Doris Burke has been calling basketball games since 1990, hopping around the NBA, the WNBA and women’s and men’s college basketball. But she’s been involved with the game since way before then, leaving the Providence Friars as the team’s all-time leader in assists (she’s now second in assists all-time and eighth in scoring all-time).
Burke’s been playing ball since she was seven and she’s developed an expert-level knowledge of the game that she puts on display every time she steps in the booth to call a game. The next time you’ll hear her is on Christmas Day, when she’s behind the mic for the Wizards -Celtics game. We caught up with Burke about that game, how far women have come in broadcasting, and about the influence of LeBron James.
SLAM: What was going through your head during your postgame interview with LeBron? You spoke to him right after he won the Cavs their first championship.
Doris Burke: Well, I’m going to admit something to you that I probably shouldn’t: I’m human. Obviously we’re supposed to be completely neutral—and I am neutral, I don’t root—but when LeBron went back to Cleveland, and he broke down and cried on the court… I’m a woman who’s a mother of two children including a young son. As LeBron broke down and cried, I got choked up. I’m not supposed to do that. Only my closest friends heard the hitch in my voice when I interviewed him postgame. It wasn’t because I was rooting for him, and I could not help but be caught up in the incredible emotion of LeBron. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking but him being that moved, moved me.
LeBron James has probably provided me some of the most memorable interviewing opportunities I’ve had. He experiences this incredible level of, maybe hatred’s too strong of a word, but there was raw emotion when he left Cleveland for Miami. I was standing there watching the failure against Dallas and then ultimately his first championship. And then also the interview I was fortunate to do after he won the championship when he went back to Cleveland. That emotion just poured off of him where he broke down and cried.
SLAM: It seems like every year gets more and more dramatic and there are more and more fans and more haters. Why do you think the game’s growing so much?
DB: I think LeBron James has had a profound influence on the level of interest. LeBron is one of the seminal players in the NBA’s history. He has gotten to a place where whether you believe it or not, some are starting to consider “was Michael better or is LeBron better?” I don’t even like the discussion as to who’s better. What I do like is people are recognizing this once-in-a-generation talent that we have in LeBron James. Here was this 18-year-old who everybody thought was predestined to become one of the greats. He gets out of the gates in his early years and exceeds expectation, which is truly rare. And then you have him grinding it in Cleveland, failing time after time. He finally makes the decision to go to Miami. Throughout the course of my time at the NBA, he has been a central figure. That’s compelling to people.
SLAM: He’s really matured into this amazing figure. He’s unstoppable on the court, of course, but now he’s politically active.
DB: I’d be interested to know what the politically, socially active former athletes feel about LeBron. I would assume they’re encouraged by his willing participation in the issues of the day. I work with an African-American producer and he played basketball at Stanford in the 70s. And he was coming off an era where he saw so many athletes participate in society. Over the years as he and I grew in our friendship, he said to me “I miss those days where athletes were participating.”
SLAM: You’ve been very active and outspoken in making sure that women are getting their opportunities in broadcasting NBA games. Are things trending in the right direction, finally?
DB: I think we will look back at this particular moment in time and realize that we experienced a change in the level of acceptance towards women. I can feel it personally. Whether I’m walking to an arena or leaving an arena, what really puts a smile on my face is that the younger generation of men consider it normal that I sit in the analyst chair. They’re not surprised by it, they’re completely comfortable with it. There was a time where if you were a viewer and you heard me in the analyst chair, it was a little bit foreign. It makes me smile. There are more quality women analysts than probably the general public [is] aware of. These are passionate, knowledgeable basketball people trying to make their way in the industry.
SLAM: How aware are you of the impact you’ve had and the inspiration you provide?
DB: I don’t know that I’m aware of it. It is incredibly nice and heartwarming for me to have people think well of my work. Whether they’re inside the game, the coaches and players I cover, or the fans. I don’t know how to describe it other than heartwarming that people think well of my work. To be honest with you, every time I step on the air, I’m still a bit nervous. It’s probably silly, it’s been over 25 years.
SLAM: That speaks to how much it means to you and how passionate you are about the game. When did you first fall in love with hoops?
DB: The game of basketball has a been a part of my life since I was 7. When I was a kid we moved from Long Island, NY, to the Jersey Shore and literally right next to my house was a park with a full court. I picked up the ball at 7, started dribbling around that court with the chainlink net and really haven’t put it down since. I think it does help when you pick up a game early in life to understand the nuance of it. It’s been my great love.
SLAM: And now you get to call the League’s Christmas Day games. How are you getting ready for that matchup?
DB: Two weeks out I’ll always search out Washington-Boston storylines. Just try to immerse myself in that. That’s the start of my day. I have a news editor and I have a research department who send information about the game and the two teams to the announce teams a couple of days before the game. We have this new technology called Second Spectrum. I believe 28 of the 30 NBA teams use it for their own purposes. I have access to that same information.