Steve Buckhantz first got an inkling of how much Michael Jordan wanted to play while spending the evening of last Dec. 6 with His Airness. As the two of them watched a 19-point lead against the lowly Clippers dissipate into a 93-88 loss, Jordan, the Wizards' president of basketball operations at the time, could not contain his frustration. "When the lead got down to 11, he looked at me and said, 'This is not good,' " says Buckhantz, Washington's TV play-byplay man who, because the game wasn't being telecast, was sitting with Jordan in the owners' suite of the MCI Center. "I could see him almost coming out of his suit, wanting to be down there to do something about it."
Now that Jordan is doing something about it, Buckhantz finds himself at the epicenter of a national story. While NBC has the exclusive rights to broadcast as many as 11 Wizards games, and Turner Sports can show 15, no telecasters will track Jordan more closely than Buckhantz and his on-air partner, Phil Chenier. Comcast SportsNet, the local TV rights holder for the Wizards, plans to telecast all the games it's permitted to, which means Buckhantz will call a minimum of 71 regular-season games. ( Comcast can show locally any Wizards games that appear on TBS or TNT.) Moreover, Comcast quickly arranged to televise three preseason games; thus Buckhantz is scheduled to be behind the mike on Thursday when Jordan makes his Wizards debut, in Detroit. "Even before MJ, I had the best job in the world," says Buckhantz, 46. "Who would have thought that now I'd get to tug on the cape of Superman?"
While Jordan's return won't affect TV rights fees for the Wizards ( Comcast SportsNet signed a 12-year deal with the club earlier this year), Comcast SportsNet president David Nevins predicts the local Nielsens will increase 500% from a paltry 0.7 average (14,000 homes) last season, when Washington went 19-63. Though he declines to provide specific advertising sales figures, the Jordan effect should result in a seven-figure revenue increase this season.
Buckhantz may feel a different effect. When His Airness was a Bull, his pregame ritual entailed clapping chalk onto the face of broadcaster Johnny (Red) Kerr. Would Buckhantz be willing to sacrifice his mug? "I would be very excited if Michael threw anything in my face," he says.