DESTIN—Leandra Reilly Lardner remembers the game like it was 30 seconds ago, much less 30 years ago.
“The national anthem singer kept forgetting the words,” Lardner said. “She had to start over twice and I said on air, ‘and I thought I was nervous!’”
On Feb. 14, 1988, Lardner became the first female play-by-play commentator for the NBA, going live on SportsChannel for the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets game.
Lardner wasn’t nervous. Before her NBA debut, she was a play-by-play commentator for ESPN, covering basketball, gymnastics, volleyball and swimming.
“What made it a little intimidating was the media attention. After the game, they had a press conference for me, the broadcaster, as opposed to the normal press conference with coaches and players. It was pretty ironic,” Lardner said.
During the game, 76ers player Charles Barkley, whom Lardner affectionately nicknamed the “Chiseled Chunk o’ Dunk,” paused at the free throw line and pointed to the backboard.
She mimics the motion of a free throw, drawing the outline of a square backboard with her fingers.
“I said on air, ‘There’s something wrong with the backboard. It’s crooked,’ and sure enough they had to stop the game to fix it, so that was like a six minute delay,” Lardner said.
Lardner, who is originally from Chicago, didn’t always dream of being a sportscaster. Her bachelor’s degree is in education and her master’s degree is in industry and technology; but while watching a Northwestern University women’s basketball game on TV, anger spurred her to action.
“On the opening tip, the starting center got a technical foul for wearing earrings. The announcer says ‘Well, that’s women’s basketball for you.’ When the news anchor asked the announcer who won the game, he responded, ‘Who cares?’ My jaw was on the ground.”
The next day, Lardner bought video equipment and called the three local news stations in Chicago, asking them how she could become a sportscaster. Two of them told her to go to school for it, but she already had a master’s degree. One station told her to make a video reel, so she did.
“Changing careers is something that people get paralyzed by,” Lardner said. “It’s OK to change your mind.”
She ended up at WAND-TV in Decatur, Illinois, where she worked for about two years as a sideline commentator covering things like tractor pulls.
“I had never seen a tractor pull before, but they put jet engines in tractors, attach a weight to the tractor and then try and pull the weight for a certain distance as the weight gets dragged deeper and deeper into the ground.”
She likened the noise to standing beside a Boeing 747.
“My back was covered in mud and my shoes were totally ruined,” she said.
On top of starting a new career as a sportscaster, Lardner was a wife and a mother to two young children.
“I don’t know how we did it. Looking back, we laugh about it all the time,” Lardner said.
Her husband, Michael, also worked in the television and entertainment industry as a producer.
“We would fly around, and I’d meet him at the airport, hand him the kids, and tell him ‘the car’s parked in A57,’ then hop on another flight. We’ve been married for 34 years.”
Michael Lardner played football at Boston College and worked with Ted Turner producing SEC football broadcast. He said he was drawn to Leandra because she was in the business and was an avid sports fan.
“I’ve always been very proud of her and I always looked forward to her shows and the different events she covered. When you’re in the sports business, time just goes by so fast because you’re going game-to-game, but it’s a great career to have.”
The couple built their home in Miramar Beach in 2002 and moved here full-time in 2013.
In terms of advice for current and future broadcasters, Lardner said the best thing to do is to “own it.”
“Know your topic. Nobody will ever criticize you for knowing too much. They just never will.”
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