The NBA season is just two weeks in so it is far too early to look ahead to the NBA Finals. We don’t know which teams it will feature, what cities will host it, or if it will even be a competitive series.
But we know one thing to be true, it will be historic not for what takes places on the hardwood, but because of the voice of one broadcaster.
Doris Burke, long time WNBA and NBA analyst, former player and coach, took the reign from Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson as lead analyst alongside Mike Breen and Doc Rivers as the A-Team for ESPN/ABC.
This means Burke will become the first female analyst to call a championship game in any of the 4 major sports.
How did Burke land on ESPN/ABC’s top broadcast team, whose assignments this year will include the NBA Finals, seven ABC Saturday night games, and the league’s in-season tournament? Well, it’s been a four-decade journey, where Burke has experienced basketball at every possible level and occupation.
Burke has long been asked if her career wouldn’t be fulfilled if she never got to call a NBA Finals game, to which she always disputed. Back in 2019, Burke spoke with the Athletic and went into detail about the topic.
“I want you to think about this: If I spent the remainder of my career at ESPN as an NBA analyst, essentially in the third spot behind Hubie Brown, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, how lucky would I have been in my career?” Burke said at the time. “We are talking about three of the best to ever do it. Mark, Jeff and Mike have held down the NBA Finals for over a decade with commentary that is the best of the best. Hubie Brown is a living legend. All of those men have been nothing but gracious and supportive of me. I don’t navigate it. If and when those men decide to go back to coaching, or they decide they want to do something else, ESPN would then say, ‘OK, who do we have in our rotation?’”
Burke’s agent, CAA’s Matt Kramer, called his client immediately after the Van Gundy news broke to let her know that she was in serious consideration for the job.
What followed was Burke having a conversation with Dave Roberts, the head of event and studio production at ESPN and someone recently elevated to lead basketball at ESPN. Roberts, via multiple broadcast sources, is someone who has been instrumental in pushing for women and people of color to have higher-profile on-air roles at the company. Burke said that she believed Roberts went to bat for her, and that was particularly interesting to her because she had not had many interactions with Roberts outside of passing conversations at NBA events. Her first extended conversation with Roberts came when they had lunch to discuss the possibilities of this job.
“I remember the last line he said to me was, ‘We believe you’ve earned this,’” Burke said. “That was a satisfying thing to hear. I started in this business back in 1990 in an obviously very small way — Providence College women’s basketball on radio right after I left coaching. This is sort of a happy accident of a career for me. I’m very passionate about the game of basketball, obviously, but my intention graduating college was never to be an announcer. That was almost a laughable thought.”
Burke will be the first one to volunteer how big an impact Van Gundy had on her broadcast ascension at ESPN. When the ABC postseason sideline reporting job opened in 2008 after Michele Tafoya opted to give up her NBA assignments to spend more time with her family, Van Gundy was the first person to call Burke. He asked her if she would be interested in the role. She told him that she was, but she wanted to continue her color analyst work elsewhere.
“Whatever transpired behind the scenes, I know that within a couple of days of Jeff making that call — not that he has all the power, but he clearly called somebody to advocate for me,” Burke said. “The same thing happened when Doug Collins left to go back to the Chicago Bulls in 2017. It’s probably like 10 at night, an unusual hour for Jeff to call me. He said, ‘Do you have an interest in this position?’ I said, ‘Of course I would.’ And he says, ‘Well, then you need to make a call and tell somebody.’ I said, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ He says, ‘I’m telling you, make the call.’
“I will never forget his advocacy for me in that particular instance. I also know for a fact he pushed back with some people who maybe had some things to say about me being an analyst in the NBA. I’m always indebted.”
On-air chemistry is almost always forged away from the cameras, be it at dinners or simply hanging out together. Burke and Rivers have known each other for decades. Rivers said this week that Breen is one of his best friends. Burke and Breen are also very close. It will be a matter of figuring out the rhythm of a broadcast, especially for Rivers (who last served as a full-time broadcaster during the 2003-04 season and called the 2004 Finals on ABC). Burke’s challenge will be working in a three-person booth with years of reps in a two-person booth.
It will take a lot of time for this trio to relocate the dynamic chemistry Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson had, having called the last decade worth of NBA Finals together. But the talent and decades worth of basketball knowledge is there.
“You have to let the broadcast breathe,” Burke said. “When we went to the first break last week, the first thing I said to Mike Breen was, ‘Are we letting this breathe enough?’ He said no (laughs). Not in a bad way. He said we’re all excited and we all have our things to say. So this is a journey for the three of us. Thankfully, we’ll get some repetitions early at the in-season tournament and more than typical at ESPN for a No. 1 team.
“Here is what I know. I’m going to sit with Mike Breen, who is the absolute master of the craft of play-by-play skills. He knows how to elicit responses from any number of different analysts. All of us bring different sentimentality, styles, philosophies, etc. … Doc Rivers is one of the most personable, fun people I’ve had the occasion to sit in coaches meetings with. There isn’t a thing Doc Rivers hasn’t seen in 13 years as a player or over two decades as a coach. I am incredibly fortunate to be sitting with those two men, and I’m really very thankful for that.”
One thing Burke has going for her is the familiarity the NBA audience has with her. There is a generation of fans who grew upon with hearing Burke’s voice call games, do sideline work, and break down film on ESPN. Burke spoke on this recently.
“There is a generation of men whom I have been apart of their existence. Generations change and grow and switch. And what is uncomfortable for one generation is becomes apart of the existence of another. It brings me joy that guys of my sons generation don’t even think about it. She calls NBA games and that’s just what she does.”
It sucks that at one point society frowned upon having a female voice call mens sporting events, but at the same time it shows the growth in society. And Burke, whether she wants the credit or not, is a huge force in changing that mindset. It is a testament to her will power, talent and consistency breaking down barrier after barrier.
Said her friend and fellow ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe: “To see Doris ascend to this position makes me so happy. She deserves it. I have long thought she is our best analyst. Her ability to deliver succinct analysis with flair, humor and skill is unparalleled. I always tell new analysts, ‘Listen to Doris.’ As a fellow woman in the business, it’s a relief to see her get what she deserves regardless of gender. Just excellence being recognized. How wonderful.”
The NBA has already set its date for Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals — June 6. Even after all her television reps, Burke says she already knows the nerves are going to be buzzing that night.
“I’m going to be nervous as hell,” she said. “I’m nervous before every game, generally speaking, but I have no doubt that it’s going to be heightened unequivocally. One of the things (ESPN vice president of production Tim Corrigan) said to me that I do think will help is that I’ve been an NBA Finals sideline reporter and a radio analyst on the NBA Finals. But the event is enormous. The number of production trucks as you walk into the building, the amount of media around, you have a heightened awareness of how the NBA Finals is just an enormous event. So I fully expect to be pretty nervous for Game 1.”