MILWAUKEE — Deep in the FiServ Forum, across from the visiting NBA team’s locker room, a storage closet has been turned into a mobile studio. Though there are still remnants of it being a storage closet, with a Milwaukee Bucks potholder on the ground and empty boxes strewn about, the setup has lighting, an NBA backdrop and a satellite hookup to let whoever sits down and puts on the headphones to check in with the NBA TV studios in Atlanta.
On this night, that person is Bucks play-by-play announcer Lisa Byington.
She is doing a hit, television-speak for the short interviews that help make up studio shows. Byington, the first woman to be named an NBA team’s play-by-play announcer, talks about the effect of Milwaukee’s big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holliday. She makes a good case for Antetokounmpo to win another MVP.
This is where Byington is most comfortable — talking basketball. She knows her place in history and is well aware she has a high-profile job, but what is most important to her is putting on her headset and sharing the game she has loved since she was a kid.
“As a play-by-play, that's what I do. And that's what I love to do. I'm not in it to be on TV. I'm not in it to do all the side stuff or the stories and everything,” Byington said. “If the side stuff includes community service and helping out, or being a role model or helping like that, that's great. But the attention that comes with the job, I can leave it more than take it.”
Still, she knows it’s important for people to watch and hear her calling basketball games. She’s often told how important it is for little girls to see her in the job. Byington adds how important it is for everyone to see her in this role.
“When I was growing up in the ‘80s, ‘90s, it was really rare to just see a women's basketball game on TV, let alone female announcers or female broadcasters or female journalists actually covering the game, let alone transcending them into anything that was a men's side of things,” Byington said. “And so I just think it's great that little girls and little boys and men and women can turn on the TV and will see that, because that's what the world is, you know? And we all have to learn how to work together and lift each other up and support each other.
“It shouldn't be like, here's your male broadcaster and the male broadcaster does these things, and here's your female broadcaster and the female broadcaster does these things. It should just be: Here's a broadcaster. Here's a good broadcaster and let them call this, this or this because they're a good broadcaster regardless if they're male or female. And so that's what's important to me.
“I know it's important for little girls and women to hear our voices, but if they're the only ones, then we don't make progress.”
Before working with the Bucks, Byington covered college football and basketball for the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports, and she also called games for the Chicago Sky in the WNBA. She still does college games when she has the time. When the Bucks played the Phoenix Suns on national television on March 6, Byington headed to Connecticut to join fellow NBA trailblazer Sarah Kustok to call the semifinals and finals of the Big East women’s tournament. For the NCAA men’s tournament, Byington was a part of the CBS crew in San Diego for the first two rounds.
Working so many different assignments helped Byington prepare for the more steady job of covering one team with one partner as the analyst. She works with Marques Johnson, the former UCLA great and Milwaukee star, on Bucks broadcasts.
“I feel like TV is an analyst sport, so you really want the analyst to shine whereas radio is a play-by-play sport. And I try to figure out who the analyst is and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how best can I make that analyst shine on the broadcast,” Byington said. “Marques does a great job on his own to shine. He's got such a unique personality. And I always say that there are some analysts whose strengths are X's and O's and some analysts whose strengths are entertainment. And I think Marques does a great job of combining both, and there's a rare few who can do both. And I think Marques Johnson is definitely one of those analysts.”
‘She's very good at what she does’
Byington has built a routine on Bucks game days. She gets to the arena hours before tipoff, finding a seat in the stands where she can go over notes and the latest NBA news. She’ll go to both coaches’ pregame press conferences, listening for updates on injuries and playing time. She will check in with Bucks beat reporters and Dave Koehn, Milwaukee’s play-by-play voice on radio. Before the Bucks played the Atlanta Hawks earlier this month, she ran into Jim Paschke, the former Bucks play-by-play person whose retirement created the opportunity for Byington.
Her preparation includes creating a large, taped-together chart with the names, pronunciations, numbers and notes for each of the players on both teams. Color-coded highlighters help her identify information quickly as she’s calling the game. Yellow highlights the nuggets of information she wants to use during the game. Green highlights the evergreen info.
That preparation stood out to Adam Amin, who is the play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Bulls and a friend of Byington.
“She always asks questions. She's always asking something,” Amin said. “She had a mind that she wanted to do this. And I think the opportunities that have come her way now are just a byproduct of her being conscientious, her head being in the right place and how to approach doing this job.”
When the Bulls were looking for a new play-by-play person because of the retirement of Neil Funk, Byington called some Chicago games next to Stacey King. King knows how rare these jobs are and how her hard work to reach this level paid off.
“I watched her from afar. I watched her on college (games). I just thought it would be pretty cool to have her here and get an opportunity. And she did really well, and parlayed it into the Milwaukee job,” King said. “But she earned it and I always like to say I don't like to put genders on things. If you're good, you're good. Doesn't matter if you have, black, white, man, female, octopus with eight arms — it doesn't matter. If you're good at what you do, that's all that matters.
“I don't look at it as being, her being a woman. I look at her (as) she's very good at what she does and there's only 30 of these jobs. And most of the time, these guys stay in these jobs for 30 years. It's awesome to see that. She's got an opportunity, and she's doing quite well in Milwaukee.”
The sign of true progress
About a half hour before the game begins, Byington settles into her courtside seat and puts on the headset. When the game begins, Byington stays in touch with the director and the rest of the staff creating the broadcast in a satellite truck parked in a loading dock at FiServ. The atmosphere is loose and lighthearted. Keeping the broadcast fun is something Byington has taught her co-workers.
When she called games for the Sky in 2021, Byington worked with fellow Northwestern alumna Meghan McKeown. The two had been paired on a mentoring program at the school when McKeown was still a student and a basketball player. Getting to work together was serendipitous.
“She was always reminding me, sports are fun. You're supposed to have fun,” McKeown said. “I think a lot of times we get so nervous and caught up in the moment, and she always does such a great job of having a good time.
“There's a former play-by-play person that puts a smiley face on the top of his charts, and she always tells me that story about, ‘Don't forget to smile’ and ‘Don't forget to have fun with it.’ And it's just a great reminder (that) it's just sports at the end of the day. It's a wonderful thing we get to do, but have fun with it. And Lisa is really the first person that gave me permission to have fun during a broadcast.”
Byington’s recall comes into play when Antetokounmpo hits a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the top of the key to finish the first quarter against the Hawks. He hit an identical 3 the night before in the Bucks’ win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Byington points it out to the truck so it can work on a highlight package, debating whether to run the clips side-by-side or one right after the other.
She is part of a growing group of women who are earning more top jobs within the NBA. ESPN’s Beth Mowins was the first woman to call play-by-play for a game. Doris Burke was the first to become an in-game analyst. Not long after Byington was hired by the Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers named Kate Scott to the same position on Sixers broadcasts. Becky Hammon, Niele Ivey and Teresa Weatherspoon have been assistant coaches in the NBA, but no woman has been hired for a head coaching job.
Byington understands the attention she gets as one of the first women to do NBA play-by-play, but it’s also a reminder that women calling games is not yet the norm.
“I understand why it needs to be a story here in the now, but I cannot wait when no one wants to talk to me anymore or no one wants to talk to Doris Burke or no one wants to talk to Beth Mowins or Kate Scott,” she said. “We can just be like Marques Johnson and show up to the arena and throw on the headset and talk about a basketball game. And that's what he is. He's a basketball analyst. I'm a play-by-play and those are our jobs and we don't have to do anything extra talking about the uniqueness of doing that job.”
It is still a special thing when a woman gets a leading role in men’s sports. But if they continue to make inroads and have their voices, quite literally, heard, then women like Byington, Scott, Burke and Mowins may be the firsts but, most certainly, won’t be the last.