Phil Chenier's 25th season celebration
This is Phil Chenier's 25th season as a Washington Bullets/Wizards TV analyst. He is thus being honored Friday night with Phil Chenier Night, featuring a pre-game ceremony emceed by Steve Buckhantz, appearances by former teammates (Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, Bobby Dandridge) and former co-workers (Mel Proctor), a commemorative video and a variety of other special appearances. In the spirit of the occasion, a few 25th anniversary notes.
The Losses, Part I
After four straight trips to the playoffs, the Wizards are deep in the muck for a second straight season. They set a franchise record with 16 consecutive losses. They've dressed more players than any team in franchise history. Fun times, if you're part of the broadcast team.
"At this time of year, with as challenging as this season has been, if I was working with anybody else, I'd probably have been picked up for manslaughter by now," Buckhantz told me. "But Phil, despite everything we've been through, at the end of the year, you just want to give him a big hug."
Chenier, you see, is a positive sort of person. Not the sort to go on and on about curses.
"I mean, I feel for the guys," he told me. "We're traveling on the plane with them, the bus with them. And you're with them every day. You want to see them happy, you want to see them succeed. For me, I want to continue what I consider to be a good legacy in this city. I know the team hasn't won, but we've been in this city, in this area for years, and fans love basketball around here. I'd like to see success, I'd like to see fans happy and proud of the team."
An Assist From James Brown
Chenier had never thought about a career in broadcasting. There were no regional cable deals back then, just the weekly games on the national networks and some over-the-air deals with local stations.
James Brown back then was an up-and-coming announcer who had deals to do both a scattering of Bullets games, and black college basketball games. Sometimes, the two jobs overlapped, and so he asked Chenier about filling in.
"I said sure," Chenier recalled. "I wasn't doing anything, didn't know anything about the business."
After a few years of this, Chenier heard that a new network called Home Team Sports would be showing several dozen Bullets game a season and was looking for a color analyst. He called Wes Unseld to ask about the job, and eventually got the gig without even an audition. To this point, he had called 15 or 20 games in his career, by his recollection.
He was working for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington at the time, and his supervisor said it would be ok, that the positive publicity would be worth the hassle. Two years later, Chenier began working at Howard Community College, keeping his full-time career for more than a decade. By that point, he was doing 70-some games a year, using personal and vacation time to keep up the schedule, and often getting barely any sleep after night games.
His first season, Chenier often worked with Jon Miller. Soon after, Mel Proctor came on board; Chenier remembered how they would have to wear standard-issue Home Team Sports blazers. Eventually, they were allowed to buy their own sports coats and then adorn them with HTS patches.
About a decade into his tenure, Steve Buckhantz became his partner. They were only about five years different in age, but Buckhantz said Chenier was once his idol, that "to this day I think he has probably the sweetest jumper I've ever seen."
When Buckhantz was a college kid covering the team, he saw the low-top nylon-mesh Nikes that Chenier wore and decided he needed a pair. He scoured all of Arlington to try to find the shoes.
Buckhantz also was a referee in the local Urban Coalition League, a summer circuit in which Chenier participated.
"To this day one of the most devastating days of my life was the day in the Urban Coalition League when I was forced to call a technical foul on Phil because he called me something not fit to be printed in a newspaper," Buckhantz told me. "It nearly broke my heart. Here's my idol and I've got to hit him with a T. Who would have thought, over 25 years later, we'd be sitting side by side and working together? For me it's the biggest thrill in the world."
I asked Chenier for his weirdest experiences covering the Bullets/Wizards.
"Most of the weird moments occurred with Buck," Chenier said. "And 9 out of 10 were in a taxi cab."
There was the time their cab broke down on the highway heading to the Meadowlands, and the driver pulled over in the median and began attempting to hail down help. There was the preseason game in Columbus, when their cab took them to the hockey arena and the duo nearly entered the hockey pressbox in an attempt to call a basketball game.
And there was the time in Indianapolis, when a frazzled Buckhantz checked out of their hotel and sat down in the cab with a soda and a candy bar. The driver --whose ride stunk of cigar smoke -- kept looking back at him. Finally he told Buckhantz, in an irritated tone, that he normally didn't allow snacking in his cab. Buckhantz asked him to repeat himself. The cabbie said it again.
"You smoke that nasty cigar but people can't eat candy in your car, huh?" Buckhantz said.
"It's my cab, I'll do what I want to do," the driver said.
A moment later, the driver pulled over and told Buckhantz to get out. Chenier is still just sitting there. He hasn't said a word through this entire exchange. The cabbie looks at him.
"You too," he decides
Another theme of their partnership was Buckhantz's jealousy over getting inferior accommodations. So one time, after a late-night arrival, Chenier called Buckhantz to rave over the amazing luxurious suite he'd been given. Buckhantz demanded to look. Chenier, running a gag from the jump, made up a room number.
So of course, the play-by-play man wound up banging on the door of some surprised elderly woman at 2 in the morning.
The Losses, Part II
Some of Chenier's buddies from the league also wound up in broadcasting. Ron Boone from the Jazz. Stu Lantz from the Lakers. Austin Carr in Cleveland. These are teams that go to the playoffs annually. The Wizards will finish with a losing record for the 17th time in 23 years.
"Yeah, you look around sometimes and say, 'Man, I sure wish my team could do that,' but I wouldn't have it any other way--other than winning, of course," Chenier said. "The last two years have been kind of tough. But you just hope that one of these years, the team positions itself to get that key player, that key component....I'm a positive person. This is my team, I'm thinking all positive, because I think that positive energy might have an influence some kind of way."
And when you ask him for his favorite moments, he doesn't remember the bad parts. He remembers the year Chris Webber and Juwan Howard led the team to the playoffs. He remembers Gilbert's game-winning shot in Chicago. He remembers a heart-to-heart talk with Bernard King.
So, 25 more years?
"That would be great," Chenier said. "I think that would take me to about 85. Hey, just take it one year at a time, right?"
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