basketball background.
She recently sat down with TBW’s Ray LeBov to discuss how hoops has been the anchoring point in her life and how she persevered into becoming one of pro basketball’s best commentators.
RAY: When did you start playing basketball? What you can share about your career?
SARAH: I can’t remember a time that basketball wasn’t part of my life. Sports in general, but basketball more than anything, helped make me who I am.
I started playing with my brother and cousins and some of our friends on the playground. I wanted to do anything that my older brother did. Fortunately for me, he let me trail along and play, whether it was with his buddies or kids in the neighborhood. He always included me, and basketball was such a big part of that.
For any of us growing up in Chicago, with the Bulls being at their peak, basketball was prominent. It was my sanctuary. Basketball taught me about the challenges of life, lessons about winning and losing, about dealing with success and failure with the same grace and humbleness. There are so many different layers and levels to the game.
Having played, whether it was as a young girl, whether it was in junior high school or college, I think about playing with the boys’ team beginning when I was in the fifth grade.
It was a matter of your being good enough, whether you could hold your own on the court.
I credit my brother for understanding that and valuing toughness and never looking at gender but rather about me being capable and willing to put in the work to be as good as those around me and showing that I deserved that place on the court. I think about a lot of those things in regard to my playing and post-playing careers.
I often think about what the game of basketball brought me. I owe so much to the game.
RAY: As I understand it, in high school, you were Player of the Year in Chicagoland.
SARAH: That’s correct. Dwayne Wade was the boys’ player of the year the same season.
RAY: And then on to DePaul where you were team captain for two years. Your junior year, you shot 44.5 percent from three!
SARAH: A lot of that I credit to the team and how we played and what we were trying to achieve. My coach, Doug Bruno, was always finding ways to put us in the best position to succeed.
A lot of people joke with me about being a shooter and ask if I ever passed the ball. Actually, so much more of my game was on the defensive end and running the offense.
It is still fun to think about how we ran: We got it and went. A lot of how the NBA is now: fast-paced and taking a lot of three-point shots and the floor spacing. That’s how we played in college. We were always near the top in scoring, assists, three-pointers and field goal attempts.
Doug’s system and how we played still make me smile. I always tease him and say that he was ahead of his time, just because of the way we played and the value that he put on the three-point shot and still does. It was a big part of what he looked for when he recruited players.
RAY: Were those things with you as you were coming up through high school? When you were being recruited, were you attracted by that fit or was that something that came out under his tutelage?
SARAH: I owe a lot of my development to Coach Bruno and his staff. It was always “What can I do to help the team win? How can I help make others around me better?”
Understanding what makes your teammates tick, understanding how to bring them to their best level, how to collectively do what’s best to help a team win. How I played in college magnified how I was in high school because I had the great fortune of playing for excellent coaches who demanded those things every day.
Understanding the cerebral side within the game and how it can help your team win helped me thrive as a basketball player. To be successful in any sport, you have to have a competitive will to work towards being the best.
That was such an important aspect of who I was as a player, and I owe so much of that to Coach Bruno.
Ray: Tell me a little bit about your coaching career.
SARAH: Coming out of college, I had no intention of getting into coaching necessarily.
Of course, every summer we worked at our coaches’ basketball camps and I enjoyed coaching there. Later I coached some AAU teams. I loved the teaching aspect of coaching, but that was not my career intent.
I got my degree in communication and started taking grad school classes during my senior year so I was able to finish with my master’s degree in Corporate Multicultural Communication in my fifth year.
My intention was not to go into coaching or broadcasting, but while I was finishing up grad school I met some individuals at ESPN. I was looking at different internships, and I was able to do some analyst work on women’s college games and high school games that year. I helped ESPN on their Big 10 football games as well.
The combination of those things made me fall in love with the idea of what it meant to broadcast the game and be a part of television. The adrenaline rush, the things I had felt as an athlete, as a competitor, in some ways translate into what it is to do live TV.
And so I thought that this was what I wanted to pursue.
So after I finished with grad school, I started doing a handful of freelance things around Chicago with a variety of different sports at different levels.
Maggie Dixon, who was the sister of Jamie Dixon, left Doug Bruno’s staff at DePaul to take the women’s basketball job at Army. She took them to their first NCAA tournament. When she had taken the job, it wasn’t too far from the start of the school year. I had just finished up with grad school and was getting into the TV stuff.
Coach Bruno called, and he’s someone you always want to be there for.
So I took the job, and I loved coaching.
There are so many things about it that I was passionate about and were special to me. But I was keeping in touch with some folks in the television world, and they said that “If you want to try the TV thing out, now may be the time.”
And so that’s when I made the switch back into TV. My time coaching was short, but it included some of the most special moments which I still appreciate, and on many occasions, I’ve thought about going back.
And even in that short time, I learned so much that I still carry with me.
RAY: One of the things that impresses is the versatility that you have alluded to. You’ve done Major League Baseball, NHL, NLL, MLS, NFL Junior World basketball, WNBA, high school games. And that’s before we even get into the different roles you’ve had with the Nets.
SARAH: Early on, I fell in love with sports broadcasting. Being a former player allowed me some early opportunities, particularly in Chicago. Having some connections there allowed me the early opportunity to do some analyst work in high school and women’s college basketball.
However, those opportunities weren’t plentiful enough for me to stake a career on. I quickly realized that I had to find ways to continue to grow and refine myself as a broadcaster.
That led to an opportunity to do sideline reporting for ESPN regional networks’ college football, plus analyst and sideline work for college basketball.
There was also an opportunity to fill in as a sports anchor at WFLD FOX Chicago, as well one to do some high school feature reporting for Comcast Sportsnet Chicago (now NBC Sportsnet Chicago). Those led to some interviews for covering the Chicago Bears.
It was just the concept of one thing leading to another while covering a variety of sports, levels and roles.
I was trying to piecemeal one thing after another in order to continue to grow and improve, to continue to get opportunities, and also to be able to pay my bills. I realized early on that no matter what role I was doing, my focus was always on learning to be better.
I was always my toughest critic.
I focused on how to make myself better as a broadcaster. My path would go from one diagonal to another because I was chasing opportunities. I was fortunate to be offered a full-time position for what is no NBC Sportsnet Chicago, and I did national work on NHL games.
I continued to grow, and one of the biggest reasons is that I love to immerse myself in research and study.
Some of these sports, like the NHL for example, I didn’t know quite as much about. I loved talking to the coaches and players and watching them on film. I love sports so much that I just wanted to learn, and I wanted that challenge. I eventually landed in Brooklyn when the Nets had just moved there and had a sideline reporter role open.
That allowed me an opportunity to come to New York, which was a market that had always tugged at my heart. It was a great opportunity to immerse myself in the game that I love most.
That led me to me being a part of the Nets broadcast team. My television career had begun in the analyst chair doing high school boys and girls basketball games. Although that was the role that I loved most, I didn’t necessarily see the path of being able to cover NBA games as an analyst.
But, fortunately, due to a scheduling quirk, space opened to give me one opportunity to do a game. And since Ian Eagle is the best in the business and can make anyone look good, it went alright.
They found me some more opportunities that next year, and it just grew from there until I was able to get to be our primary analyst.
RAY: I read a couple things that Mike Breen said about you. One is something that you have already stressed, which is that you were always trying to learn more. He also said that your sideline reporting was different than many others because it was always “about basketball”.
SARAH: I don’t know whether it is because of my background as a basketball player or just who I am and how I approach things or how I look at the game. That was always important to me.
Early on, someone had told me to remember that, “whatever you do, you have to be you. Because at the end of the day, what people are watching is you and your face and the words coming out of your mouth. And you need to own that and take responsibility for that.”
I thought that if I’m a sideline reporter, I want the interviews to be about the game because that’s what I care most about. That’s affects how I prep and what I do.
I’ve always stressed to everyone involved how important that was to me.
My preparation is about understanding the game and the players. That circles back to doing the work to be sure that I have that type of information. I may not use 90 percent of it, but the 10 percent is there for me when I need it.
When you don’t know which 10 percent you may use, it is always worth the time and effort to be ready. As we all know, there’s a difference between cramming for a test and actually understanding information.
If you’re trying to recall something from eight or 10 seasons ago, it matters because it all snowballs, and it all helps you create and have the knowledge that you need.
RAY: It strikes me that one of the most difficult things is to do it at a level that is not over the casual fan’s head, but at the same time is not boring for somebody that is more sophisticated and knowledgeable. Striking a happy medium is quite an art form.
SARAH: That is such an excellent question. I don’t know if I always succeed, but it’s a balance because you’ve got to understand that, in your audience, you have some NBA coaches who are going scouting as they are watching and listening. And then you have the casual fan who may be sitting there with their friend who doesn’t know much about basketball.
The challenge is how to keep it entertaining and informative for both of them.
You have to pick and choose your moments—and be flexible and fluid—in what you’re looking at play-by-play, possession-by-possession. You have to understand the value of what a moment means.
Broadcasters need to understand time and score, and know that what you point out depends whether it is the second quarter of the game as opposed to three minutes left in the fourth quarter. You need to explain things within the flow of the broadcast.
I try to get into the big picture of the game and also break down specific plays. I focus on how to explain things without dumbing anything down while understanding part of the viewership isn’t sitting studying basketball every hour of the day.
A lot of it just is a feel for the flow of the game.
Some of our fans watch every game, and some tune in only every 10 games, if that much. So how much do I need to fill them in about specific players? How much can I assume that they already know?
I don’t know if there’s a right answer for it, but I think just not trying to make yourself sound smarter than you are while staying within the lane that you feel comfortable in is important. Our job is to entertain and to inform, and to make sure that we are doing what we can to balance those things.
RAY: You have great chemistry with your play-by-play partner Ian Eagle. Did that take time to develop?
SARAH: Working with Ian Eagle is like winning the lottery every single day.
As a play-by-play broadcaster, he has every tool that you could want. His voice is fantastic. His calls are out of this world. His preparation is second-to-none. He is witty—one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.
He has all the things that you would ever want, but the main thing is that he is one of the most genuine, kindest human beings that I’ve ever come across. I’m so thankful to work with him, not only because of how extraordinary he is as a broadcaster but also because of how excellent of a person he is. Our chemistry is real.
There are things that resonate when you listen to people that let you know that they’re being genuine and sincere. Our entire broadcast team is close, and we consider each other family.
The years I spent as the sideline reporter built such a strong friendship with Ian, which made the transition to analyst seamless. He’s one of my dear friends. He makes me laugh in the production meetings.
I’ve had to do my makeup over again on many occasions because I’ve been laughing so hard on the way to the arena on road games where he is my seatmate on the bus.
The more that we’ve worked together, the better we understand rhythm, pacing, when each of us is going to talk, when we are going to jump in. We have become so fluid with one another. We have a great understanding of what each of us is likely to get into and what I’m going to get into.
I know the things that he probably knows or has on his board, and he knows the same about me. There’s nothing that we can’t throw at one another.
When there is the comfort level of knowing how diligently someone has prepared for a game, it gives you the sense you can handle whatever happens in a game. It allows you to be at your best because you’re both in that same mind frame.
RAY: You, Ian and your team have won multiple Emmys, both individual and team awards, which speaks to the chemistry and fit that you all have with each other.
SARAH: It’s so real. I could talk forever about how much I adore Ian and how extraordinary he is. Of course, it’s the entire team. Ryan Ruocco, Richard Jefferson and Michael Grady are as good as they come and absolute gold to work with. Chris Carrino calls some games as well, and he and Tim Capstraw make up the Nets radio team.
We’re all a part of the travel party. I consider them all just as integral at what we do.
Tim Capstraw is just as important to my development because of his extraordinary knowledge and the friend he is to me. We bounce ideas off of one another. I am forever grateful for how helpful he has been to me through everything.
Producer Frank DiGraci and director Dan Barr are extraordinary. Also our entire truck, including Ryan Rutherford and Ian Riley. You are only as good as the people around you!
Everyone cares so much about one another, and we are all passionate about the product. We also care about having each other’s back. What has helped us is continuity and consistency and being around good people who care about each other and care about the work that they do.
RAY: Preparation is so crucial and critical to doing the job the right way. Can you talk a little bit more about the specifics of the preparation that you do?
SARAH: We are so fortunate to be able to do the jobs that we do. We’ve all felt that more than ever throughout the course of this pandemic. The season’s postponement makes us appreciate how much we miss it. It’s a special opportunity to be able to call an NBA game.
I don’t ever take that for granted. A big part of that is earning it every day in the preparation that I do.
We have so much information at our disposal that sometimes it is difficult to figure out what is the best way to go about it. For me, it’s so important to stay on top of everything that’s going on in the league.
It helps when you are seeing opponents that you know what their season has been like and some of their storylines. Ian and I each always have a good gauge and a good handle on what’s happening across the league.
In prepping for a game, I always like to at least watch both teams’ immediately preceding games. It’s great if I can get to watch more than that, but if not, at least the most recent game just to get a feel for the game that they’re coming off of.
With the use of Synergy, there are opportunities to go a little bit deeper into what offensive sets or different plays look like, or if there’s a rookie or young player who you haven’t seen very much. Digging a little deeper into his clips gives you a good feel of the rhythm of how they play and what they like to do. Watching full games is always really helpful to me.
I also look at the numbers and get into an analytical breakdown. It’s helpful, whether it’s pace or looking where they’re getting a lot of points from: Shooting percentages, some of the different areas and the different numbers are a big help.
I put a lot of them on my board so I can have them at my disposal. And when you get a feel for how a team plays and what they look like, you have a better perspective on those numbers.
RAY: Bob Rathbun recently told me that having an understanding of what the opponents do in various circumstances enables him, before the game, to alert the producer or the director what to anticipate so that they can set up the best camera angles. It not only informs his ability to call the game but also helps the whole broadcast team to be ready.
SARAH: He nailed it. Your whole broadcasting team has to be ready for what is most likely to happen. I can’t say enough good things about our truck.
Pregame, we discuss what to keep an eye on. We look at what individual players have done the last five to ten games.
Someone might be shooting 30 percent from three-point land for the season but shooting over 40 percent the last two weeks or vice versa. It is important to know how he has been playing lately so you don’t just spout off that he’s not a very good three-point shooter because maybe he has been lighting it up for the past two weeks.
You want to know who exactly that player is and what their skill set looks like. It is important to read articles from the previous few days about what’s happening with a team.
I am so thankful for the wonderful people that are a part of the opposing teams, whether from the coaching staff, the players or the broadcast crews. They tell me what’s going on with the team and with individual players. They see their team each and every day.
If someone asks me about the Nets, I can reel off a quick five minutes and give someone a good snapshot because I’m around them all the time.
That’s why I value and appreciate so many folks around the league. What they tell you about the current state of a team or a player is so helpful within a broadcast.
RAY: Once Sean Marks got there, the Nets seemed to go in a certain direction in terms of building and developing players. There was an arc to what was happening. And then they brought in KD and Kyrie. Do you think it was a back pocket plan all along to try and make a move for players of that caliber? Or was it just seizing an opportunity that presented itself?.
SARAH: I don’t think there’s been any shift.
Sean and his group took over in dire circumstances. They didn’t have any cap space, among other obstacles. The turnaround that was made in a short time that he’s been running things has been excellent and extraordinary to watch.
He is trying to be as savvy as possible while continually exploring all options and making sure to do the requisite due diligence regarding putting together the right pieces.
As for developing young players, look at Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie as examples who had been tossed to the wayside many times. Now, look where they’re at. Caris LeVert had dealt with some injuries in college. Same with Jarett Allen. What they have become confirms Sean and staff’s ability to look at players’ potential.
They have also made sure to have experienced, smart, communicating veterans like Garrett Temple, DeMarre Caroll, Jared Dudley and Ed Davis to help the younger players understand the league and understand team culture.
I give credit to the organization from the top down, and Kenny Atkinson and his coaching staff were such a big part of that.
But I don’t think the direction has changed. There was always the thought of how to continue to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep working to get better and make this a desirable place to be. That’s what they are continuing to do.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming will shift expectations when they are healthy and able to come back. And the group that will surround them could still be fluid. So I just think that getting to the place where they’re at now has come a lot quicker than expected.
RAY: How have you adjusted during the hiatus?
SARAH: I like to think of myself as being versatile and able to acclimate to any new circumstance or situation with a positive attitude. I can’t remember the last time I was in one place for this long!
I’m grateful that I’m healthy and that my loved ones are healthy. I’m appreciative that I have the opportunity to stay home and stay safe because of all the medical and health care heroes on the front lines who allow us that opportunity. The best thing we can do to help others is to stay inside and stay home and stay safe.
NBA TV has done a tremendous job of replaying old games. As much as I miss calling basketball and miss having live sports, this has been such a tremendous time for me. That’s because sometimes it feels like you don’t even have time to go back because you’re so immersed and entrenched in the current season.
And of course, with The Last Dance, those were my formative basketball years growing up in Chicago. I felt like I was reliving my childhood watching that documentary. That has been really special to me.
On YES network, we still have shows every week and we are doing a lot of interviews with current and former NBA players. I still have enough work and an opportunity to do some stuff for DePaul. We all try to keep our brains functioning and active.
Also, I love to read. It’s not bad sometimes to wake up and just sit and read a book for a couple of hours.
And just catching up with family and friends. Normally, I don’t have an opportunity to FaceTime or to Zoom or to just talk. I value those types of things and some of those silver linings.
We’ve all experienced challenging moments throughout all of this, and everyone’s being affected by this pandemic in different ways. I’ve been trying to do as much as I can, and I’m grateful for being healthy. I try and make use of the time to rest and relax.
But I hope that once again we’ll be at a point where we’re so busy that there’s no time to do some of these that we’re doing right now.
RAY: If the Association resumes, it will be without fans in the stands. Have you ever done a game, not just an NBA game, but any game, without fans? Have you thought about what it will be like to call a game like that?
SARAH: That’s such a great question. I have called games where the stands have been nearly empty but never where there were no fans at all.
The surreal part of this whole situation is that we had played the Lakers at Staples in L.A. the night before the Wednesday shutdown. We were flying to San Francisco on Thursday for a game against the Warriors. Because San Francisco was such a hotspot, the league announced that our game with the Warriors would be the first game that would be played without any fans.
I woke up in LA to do the Colin Cowherd show for Fox that morning, and the news broke when I was almost on set. We ended up talking about the fact that there was going to be a game with no fans.
After the show, we got on the plane and it was something we were all talking about. We were discussing with the broadcast crew how they could be creative in setting up the cameras in places that differed from the usual placements.
There were a variety of things already in the thought process of how to approach it, and there are just so many factors that will have to be taken into account.
We’ll have to navigate our way once it does return, and we’ll see how that happens and what it may look and feel like.
Want more great NBA broadcaster profiles? Don’t miss Ray’s previous interview with ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla.
Ray is a co-Founder of TBW and frequent contributor. He has a B.A. from Yale University and J.D. from the University of Southern California and is the owner of Ray LeBov and Associates lobbying and consulting firm as well as Capitol Seminars. He is currently Executive Director of the Association for Professional Basketball Research (i.e. the world’s’ pre-eminent professional basketball historians organization) since 2010. He is the founder, publisher, curator and editor of Basketball Intelligence (BI), including a daily email of the best 20-25 NBA-related internet stories as well as original content and podcasts.