How Zora Stephenson made Bucks play-by-play history and took a step toward amplifying women's voices in NBA

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Jim Owczarski, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
·8 min read
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Zora Stephenson is shown before the Milwaukee Bucks game against the Charlotte Hornets Friday, April 9, 2021 at Fiserv Forum. She is the first woman to do the play-by-play announcing of a Bucks broadcast.
Zora Stephenson is shown before the Milwaukee Bucks game against the Charlotte Hornets Friday, April 9, 2021 at Fiserv Forum. She is the first woman to do the play-by-play announcing of a Bucks broadcast.

Zora Stephenson researched, poked and pried with purpose.

With weeks to prepare for her turn behind the play-by-play microphone for Bally Sports Wisconsin’s broadcast of the Milwaukee Bucks vs. Charlotte Hornets game April 9, her formalized curiosity found little satisfaction by way of examples of women in that chair.

There are no women calling games full-time in the NBA, and since Leandra Reilly Lardner broke the gender barrier for the league for play-by-play in 1988 there have been few female examples to draw upon. By calling the Bucks game, Stephenson added her name to that list as the first to do so for any of the major men’s sports in Wisconsin.

And in trying to find voices to learn from, she rediscovered the most important: her own.

Stephenson also recognized the significance of the moment, embraced its meaning and soaked it in. More importantly she wanted to take her turn in carrying the torch and lighting a path that is too often dark.

“That’s because of everybody else before me,” she said of her opportunity. “They, in so many different ways, did the real hard work so that I could have this moment. They provided this moment for me and for all women that are getting moments like this right now. It’s because of everybody else that didn’t necessarily get to have it. I’m thankful for everybody else before me.”

'We should just continue to make it happen'

Late in the afternoon of April 8, the Bucks’ media relations department sent out its regular advance e-mail for each game, with details like team records, date, time and game location. Included in that is a broadcast rundown, and Stephenson was listed at play-by-play along with analyst Marques Johnson.

Jim Paschke, left, and Zora Stephenson, right, called the Bucks' three scrimmages from inside Fiserv Forum.
Jim Paschke, left, and Zora Stephenson, right, called the Bucks' three scrimmages from inside Fiserv Forum.

The organization, regular play-by-play broadcaster Jim Paschke, Stephenson, Johnson and fellow analyst Steve Novak knew Stephenson would call the game for some time, however.

Bucks president Peter Feigin said Stephenson has brought so much to the table that it was only natural for the organization to expand her role. Paschke encouraged her to take over play-by-play for parts of scrimmages in the bubble last fall. Novak helped Stephenson call mock games. Johnson sat for a long coffee to talk about style and broadcast rhythms.

“That is how we move forward in so many ways,” Stephenson said. “When you have allies.”

In the runup to April 9, Stephenson wasn’t aware of the history she would make until a few days before. For her, the fact her parents live in North Carolina, she went to Elon University in the state and the first NBA game she covered involved the Hornets, the night was going to special anyway.

And there was no initial news release from the organization or network touting what that game would mean.

Which for the few women who have sat in that chair, that’s how it should be.

“They never made it a big deal that I was a woman, and I really, really appreciated that,” said Lisa Byington, who to this day isn’t sure if she was the first woman to call play-by-play on television for the Chicago Bulls.

And when CBS and Turner Sports assigned Byington to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in March, she said they weren’t aware she was going to be the first woman to do so until media covering the tournament asked to confirm it.

“There’s an argument for both sides,” Byington said. “I think there’s some things that you need to acknowledge that it’s a first because it represents progress. First represents progress, because then there’s an opportunity for other doors to open.”

Leandra Reilly Lardner understands both sides. When she did play-by-play on television for two New Jersey Nets games in 1988 for SportsChannel New York, it was a news story. She was the first.

Meghan McPeak understands, too.

She called her first NBA game in 2018 for a Washington Wizards-Detroit Pistons preseason contest. The first Black woman to serve as the full-time play-by-play voice for a G League team, McPeak was also part of the first all-female television broadcast on TSN on March 24 for a game between the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets.

“It’s great that we’re celebrating these moments now rather than celebrate it when we’re all retired or passed, so it’s great in that sense because we can enjoy it and we can see what people have to say, we can see the young generation that we may be inspiring,” McPeak said.

“Just thinking of all of that, it sucks in the sense of it taking this long for it to happen. You think of (Lardner), it had been 30 years since a woman did a preseason game. I say it sucks in the sense that it happens once and then we have to wait three more decades for it to happen again. That’s where I’m saying it sucks because once it happens we should just continue to make it happen. There shouldn’t be these five, 10-, 20-, 30-year lapses in between.”

Also in March, Women’s History Month, Golden State’s Kate Scott (radio) and Sacramento’s Krista Blunk (TV) were the first women to call play-by-play for those organizations.

“It would be nice to see someone at the table for the team, for the season,” Lardner said. “That would be really, really cool. It’s charming that people call me and ask me about things regarding the first women to call these games but it’s also, like Meghan had said, it’s kind of disappointing that we’re still … there. That we are still excited that there’s a first woman. It’ll just be really cool if it was the first woman who became the voice of an NBA team.”

Yet they all know that with each leap, even if they haven’t landed on the sun, they have at least gotten off the ground.

“That’s what we’re all doing,” Stephenson said. “I was excited for them. But then at the same time, you don’t want it to just be a moment, you want it to be continuous. So I hope women continue to get consistent roles and not just recognition in March.”

Finding her own way

In her preparation for the Bucks broadcast Stephenson admitted she got frustrated, and a bit lost. She consumed a lot of play-by-play, thinking about how her call should sound.

After she did mock games she did not really like how it did.

“People around me that were helping me ... especially Jim (Paschke), was like, stop trying to be somebody else, just be Zora,” she said. “That was all part of the process. My prep gradually changed.

“It’s the same thing as reporting. You try to watch a bunch of different people and you take little nuggets here and there but you always have to be yourself. And for some reason when trying to prepare for a different role I forgot that. And in the middle of preparation I got back to it.”

The game itself also presented Stephenson a challenge. On the second night of back-to-back games, not a single Bucks starter played against the Hornets.

“If you can do a game like this and do it well, trust me, when the regular guys are out there it becomes a piece of cake,” said Johnson, the color analyst.

“When we talked philosophy of broadcasting, what I shared with her (was) I look at it like an acting performance, like a live-acting performance you do on stage. When you do live acting on stage, every performance is different. Every game is different. Every game is unique unto itself and we’re just going to plug into the storyline and roll with it and have fun with it.”

They did, and Stephenson said it was great to hear from so many people who watched and celebrated the feat.

That included the women who preceded Stephenson, either by decades or weeks. They cannot wait for the day when a woman is hired full time for a play-by-play position, but their individual steps have proven to be big enough that time and distance have not diminished them.

Stephenson is part of that march, now. But she just wants to improve and continue forward, wherever that leads. Her hope, too, is that more are advancing with her.

Which is just one reason that before the game Johnson recited to her a quote from her namesake, Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neal Hurston: “Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it, can’t hide it.”

“His words registered with me,” Stephenson said, and then she paused.

“For me, I just wanted to do a good job. To me the history is not necessarily getting the moment, it’s succeeding in the moment. I was telling everyone we’re not celebrating anything until this is over, right? It’s like, you don’t celebrate getting in the game, you celebrate winning the game. And that was so important or me.

“I appreciate him recognizing the moment because we have to recognize the moment. As much as I wanted to defer and wait till it was over, I appreciate Marques for taking a second to stop and let everybody know what was happening.

“That made it so much more meaningful. To have all that connect, it was beautiful.”

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Zora Stephenson's TV play-by-play debut made Milwaukee Bucks history