While vacationing in Italy this summer with friends, longtime ESPN and ABC sportscaster Doris Burke got a call from her agent, Matt Kramer. After a personnel shake-up, she was being considered for the networks’ lead NBA broadcast team. Burke, 58, is well into an accolade-filled broadcasting career that has seen her call college, WNBA, and NBA games, but the new position would represent a certain kind of valedictory achievement. It would also make Burke the first woman to call a championship on television for one of the major North American sports leagues. Suddenly the countryside views of Lake Garda took a back seat to a possible promotion.
A little while later, as Burke recently recalled on a Zoom, ESPN’s head of event and studio production, Dave Roberts, made it official: He called her to see if she wanted the gig. Burke says she accepted right away: “How are you going to turn down that seat?”
When the season officially tips off later this month, Burke will join fellow analyst Doc Rivers, play-by-play announcer Mike Breen, and sideline reporter Lisa Salters as part of the network’s A-team.
Not that such historical moments or bigger pictures were on her mind when we spoke. Burke is, above all, a basketball head, and she was eager to talk about the general state of the league. A wide smile crept up on her face, despite the common cold she was combatting, when the subject came up. She loves the offseason trades made by the new-look Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks in the East. In the West, she had recently watched a pair of rookies, the San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chet Holmgren, face off in the preseason, and expressed amazement. “It’s not just the skill and size they have,” Burke said, “it’s the way they went at each other in a very competitively appropriate way.”
Burke has become a household name in sports media through her clear-eyed ardor for a game she’s known as a player—she earned All-American honors as a point guard at Providence College—and as a commentator with more than three decades in the broadcast booth. She’s held virtually every on-air role in the medium: working in radio, reporting on the sidelines, calling college and WNBA games. The style of basketball can change from league to league, but the elements—ball movement, a player’s wingspan, shotmaking—remain the same. As an announcer Burke is always interested in the fundamentals of the game. (She’s a stickler for poor body language.) “Get me talking about ball, Jayson, and I go on,” she would later tell me. (Burke is also a grandmother, and says her grandson and son-in-law often watch the games she calls.)
Especially when covering the NBA, Burke has often been the lone woman on the broadcast. She’s a trailblazer, sure, but above all she’s a joy to listen to: She is prepared. She announces games with an economical passion. It’s all in the drama of the game, but it’s not dramatic.
Burke isn’t alone in her new endeavor, which started Friday in Los Angeles for a preseason game between the Lakers and Warriors, especially since she has Hall of Fame announcer Breen and coach and veteran player Rivers with her. Burke’s known Breen since 1997, when she subbed in for his regular partner, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, on the Knicks’ home broadcast. “He’d probably hate me using this word, but he is an iconic broadcaster,” Burke said. “He and I have not only established a great professional rapport, but we’re also very good friends. Hopefully that facilitates good stuff on air.”
When we spoke, Burke was focused on that chemistry. Announcing basketball is something like playing basketball: Members of a broadcast team must know one another’s tendencies—when to play off of the last thing your partner said, and when to get out of the way. It’s a dance of wills, an ability to share the spotlight and keep the pace quick and the direction forward. Burke isn’t worried, though. Rivers contacted her right away to say that he thought they would be great together. “You know, we have to get to know one another. We will follow Mike’s lead, [but] we have to start building, and that starts Friday,” Burke told me. “Where are our opportunities? How do our styles blend? What’s our information like?”
When she was a sideline reporter, Burke would sometimes have nights where, in her own private thoughts, she’d express wonder that she was getting paid to do this. It wasn’t just the coaches, who could be ornery about in-game interviews. It was also the fact that some consider sideline reporting an inherently ancillary part of the broadcast. Burke found it to be harder than in-booth work, which is centered around an intrinsic knowledge of the game. With announcing, especially on the first team, Burke can impact us, the viewers: She can have a say in our enjoyment. “You roll with it. Because the bottom line is: We get paid to watch sports,” Burke said, flashing that wide smile. “How freaking great is that?”