Doris Burke Redefines a Woman’s Voice in Sports

Ros Gold-Onwude

A fateful family move from Long Island to Jersey Shore plopped a seven-year-old Doris Burke across the street from her destiny. The passion that fired what would one day be an industry leading, barrier breaking and all-star broadcasting career started, first, with access. “My love for sports started when I was seven. We moved next door to a court and from there it evolved naturally. As a kid, if you live next door to a park, you’ll play at the park. I played football, kickball; if it could be played, I played it. I gravitated towards basketball. I would spend hours out there at the park, dribbling and shooting, even if I was the only one there, “said Burke.

Doris enjoyed basketball at the park but found her weekly inspiration watching college basketball games on television. “Back when I was a kid the only college basketball games were on Saturday afternoon. If you couldn’t watch on Saturday, you missed it. I would set my day up around watching the game. As soon as the game was over I would put on my purple jacket, run to the park, and pretend that I, little Doris, was a part of the game I had just watched,” she laughed.

The purple-jacketed kid from the park eventually went on to play elite level college basketball for Providence College as a member of the class of 1987. Burke won the college’s Female Athlete of the Year award and is tenth all time in scoring and second in assists. As her college career came to an end Doris considered her professional options in a pre-WNBA world. “I had the opportunity to go overseas when my career ended. I could’ve played in Ireland, but my career was stopped short. Our team was upset in the Big East tournament and we missed the NCAA tournament. We played three games in the WNIT in Amarillo, Texas. It was during the very last game that I blew out my knee,” she said, detailing the end of her career. “Instead of reconstructive surgery I went on to teach at a private school. I worked there for a year before my former coach gave me a call to join the coaching staff. While coaching I began to call games for the local Providence radio station. It was there that I started my broadcasting career,” Burke explained.

The summer of 1997 offered a new broadcasting opportunity for Doris Burke, still in the infant stages of her career. The WNBA began its inaugural season and Burke was the very first voice of the New York Liberty. “There is no value that I could put on my time with the New York Liberty. I will always be indebted to them. The opportunity helped me grow as a broadcaster,” Burke said.

While Burke was thankful for the career opportunities the WNBA and New York Liberty offered, she understood the impact of the league on girls and women in sports, including her own daughter. She recalls the very first WNBA game ever: New York at Lost Angeles. “I remember the start of the game; there was a lot of pomp and circumstance. It was all I could do to blink back tears. I was thrilled with the idea that women’s basketball was making a run for things in the U.S. I imagined what that first game meant for opportunities for women in sports, and I thought of what it meant for my daughter. I was so moved that my broadcasting partner at the time, Gus Johnson, took over as I absorbed the moment,” Burke paused and then continued with a laugh. “I was a new broadcaster at the time. I remember doing an interview with Rebecca Lobo. During the interview I had to stop tape, apologize and begin again!”

Burke remembers her time broadcasting for the New York Liberty fondly, “it’s a unique thing to broadcast for a team. It’s a rare moment as a sports journalist where you can root for a team because you are invested in the success of the organization. That’s one of the aspects I miss most- the level of investment.” Doris shared one of her top memories. “Of course I have to say T-Spoon’s “Big Shot” to extend the WNBA Finals”, she said, referring to Teresa Weatherspoon’s half court shot that forced a game three vs. the Houston Comets in the 1999 WNBA Finals.

Doris Burke went on to see a rapid rise in the sports broadcasting industry. She would serve as a sideline reporter, analyst and play-by-play broadcaster for NCAA men’s and women’s basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. While most women are delegated to the sideline in male sports, Burke was the first woman to call a Big East Conference men’s basketball game, the first woman to attain a men’s college basketball package and the first woman to call a New York Knicks game on radio and television. She would go on to be inducted into the Providence College Hall of Fame and into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, to win the USA Today’s Rudy Award for the Best New Face in Sports Television in 2003, and she recently was named a 2012 Silver Anniversary Award recipient.

As Burke’s star rose, she redefined the expectations for the voice of a woman in men’s sports, snapping gender barriers in her ascent. However, when barriers are broken, discomfort usually accompanies, and challenges outside of the normal demands of a tasking job lay ahead of Burke. When asked if she thought viewers of men’s basketball were more critical of her simply because she is a woman she confided, “yes, certainly. There is still a percentage of the population who objects to my presence simply because I am a woman. But I think that when the game is the conversation, gender goes out of the window. I believe in my ability but there are moments that help. For example, when (Dallas Mavericks Head Coach) Rick Carlisle says to me, ‘you do a phenomenal job’ or when (San Antonio Spurs Head Coach) Gregg Popovich says to me, ‘you’re a basketball mind, you understand.’ These are great compliments, those moments matter”, she explained.

Doris went on to declare, without hesitation, “I am not an exception. I believe there will be many more women, who are far more knowledgeable and talented than I am, working as analysts in men’s sports. My job is to make sure I don’t screw it up for them,” she joked. Burke outlined the blueprint to her success. Are there different rules for her as a female analyst in the men’s game? “That’s a good question. While I prepare exactly the same way for a men’s telecast as I would a women’s, I do have a different mindset. I am mindful of the fact that I have not coached in the NBA. I cannot put myself in the coach’s shoes. Still, regardless of the gender or level I’m covering, my goal is always to bring the viewer at home as close to the action as I am so fortunate to be.”

Despite her unprecedented success, Burke admitted there are still situations that make her uneasy. “There isn’t an NBA telecast where I’m not nervous. I did not play in the NBA. I did not coach in the NBA. There is a piece of me that is nervous every single time, particularly for NBA games.” There exist situations when she is sharply aware of her gender, including the moments she has to enter the locker rooms of male players. When asked if it is ever awkward to be in the guys’ locker room she replied, “I wish I could do my job without ever going into any locker room, men’s or women’s. The locker room is sacred ground.”

Part of realizing success and, certainly, barrier breaking is moving out of one’s comfort zone. Burke has figured out her own strategy for entering the male locker room and creating rapport with the players. Her approach is simple. “People tend to forget when they watch the games that these guys are human, with problems and joys like everyday people. I try to be mindful of their time, respectful of their pregame process and simply act as a human being. So much of life is about relationships”, she explained.

The lessons and skills Burke gained over the course of her career transcend industries. She offered advice on how women can gain respect in male dominated fields, “First, be professional. Meaning, how you dress, being on time, being early for every meeting, and being well prepared. It’s all about how you go about your business. You won’t be perfect, but I’ve learned people can accept mistakes if it’s clear that you’ve worked as hard as you can.”

As we neared the end of the interview Doris considered the point where her life path and career path intersect, and even, merge. She shared her passions, “I have two. First are my children. I have two kids. My daughter is in her second semester at Catholic (University) and my son is in his first semester at a local community college. The second is basketball. From age seven to now, basketball has shaped my life. Between those two passions, there is not a whole lot of time for anything else.”

As fierce as Burke is at getting the story from players of any gender on every level, she too, finds her self tripped up by the working-woman’s dilemma: balance. She described trying to balance the travel of her work life with her accessibility and presence at home with her kids. “The hardest part for me is leaving my kids. I travel a lot as a broadcaster, in two days, out two days. I think it was hardest on my son as he is younger. It was a little easier on my older daughter. It’s tough for kids. It’s tough for mothers. There is guilt that comes with being a working mother, not just for broadcasters, but for any mother trying to balance work and family. I am happy to say I’ve always made sure to be at my daughter’s plays- there are very few performances I’ve missed. I think that for any broadcaster, every career decision must be made while taking your full life into consideration. When you choose to take a certain number of broadcasts, or if you decide to stay local, it all is dependant on individual preferences and comfort levels.”

Doris Burke looked towards the future and contemplated what’s next. “I’ve thought of many things. Maybe I’ll become a high school teacher or a coach. I’ve also thought about teaching communication on a professional level. I think I have a lot to offer young men and women aspiring to work in journalism.”

So much of the woman Burke grew to be as an adult stemmed from the circumstances of her childhood. A seven-year-old girl’s access to a Jersey Shore park catalyzed her journey from shooting hoops at the playground to playing college basketball to shaking up the sports broadcasting industry. As a result Burke gravitates towards working with young people. “The thing I miss most is coaching. I miss the opportunity to have an impact on someone’s life. I could watch a kid change and grow as you work out with them. I would enjoy and take satisfaction in the process. I miss that, the opportunity to have an impact on kids’ lives.”

Regardless of her title on the court, be it basketball player, coach, or analyst, one thing is for sure. Doris Burke was here. She impacts young girls and women every time they turn on an NBA telecast to see her face and hear her voice.