By Meri-Jo Borzilleri
After three decades of sideline reporting on NCAA tournament games for television, Lesley Visser has decided to no longer be part of college basketball’s premier floor show. Instead of chasing down coaches courtside, she’ll be doing features and enterprise stories for CBS Sports, where she has worked since 2000.
Adding to her many industry firsts as a sports journalist — including first woman inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2006, Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award recipient); first woman to work the NCAA Final Four on network television (1988); first woman named to the Monday Night Football broadcasting crew — Visser was, appropriately, named AWSM’s first Pioneer award recipient in 1999.
In 1974, she started her sports journalism career with the Boston Globe. After a longtime marriage to broadcaster Dick Stockton, she remarried two years ago — to Bob Kanuth, a businessman who was captain of Harvard’s basketball captain in 1969. Now Visser is looking at what she calls “a real sea change in my life.”
At age 23, she became the first woman assigned to an NFL beat when then-Globe sports editor Vince Doria moved her to cover the New England Patriots. Said Doria, now senior vice president and director of news at ESPN: “Aside from her journalistic skills, which are considerable, Lesley was able to marshal tactics that were absolutely necessary to her role as a pioneering female reporter — assertiveness, persistence, and an absolute refusal to back down — and yet house that aggressive behavior in a personality that was so engaging, even people who were staunch opponents of women in the locker room began to change their minds.”
This year, Visser turns 60, and is still “a junkie for sports.”
What brought on the NCAA tournament decision?
My whole theory of the last 40 years has been “been there, loved that.” I have loved every single second for almost four decades. Not that it was all easy, and I have scar tissue. But I had a couple things working for me. I just can’t tell you how many women have come and gone since 1974. I throw out the names, and “Oh yeah, what happened to her? Oh yeah, what happened to her?” I had a couple things going for me — I had an attitude of gratitude — I guess I didn’t expect things. I felt like for me, every at-bat had to be a quality at-bat, so that I was going to have to earn every opportunity.
It is not an easy life to always be getting off the boat and clearing the land. You’re always behind the starting line. Just to make up the distance from behind the starting line to where it starts … the Boston Globe, they took such risk with me and I believe I rewarded them. … I really worked hard. I’ve been blessed. I’ve only played at the highest level. The Boston Globe was voted best sports section, then I went right to the network.
It was the travel, then?
It’s just time. I remember when Martina (Navratilova) walked off the court at Wimbledon and Bud (Collins) was standing there. She just looked at him and said, “It’s time.” I’m not retiring completely. I have a couple years left on my CBS contract. But it’s just going to change. I did eight Final Fours for the Globe, (then on TV) with Billy Packer and (Jim) Nantz as the lead guys. I’ve been with Verne (Lundquist) and Billy for a thousand years. Verne and I did the (Christian) Laettner game (in 1992). The riches of what I have observed and experienced have been so great. But it is true, people used to say to me, “Lesley, where do you live?” And I’d say “Baggage claim.” I’m not tired of anything. I’m just in a different place.
What are you most looking forward to at the AWSM convention?
The camaraderie and the observation of the distance we’ve traveled. It was such a different (time). In 1988, come on! You know what high heels were considered in ’88? Two inches. You can’t even buy heels now that are under four-and-a-half inches. Back then, not just me, but Jackie Onassis wore shoulder pads, OK? It wasn’t just us looking like idiots.
As a born, bred and bled Red Sox fan, this thrills me and pains me to say, but those (AWSM) founders (Susan Fornoff, Nancy Cooney, Kristin Huckshorn, Michele Himmelberg) that we have, they were Mantle and Maris and DiMaggio and Gehrig. I really have to say this, in the 25 years, I really think our Babe Ruth has been Chris Brennan. AWSM has been so blessed, really blessed that those people have cared, they’ve been consistent and they’ve been champions themselves.
When AWSM was founded in ’88, it wasn’t necessarily something that we needed. I already had the Globe behind me, I already was well into a terrific network career. But it was important, and everyone realized, in that crummy hotel, how important it was. Those founders … it’s a little emotional for me. It’s been great.
What do you remember about the first Pioneer award?
It was not the Mary Garber award. It was the Pioneer award. They gave me a small crystal. I have it around here somewhere. I’ve moved a few times. Vince (Doria) flew out to present me. It was really an honor because I had so much value for the women in the room.
Women have great camaraderie — we have been able to laugh, celebrate and commiserate, and also knock back a few. I was the keynote speaker for CoSIDA in Kansas City one year, during a record heat wave. It was about 115 degrees. Cows were dropping dead. They had me speak outside. I believe three people showed up. (ESPN’s) Rosa Gatti was one of them. My AWSM Pioneer award was much better attended.
In 2011, I presented Rosa with the Pioneer award, and Rosa and I cried about it. We have all come a long way. We have all traveled. You know when they go back to the archeological digs and find where things actually started? I had great protection from the Globe, from Vince Doria, Ted Shaker from CBS. The archeological dig for many women will show that AWSM, that’s where their protection started. I’ve been beyond blessed.
To read more about AWSM’s Mary Garber Pioneer Award, click here.