After nearly calling his first NBA game for ESPN two years ago as a fill-in during a winter snowstorm in his native Chicago, broadcaster Jason Benetti will be the play-by-play announcer for Monday’s nationally televised game between the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors.
When ESPN coordinating producer Tim Corrigan offered him the assignment about a month ago, the 37-year-old quickly realized the game would be in direct conflict with his full-time job as the TV play-by-play voice of the Chicago White Sox. But the White Sox were instantly understanding of the opportunity and will have Len Kasper fill in for Benetti for their home game against Cleveland.
“They were like ‘you gotta go do that,’” Benetti said over the phone. “So it was very easy.”
While Benetti has called college basketball and football games on ESPN for years, what isn’t as easy is cracking the network’s very short rotation of NBA broadcasters. But he has experience filling in on local Bulls games over the last few seasons— adding that calling a cricket match would be way harder— and is an avid fan of the league, greatly enjoying the Chicago broadcast duo of Adam Amin and Stacey King.
“ESPN does not have a ton of people who do NBA games. And they’re all really, really good,” Benetti, who will remotely work Monday’s game with Richard Jefferson, said. “Considering the people who do NBA for ESPN, it’s really exciting for me. You look at the schedule and there just aren’t many people. Here’s hoping it continues.”
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Benetti has found success balancing regular ESPN work with nearly every White Sox game, a position he began in 2016 splitting duties with the legendary Ken Harrelson and took over on a full-time basis in 2019 upon Hawk’s retirement. Part of the interview process for the gig was to have dinner with analyst Steve Stone in Scottsdale, Arizona while Benetti was on his way to work a college football bowl game.
“Three minutes into the meal I knew I wanted to do games with this guy for a long, long time,” Benetti said. “Thankfully, he felt the same way.”
The connection with Stone was even more important during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season while no MLB announce crew was able to travel and games were broadcast without the help of natural crowd noise. There was a lot that went into the partnership that helps what Benetti called the smooth camaraderie that fans are seeing more and more of between the duo.
“We were all each other had. It was just you either make it entertaining or you don’t,” he said. “And Steve’s sense of humor is so sharp and his wit is so poignant and so direct. He always says something that surprises me.”
Working with surprising people is something Benetti has experience with in spades. For sports fans who get to watch basketball games called by Bill Walton, they know they’re going to experience a free-flowing, spirited free-for-all where anything can happen and you have no idea what’s going to be said or experienced. But unpredictability in the booth is generally what play-by-play announcers prefer to avoid.
Benetti has worked numerous college hoops games with Walton over the years, even making a guest appearance as a White Sox analyst for a viral 2019 broadcast.
The key to a successful broadcast with Walton lies within the hallowed text of “The Lion King.”
“Hakuna matata. You can’t worry,” Benetti said. “When you go into a game with Bill, you automatically know that the arena has shifted, that it’s not gonna be your typical ‘I talk then they talk.’ There’s no cookie-cutter. And I love that. That’s right up my alley. And so that’s why I think Bill and I vibe so well, is because take away the rules. Fine, let’s go! Let’s see where he takes it.”
Benetti noted that while some people may think he’s a clown, Walton is legitimately interested in every minute detail he can get his hands on and is actually extremely well prepared for each broadcast.
For the 2018 Maui Invitational, Walton asked Gonzaga head coach Mark Few about the cross-streets his father gave sermons at when he was a pastor in Oregon, wanting to tell the best story he could during the telecast. Asking the most specific questions leading up to a game is something is routine for Walton.
When asked recently about what the Bill Walton experience was like as a broadcast partner, Benetti described it was being on a roller coaster that’s about to leave the station but you seat-belt won’t lock in right away and you wonder what would happen to you if the seat-belt doesn’t work as the ride begins.
“I think if life was more like Bill Walton, we’d all be happier,” Benetti said. “It would be ‘let’s see what comes and we’ll react to it.’ And sometimes we’ll move life as well through curiosity.”
Moving through life hasn’t always been the easiest for Benetti, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a young child. Despite having broadcast responsibilities as an undergraduate at play-by-play announcer factory Syracuse University, he hedged his bets and went to law school at Wake Forest University.
Early in his career as he tried to rise through the ranks, Benetti knew people wondered why he couldn’t look at the camera or focus his eyes properly during broadcasts.
“I had an executive tell me very early on point blank, ‘you should keep honing your craft at radio,’” he said. “I get it, though. Part of being on television is how you look. And I know executives look at that. I was too naive to get that for a long time and I’m glad that I was because my platform and my mind had always been to get really good at this and don’t let anybody say no for any reason.”
But when someone has a disability, Benetti said, your mind can become a blender and go into some unhealthy and negative spaces.
There were times where having cerebral palsy could make for a good excuse as to why it just may not work out for him. There were days where he wondered if a career in broadcasting was truly going to work out, or if there were certain games he wasn’t getting because of the way he looked or walked.
“But for me, my experience has been as long as the work is good, opportunities will come,” he said. “And sometimes I do think it took a while for people to warm up to me on television. And I get that, because it is a visual medium.”
Benetti never really thought of himself as an advocate for people with cerebral palsy, but he now sees that he’s actually become one just by existing and getting high profile assignments like Monday’s Nuggets-Warriors game.
“This sounds egomaniacal and I don’t mean it to,” he said, “but there are a lot of people who derive hope from the fact that I turned out okay. Which is a really cool thing.”
Benetti recently watched the 2020 Netflix NFLX documentary “Crip Camp,” which focused on a camp for people with disabilities who became lifelong friends and ultimately became major champions for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The doc discusses how there was a hierarchy of people with disabilities, and the individuals who had cerebral palsy were at the bottom.
“Five or six decades ago, it would’ve been tough for me to get into public school,” he said. “I know that there are moments that I’ve had where there have been forks in the road where it could’ve not been ambition, and it could’ve been darker. And so I know how much of a slow hum it is, a slow chip away at people with disabilities around the world. And I hate to see people be motivated by comments that people make, or the belief that maybe it won’t ever happen.”
Benetti is grateful for friends and mentors like fellow broadcasters Ian Eagle, Mike Breen and Sean McDonough, people who said very early on “that you can do this.” It hit Benetti recently that there are many people who have it worse than he does and yet have led very fulfilling lives because there were people who saw potential in people like him and truly wondered what greatness those people could bring to the world.
“Sometimes I stop and think, what if I didn’t have those people? What would have become of me?” he said. “And the answer is probably not great.”
Benetti acknowledged that life isn’t always fun and games when you don’t look like everyone else. But he said he’s been really fortunate that being different has turned into ambition and not down a different path.
“You dedicate yourself to a craft and hope that it works out how you want it to,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to let the work speak for itself.”
Not only has the work spoken for itself and that ambition has led to a very successful career, Benetti is able to recognize and appreciate the trailblazers and mentors who helped him along the way. And by just doing what he does at a high level and being visible to millions every week on ESPN or locally in Chicago, Benetti may end up becoming an inspiration for people like him who will hope and strive for greatness in the future.