It took one glance for Sarah Kustok to see her path open up in front of her eyes.
As dedicated as she had been to basketball since childhood, right up through her days starring at DePaul University, she didn’t necessarily envision a sports-based career when her playing days were done. She excelled at math. She thought about an MBA, getting into accounting or finance. Maybe social work, after she took a minor in sociology.
Then her athletic director at DePaul steered her toward a gameday job as runner on Big 10 football broadcasts.
“When I sat in a truck for the first time and saw the way a production actually happened and the way it took place, it was everything I ever searched for thinking about a post-athletic career,” said Kustok. “Just the concept of the pressure, the live nature, lights go on. There was a competitiveness to it in the sense of, you’re going to succeed or fail, then you’ve got to turn around and try and work to get better and I think for a variety of things I was really just so captivated by what that opportunity looked like.”
From that start, Kustok has built a groundbreaking career, and at the New York Emmy Awards in late April — a streamed video ceremony rather than the traditional celebration — Kustok won her first individual Emmy award in the category of sports analyst for her work on Brooklyn Nets broadcasts.
Kustok’s win was just part of a strong showing for YES Network’s Nets coverage, including Ian Eagle’s fifth straight win for play-by-play and producer Frank DiGraci’s first individual win.
“I was thrilled for Frank winning as producer,” said Kustok. “He is so deserving and does so much for us, and for Ian. I think this is a depiction of who we are as a whole group, as a whole team. This Nets on YES family, that’s how it feels. We’re all as good as we are because of each other. Our truck is the best in the business. It was humbling. I have such respect for the New York market and everyone in it.”
Kustok and Eagle became the first broadcast team to sweep the play-by-play and analyst categories at the New York Emmys. It’s their third season together after Kustok spent five seasons as the courtside reporter.
“She brings an immense amount of knowledge about the league,” said Eagle. “Her insight isn’t limited to the Nets; she is on top of every opponent, full scouting report, what they do how they play, individual breakdowns. She’s always prepared. And then obviously from a chemistry standpoint it was instant because she was the sideline reporter for a few years before taking on this role. Everybody got to know her. She was part of the team, so the transition was not that big of a deal. Everyone knew that she could handle the role. It was just a matter of the public seeing it, the viewing public seeing it.”
Kustok also became the first female to win the analyst honor. That follows her groundbreaking hire as the first female to hold a primary analyst position on an NBA franchise’s broadcast team. Others have followed, such as Kara Lawson, who later moved from her position on the Washington Wizards’ broadcast team to an assistant coaching job with the Boston Celtics. The NBA coaching ranks are also seeing more women hired on team staffs, and to Kustok, it’s all connected.
“The NBA is so progressive in how they think about things,” said Kustok. “The amount of females in front offices, the amount of females on coaching staffs, females in different broadcast positions that you didn’t necessarily see before. It’s seeped into so many different areas, like support and performance staffs, not just with the Nets, but across the league. There’s still a ways to go, but I love the idea that you are trying to put the most competent people in a role regardless of gender. That’s a big part of all of it for all of us.”
Of course, it all comes back to basketball, Kustok’s passion for as long as she can remember. She stayed close to home to play her college ball at DePaul, helping lead the Blue Demons to back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths in 2003 and 2004 and graduating as one of the school’s top all-time 3-point shooters, with a career 38.8 percentage, including a 44.5 mark as a junior.
“Shooting and the basketball hoop, whether it was out in our driveway or down the street in the park, it truly was my sanctuary,” said Kustok. “I would shoot from the time I was as small as I can remember. Me and my brother (Zak) we would play and shoot and play one-on-one. We’d play with kids at the park. Constantly playing. I think I became such a good shooter because that’s all I was ever doing. If I had a bad game, go shoot all night or wake up and shoot.
“However, for as much as people tease me now about that, most of what I was able to do was predicated on defense. I think maybe my demeanor in real life as a person is so vastly different than who I was on the basketball court, but that’s what helped me become who I was and get to the points I was at. I like to think that I was very unselfish and tried to make sure that I was a good team player. I really did. I enjoyed the competitive nature of it and trying to figure out and find ways to wind and do whatever it took to help the team win.”
Kustok went on to earn her Master’s degree from DePaul in Multi Cultural and Corporate Communications, and took her first steps into a broadcasting career doing local high school and college games. She took a detour a year later when DePaul coach Doug Bruno asked her to fill a late opening on the coaching staff on the eve of the 2005-06 season.
It was tempting to stick with coaching — “I could have done it forever,” said Kustok, “and I think coach Bruno thought I would do it forever as well.” — but ultimately, she decided to commit to the broadcasting path.
She soon grew into a prominent role in the Chicago sports scene, anchoring local news sports broadcasts and also serving as a reporter covering the Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs and White Sox. After staying in Chicago for college and building the foundation of her broadcasting career close to home, she made the move to Brooklyn in 2012 to join YES Network as the Nets’ courtside reporter.
“I was always captivated by New York City and loved it and I think there was always a part of me that had an itch to one day hopefully work there,” said Kustok. “As much as I loved all the things I was doing in Chicago and the opportunity to cover a variety of different sports, basketball is and always will be my first love. So to entrench myself with an NBA team, the idea that the Nets were moving to Brooklyn, it was their first year moving to Brooklyn, there was so much excitement surrounding that. The stars kind of aligned on a lot of different ways and got here.”
Since coming to the Nets, she’s also become a regular presence on FOX Sport’s 1’s First Things First morning show along with picking up a regular slate of Big East college basketball games. And in 2017-18, she moved into the full-time analyst’s role for Nets games, partnered with Eagle, who is doing Nets play-by-play for the 26th season.
“She just brings energy to every broadcast,” said Eagle. “Sarah’s a phenomenal person, and you can feel that on the air. You can’t fake that. She’s genuine. She’s authentic. What you see is what you get.”
“It’s such a privilege to get to do what I do,” said Kustok. “A day does not go by that I’m not grateful for the people that put me in this position and believed in me when others looked at it as a crazy decision and a risky move to make putting a female in this position. I’m grateful because I feel like I owe them so much. They believe in me and I want to return that belief.”