Doris Burke, an ESPN/ABC NBA analyst and former MSG voice who was the first woman to work Knicks games on TV and radio, huddles with Steve Serby to discuss the NBA’s return, safety concerns, and her personal fight after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Q: What do you envision the quality of play and number of injuries might be in Orlando when the NBA restarts?
A: There’s a rhythm to the NBA calendar. Given the time off, I think play is going to be sloppy to start. It’s going to feel like those mid-October games that we sometimes televise. You can make the argument two ways as it relates to injuries: those that had some bumps and bruises that were really nagging and you were considering giving them some stretches of time off, those have healed. But … the intensity of an NBA game is hard to simulate in those environments.
Q: What are your safety concerns in the bubble following your personal battle with coronavirus?
A: It’s a monster of a project to try to get right and put in place. As I hear players talk about pre-existing conditions or talk about their fears, I absolutely understand it. And one of the things I thought most about is that a lot of these guys have young kids. You’re not only going down to the bubble, but at some point you’re going to leave that bubble, and what do you do as a player if you’re the parent of a young child? Do you go to a hotel when you get back to your respective market, and do you quarantine for two weeks and therefore stay away from your children longer to make sure, “OK, I’m not positive”? The primary thought I have as it relates to fear doesn’t necessarily have to do with myself, it has to do more with anybody who’s not been infected, had COVID, recovered and doesn’t have immunity, because I do worry. … As much as I know that the NBA is going to do absolutely everything in their power to make this environment as safe as possible, the fact of the matter is the ultimate bad outcome remains a possibility. There’s inherent risk that everybody who goes down to Orlando assumes, and how you work that out in your own mind is a very personal choice. And I don’t think we should criticize, judge or in any way, shape or form have negative feelings for those who express concern, because it’s legitimate and it’s real.
Q: How scary was your bout with COVID-19?
A: The thing that I felt the most was fatigue and headache. So for a good stretch of the first two weeks of that, I was just thinking I had a bad flu, because my symptoms were not aligning with what was being told were the main symptoms — the shortness of breath, the pressure on the chest — I didn’t have those scary symptoms. So for a good stretch of time, I didn’t think I had it. But then I finally decided to get tested. It took eight days to get the results, and by the time I had gotten the results of the test, I was starting to come out of it. Was I scared? I had some measure of anxiety. I was sleeping 16, 17 hours a day, and the other time I was not getting out of bed, so I wasn’t doing a whole lot.
Q: Describe ABC/ESPN and MSG announcer Mike Breen.
A: Just class act. Close friend. Just the best. Kind human being.
Q: Jeff Van Gundy.
A: I like to call him my rabbi or my bishop. He’s given me confidence when I’ve needed it. I know he’s advocated for me. I adore him.
Q: Mark Jackson.
A: He’s the soul of our broadcast. There’s a leadership quality to Mark. He’s willing to test you.
Q: Will Spurs assistant Becky Hammon be a head coach?
A: I believe she will. When Becky got the job, I distinctly remember saying to Kara Lawson, “You could be in that position as well.” And she interestingly now is an assistant coach of the Boston Celtics. These are passionate, knowledgeable, high-character individuals who have the temperament, the knowledge, the touch, all the things required. There’s a learning curve here regardless of your gender. I do believe they’ll be head coaches when they are ready to be. I think it’s the when, not the if.
Q: Dick Vitale.
A: He’s had a Hall of Fame career as an announcer -— what he has done for the V [Jim Valvano] Foundation is what I think will be his lasting legacy. This man’s passion for the fight, first against cancer and now against pediatric cancer, it’s absolutely been legendary. The lives that man has saved by the passionate pursuit of trying to eradicate cancer — incredible.
Q: Suzyn Waldman.
A: Legend. Absolute legend. She had just come to a Liberty game for some reason, and I remember Gus [Johnson] saying to me, “That woman’s tough as nails.” And I thought, “Yeah, she has to be.” All the women who went before me — like the Jackie MacMullans, Robin Roberts, Suzy — I am thankful for the point in history at which I’ve been able to do my job, because I’ve said this often: The players and the coaches have been my soft landing spot, and those men and their acceptance of me and the respect they’ve shown to me on the air, that has changed fans’ opinion of me.
Q: Gregg Popovich.
A: I adore Gregg. Listen, I don’t like those [courtside] interviews more than anybody else, but I tell a story about Pop that will capture him. He loses Game 7 [of the 2013 NBA Finals]. I’m walking out of Miami Arena, and he’s gonna cross paths with me. I don’t even want to make eye contact with him. I put my head down and I step back and allow him to pass. And he grabs my shoulders and he turns me to him and he says, “Now what are you gonna do with your offseason?” I’m stunned, and I said, “I’m actually gonna make a trip to Napa.” He goes, “Doris, here’s my secretary’s email. You send her a note, tell her what you’re doing.” He sent me an email back with a list of places I should go. That captures Gregg Popovich more than those absolutely (chuckle) painful moments for the reporters on the sideline.
Q: Former UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma.
A: Brilliant. One of the best I’ve ever seen do it on any level.
Q: First-overall Liberty draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.
A: I just love her passion and skill level and personality. She is fun to watch, effervescent, I think a great leader and really highly skilled.
Q: Zion Williamson.
A: Electric. Captivating. Delightful young man. Just incredible smile. Oh my God is that young man likeable. His upside is absolutely off the charts.
Q: RJ Barrett.
A: The intensity of the media, you’ve got to be a certain temperament and maturity level to handle it, and that young kid, I am just blown away by that attribute.
Q: Does Ja Morant remind you of former Providence point guard Doris Burke?
A: (Laugh) Jeff Van Gundy likes to joke, “You’re the only white point guard who couldn’t shoot.” I had incredible handle, great dribble-drive ability, I spent my life driving and getting and-1. I did not have the hops of Ja or the electric nature.
Q: How good can Ja be?
A: The thing I am most shocked by is he is fearless. And while he respects the elders of the game, he does not stand in awe. He relishes the opportunity to test himself against the best. That’s the characteristic that you think can lead to greatness.
Q: David Stern and Adam Silver.
A: The NBA is the single most progressive, inclusive, open-minded sports league in the country. And David Stern and Adam Silver’s support of me speaks volumes. Because we’re not gonna sit here and pretend that in meetings between the NBA and ESPN, or NBA and TNT, that they don’t have some dialogue as to who’s covering their sport.
Q: What do you think of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving next season with the Nets?
A: You have to have at least two to win a championship, so those are two great starting points. I can’t separate Kevin Durant from his two MVP performances in The Finals.
Q: Do you think it was smart for him to wait until next season to return?
A: I absolutely do. I also happened to be in the building when he popped that Achilles. My heart broke for that young man.
Q: What do you think of Kyrie not wanting to play in the bubble?
A: I do believe 100 percent that black lives matter and that the cause to achieve and pursue equality supersedes basketball. The other thing that supersedes basketball is their health. If they want to do this, and they believe it’s more important than playing, I don’t see how you can fault them. I think that is sound reasoning. Just as I wouldn’t fault the players who want to go back and pursue a championship.
Q: What are your thoughts on Knicks coaching candidate Tom Thibodeau?
A: The only thing I can think of when I see Tom is his work habits. They’re legendary. He eats, sleeps and breathes basketball.
Q: Another possible Knicks coaching candidate: Kenny Atkinson.
A: Player development is first and foremost. What was achieved with [GM] Sean Marks and he in Brooklyn, when you had no picks and no players, to go find the value of players that they found and to develop that talent in a short window of time relatively speaking in the NBA when you’re rebuilding into a playoff team, was nothing short of remarkable. Similar with him is work habits. The New York Knicks are gonna require work.
Q: What is your most memorable interaction with Kobe Bryant?
A: Did an interview during the run to his back-to-back titles with Pau [Gasol], Metta [World Peace], Lamar [Odom] … they were [my] first two Finals as a reporter. … [Bryant] was so exhausted after the game in the playoffs, we conducted the interview with him bent over. In order to get the mic near his mouth, I was forced to mimic him — he was totally spent!
A: Major talent. When this whole thing transpired [Drake wearing a Doris Burke photo on his T-shirt and asked her to dinner], I happened to be at my daughter’s apartment. The night it happened, I said, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” And she goes, “No, no, no, no. I don’t think you’re comprehending how big a star this guy is, Mom.”
Q: Who is your single favorite point guard?
A: Diana Taurasi [of the Phoenix Mercury]. She played with incredible joy, but she was one of the best pressure players I’ve ever seen. No moment too big. In addition to being the best women’s player I ever watched and called, she also happens to be one of the great teammates I ever saw.
Q: LeBron James.
A: I just feel lucky to have witnessed one of the all-time greatest to ever play, and to have a front-row seat.
Q: What is your most moving postgame interview?
A: I distinctly remember the title LeBron won in Cleveland [in 2016]. I am the mother of a son who is about to turn 26. So when LeBron broke down after winning that title for Cleveland, he dropped to the floor, and he is crying so hard that his shoulders are shaking. And watching that man experience that level of emotion, I got choked up. I got overwhelmed watching this man be overwhelmed by emotion. Nobody caught it except those who know me and know my voice.
Q: How nervous were you when you became the first woman to announce a Big East men’s basketball game [Pittsburgh at Providence]?
A: Pretty nervous (laugh). I like to say I go at my job really from the perspective of a fan. I am mindful of the fact that I played women’s college basketball, that I coached women’s college basketball. I’ve been able to push that into the deep recesses of my mind, so it doesn’t scare me. But I was nervous, definitely.
Q: You were the first woman to do a Knicks game on TV, in Milwaukee filling in for Clyde Frazier.
A: Terry [Stotts, Bucks assistant coach] gave me absolutely everything. And then [then-Knicks head coach] Jeff Van Gundy heard about it and Jeff said, “Bring her to me, and I’ll talk to her.” So the graciousness of those two men, to be willing to share that kind of behind-the-scenes material was incredibly helpful. And then I’ll never forget a friend of mine scared the hell out of me, because before the game he said to me: “Oh my God, how are you going to fill in for Clyde Frazier?!”
Q: You were the first woman to be a full-time NBA analyst on national TV, with ESPN.
A: From a work-life balance standpoint, and from the ability to just walk in on one sport is 1,000 times better than the schedule I used to keep for sure. It’s a better way to do my job, is to focus on one.
Q: What was it like becoming a sideline reporter?
A: The two people I called were Al Trautwig and Michele Tafoya. And it’s funny because Al Trautwig gave me the single best piece of advice that anyone ever gave me on sideline reporting. Al said to me, “Doris, there are going to be nights you get off the air in that role, and you’re going to think that you helped elevate the telecast, you helped the fan enjoy that game more, and you’re going to feel really good about what transpired from your position. But there are going to be far more nights where you get off the air and you think to yourself, “Oh my goodness, they paid me to do that. I did all that work and yet the game did not dictate that I could really get in as much as I would have hoped.”
Q: Who are broadcasters and announcers you’ve admired?
A: I love Jay Bilas, I’ve always been a huge fan of Jay. … I’ll tell you what’s been a helluva ride for me is for over a decade to have been with Mike [Breen], Jeff [Van Gundy] and Mark [Jackson]. I am incredibly biased, but I would put those three gentlemen in a booth against any booth in any sport at any time.
Q: Best college women’s team?
A: Sue Bird’s senior year, [UConn, 2001-02].
Q: What was your first WNBA game?
A: I only got the radio job the first year at MSG. And they could have tipped the ball up for the first game — Sparks versus Liberty in L.A. in the Forum — and Val Ackerman’s at the center circle with Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, and I’m in tears. Gus Johnson is looking at me like, “Oh my God, are you gonna make it?” I’ll never forget that moment. Women’s professional basketball was a real thing in the United States of America. It had the backing of the NBA and David Stern, and there was this commitment, and I truly was in awe that women were being given this opportunity, and it felt like a pivotal moment not only in women’s sports history. … I have a daughter who could not care less about sports. But I knew that that was an important moment for my daughter. It was significant.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: Ina and Jeffrey [Garten] from “Barefoot Contessa,” Drake.
Q: Favorite movie?
A: “Laws of Attraction.”
Q: Favorite actor?
A: Marlon Brando.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Meryl Streep.
Q: Favorite meal?
A: Fried chicken from Gus’s [in Memphis] and mashed potatoes.
Q: In the early years, you needed thick skin, right?
A: I could feel some skepticism when I started calling men’s college basketball, and then obviously the advent of social media made people’s access to you a little bit more direct. You can say don’t pay attention to it all you want, [but] if you’re in the medium, you’re going to see it, it’s inevitable. I’ve had some hate mail sent to my house that was a little bit disturbing. It’s going back probably 10 years now, but yeah, all of us want to be liked. All of us want to be considered good at our job, that’s human nature.
Q: Why is being an inspiration to women important to you?
A: I didn’t enter the business thinking that this was the outcome. It gives me incredible joy to think that if somehow I have made the path easier for someone coming behind me, there’s nothing more meaningful that I could have ever done.
Q: What do you hope viewers say about Doris Burke?
A: I hope that they see that you could feel my joy about the game of basketball. That they somehow felt the joy I felt in being there.
Q: What is it like today being Doris Burke?
A: Oh my God, I’m having a ball, are you kidding me? I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I’ve got two incredibly nice, healthy children, and I get to be around the game I love and around extraordinary colleagues. I’m lucky. I’m so lucky.