Q&A: Sarah Kustok on NBA Broadcasting, Being a Role Model

In 2017, Sarah Kustok became the first woman to perform full-time TV analysis for an NBA team’s local broadcasts when she joined the YES Network’s Nets crew.

Kustok was a standout at Carl Sandburg High School in the Chicago suburbs before leading DePaul to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2003 and ’04. The Blue Demons captain finished her career among the school’s all-time leaders in three-point shooting.

Kustok joined the coaching staff as an assistant before transitioning to broadcasting. She landed a job as reporter and anchor for Comcast SportsNet in Chicago, then in 2012, New York beckoned and she took over Brooklyn’s sideline analysis.

Sports Section caught up with Kustok from her home on the west side of Manhattan to talk about her journey to the NBA and being a role model for young women.

SPORTS SECTION: You had a great career at DePaul. What do you cherish most about your time there?

KUSTOK: Playing for legendary coach Doug Bruno. He is one of the critical people in my life that helped shape who I am not only as a basketball player, but also off the court.

He taught me about resiliency, competitiveness, work ethic, and how to translate that into the goals that you have in your life. 

My teammates are still my best friends today. We laugh about how many times we got into trouble or were yelled at and all those sorts of things. But it really comes down to feeling like they are still family.

Did you consider playing professionally after college?

I don’t believe in regrets, but that’s the one area I look back on and think I was so forward-thinking about the next steps with grad school (Master’s in Multicultural and Corporate Communication), and what I would do when my basketball career was over, that I didn’t exhaust those options as much as maybe I would’ve liked to. 

Now that I feel washed up, I’d give anything to be on the court playing again! However, I think things all worked out as they should and I won’t complain about where my career has taken me.

You were an assistant coach at DePaul for a bit. What appealed to you about coaching?

Everything. It’s still a career that every now and again I wonder if I would ever go back to. 

Coach Bruno called me and said, “You know our staff, you know our recruits, you know everything about this program. Is this something that you would consider doing at least for a season?” I jumped at the chance and loved every second of it. 

But I realized at that point there was something pulling at me as I was slowly beginning my television career, and I wanted to see if I could do it.

That’s a tough business to break into.

Terribly challenging. There were so many moments that I was convinced maybe I wasn’t cut out for this — that it wasn’t the right path. It was piecing together one freelance gig after another. It was an extended stretch of wondering how it was going to work out. But eventually it turned into more stable opportunities. My first substantial TV job was Comcast SportsNet. 

Then you land in Brooklyn as a sideline reporter, but it doesn’t take you long to become the first woman to call local NBA games.

When I first started the job, I was so singularly focused on trying to make sure I was preparing myself to be at my best that I didn’t necessarily want to think as much about being a female in that role.

The longer I’ve been into it and the more we’re seeing different women in roles that were more typically male, it brings a huge sense of pride. There’s a long way to go, however. 

Do you embrace being a role model for young women considering broadcasting careers?

It’s probably the single most important reason that I do what I do. 

That’s something that I appreciate and enjoy and thrive on. To me, it’s all about the next generation, and it’s young people having someone that they can talk to or just see as an example. 

I can’t say enough about how much I feel a deep level of appreciation and gratitude to be a part of, hopefully, our next generation of girls having even bigger dreams and bigger goals and more opportunities to do anything they want. 

What were the particular hurdles you faced, and how were you able to stay in it mentally?

When you look at the television business or just journalism in general, there are challenges across the board for everyone — no matter who you are or what you look like.

Being a female in that role, I just always knew there was a higher level of scrutiny. That was something that I was very aware of. I tried to make sure that in all aspects of my preparation, in my research, I went above and beyond to make sure that I’m as prepared as possible.

It was pouring my heart into everything that I did. You learn that, at the end of the day, it’s about who you are, it’s about the person that you are and who I am as a broadcaster. 

It’s maintaining thick skin and making sure that you understand you are in a level of competition with other people. Things aren’t always going to be perfect; you’re going to get criticisms, but you learn to make yourself better because of it. 

Where does that thick skin come from? 

I would 100% say it started on the courts and playing fields when I was a kid.

My hero and the person who I give so much credit to is my older brother, Zak. He let me tag along with him everywhere to play anything with him and his friends. Then playing sports in junior high, high school, and college translated into the professional world. 

It circles back to the thing I care about most: the person I am. How I treat people doesn’t change based on the criticism I may receive as a broadcaster. 

The Nets broadcasting team always looks to be having a ton of fun. How do you balance the camaraderie with informing viewers of what’s happening in the game?

That’s one of the biggest questions, and one that I still strive to strike a correct balance with, because it’s not always easy. I think every person watching the game has a different feel for how much they’re there for the entertainment, and how much they’re there for the information.

That’s been a learning process. I think so much of it depends on time, score, and the flow of the game, and how the team is playing. That dance between being informative and entertaining is something that I’m still trying to find with consistency.

The Nets are built to win a championship. Is everything on course?

They’re still searching for an identity with the Big Three of (Kevin) Durant, (Kyrie) Irving, and (James) Harden. They have really been special to this point, but due to some health issues and missed games, we haven’t had a lot of time to actually see them play together.

The exciting part when watching the Nets now is just how much they have come together in a short period of time. They are really just terrific in terms of what they can do on the offensive end.

Defense has been the question, but that is an area that we consistently see improving. They’re just scratching the surface of what they want to look like on the floor as a team. But to this point, there have been some special, special nights. There’s a lot of promise toward their goal of winning a title.

Couple of bonus questions on your playing career. You were named High School Player of the Year in Chicago in 2000. Who did you share that with?

Dwyane Wade!

You were always smiling, always having a great time. What’s the most fun that you’ve had on a basketball court?

That’s an amazing question. 

It’s just that my most precious sports memory is winning a state championship in volleyball (in 1998)!

With basketball, I can’t think of just one. But I will tell you that the immediate thing that pops into mind are the times in the summer when I was in college, and we would play pick-up every night. We had Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter and Tasha Pointer and everyone from Chicago rolling through the open gym at DePaul.

When I was a kid, it was about me and my brother being out at the park. We’d play one-on-one for hours and I remember him talking about different moves. 

Those moments outweigh anything that was more structured, or wins or things like that. It’s the times when you just are having so much fun and there’s such a high level of competition with the people that you care about.

Finally, what’s next for you?

My only hope and goal is to be as happy and as challenged as I feel today in another five years and another 10 years. If I had talked to you 10 or 13 years ago, Chris, and you would have asked where I thought I’d be, I would not have laid out this plan. 

You think about steps in ways in which you want to continue to get better. I think about that all the time in different opportunities, but I’m also someone who understands that there are things in life that change fast.

The greatest thing for me is finding that level of challenge and enjoyment on a daily basis, appreciating that and being grateful for that. And just making sure that you try and strive for that in the short term, and then the long term.

Chris Kuc is a national writer who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.