NBA Game of the Week: A Television First for Women with Microphones, 1974

[Here’s more cut material from my book Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark. The decision to cut this brief vignette from the final had nothing to do with the content. I simply had to shorten the final manuscript to get the book published.

What you’ll read below is a day in the life of CBS’ brand-new sideline reporter Jane Chastain, who will make television history on the NBA Game of the Week broadcast October 27, 1974. I’ll leave it at that, so as not to spoil the rest of the story. But allow me to set the stage for the two NBA combatants: the Seattle Supersonics and the homestanding Portland Trail Blazers. Here’s the pregame teaser that ran on the day of the game in the television section of the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle. The paper’s editor and resident basketball nut, Larry Greybill, does the honors:  

Not so long ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were a team that drew laughs from the fans of the National Basketball Association. They could score at time, but they never were consistent, and they were terrible on defense. Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie won the rookie of the year awards in consecutive seasons, but that was all Portland had to brag about.

Time brings change, however, and nowhere is that more evident than in Portland. When the Blazers play the Seattle Supersonics today (channels 10, 4, and 5 at 4:30 p.m.), you will not see a team of clowns. 

In the spring, the Blazers drafted former UCLA standout Bill Walton, the All-American center He was what they needed to complete an outstanding starting lineup. The Blazers are a contender in the Pacific Division, and, if they had a decent bench, they might be the favorites.

Walton will be almost as good in the pros as he was in college. He is an outstanding scorer, fast under the basket, strong, and accurate with his shots from the key. But Walton’s main chore with the Blazers will not be scoring. Hie rebounding should allow the team to run and shoot. 

The other four starts will have no trouble doing that. Wicks is a strong forward, who will help Walton rebound but he also is an asset on a Fastbreak. He can shoot from the corners as well as drive for the basket.

The other forward, John Johnson, may be the best all-around player on the team. At 6-foot-7, he’s agile enough to play guard and jumps well enough to help with the rebounding. He is a standout on defense. The guards are player-coach Lenny Wilkens and Petrie. Wilkens is one of the best passers in the game, a master of setting up an offense, and an accurate shooter. He’s a standout defensively, too. Petrie is a shooter, one of the best. Sometimes, he’s a selfish player who shoots when he shouldn’t, but few players in the NBA can match him as a scorer. 

Seattle, led by coach and general manager Bill Russell, is a young team with only one star, forward Spencer Haywood. Haywood is a great scorer and outstanding rebounder, a perennial all-star. When the Sonics win, it’s because Haywood carries the inexperienced team. Still, the Sonics can hope for better times in the future. They may draw some laughs now, but the Blazers were that a few years ago. Now, no one is laughing at Portland.

With that as prelude, to the ballgame we go on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in Portland trudging along through the parking lot with 10,870 Trail Blazer fans en route to Memorial Coliseum, just off I-5. Here’s the cut material to describe what happened next.]


Jane Chastain

Portland, October 27, 1974 –The NBA Game of the Week had pulled into town for today’s early-season matchup featuring the Seattle Supersonics (3-2) and the Portland Trail Blazers (2-3). Jane Chastain, the new hire at CBS as its roving sideline reporter, had just completed her pregame sound checks in Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. Now she could exhale. Watch both teams half-stepping through their warmups, while the seats around them filled in with shouts of mostly Trail Blazer red and white for today 1:30 p.m. tipoff. 

It was only fitting that Chastain would make her NBA debut featuring a team called the Trail Blazers. Chastain blazed an impressive trail in 1963 as America’s first female sportscaster at Atlanta’s WAGA-TV. By 1969, she’d settled in with NBC affiliate WTVJ-YV in Miami, where Chastain also hosted a nationally syndicated sports radio show called Girls Rules. “I hate being considered a gimmick,” she liked to say. “I’ll match sports wits with most men in the business.” 

Then, last summer, when CBS Sports wanted to add some je ne sais quoi to its live football broadcasts, the 31-year-old Chastain seemed like the perfect woman for the job. With a peppy Southern accent and wholesome, girl-next-door looks, Chastain signed a five-year contract with CBS to call football, basketball, and even bowling. 

As trailblazing as the CBS job was, it quickly blew up in her face. Chastain was supposed to debut on a pro bowlers broadcast, but the match got bumped at the last minute by a Tarzan movie. CBS then dispatched Chastain to Denver to call the Broncos-New Orleans Saints NFL game alongside announcer Don Criqui. Her “sultry” voice and Southern charm on third downs infuriated the Broncos Nation. “Tell that babe to take up cooking.” “Football is a man’s game!” “She sure as hell can’t announce football.”

The executives at CBS Sports regrouped and sent Chastain to Portland today for the NBA Game of the Week. Her job: roam Portland’s Memorial Coliseum and read the mood of the crowd. They advised her to stick to interviewing women, preferably players’ wives. Chastain was also under strict orders to keep it clean. While on camera, her raven tresses were preferably to be pulled up into a tight bun at all times, no makeup, no cleavage, no miniskirts.  

Chastain followed orders and soon located Marilyn Wilkens, the lovely wife of Portland’s player-coach Lenny Wilkens. “What are you getting Lenny for his birthday tomorrow?” Chastain popped the between-us-two-girls question during an early time out.

After a giggling answer that included “a win” in today’s ballgame, the cameras snapped back to the tall men on the basketball court and the authoritative male voice of play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger. “It’s a thing of beauty the way Wilkens quarterbacks the team,” he intoned. “He’s playing great basketball.”

“He sure is,” seconded Oscar Robertson, the color analyst, known for his minimalist responses.

Wilkens may have been playing great basketball, but all eyes were locked on rookie Bill Walton, who was making his national television debut as a pro. Since America last saw the UCLA All American during the 1974 NCAA Tournament, Walton had added a shocking tangle of long red hair, a loud headband, and a scruffy beard. Among traditionalists, Walton’s new gone-to-the-hippies look was a national disgrace. Another example that the nation’s youth was literally going to pot and too many Grateful Dead concerts.  

For others, Portland’s hippie in residence was a sign of the changing times. He joined the floppy-socked Pete, the moody Kareem, and the other mostly Black Baby Boomers in demonstrating that the traditional ideal of look-alike, think-alike conformity in sports had become as antiquated as straw hats and suspenders. In these changing times, athletes needed to express themselves differently as individuals, on and off the court, and still walk in the footsteps of Joe DiMaggio and, for that matter, Bill Russell. 

Russell, head coach of today’s visiting Supersonics, looked remarkably stoic watching his team get off to a dreadful start against Walton’s Trail Blazers. His star Spencer Haywood pulled up lame two minutes into the game, pointing to his right knee and gimping off to the locker room. Five minutes later, Russell’s burly rookie forward Leonard Gray took an elbow to the face that drew blood . . . lots of blood. He wobbled off to the locker room for three stitches.

With the Seattle frontline wobbly, Portland ran its offense through the rookie Walton. The Big Red Head kept snatching passes out of the air, pivoting to face the hoop and then zinging the ball to the open cutter like he was back at UCLA. By midway through the second quarter, Portland’s lead hit fifteen. By early in the third quarter, Russell started emptying his bench. 

The boys in the CBS production truck radioed Chastain. They needed her special je ne sais quoi to keep anyone still gutting out this ho-hum broadcast from flipping the channel to the San Francisco 49ers game on rival NBC. Chastain scanned the arena for a few good women. Nearby a group of exuberant young ones in cowgirl outfits had been woo-hooing Walton and his fellow Blazers in their short shorts. Chastain decided to inch as close to Walton’s controversial anti-establishment image as she dared on camera.   

“What do you think about Bill Walton’s sex appeal?” she queried the cowgirls.


Back at courtside with the Trail Blazer advantage now in the twenties, Musberger and Robertson had run out of time-killing platitudes. Robertson, flashing back to his playing days, kept carping at the referees for missing calls. Mercifully, the network feed went dead deus ex machina, and television screens from coast to coast filled with a polychromatic test pattern and the words, “Network difficulties, please stand by.” The difficulties persisted, and viewers were soon delivered to CBS Control in New York for an improvised rundown of Sunday’s NFL scores, including the wild one underway in San Francisco over on NBC. 

While viewers defected in droves to watch the 49ers’ game, CBS finally restored its live feed from Portland with 8:49 left in the ballgame. The Blazers were now on top by nearly thirty points, and a bored Musberger threw in another NFL score and some banter about “those Minnesota Vikings” to kill time.  

As meaningless as the NBA action now seemed, television history would soon be made “right here on CBS.” Chastain got the final go-ahead. She was going in. She would be the first female reporter to enter an NBA locker room. 

Well, not all the way. The agreement was she’d conduct a postgame interview just inside the doorway of the Portland locker room, leaving everyone at CBS Control with their fingers crossed that Chastain could get in and get out without seeing anything scandalous. In fact, during a dry run two days earlier flanked by Robertson, her respected chaperone, Chastain had gotten in and out of the visiting Golden State Warriors locker room for a postgame interview without raising a ruckus or even a catcall. 

Chastain in a locker room. Date unknown.

When cameras went live, the blue-eyed, 5-foot-2 Chastain was waiting with microphone in hand just inside the Portland dressing room standing alongside the team’s fully clothed, 6-foot-6 forward John Johnson, the game’s high scorer.

“John, your coach Lenny Wilkens has called you the best all-around player on the Blazers. Is he correct?”

“I appreciated Lenny saying that, but I’m just happy to be mentioned in the same company with [teammates] Wicks, Petrie, and Walton.”

Chastain nodded along, happy to be free from the cowgirls and players’ wives and finally talking sports. “Thanks John. Now back to you, Brent.”

The camera crew promptly started gathering up its light, camera, and action. As Chastain waited for the crew to pack up, what happened next is open to conjecture. Several onlookers swore—though others weren’t exactly sure—that Chastain reflexively turned her head in the direction of Walton when he bellowed, “I’m ready.” The seven-footer, apparently unaware of Chastain’s presence and the fact that sports broadcast history had just been made a long chest pass away, then dropped his white towel and strode buck-naked to take a shower.[i]  


[i] Jaynes D, “Blazers Win Oscar – Despite ‘Bugs’ in NBA Telecast,” Oregon Journal, October 28, 1974; Andersen N, “Blazers Clobber Sonics, 120-94,”Oregonian, October 28, 1974.

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