- She may bristle at the word trailblazer, but ESPN's best NBA analyst, Doris Burke, is proving that in the still-alpha-male-driven world of sports TV, having game is all that matters.
This story appears in the Dec. 18, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Late last month, Doris Burke was sitting in her living room watching Ben Simmons miss a dozen free throws in the fourth quarter. Every time the Wizards intentionally fouled the Sixers rookie, sending him to the stripe for another adventure, Burke winced: “I’m dying for the guy and going, I’ve been there, buddy.”
In the early 1980s she was Doris Sable, point guard for the Manasquan Warriors and one of the top players in southern New Jersey. Great handle, great mind for the game, not-so-great shot. Opponents didn’t employ the Deck-a-Doris or the Disable-a-Sable, but her performance at the line was erratic, to say the least. (The Asbury Park Press noted in the opening sentence of one game story, “The first [free throw] that Doris Sable took was a sky ball,” which, apparently, was early ’80s Jersey Shore speak for air ball.) Burke hasn’t shaken the reputation; a few Christmases back, her ESPN colleague and longtime friend Jeff Van Gundy told her, on-air, that she was “the only white point guard who can’t shoot the ball.”
Jokes aside, the fact that Burke can relate to Simmons is what has allowed her to become, this season, the first woman to be a network analyst for NBA games. She is, has always been, a baller. Maybe not one who plays near the rim, but a baller nonetheless, and as Van Gundy says, “Basketball is basketball.”
Before last Friday’s Pistons-Warriors game, which she worked with Dave Pasch, Burke assessed Detroit’s offense. Last year it relied too heavily on a two-man game with point guard Reggie Jackson and center Andre Drummond, she said, but now “it’s become a much more egalitarian system, where [Drummond] is put in the position of being a decision maker. He can handle it; he can pass it.” Sure enough, on the first possession of the game, the big man got free off a screen, took the ball to the top of the key, looked for a cutter and then, failing to find one, blew past JaVale McGee, who had no choice but to wrap him up. In the third quarter Drummond was at it again, facing up and threading a bounce pass off the dribble between three Golden State defenders to a slicing Avery Bradley for an easy layup. Of course she had a take ready: “Bradley is one of the outstanding cutters in the NBA, and I think that’s a product of coming into the league with very little offensive skill. He had to figure out how to make his way on the offensive end, and cutting was the first thing he did.”
Comments like that—sophisticated, nuanced, X-and-O observations that come from not just studying the game but also from having an innate understanding of it—are why Burke has earned so much respect from viewers, coaches and players. (As Burke and Pasch were doing their pregame on-court open, Drummond, an old pal, jogged over from the layup line and playfully planted a peck on the back of her head, showing just how much those free throw strugglers stick together.) Thunder coach Billy Donovan, who has known Burke for more than three decades, says, “She has a really, really, really high basketball acumen, because she played the game.” Van Gundy claims, “There’s no better basketball analyst in the world.” And the blogosphere loves her too: In August, Deadspin published a post titled, “How Doris Burke Became the Best Damn Basketball Broadcaster There Is.”
She’s also far cooler than a 52-year-old mother of two twentysomethings has any right to be. During the 2016 Eastern Conference finals in Toronto, Drake, who was sitting behind her, caught her eye and made a heart gesture with his hands. Drizzy dramatically upped the ante last season at a Raptors game when he wore—on Drake Night, no less!—a T-shirt with Burke’s face and the words Woman crush everyday.
The Pistons game was Burke’s second in three days, which is precisely the kind of schedule she was trying to avoid nearly 30 years ago when she gave up coaching. She grew up in a large family, in the middle of Springsteen country. As a kid she’d watch Al McGuire, Billy Packer and Dick Enberg call college basketball on NBC on weekends, which she calls “appointment viewing” in those precable days. Then she’d put on the purple jacket she had won in an Elk’s Club shooting competition at her elementary school—she wasn’t that bad of a shooter—and run out to the basket in her backyard, high-fiving the hedges along the way. “That purple jacket was my college team’s warmup,” she says. “I would reenact the game I had just seen. Of course, I hit the game-winning shot.”
When it came time to pick a real college, she chose Providence, arriving in 1983, the same year the men’s team welcomed a new point guard of its own: Donovan, whose not-so-svelte build at the time led to much grief from coach Rick Pitino. “I like to tease Billy and tell him he was the second best point guard in the class of ’87,” says Burke. “But the real truth of the matter is the only thing I had over Billy was that my physique was far better our first couple of years.”
Donovan, who dropped 30 pounds and led the Friars to the Final Four as a senior, says, “I defer to Doris.”
Van Gundy, who was a Providence graduate assistant at the time, remembers Burke as a “gym rat.” Her coach for her final two seasons, Bob Foley, says, “She just had that thirst for knowledge. I remember Doris trying to get into [the men’s] practices to watch Pitino, but Rick didn’t let women in because of the things that were said.” (Though one has a hard time imagining Burke—who has been interviewing cranky coaches for more than a decade as a sideline reporter, a duty she still performs for some games, including the NBA Finals—being put off her game by a few salty words.)
Sable left Providence as the program’s all-time leader in assists, with 602—or 56 more than Donovan—and with a 5–0 record against Geno Auriemma’s UConn teams. When Foley offered her a job, Burke jumped at it. “From the time I was very little and I first picked up a ball, in the back of my head I thought I would coach the game,” she says. “And I loved every single second of being an assistant coach. I loved it.” But Burke got engaged during her second season on the bench. “I knew unequivocally I wanted children and that I wanted for at least a certain stretch of time to be a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “And so those two things, I felt at that time, were mutually exclusive.”
Foley tried to talk her into staying, to no avail. But Burke still needed a job. Providence had just made the decision to start airing women’s basketball games on the radio. And so began what she calls her “happy accident” of a broadcasting career. She had no experience or training, but she was insightful enough that Foley would dub her color commentary onto the game tapes he showed his team. “They could listen to Doris to get an idea of what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong,” he says.
Burke worked her way up—to women’s games on TV, to the occasional men’s NCAA game, to the WNBA, to NBA sideline assignments. She doesn’t like the word trailblazer because she feels like there were women before her who faced much harsher circumstances. The NBA community is fairly progressive, especially when it comes to the women who hoop, so her bona fides have never been an issue. “I’ve always felt that the people who respect the women’s players and the women’s game most are the men’s players,” says Rebecca Lobo, one of the countless broadcasters Burke has befriended and mentored. “Even when I was in college, no one respected what the UConn women were doing more than the men’s team, and nobody respects the WNBA players more than the NBA guys. LeBron is talking about it and tweeting about it, Kobe is at games.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been bumpy moments. In 2013, Burke was handling the sideline at a Spurs game. During an in-game interview, she asked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich two questions, both of which he dismissed with the same terse answer: “Turnovers.” It left Burke on the verge of tears, and in a later interview with New York magazine she called out Pop for treating her differently than he would a longtime friend like Van Gundy. But her subsequent interactions with him have been sublime. On the second Sunday last May, during the Western Conference finals, Pop gave another short answer to her first question. And instead of trying to coax more, she took her cue. “Happy Mother’s Day to me, I’m taking the reprieve, sir,” Burke said, cutting their chat short and throwing it back to play-by-play man Mike Breen.
It was a fun, self-aware moment that showed Burke’s wry sense of humor. But to Van Gundy, it’s a side of Burke that she can’t display enough. “It’s been such a tough road for so many women that if she tried to show her personality, so many men who watch her wouldn’t allow for it,” he says. “It’s stupid. As males we’re afforded those opportunities. It’s called quirky or funny or personality. Women who get to do these games, they’re not afforded the same opportunity.”
Indeed, overcoming the feeling that she always had to demonstrate her professionalism has been one of Burke’s biggest challenges. She thought that to be taken seriously she had to look serious, so she wore pantsuits and pulled her hair back. When she bemoaned her lack of better assignments at ESPN, her producer, Kim Belton—who had faced his own obstacles as an African-American in the business—gave her a sobering pep talk, but one she says she needed to hear: This is a visual medium, whether you want to accept that or not. And though it goes against every fiber of your being to be evaluated for anything other than what you say, the bottom line is you are.
So she softened her look. Down went the hair, out came the skirts. There’s an obvious irony to the fact that Burke and her fellow ESPN broadcasters Beth Mowins (who did play-by-play for a Monday Night Football game in September) and Jessica Mendoza (who has emerged as one of the best things about the network’s baseball coverage) are killing it in what is still a very alpha male industry in these #MeToo times. “We still have a long way to go,” says Burke. “Because the reality is that I’m 52-years-old. And how many 55- to 60-year-old women do you see in sports broadcasting? How many? I see a lot of 60-year-old men broadcasting.
“The physical appearance and natural aging of all the men doing this job don’t matter,” she continues. “It’s funny with this whole Matt Lauer thing. I have been reading how he has aged, but his [female] cohosts stay in the same demographic grouping. So he gets older but his sidekick does not? Right. Frankly, that’s b-------. That’s absolute b-------.
“Listen, I want to be considered attractive. Am I going to undergo surgery to make myself look younger? No. So the wrinkles you see on my face and the signs of age that I have, they’re going to be there, period, and it’s up to the networks to decide [if it’s acceptable].”
Burke may not stick around to see what happens to the broadcasting business when she’s in her 60s. She’s planning, when her children have kids of their own, to be a doting grandmother. Until then, she’ll keep calling games and, even if she hates the word, continue to blaze a trail and offer guidance to those who follow her path—handing out assists, if you will. Once a point guard, always a point guard.