During Game 1 of the Celtics-Heat series, Doris Burke once again carved her name into history by becoming the first woman to ever serve as a game analyst for the NBA Conference Finals. She will touch upon another milestone later this month, becoming the first woman to fulfill that same role during the NBA Finals, which she will call on ESPN Radio.
Burke has paved an entirely new path throughout the course of her career. In 2017, she became the first woman to attain a position as a full-time NBA television analyst on ESPN and ABC, and she is also the first woman to be awarded the Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Her knowledge of the game, passion and ability to connect with listeners has propelled her into one of ESPN’s most prominent voices and television personalities in basketball, and she is a top candidate for ABC’s lead broadcast team if either Jeff Van Gundy or Mark Jackson ever leave commentary and return to coaching.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Burke shared her analysis of the Eastern Conference Finals, humbly discussed her recent accomplishments and shined a light on other women coaching in and covering the NBA.
Justin Barrasso: You just made history by calling the Eastern Conference Finals, and you will mark another seminal moment in NBA history when you become the first woman to ever serve as a game analyst for the NBA Finals. There has been no shortage of lofty accomplishments throughout your career, and these are very special moments for the game. What do they mean to you?
Doris Burke: I’m honored to be the first, but there is also a part of me that knows the timing of my career has contributed to this. I’ve been fortunate in that way. The fact of the matter is that, at some point, this will stop being a conversation piece. There are so many talented women covering the NBA.
One thing I’m amazed at is the younger generation of female broadcasters and what they’ve achieved, and the first person to come to mind is Candace Parker. I remember Candace when she first joined the TNT team, and I marveled at how comfortable she was right away in the television environment. Candace and many other women of her generation seem so prepared and have done so extraordinarily well, and that gives me incredible joy.
As for the NBA Finals, I am so excited to be part of the radio broadcast. I think, for the players and the coaches, it’s really special that I’m a normal part of the coverage of the game. That means a great deal to me.
Barrasso: In terms of pioneers for women covering the NBA, I immediately think of you and Jackie MacMullan.
Burke: I talk a lot about Jackie MacMullan. Think about the trust and the equity Jackie has built with people in this game. When you watch her work, there is such a high level of respect given. It’s hard to describe it, but you can see it when players engage with her. Jackie is a complete and utter professional, and she does her job at such a high level. She’s a very strong woman. That made my job easier.
Barrasso: Is the NBA ready for its first female head coach? Spurs assistant Becky Hammon would be a tremendous fit for a lot of teams, with Houston and Indiana both standing out as potential destinations.
Burke: I remember when Becky was first hired by the Spurs, and then when Kara Lawson, who’s now moved on to coach at Duke, was hired by the Celtics. Those are two highly competent basketball people, they have character, intellect and the temperament necessary to coach the game of basketball at a very high level.
It’s up to the organizations to find the best fit for their team, but do I think there are women capable? Of course, absolutely. I was the New York Liberty broadcaster when Becky Hammon was trying desperately to make the Liberty roster. That was down to the wire. Of course, she made the team and flourished in the role, and we know about the fateful plane ride with Gregg Popovich that led to her hiring in San Antonio. It will be fascinating when Becky gets her first coaching job. That will happen. She’s put in the time, and now it’s only a matter of time.
Barrasso: On the subject of great coaches, Brad Stevens and Erik Spoelstra have had a really fascinating matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite seeing it in Game 1, Miami’s zone caused all sorts of problems for Boston in Game 2. The Celtics also didn’t help themselves with turnovers and rebounds. As a small-ball team predicated on three-point shooting, the Celtics also missed 10 straight threes down the stretch. Calling the series, what’s surprised you most so far?
Burke: A very hot topic of discussion is the management of players and not overworking them, but the starters for both teams are playing big minutes. The Celtics’ bench and bench-productivity has been a topic of conversation all year, and the Celtics are getting well north of 85 points a game from their starters. Brad Stevens pulls the levers on the bench depending on the matchup, and obviously the absence of Gordon Hayward has brought Brad Wanamaker in more.
The Celtics have had complete command of both games, but there have been self-inflicted wounds in both losses. There were stretches in both games where they turned the ball over too frequently and fouled too often, and they opened a window for Miami. One constant in the postseason is that Miami has made the most of opportunities in the bubble. They had to come back from double digits three times in their series against Milwaukee, and now they’ve done it two times in the first two games against the Celtics. Miami is a remarkably resilient, opportunistic team. For the Celtics, is their battle now more mental than physical?
Barrasso: That’s a great question, especially with so much being made of the tumultuous scene in the Celtics’ locker room following their Game 2 loss. But the bubble is so unique without true home-court [advantage]. If the Celtics find a way to win Game 3, and then have three days off for Gordon Hayward before Wednesday’s Game 4, they will have the chance to even the series, and then we start anew. With his elite skills as a passer, is Hayward the X-factor in this series for the Celtics?
Burke: I know, unequivocally, that the Celtics are not going to jeopardize the long-term health of Gordon Hayward, or the long-term prospects of what is still a very young basketball team, so I have no doubt they’d ever put him in a position to play if he wasn’t ready. The one frustration you can point to with Hayward is that there are times where he is too passive, but even with that being said, he’s beyond the X-factor.
Hayward is an extremely easy basketball player to play with, and he’s always willing to make that extra pass. If anyone listens to the mantra that Brad Stevens seems to live by, which is to keep making that next right play, Gordon Hayward seems to be that guy. And I’m partial to Brad Wanamaker, going back to his playing days at Pittsburgh, but he’s not the offensive threat that Hayward is. The Celtics need every option against a Miami team that is long, that has discipline, that helps and recovers, and does an exceptional job defensively.
Barrasso: You’ve been around the game for the majority of your life. How concerned are you about the Celtics post-game locker room meltdown, especially after they were outworked down the stretch of Game 2? Or is this a moment they can turn it into a positive?
Burke: I’d be far more concerned if there were not a high level of frustration, anger and emotion in that locker room. The fact that Marcus Smart was involved should not surprise any Celtics fan. He shows how much he cares by the way he plays every single possession. The Celtics will deal with it and call each other out when they see it on film. There was a play late in the fourth where Bam Adebayo was the fastest to the ball on a rebound. There were several Celtics standing and anticipating that one of their teammates would get the ball, while Bam was relentlessly pursuing the basketball. That was emblematic of the difference down the stretch. But the Celtics are too proud and too well-coached not to respond in the right manner on the court. Both of games this series were possession ball games down the stretch. If they get the series to two-to-one, then they’ll have the opportunity to split the first four games.
Barrasso: Following so much uncertainty on whether pro basketball would be played amidst the pandemic, how grateful are you to be part of such a compelling postseason, with people so invested in your work?
Burke: This game has been my passion since I picked up a ball when I was 7 years old. I’m very lucky that this is what I do for a living, and to do it in this historic opportunity, I’m incredibly thankful.