NBA analyst Doris Burke reflects on a career of firsts.
It wouldn't be a stretch to confer Jackie Robinson–type status on ESPN's Doris Burke.
As a pioneering color commentator on basketball, she has shattered the notion that only men can offer insightful in-game analysis.
In 2017, ESPN made her the first woman to land a regular position on a national network as an NBA analyst. Last year she was inducted into the media wing of the prestigious Basketball Hall of Fame. But Burke is glad that back in 2000 — when she became the first woman to provide commentary for a New York Knicks game on radio and television — she didn't fully consider the social gravity of her work.
"If I had ever viewed it through that prism, I would have been scared to death to call the games," she says. "It could have been scary to consider what the reaction might be if I hadn't done a good job or had made an egregious mistake."
Burke is proud of the work ethic she brings to her profession; she displayed the same passion as a star point guard for her Providence College teams in the 1980s. On nights off during the season, she can often be found studiously breaking down several televised basketball games.
Men's and women's college basketball, the NBA and the women's pro league, the WNBA — Burke has been a commentator and sideline reporter for them all. There was a time when she worked nearly year-round, covering 85 to 100 games a year.
Today, the NBA is her sole focus, which allows her a few months off in the summer to recharge and pursue outside interests at her Rhode Island home, like gardening, reading and golf. Burke feels privileged to be part of what she believes is the most progressive sports league in the country. The NBA has hired women referees as well as a female assistant coach and a female assistant general manager.
She's also benefited from the public and private support of some of the NBA's great players and coaches. "The way LeBron James and other players positively interact with me has probably changed the opinion of the casual viewer toward me," she observes. "If the best players and coaches are supportive, it makes it easier for the fans to accept me."
Burke, who began her broadcast career doing radio commentary for the Providence women's team in 1990, has always been admired for her basketball acumen. But when she started to reveal her lighter side, her career turned a corner.
"There was a time when I felt I had to prove my basketball knowledge. So the first 10 to 15 years of my career, I didn't allow myself to relax and enjoy the games the way I do now. I want viewers to enjoy the game and to feel as if they are sitting right there with me."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019