On Valentine’s Day in 1988, Leandra Reilly Lardner became the first woman to serve as a play-by-play commentator on an NBA game. It was a live telecast between the New Jersey Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers on SportsChannel, she recalled recently for the Chicago Tribune. It was a key moment—followed by decades more of broadcasts dominated by men.
Thirty years later, as the 2017 NBA season begins, Doris Burke will become the first woman to work the NBA circuit as a full-time national analyst, covering regular season games as well as the NBA playoffs. She also will keep her role as sideline reporter for the NBA Conference Finals and NBA Finals, and contribute to some college basketball telecasts on a limited basis. She’s scheduled to call her first game in her new role tomorrow.
The news about Burke’s promotion passed quietly. The turmoil of every day in Trump’s America raged on: Puerto Rico was decimated by Hurricane Maria with little relief in sight, the president who should have been focused on Puerto Rico decided to attack NFL players instead, and yet another NCAA scandal happened. There was little space left to celebrate Burke’s achievement and rightfully give it the attention it deserved.
Like most avid basketball fans, I’m not the least bit surprised by this achievement. But as a woman in the world in the sports world, I’m still in awe of it. To me, Burke is and always has been the professional, poised commentator and sideline reporter I grew up admiring from my perch on my living room couch. Her basketball acumen was and still is uncanny—the way she breaks down plays and somehow knows every single NBA player’s history, shot style, pros and cons is downright absurd, let alone impressive.
Over the summer, I chatted with Burke about her life and career. Dressed in casual lounge pants, sneakers, and no makeup, she could have been someone I had just bumped into in line at Starbucks having struck up a conversation about basketball and her life. She was that chill, that real, that humble and that candid when talking about everything from falling in love with basketball to how she stuck to wearing a blue blazer despite being told to “soften” her appearance.
“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.”
What I gleaned from our conversation that afternoon was this: Not only was Burke the incredibly talented and knowledgeable broadcaster so many of us in the basketball world have come to love and respect, she was also just a regular person and—as a woman like me—still in awe of her own success.
“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.”
When it comes to welcoming women in the fold of professional sports, the NBA has been ahead of the game. Out of the top four major sports leagues—NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB—the NBA is by far most the inclusive as far as women taking on broadcast rolls that are traditionally filled by men: Sarah Kustok is broadcasting full time for the Brooklyn Nets; Kara Lawson is calling games for the Washington Wizards; Stephanie Ready will be in the booth for the Charlotte Hornets; and Ann Meyers Drysdale is broadcasting part time with the Phoenix Suns. But women’s voices still remain few and far between on national NBA broadcasts.
While talking with Richard Deitsch on his media podcast, Kustok said of Burke, Drysdale, and Ready, “They were the ones who grinded it out and paved that road for lack of a better term and using a cliché. When I see Ann, when I see Doris, I think about that. They had to make sure to do all that they could to jump those hurdles and be so incredible at their jobs so that someone like me could have this opportunity. I have the responsibility to continue doing what they did so young girls coming up behind me have the same opportunities.”
A couple of weeks ago, I asked Burke herself for a quote on her promotion and what it means to her. She issued this statement while on assignment at the Boston Celtics training camp:
“I’m grateful for this opportunity and I’m looking forward to making significant contributions to our NBA coverage in this new role. This is a sport I’ve loved all of my life and I’m relishing the chance to tell the story of the upcoming NBA season with my colleagues in the booth.”
It was Burke being Burke while she’s on the job. But I have a feeling that if I had the chance to chat with her on the phone about it or exchange a quick and friendly text, she might have phrased it a little differently. She might have dropped an F-bomb, marveled at the surreal aspect of it all, and laughed in spite of herself. She might have mentioned how, as a little girl, she never dreamed picking up a basketball at seven years old would have possibly lead her to become the first full-time female analyst/broadcaster in the NBA.
I would have replied, of course, with two simple yet profound words—not just from me as a female sportswriter, but from women in sports from across that country that span race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and everything else in between.
I would have said: Thank you.