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Happy Birthday, Doris Burke

ESPN’s Doris Burke at an NCAA Division I regional semifinal game several years ago. She now analyzes NBA games fulltime. Photo by Joanne Lannin

This has been a good year for Doris Burke, ESPN’s first female full-time analyst on national NBA broadcasts.  Burke, who turned 53 on Nov. 4, had her contract with ESPN renewed in a “multi-year” deal this past June. In September, she was honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Curt Gowdy Media Award.

Though calling National Basketball Association games is the pinnacle of sorts in the broadcasting world, women’s basketball is still near and dear to Burke’s heart. Indeed, it wasn’t just the hundreds of men’s college basketball games she called, but also the decade’s worth of NCAA Division I women’s basketball Final Fours and WNBA broadcasts that convinced ESPN she had the chops for the fast-paced, weekly grind of the NBA.

Night after night she proves that she not only knows the game inside out, but also does her homework on the players and the coaches she’ll be talking about.  According to a New York Times story on Burke earlier this year, she typically gets to the arena early on the morning of a game to interview coaches and players about strategies they’ll be employing and challenges they’ll face. Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks, was quoted as saying that Burke comes across as having played and coached at high levels, but unlike some other former coaches/players who analyze games, she “has the gift for making the complex simple.”

Burke’s ability to break things down and explain them simply probably would have made her a darn good college basketball coach. Her point guard mentality was honed having played basketball at Providence College in the mid-80s (where she is still among the team’s leaders in career assists). Soon after graduation, she returned to PC as an assistant coach, but after she got married, she decided she couldn’t be a great mom and a great basketball coach too. Instead, she started doing Lady Friars’ radio broadcasts, which led to gigs broadcasting Big East radio and TV games.

By 2003, Burke had come to the attention of ESPN, which hired her to be a sideline reporter for its men’s collegiate basketball games. It was a stereotypical position: the men in the broadcast booth analyzing the action, the woman on the sidelines humanizing the players. It bothered her, as it does many women, that for female broadcasters, the path to the top has to go through the sidelines, whereas men often go directly to the broadcast booth. But Burke’s passion for basketball and her desire to analyze games at the highest levels won out.  From there, her incredible work ethic and her personable style began to pay off. Fans and players recognized her the moment she walked into an arena and approached her for a chat or a selfie. In 2016, the video game NBA 2K moved Burke up from sideline reporter to color analyst. Management finally figured out that they needed to move her up as well.

When Burke made her Hall of Fame appearance in September, she thanked all the “heroes” she says played critical roles in her career, including her bosses at ESPN who “lifted me up every single day.” But she had special words for her female colleagues at ESPN, including Rebecca Lobo, Holly Rowe, and Beth Mowins. “We need members of the distaff side to be sources of support and counsel,” she told the audience. “And I cherish all of these women.”

Amen to that.

 

 

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