Cassidy Hubbarth expected it to be a normal Sunday.
On Jan. 26, the ESPN reporter and host was preparing to leave her New York City home for the network’s Bristol, Conn., studio, where she would be recording segments during the broadcast of the NBA’s Boston Celtics–New Orleans Pelicans game.
Hubbarth ’07 had returned home the night before from Philadelphia, where she covered the 76ers’ game against the Los Angeles Lakers. In a much-anticipated milestone moment, LA’s LeBron James had become the third-highest-scoring player in NBA history, surpassing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in career points. The retired Bryant tweeted his congratulations to James in a nod of respect.
As she prepared for her commute the following morning, Hubbarth received a phone call from her friend and colleague Dianna Russini that flipped her day upside down. Bryant had died in a helicopter crash just outside of Los Angeles. His daughter Gianna was among the eight other victims.
“Like many other people I just kept scrolling, hoping that it was not true,” says Hubbarth. “My husbandlooked at me and said, ‘This is an important moment for you to embrace.’”
Within hours she was on the air on NBA Countdown, helping her ESPN colleagues and NBA alumni memorialize the basketball legend.
Though she’s no stranger to reporting on serious news — she had previously covered both the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State — it was the first time she was covering a developing story.
“I called [retired ESPN broadcaster] Bob Ley just before I went on air, to help clear my head and develop a plan of attack,” says Hubbarth. “He just said, ‘Focus on giving the facts, and when it comes to moving on to the perspective, just make sure you’re comfortable with whatever you’re saying.’”
Covering the Bryant tragedy is the latest step in Hubbarth’s sports broadcasting career — a journey that has culminated in more than a decade at ESPN, where she’s covered the NBA and college football from the sidelines and the host’s desk.
Inspired in middle school by the work of trailblazing broadcaster Pam Oliver, Hubbarth took up high school boys’ basketball broadcasting and analysis while competing as a three-sport athlete at Evanston Township High School, where she was part of a team that won a state title in soccer.
Her college search led her to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But a month after she started college her father was diagnosed with cancer. The Evanston native returned home and transferred to Northwestern for her sophomore year. From there, Hubbarth excelled at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, working with the student-led Northwestern News Network.
After stints at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, Big Ten Network and Fox Sports South, Hubbarth landed at ESPN, where she developed close bonds with fellow Wildcats, including Michael Wilbon ’80 and Rachel Nichols ’95.
Hubbarth started as a digital host for ESPN3 and quickly moved up — and across platforms — at the network. She has anchored NBA Tonight and the digital show Hoop Streams and guest hosted SportsCenter, First Take and NBA Countdown. She also appeared as part of an all-female team on ESPN’s The Hoop Collective podcast.
When it comes to reporting, she’s most visible courtside at NBA games, talking with some of the biggest names in all of sports. Whether it’s interviewing one of her favorite players (say, Russell Westbrook), speaking with notoriously difficult San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or being in the presence of Lebron James — every moment requires composure under pressure.
On Feb. 14 Hubbarth will be back in Chicago as the ESPN reporter during the NBA’s All-Star Celebrity Game. The event will feature some of the Windy City’s biggest names, including Chance the Rapper, Common and the Chicago-born Wilbon.
The hometown stop also gives Hubbarth a chance to reflect on far she’s come from her days at Northwestern — and her place as a role model to other aspiring journalists.
Her advice: “Respect what this industry means. It means hard work. It means sacrifice. It means working when other people are resting. It means having to report on stories that can be sad, and it means trying to be authentic while also being professional.”
Jacob Munoz, a junior from Ingleside, Ill., is studying journalism and psychology.