NBA analyst and YES Network commentator Sarah Kustok discusses the Nets’ present and future prospects, the growing number of women in sports media and coaching, and what it takes to succeed.
Q: Can you visualize that moment when Kevin Durant gets on the court with Kyrie Irving?
A: Just them introducing him Opening Night, and he walked out in his street clothes — you get chills. He is a generational player. He’s gonna go down as one of the greats to ever play the game, so to hear him be announced to the Barclays Center crowd as a Brooklyn Net, it will be mind-blowing. It brings so much joy to me to watch these individuals play that when they’re on the floor together, when Kevin is finally able to play as a Brooklyn Net wearing that jersey, it’s gonna be a really, really incredible moment.
Q: Where does Kyrie’s 50-point game rank among games you’ve done?
A: The things he was doing, it was like watching a video game. His finishes around the rim, these are things that we’ve watched on TV, we’ve watched live, you know the type of player that he is, but when you’re actually calling this action, I almost want to say it’s like an (out-of-body) experience ’cause you’re like, “Is this guy really doing these things? Is he really hitting these shots?” And he does it with such ease … to do it in front of his family, that had a whole other level to how special that moment was.
Q: You never had a night like that when you played in the backcourt at DePaul?
A: Me? No (chuckle).
Q: What was your immediate reaction when KD and Kyrie signed with the Nets?
A: My immediate reaction was so much happiness for the organization. It was almost them being rewarded for being patient and doing things the right way and caring about character and who they brought in. I felt really good for the people who you’ve watched toil through the tough times, go through the muck of when things were not easy and the situation looked like it was a dire one.
Q: What kind of guy is Kyrie?
A: He’s insightful. He’s someone who has been warm to everyone that he’s around. He’s someone who thinks deeply about things. He really is someone who thinks about the world, thinks about things within society in a very fascinating way.
Q: What have you learned about KD?
A: He is an absolute basketball junkie. I’m excited for when he gets on the court, but I also think in the same vein, it’s been really special to watch how he’s interacted with players, how he’s talked to coaches. He’s been a part of everything despite the fact that he can’t play on the court.
Q: Describe coach Kenny Atkinson.
A: He’s got moxie. He’s someone who is one of the most competitive individuals that I’ve been around. But he never demands anything of his players that he doesn’t ask of himself. I’m not sure the man sleeps. But for as intense and energetic as he is as a coach, he wears his heart on the sleeve. His dedication to the game and his knowledge of the game has gotten him this far, but on top of that, add in the fact that players feel the love he has for them, and that is a real thing. He cares about people, he cares about getting the best out of people. That man is as tough as they come, but when it comes to his heart and care for people, he is like a big bundle of love.
Q: How is he tough?
A: I feel like he’s unshakable, he’s resilient. I think that you could probably put a uniform on him and check him into the game and he’d probably believe he could give you some run for like a good 5, 10 minutes. He gives you confidence ’cause he has so much confidence in himself in finding a way to get it done, yet he also is relatable and he’s honest, and he’s gonna own up and be accountable for things that he feels he can do better.
Q: What comes to mind: Spencer Dinwiddie.
A: Smart, entertaining. I appreciate his love to interact — with fans, on social media, on Twitter, he really puts himself out there in a way that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Q: Caris Levert.
A: True pro and awesome human being.
Q: Jarrett Allen.
A: He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He is who he is. He’s just uniquely himself, and you love him for that.
Q: DeAndre Jordan.
A: We mention players that come in with great leadership, and he lights up a room.
Q: What would be a successful season for this team?
A: I don’t think anything should be off the table for these guys. I think it’s gonna be a question of how quickly they can really build chemistry. I think Milwaukee and Philadelphia, in some ways, have separated themselves from some of the pack. After that, I think it’s wide open. See if you can take another step and build on what you did last year.
Q: When a healthy KD comes back, NBA championship would be the expectation, wouldn’t it?
A: See, I think there’s a difference between expectations and goals. I don’t think KD coming back, in his first year back after tearing an Achilles, that NBA championship should be the automatic expectation.
Q: I guarantee you Brooklyn Nets fans will have those expectations.
A: I’m not gonna say it, but I’m sure they will. And that’s the beauty of it, and that’s why you get excited about having a guy like Kevin Durant on your team, ‘cause all of a sudden, that’s a realistic goal.
Q: Who are other announcers you admire?
A: The list goes on. Doris Burke is always at the top of it. Her attention to detail, her preparation, her knowledge, her clear insight because of the work she did prior, I forever have admired how she goes about the business of doing her job and taking every role with the same level of seriousness regardless of what sport she had been covering or what she was doing. … I’ve gotta say Ian Eagle. To me, he’s in a class of his own. He is one of a kind. He is extraordinary at his job. He prepares for every broadcast like it’s the first broadcast he’s ever doing. It is hard to find anyone who has that level of discipline and dedication to their craft like Ian does. I am not funny, so I really enjoy people who are funny (smile). He’s one of the funniest people that I know, and above all else, which always matters most to me, he is one of the most sincere, kind, genuine individuals you will find. Most people just love him for the broadcaster he is, love him for his wit, love him for his calls, his voice, his creativeness — above all else, he is the best human being that you will find, and for that, I adore him.
Q: How do you know you’re not funny?
A: You know how to stay in your lane. And my lane is not funny. My lane is surround myself with people who are funny. I’m great company (smile) — funny people like to have me around because I love to laugh. One of my favorite things to do. I have a great sense of humor. I love comedy.
Q: Brent Musburger.
A: When I was in grad school, I was a P.A. on ESPN’s college football production through the year, and the men’s Big Ten tournament which was at Chicago, and so one of my duties was to pick up Brent Musburger from his hotel and drive him to the United Center. And Brent had called a lot of my brother’s games [Zak, as Northwestern quarterback]. I think about his kind he was, how funny he was. He would tell me stories about games he called.
Q: Richard Jefferson.
A: I am so thankful that Richard Jefferson has joined our broadcast. People know him as being funny, loose-lipped, will say anything and is entirely honest. He’s a great Soul Cycle partner, he’s a great workout partner, he keeps me in line.
Q: SNY’s Jeane Coakley.
A: My girl! As loyal as they come. I can count on her for anything, and moving to New York, essentially not knowing anyone, she became family, and I appreciate her more than words can say.
Q: What are some of your favorite other events you’ve been a part of?
A: Being in Philadelphia when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, Game 6. The first NBA playoff series I covered was the Bulls and Boston Celtics , and it was Derrick Rose’s rookie year, and he was just extraordinary. The way they battled against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and that Celtics group, it was really inspiring. It was also me being in a situation that I was thrown into the fire and my head was spinning, but in the most incredible way, because it was a continued reminder of what amazing moments this job can give you through sports. And then Mark Buehrle’s perfect game. The Sacramento game last year, the Nets come back from I believe it was a 27-point deficit, DeAngelo Russell went absolutely bananas in the fourth quarter. In the moment, you could feel how special it was. There were so many Joe Johnson buzzer-bearer games that we’re just unbelievable. Deron Williams has some moments where he was just going off. I feel like that year with Garnett and Paul Pierce [2013-14] and all those guys, what they did in Toronto, Game 7 at Toronto to advance and go to the second round … how much anxiety we felt throughout the course of that moment.
Q: What was it like making history as the first female solo NBA analyst?
A: I like to think that I’m measured in how I speak about it because I am so grateful for the opportunity. I’m grateful for the fact that females are getting more opportunities in different roles than maybe they did before, so for that, I’m happy. I hope the next generation of young girls and boys looks at someone in a color analyst role and doesn’t even think about their gender. However for me, personally, I don’t like talking about myself and I don’t like thinking about it in that manner. I believe that my bosses felt that I was the person they wanted in that role and would be capable of doing that job in the best way regardless of me being a female. And that’s important to me. And it’s important to me that being put in that role that eventually, I’m not looked at as being a female analyst. However I think there’s a responsibility to be good enough, to be competent enough. I told Doris Burke a few weeks ago at dinner, “I wouldn’t have my job, I wouldn’t be in the position I am in if not for you.” If not for people like Ann Meyers Drysdale crushing it and being amazing at what they do. I only hope that those behind me are afforded the same opportunities because of the job that I do. The making history I don’t like to talk about, but I do like the fact that there are high school girls or junior high girls or when I go into camps in the summer, they want to do this job, or they want to do a different job, or they look at [ESPN analyst] Kara Lawson or [Wizards assistant coach] Kristi Toliver or [Spurs assistant coach] Becky Hammon — they don’t even think twice about an opportunity to do things because they see people that look like them or that are like them who are females. And so that is why it’s special to me, for the next generation, for those who want to be doing this job.
Q: With 11 woman assistant coaches now, do you think there will be a female head coach in the NBA?
A: Without a doubt. The more things become normalized, it’s a process. And there’s a long way to go. However, I absolutely feel like it will happen, and I don’t know the timeline of it. So many of these players are coaches and we know the NBA is a very progressive league. They care about your basketball acumen. They care about: Can you help me as a player? They care about what it is that you bring to the table. Their only concern is: Can this person help us, help our team, help me become a better player? And I believe that’s there, so I think it’s just a matter of time.
Q: Would coaching ever appeal to you?
A: That’s a great question. I was an assistant at DePaul [women’s team]. In many ways it does, because I feel like a large portion of what I do in this role and for my prep is you’re watching film, you’re breaking things down, you’re looking at things in a certain way. I coached an AAU team when I was in Chicago. There’s an aspect of coaching and helping people that I love. But currently, the role I’m in and doing what I’m doing is such a great challenge for me. I love what I’m doing. But you always kind of keep options open for all things.
Q: Can you coach men?
A: I absolutely think so.
Q: U.S. soccer star Carli Lloyd wants to be a placekicker in the NFL.
A: I think it’s incredible. If someone’s talented enough to do something, then why not?
Q: Equal pay for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
A: That’s huge. And that’s where for as many strides as we’ve taken, and as far as we’ve come, there’s a long way to go. For those individuals who have the platform that they do and to speak about it, you appreciate that, you respect that.
Q: Why did you donate your bone marrow?
A: To me, it wasn’t even a question. If you can help someone, you help someone. All I know is it was a young boy.
Q: Childhood idol?
A: My brother. He let me follow him around. For as much as you watch pro sports or college players or high school players, he was the one person that everything he did, and how he prepared and how he approached things and his attitude towards all things was everything that I tried to emulate.
Q: Childhood dream?
A: I’m gonna sound really corny, but these are accurate answers: to be enormously challenged, and to be really happy. There were times in my life I wanted to be a doctor. I always imagined sports in one way, shape or form in my life, whether at times I thought about the WNBA or I thought about different things, I was always very serious about school. I was all over the board in terms of what I thought my career would look like. Never in a million years did I anticipate this is what I would be doing.
Q: Who were your favorite players growing up?
A: Tina Thompson and Rebecca Lobo were players who I always watched and admired. She’s now the head coach at Vanderbilt, but Stephanie White … she could do a little bit of everything, she had size, she could shoot, and I’m friends with her now, and I’m very proud of what she’s doing.
Q: How about in the men’s game?
A: Growing up in Chicago, between Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen], and toss Steve Kerr in there.
Q: What did you think of the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series?
A: I’m always thrilled for any success that Chicago teams have, in understanding what an enormous deal that was to the city and living through so many of the lean years.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: My mom, Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson. Learning more about him from my time here with Brooklyn and the impact he’s had on sports and equality would make sitting and conversing with him a true dream.
Q: Favorite movie?
A: “A Bronx Tale.” My college coach, Doug Bruno, would have our teams watch it together before the start of every season and is one that will always hold a significance in the discussions it led us to having.
Q: Favorite actors?
A: Denzel [Washington] and Robert De Niro.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Charlize Theron.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?
A: Alicia Keys.
Q: Favorite meal?
A: Mexican food.
Q: Favorite Brooklyn things?
A: Brooklyn Bridge — I will walk across the Brooklyn Bridge often — Juniors cheesesteak, the different neighborhoods.
Q: What do you hope viewers say about you?
A: Our jobs are to entertain and inform. I hope that viewers think I’m prepared. I hope viewers think I’m knowledgeable and insightful, and that I know the game. After that, I think we know we’re in a very subjective business, so people may like you, they may not. But I always hope that viewers have a respect for my love and passion for the game.
Q: What is the significance of the tattoo on your left wrist?
A: It says “The grace of strength.” It’s part of something my mom [Anita] had written me, and it’s her writing, and her writing is so recognizable to me and it makes me smile, and I think about it. So my middle name is Grace. My whole family forever had called me Grace, my mom always calmed me Grace, Gracie. She was not a fan of tattoos, so she probably wouldn’t have loved me having a tattoo (smile).
Q: When did you get it?
A: I got it four years ago.
Q: What prompted you at that time to get it?
A: I had been thinking about it since she died, that I wanted something on me to look at. It was shortly after the conclusion of my father’s trial [convicted five years ago for murdering Anita in 2010].
Q: What drives you?
A: There’s a multitude of things that drive me. I think anyone that knows me, has been a teammate of mine, I am supremely competitive person. … I am competitive with myself to be the very best I can be. I always want to reach my fullest potential at whatever I’m attacking. And I also think, with that being said, and talking about my mom, at the heart of everything I think about every day is making her proud. With all things career-wise and in all the things we try to achieve in our lives professionally, at the end of the day, I care about the type of person I am. I hope that above all else people believe that I treat them well and I truly mean this, like being a kind, good person. Through good, through bad, through all days, through all challenges that we have, I hope I’m the same person to people regardless of circumstance.
Q: Are you like your mom?
A: I think so (smile). I mean, I can’t touch her in terms of the incredible person she was, but I think in all things, just how you treat people is the most important thing, and that’s what she always instilled upon me. My happiness comes from it’s nice to see other people happy, it’s nice to be able to add to the goodness of what someone’s experiencing.
Q: What enables you to get through your emotional disaster in your life?
A: I believe it came from my family. I think it’s just strength and faith. And knowing that … I think we all encounter things in life that you have a choice. You have a choice of what you want your life to look like, and circumstances are presented to you and it’s your decision how you handle them. You can talk the talk when things are good. It’s easy to do all the things that people say you should and that you say you should when you’re having a good day or when things are going well. I think we all know the true test of character, the true test of who are is who are you in your worst moments? And on your worst day. It gutted me, it guts me every day. That doesn’t change. To me, it shouldn’t change who I am on the inside. Someone told me that there were two things I continue to remember from that — someone said you will forever be your mom’s greatest legacy. So choose how you want that to look like. And then someone else said find your strength. And once you find your strength, never let it go. What’s the other option? To be a miserable person didn’t seem like the right way to go.