Doris Burke is someone who loves the game of basketball, and that is never more evident than when she is calling network games, becoming the first such woman to do so. The only question that arises from listening to her dissect an offensive set is why did we have to wait so long? Calling men’s professional sports is a male-driven world, no doubt, but it’s a shame we had to wait so long to hear Burke on our TV screens.
So many colleagues, NBA players and fans are enamored with Burke’s skills analyzing the game. It comes from the fact that Burke had plenty of skills on the hardwood herself. A star point guard in the New Jersey high school system, and then for Providence in the 1980s, it is that love and knowledge of the game she can call on while analyzing games.
Billy Donovan, who enrolled at Providence in the same year as Burke as a point guard himself, says he “defers” to Doris when it comes to basketball, and that “she has a really, really, really high basketball acumen, because she played the game.” Donovan led the Friars to the Final Four as a senior, but that doesn’t stop Burke from joking around with her friend. Per SI.com:
“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.”
Jeff Van Gundy was an assistant coach for the Friars during that time and is friendly with both Donovan and Burke to this day. Van Gundy doesn’t hesitate when he says “There’s no better basketball analyst in the world.” Burke, then known as Doris Sable, would leave her mark at Providence.
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 [Providence women’s coach Bob] 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 made a name for herself on NBA sidelines, but it wasn’t until the network that employed her gave her a chance to call games that we truly understood how much she could offer a game, and it is a whole helluva lot. Take, for example, this exchange described by Sports Illustrated.
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.
It’s not hard to see Burke’s passion for basketball seeping through her words while analyzing a play. However, the road was not always smooth. Burke had to go through a hard lesson in learning that her appearance mattered to viewers, despite the fact that her knowledge of basketball rivals any male broadcaster out there. She credits ESPN producer Kim Belton for giving her a “pep” talk, but still believes knowing the game is the only thing that should matter.
“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].”
Given how well she has done calling NBA games, Doris Burke is proving to all of us that we waited way too long for her voice to be echoing in our living rooms during actual game action. She paved the way for other female broadcasters to prove their acumen, and it’s a wake up call for viewers to cast aside preconceived notions of who deserves to be calling games. It’s almost 2018, after all.