July 28, 2023
Zora Stephenson’s journey to the New York Liberty’s broadcast booth
'It’s the league that allowed me to fall in love with the game of basketball'
On April 9, 2021, Zora Stephenson made history. She became the first American-born Black woman to call a game in NBA history. Her move from the sideline to the booth for the Milwaukee Bucks marked a huge milestone in her career, but a few months later, another much more personal milestone came her way.
During the New York Liberty’s first season at Barclays Center, Stephenson joined Ashley Battle to broadcast the Liberty’s August 27, 2021 home game against the Phoenix Mercury, one where New York was lost 80-64.
Regardless of the outcome, the first Liberty game she broadcasted had significance for Stephenson. It was almost like a family reunion because she visited with her cousin Shanna Stephenson, the Liberty’s chief brand officer and all of their family. Stephenson also felt at home, she was back within the WNBA space she had grown up in.
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“It’s the league that allowed me to fall in love with the game of basketball,” she told The Next. Stephenson grew up in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb outside of Washington D.C., and her family used to get ticket packages to Washington Mystics games. They went to as many games as they possibly could and attended all the panels and “chalk talks” that the team held. She described herself and her family as a bunch of “Mystics nerds,” and those early days going to WNBA games were the genesis of her relationship with the game.
“The W means a great deal to me because it’s how my relationship with my dad also blossomed, so it’s personal,” she said. “But also it just sparked my love of this game that has changed my life and taken me all over the world and allowed me to have a first-class education.”
Stephenson played at Elon University where she was a guard that averaged 10.0 points per game and shot 38.1% from behind the arc on 215 total attempts during her senior season. Following graduation from Elon, where she got her degree in media arts and entertainment, Stephenson jumped into local news and was a reporter for WNCT in Greenville, North Carolina, before moving to Denver to serve as an anchor and reporter for KDVR Fox 31.
She then moved to Milwaukee to serve as a jack of all trades on the media side for the NBA’s Bucks. She was a sideline reporter during game broadcasts and she shared other stories about the team on the teams’ online platform Bucks.com.
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She feels a deep responsibility to grow what is possible for WNBA broadcast coverage. It’s what she believes the athletes of the league deserve. “I’ve felt pressure and great responsibility to make sure that I’m telling these stories properly and I’m enhancing the game,” she said. “Learning anything specific about the game, that’s just making sure that I bring my own A game because that’s what these athletes deserve.”
Earlier this season, she explained how she prepares before calling Liberty games. She was watching Breanna Stewart’s homecoming game in Seattle on May 30, listening closely to how Ryan Ruocco, ESPN’s primary play-by-play broadcaster, balances calling plays while weaving in other storylines. Her due diligence before any Liberty game she’s on air for consists of watching the team’s prior game and the prior game of the opponent.
But Stephenson’s career wasn’t always with a focus on play-by-play. She began broadcasting in college, and eventually after college, she was a color analyst, using her basketball instincts from her playing days to guide her broadcasting. She pointed out what she noticed while always finding ways to enhance the game, a goal of hers whenever she’s a sideline reporter, color analyst or play-by-play commentator.
It was LaChina Robinson — the founder of Rising Media Stars, a nonprofit that provides training for women of color who want to work in sports broadcasting — who put the idea of becoming not just an analyst, but a play-by-play broadcaster in Stephenson’s head.
When Robinson first had the idea, Stephenson thought Robinson was nuts. “I never saw myself in play-by-play because there wasn’t a lot of people that looked like me or sounded like me that were doing it, “Stephenson said. “I either only saw myself as an analyst or a reporter, but she challenged me.”
She took the plunge at a Division II championship game in Colorado where she was initially supposed to lend just color commentary. The original play-by-play broadcaster lost his voice and she was thrown into the fire. The rest was history. Stephenson has found a lot of comfort with play-by-play. She sees it as a way she can “throw lobs” just like she’s back on the court. She likes to set up her partner during a broadcast by communicating what she notices, something that not all play-by-play broadcasters do. It’s something that Stephenson, with her versatility, prides herself on. For example, if she notices that a defense is in a 2-3 zone, she’s going to announce it which prompts her color commentator to expand upon why a team might be going to a zone.
“Maybe I blur the lines sometimes, but I think it adds [to] an informational and entertaining broadcast,” Stephenson said. “So yeah, I’m a play-by-play broadcaster. And also I consider myself an analyst as well, and a reporter. I can kind of do it all and I’m just there to enhance the game that you’re watching.”
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Stephenson also attempts to humanize the players of the WNBA is by inserting little nuggets that she’s learned from watching the players interact with each other and on social media. She made sure she found time in the broadcast to highlight former Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere’s very close friendship with DiDi Richards. Sometimes it can be something as simple as just referring to Stewart as “Ruby’s mom” during a broadcast.
She noted that she always uses a thesaurus in her preparation. She’s always trying to look for different ways to describe what she sees on a broadcast. Her thought process is: what’s another way that someone can use the word crafty? How many different words can you use instead of just saying an assist This is also helpful when she is describing the way that Stewart makes miraculous plays on both ends of the floor. “How do you describe something that looks fluid and easy when it’s not, and emphasizing that,” Stephenson explained.
The practice was important during the Liberty’s home debut this season when Stewart put up 45 points in the Liberty’s 90-73 win over the Indiana Fever. Stephenson noted that Stewart’s versatile game makes it easier for her to stay away from redundancy.
But that home opener, which Stephenson was “honored” to be able to call, gave her the ultimate adrenaline rush. She walked into Barclays Center and felt a different, heightened energy compared to what she felt when she broadcasted games both in 2021 and 2022. She saw Liberty and arena staffers setting out light-up bracelets that reflected New York’s #LightItUp campaign as well as the players’ faces plastered all over the outside of the arena.
“It just was what it was supposed to be,” she said recalling that day. “That’s what these athletes deserve. I felt, I don’t know, I was giddy, I was giddy and then the game didn’t disappoint.”
Following the home opener, Stephenson listened to her performance and contemplated all that she wanted to change and improve for her next broadcast. While she was grateful that she could be on the call for a moment in franchise history, she also felt some doubt, stating, “I just hope that I captured [Stewart’s] greatness on that particular day in the right way.”
“It’s the more the merrier and making sure that people … when you’re on a WNBA broadcast, or if you’re a beat writer or wherever — you don’t see it as a stepping stone, you see it as the destination, and you hold yourself to the same standards that you would have if you were covering any other sport, and any other gender,” she said. “These are the best athletes in the world at what they do. So make sure your coverage reflects that.”
Stephenson returns to the mic on Tuesday, August 1, when the Liberty take on the Sparks in Los Angeles at 10 p.m. ET.
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Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.