Passion has never been in short supply for NCAA and NBA analyst Doris Burke. Her talents and her demeanour have earned her the respect of basketball players, coaches, and fans worldwide.
Burke’s basketball journey began at an early age while growing up in blue-collar Manasquan, New Jersey. Basketball provided her with opporunties that would have been otherwise unavailble.
“I have been playing, coaching, or now covering the game since I was seven-years-old,” Burke said. “It has literally been one of the driving forces of my life. I [would not have completed] a college degree without it. I am the last of eight kids. Financially, with that many kids, I don’t care how much money you are making, it was a little bit of a stretch for my parents. So affording a college tuition would have been hard.”
Recruited by Providence College as a point guard, Burke was an All-Big East selection and graduated from Providence as the all-time leader in assists. Burke seemed like a surefire professional player in the making. Unfortunately, an injury complicated matters.
“The very last game of my career, [in] the final ten minutes of the game, I went to catch an outlet pass around half-court […] and turned at the same moment and I blew out my knee,” Burke said.
The knee injury changed her life. After tests revealed that she had torn both her ACL and MCL, Burke had two options: Undergo reconstructive knee surgery or give up on basketball. In 1987, surgery would not guarantee a return to pre-injury levels of fitness.
“I decided at that moment that I could move on,” Burke said.
She wouldn’t be away from basketball for long, however. A year after graduating, her former coach, Bob Foley, offered her a position on his staff at Providence. She accepted, but in her second year with the team she got engaged and wanted to start a family.
“There are some who I think could have probably pulled that off easily, being a mom and being a Division One coach,” Burke said. “But, my days were starting at 7 a.m. with individual workouts, and ending about 9:30 p.m. at night with recruiting calls.”
Thus, Burke decided to hang up coaching. However, Providence wasn’t ready to let her go easily.
“The year I left coaching, they put Providence College women’s basketball on radio,” Burke said. “Because I played and coached at Providence, they asked, ‘can you give this a try?’ That was 1990, and I probably did 10 to 12 games and that was my entry into the field.”
The 1990s were an exciting decade for women’s basketball in the United States as games started to receive regular coverage across the country.
“It was starting to feel the effects of Title IX and providing equal opportunities for women’s basketball to be on TV,” Burke said. “Then in 1997, when the WNBA was formed, that was […] the first time a woman could make a living being a colour analyst.”
Her work as an analyst did not go unnoticed. When Mike Gorman, Big East TV’s colour analyst for men’s basketball, was absent for a Saturday game between Pittsburgh and Providence, Burke was his replacement.
“My first men’s game actually happened by accident,” Burke said. “Through some miscommunication, Mike Gorman did not show up at this game [….] We are now pushing close to an hour before the game, and I get home from the hospital, as my son had fallen off the weight bench […] and there is a message, ‘Can you come do the game at the Providence Civic Centre?’ […] After spending from probably 8 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. at the emergency room getting my son stitched up from his fall, […] I raced to the civic centre.”
Without any preparation, she put on her headset and turned on the mic. For most broadcasters, this would have been a near impossible feat, but as a die-hard Big East fan, Burke was ready.
“I would have been at the game or watching the game on TV, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to cover it,” Burke said.
The following year, Burke began broadcasting men’s games on a regular basis. She was the first American female college basketball analyst, and soon found herself covering Knicks’ games at Madison Square Garden. In 2003, ESPN hired her to be on Dick Vitale’s NBA coverage team as both an analyst and sideline reporter, making her the first woman to be given such a prominent role in NBA coverage. NBA players and coaches have embraced Burke’s presence on the sideline.
“I have always said this: […] Have I experienced some skepticism when I sit in the analyst’s chair in the NBA, or even on men’s college basketball? Of course,” Burke said. “I would say it is far less so now than it used to be. And I would tell you that in all honesty, I have never had a bad experience with a player or a coach in terms of my acceptance as a basketball person. They in fact have always been my soft landing spot. It has been their acknowledgement, their recognition, their willingness to open their arms and welcome me into the games I happen to be covering, which has made my job incredibly easy.”
One player Burke particularly enjoys speaking with is four-time MVP and three-time NBA champion Lebron James. He puts a tremendous amount of effort into his responses to Burke’s questions, and their chemistry during interviews has always been excellent.
“It has to do with the fact that [James] will listen to the questions I ask, take a second to process [them], and try to give me a heartfelt answer or at least an honest answer,” Burke said.
Burke also admires James’ candidness in speaking out about social injustice in America—now many NBA players are following suit: James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade have all described America as “broken” at the ESPY’s and called for athletes to help fix the system. For Burke, this candidness is one of the traits necessary for success as an athlete.
“I think the most important things these athletes can do is to be genuine, to be heartfelt, to really believe in what it is they might be speaking about,” Burke said. “I am thankful that a dialogue has been spurred and that professional athletes recognise that they have a great opportunity to influence young people.”
Authenticity has always characterized Burke’s work—be it as a record-setting or trail-blazing player, coach, colour analyst, or sideline reporter. She has given everything to basketball. This is why she is one of the most respected figures in broadcasting and will continue be one of the best in the business over the coming years.
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