CLEVELAND—Doris Burke has never spoken a single word to Drake. And they never had dinner together, despite what the internet says. Before November of last year, when Drake famously wore a black shirt with Burke’s smiling face above the phrase “woman crush everyday” during a Toronto Raptors home game and used his ESPN interview to ask her out to dinner, the two of them had only one interaction—if you can call it that. Drake made a heart with his hands and pointed at Burke from the sideline at an Eastern Conference Finals game in 2016; she mouthed back the words “thank you” to him. That was it.
Then the shirt happened.
Burke laughs about it now, calling it a sweet gesture, and admitting that Drake made her life a “hell of a lot” more interesting for a few days. The rest of us know better, though. Drake professing his love and admiration for Burke via a shirt on national television wasn’t just a random act or a simple gesture. It was about respect.
It’s impossible to follow basketball and not know Burke. She’s been an ESPN broadcaster since March of 1991, covered the WNBA since its inaugural season in 1997, and been a fixture on NBA sidelines since 2003. When Burke began covering NBA games, it was still shocking for some people just to see a woman on the sideline. She has effectively and steadily broken barrier after barrier throughout her entire career, now handling some of the biggest basketball games of the year and still schooling her fellow analysts on ESPN studio shows.
She is so sure, so steady, and so knowledgeable during a broadcast that it’s hard to imagine a major basketball broadcast without her. As Jeff Van Gundy called her, she’s “the LeBron James of sportscasters.”
That’s why it was huge news when she announced earlier this year that she was stepping away from the women’s game. This WNBA season has been the first one without her.
Most people who have seen or heard Burke cover a basketball game—whether NBA, WNBA, men’s or women’s college basketball—know she doesn’t overstate things or exaggerate. The longtime analyst and commentator is deliberate, to the point, and seamlessly drops informative tidbits and anecdotes at just the right time. She’s just as careful and considerate in the way she describes her life.
“I feel like I’ve been playing, coaching and covering basketball my entire life,” Burke, now 51, told me as she sat in a dimly lit corner booth next to a Starbucks inside The Westin hotel.
It was the day before Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals and she looked tired, but not exhausted. The excitement that goes hand-in-hand with covering a basketball series of that magnitude was visible in her face, even in the lines at the corners of her smile, and more so as Burke sat there and intimately described how basketball changed her life.
“Growing up as a kid with bad hair, bad clothes, bad skin, bad teeth—you name it, I had it going on,” she said. “But whenever I stepped between the lines I was pretty good at the game. That felt good.”
Like any good basketball origin story, Burke’s starts with a ball and a yard. She was 7 years old when her family moved from Long Island to a small town along the Jersey Shore and, the youngest of eight kids, she was often left to her own curiosities. As she explored the yard of her new home, she told me, she found a basketball that the previous owner had left behind, and there was a park next door with a basketball court. Fate doesn’t get much more blatant than that.
“That moment was the moment I first fell in love with basketball,” Burke said. “I picked up that ball and I never put it back down.”
Burke’s basketball prowess landed her a spot on the Manasquan High School girls basketball team in New Jersey as a point guard. She then went to Providence College on a basketball scholarship. During her senior year, she led the Big East Conference in assists and was the Providence co-Female Athlete of the Year. It was at Providence that she also got a shot at coaching and, eventually, a chance to break into broadcasting.
“I’m a big believer in timing,” said Burke. “What was always my strength was that I had been around basketball since I was 7. I knew the game.”
Early one morning while playing ball at Providence College, Burke headed into the gym for a workout. As she reached for the door, a disheveled Jeff Van Gundy came hurrying out. He was a graduate assistant coach on Rick Pitino’s basketball staff at the time, just starting out.
“He was rushing out of the building,” Burke said. “I think he probably spent the night there and was running out on some ungodly Pitino request.”
It was the first time the two met, but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the years, Van Gundy and Burke forged a friendship based on their love of basketball, mutual respect, and their ability to be upfront and bluntly honest with each other.
“Jeff’s a truth teller,” Burke said with a wry smile. “If I’m ever acting like a jackass, he’ll look me in the eye and tell me to stop it. Those are the types of people you want in your world.”
If she ever was a jackass, Van Gundy didn’t mention it.
“I’ve known Doris for over thirty-some years,” Van Gundy told me. “She’s the best, most-versatile analyst and commentator at ESPN. She does it all—great interviewer, commentator, studio analyst—everything. And she is an expert at it all—women’s and men’s college basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. She’s the LeBron James of sportscasters. There’s no better broadcaster out there right now.”
Burke started out as a broadcaster calling games on Providence radio in the early 1990s. An agent from New York heard her on his way to the airport one day and told her he thought she’d be great on television. Within two years, she began calling the Division II Championship on ESPN. Then in 1997, the WNBA started. For the first time, Burke said, there was an opportunity for a woman to be as vibrant and emotional as Dick Vitale and be a color analyst.
Except for Burke, the hardest part of being a sportscaster was letting loose. She was told more than once to relax and have a little more fun.
“For a long time, that was the biggest criticism of me. And I would say it was a valid criticism. Back then, I would only wear a blue blazer on the air. One reason was because I wasn’t making the money I am now and my wardrobe was a lot smaller. The other reason was because I wanted, more than anything else, to be accepted and respected for my basketball knowledge. So, for the first 15 years of my career, I was focused only on basketball.
“At one point I was Dick Vitale’s sideline reporter and he used to say to me, ‘This isn’t just about the game. People are tuning in to enjoy it. There is a piece of entertainment here.’ It wasn’t that I was averse to that, it was more about getting used to the television business—which camera to look at, when to speak, when to lay out. There’s a lot of subtle nuance to it. And part of that was being confident enough to let go a little bit.”
The turning point, Burke says, was when she was at home watching the Olympics with her then-13-year-old son. The announcers were laughing, joking and having a good time. Her son turned to her and said pointedly, “What you fail to understand, Mom, is if you’re having a good time on the air, we’re having a good time with you.”
Burke took her son’s advice. But she kept on wearing that blue blazer, at least for a little while longer.
Burke isn’t afraid of criticism or a challenge or even Gregg Popovich. Yes, there was that time Popovich stonewalled her during an interview, ignoring her questions and just saying “turnovers” to the internet’s snide bemusement. Last year, Burke was candid about how frustrating Popovich’s behavior toward sideline reporters was and called out the free pass he seemed to get for it, noting the infamously crusty coach somehow wasn’t nearly as rude in interviews with Van Gundy. This past NBA season, she landed several jabs of her own at the coach.
She was just as candid in Cleveland talking about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“I’ve said this quite often, there was a certain stretch in my career where my gender held me back. When I wasn’t working on Dick Vitale’s team, I was the ESPN analyst on regional games for the East Coast. I obviously preferred the analyst role to the sideline role because your opportunity to impact the broadcast was drastically different. And I was bitching up a storm. I kept saying to our producer, I’m better than some of these men calling the games, I don’t understand.
“And he said, ‘Do you want a real answer or do you want a bullshit answer?’ I said, ‘You know me, I want a real answer.’ He said, ‘I agree—you deserve an opportunity on better games. But you have to let your hair down, change your attire and start having fun. This is a visual medium whether you want to accept it or not. And it may go against every fiber of your being to be evaluated on anything other than what you say but, get over it.”
Burke got over it. She let her hair down, softened her appearance, and dropped the blue blazer. And whether it’s coincidence or not, she says, within short order she had a men’s college basketball package on a bigger network.
“We’ve seen progress as far as how networks view women and are willing to put them in important roles. You can criticize ESPN for a lot of things, but one thing you have to give them credit for is their willingness to put women in nontraditional roles. The other end of the spectrum is, players, coaches and officials, they have done nothing but welcome me into the fold. Not one time have I ever felt them be dismissive or unaccepted. It almost like my gender goes right out of the window and the game becomes the focal point.”
That evolution, Burke adds, is something she owes to the women who came before her, like Jackie MacMullan.
“She could probably tell a story or two about the things she’s heard sitting courtside while covering the Boston Celtics—ugly things—that almost caused her and other women to leave what they were doing. Because they paid the price, I haven’t really had to.”
There were only two times in Burke’s career that she says things got “ugly.” And they mostly happened through social media. One individual said some foul, heinous things to her on Twitter. Another sent her 10 to 15 photocopied pages of what Burke can only describe as “anti-women literature.” There was no return address, no postmark. She vividly remembers reading it and feeling disturbed. She handed it over to security, that was the end of it.
“These young female journalists who are now trying to break into this business have it way more difficult in this day and age, with social media and the number of voices and critics there are. Had I faced the criticism of social media back in 1992, I’ll be honest with you—I’m a pretty tough girl and I don’t know.”
Burke might have not had social media to contend with when she started out, but there were a lot of naysayers and people in the industry who didn’t think women had a place in men’s basketball coverage, especially the NBA. That, in and of itself, was more than enough for her to take on.
“People don’t see is how much she helps young women who want to follow in her footsteps,” said former UConn standout and WNBA legend Rebecca Lobo, who now is a seasoned basketball analyst and commentator in her own right. “I retired [from the WNBA] in 2003 and was hired by ESPN to do sideline reporting for WNBA games. I had zero training, zero idea what to do. Thank God I was put on a game where Doris was the analyst. She talked me through how I should give reports, when I should pitch ideas, how I should conduct interviews. I got to work with her a lot that first season. Watching her prepare for those games and listening to her call those games was the best education I could have ever gotten as for how to be an analyst.”
“I think Doris has reached a level of success and respect that some people never saw a woman working in a man’s world reaching. Not only is she the gold standard for women in sports broadcasting, but really for people in general because the way that she has done it has been through a lot of hard work and integrity,” added WNBA and women’s college basketball analyst LaChina Robinson. “There have been times where some people hear a woman’s voice on an NBA broadcast and they turn it off. Doris had to pave the way for the rest of us and take all of the criticism and to prove herself far beyond what any man would have had to do in this business in order to make a way for the rest of us to pursue a career that we love. What she has done for the business of broadcasting itself is priceless.”
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is for women and minorities in this industry,” Van Gundy said. “Even 15 years ago, you’d wouldn’t have seen this—a female analyst covering a game. Doris is, in her own way, a pioneer. She helped knock down a barrier and it wasn’t easy. She had to be great. Because if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Burke says she’s never looked at it from that perspective—having to be perfect, to always bring her A-game—because if she had, it would have made her too nervous, too anxious. She has thought about the women coming up behind her, though, and how she didn’t want to screw it up for them.
Despite gaining the respect of fans, coaches, and players because of her basketball acumen and spot-on analysis, and somehow transcending the gender bias that many female sportscasters face every day, Burke has yet to win a sports Emmy for her work in television and radio. In fact, the last award she received was a USA Today Rudy Award in 2003 for the “Best New Face in Sports Television.”
Still, the love and respect the basketball world has for Burke is evident in these few tribute videos that would put Drake’s shirt to shame. One YouTube collection opens by asking “What Doesn’t Doris Burke Do?” and her own employer posted video of her titled “Doris Burke’s got handles like Curry... in heels!” But it’s hard to top the YouTube clip of her being subbed in for Derrick Rose in NBA 2K. It’s just plain awesome.
After the Golden State Warriors scooped up their fifth NBA Championship and took turns posing with and kissing the Larry O’Brien trophy during the televised trophy presentation, Doris Burke doled out 13 questions to seven different players in a span of 11 minutes.
It was classic Burke: Poised. Present. Professional. Patient.
She was also pretty damn happy.
Each year, when the NBA Finals come to an end so do Burke’s basketball responsibilities. She takes a fun trip (this year she went to Turks and Caicos) then retreats to her home in Rhode Island near the beach. She spends time by the ocean, reading. She goes to the beach, plays golf, gardens, and spends time with her kids. Basketball is a distant memory, at least until mid-September. Then it all begins again—the traveling, the interviews, the coverage, the excitement of each game.
There is one noteworthy absence this year. Burke announced this spring that she is stepping away from the women’s game, both college and the WNBA.
“That was an incredibly difficult decision for me. But I’m over 50, and I’m thinking I’d like a little more balance in my life. The other part of it is that I think I would be even better on the other two sports I cover—men’s college and the NBA—and frankly, somebody else deserves a shot in the women’s game. I’ve call the women’s NCAA Championship and been a part of women’s basketball for 17 years. Rebecca Lobo, Kara Lawson, LaChina Robinson—let them have a shot at it. They’ve earned the right. I’m a big believer in that there is enough room for all of us. And it is incredibly important for other women to lift the people up beside them. That’s part of the job.”
Sure, others might strive to be like Burke. They should. Some might even achieve the same level of success. But there will only ever be one Doris Burke—the one who Drake wears specially made shirts for, the one who goes toe-to-toe with Pop every Spurs game she covers, the one who made a blue blazer a signature fashion statement, and the one who knew exactly when to lay out and let the play-by-play man have the moment when Morgan William hit a last-second shot to knock the mighty UConn Huskies out of the 2017 Women’s NCAA Tournament.
“I think you can tell that this game means something to me. That I love it. The other part of it, is that I recognize how lucky I am to be where I am sitting,” she said.
“Like, sometimes I’ll sit back and go, ‘Holy shit. I’m sitting courtside at an NBA Finals game?’ Because if I wasn’t doing this, my ass would be at home on the couch watching the game, with an enormous bucket of popcorn on my lap and a glass of wine or a Manhattan.”