Here’s a story that most Rhode Islanders know- Providence College’s men’s basketball team was counted out in 1987. Led by guard Billy Donovan, who was deemed “too large” by some, the Friars performed relatively well in the regular season, and ended up becoming a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. From there, PC went on a run, upsetting Alabama and then the heavily-favored Georgetown to make the Final Four. Here’s one thing you may not know about that team- Billy Donovan was considered only the second-best guard in the Class of 1987.
“Every time I see Billy nowadays, I never let him forget it,” said Doris Burke, the starting point guard for the PC women’s team that year.
When Burke left PC, she began an illustrious and historic career. Without any kind of communications degree, she became a pioneer for women in sports journalism and is one of the NBA’s most well-known sideline reporters. Everybody loves Burke- and they have since she broke into the business in 1990. Drake even wore a shirt on “Drake Night” in Toronto two years ago to honor her. She is friends with seemingly everyone in the NBA.
Burke returned to PC last year to be honored for the 100th anniversary of the college.
Life in the NBA is hard, and Burke has been living it for quite a while now. However, her worst stretches have come recently. “From October to June, I basically have no life outside basketball,” she told me. In January of 2016, she was on the road for 18 of the 31 days in the month. Burke covers the NBA as well as men’s and women’s college basketball, and her insane schedule reflects that. She had to leave PC shortly after her ceremony to cover the UConn women’s team- and had already spent the week doing NBA games for ESPN.
Someone who didn’t know much about reporting might think that Burke and other broadcasters don’t have to prepare much to do what they do. However, Burke was only unprepared for one assignment throughout her career- one where she was going to be covering a game as the sideline reporter. While Burke and former Celtics head coach and then-commentator Doc Rivers made it to the stadium on time, their play-by-play analyst didn’t. As such, Burke had to do play-by-play alongside Doc- while a role she had done before, it was her first time doing it in the NBA. Preparation as a sideline reporter is much different than preparation as a play-by-play announcer.
Preparation is crucial for Burke- and changes depending on her job. If she’s broadcasting, she will watch game tape of players and find out everything she can about them. “Anywhere I can glean information, I get that information and try to put it into my broadcast. Just one simple interesting fact about somebody can keep viewers and help ratings.” If she’s reporting, her job requires “a lot more reading, a lot more talking to the players to try to find out their personal story.”
One of the strengths of the NBA is that it lets players be themselves. In a league with a ton of characters, Burke’ most memorable interview was with former LA Laker Metta World Peace. After initially planning to interview Pau Gasol following the Lakers’ 2010 NBA championship, one of her higher-ups suggested she interview World Peace instead, much to her shock. The moment she opened the interview with Metta, he started off by saying “Wow, I’d like to thank my psychiatrist…” This was the only time throughout her illustrious career that Burke was ever held speechless.
However, her favorite interview is none other than LeBron James. As one of the NBA’s biggest stars, LeBron is a common interviewee and is always very mannered. “LeBron,” Burke said, “just invests himself into your questions and will wait a little bit just to think of a good answer.”
At the end of the 2016 NBA Finals, which his Cleveland Cavaliers won for the first time in their history, Burke had to be an impartial field reporter. However, when she looked at LeBron, with tears of joy running down his face, she saw her 22-year old-son. “Just in the way that he totally invested himself in his work,” she said, “it was hard to cover without getting emotional.” However, she kept it together and got a good interview with LeBron.
Burke has had a long and successful career in the NBA. She succeeded in an area that no woman had before, becoming the first woman to cover the Big East and one of the first women to broadcast sports in general. She’s looked upon very fondly by her audience and is a name known across the country, and with a long and illustrious broadcasting and reporting career, has a lot of stories to tell. We could all learn a little from Doris Burke.
Back in 2017 I had the opportunity to interview world-renowned NBA broadcaster Doris Burke. After talking with her and formally interviewing her, I wrote this story. It was the second story I ever wrote that was published in The Lion’s Roar.