During the NBA offseason, ESPN, as it often does, reorganized its extensive team of analysts and announcers.
But in a surprising move, ESPN dumped Jeff Van Gundy then Mark Jackson from their longtime posts as lead game analysts alongside play-by-play announcer Mike Breen, setting the stage for Doris Burke and ex-NBA coach Doc Rivers to take over.
On Wednesday night, Burke will begin her post as the network’s first female No. 1 TV analyst by calling the Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks. Next summer, she will make more sports media history as the first female TV analyst to call the NBA Finals.
Over the decades, ESPN has cycled through dozens of personalities on “NBA Countdown,” including ex-analysts Bill Simmons and Magic Johnson and former hosts Maria Taylor and Michelle Beadle.
But ESPN brass had never messed with its No. 1 NBA broadcast team. Before they were pink-slipped, Van Gundy and Jackson had called a record 17 and 15 NBA Finals, respectively, with Breen.
Burke, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, has covered the NBA and WNBA as an analyst and sideline reporter for over 30 years at ESPN. Now, she will be part of the network’s new broadcast “A” team, along with Rivers, Breen, and sideline reporter Lisa Salters.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Burke and ESPN.
The network has tipped off billion-dollar negotiations to retain the NBA media rights it has held with TNT since 2002.
Plenty of potential suitors are eager for a crack at the league, ranging from streaming giant Amazon Prime Video to former broadcast partner NBC Sports.
ESPN’s head of event and studio production David Roberts said Burke deserved the promotion.
She was previously the network’s first female NBA game analyst in 2017. Three years later, she became the first woman to call the NBA Finals on ESPN Radio.
“People will say, well, this is a trailblazing move. You’re absolutely right. But the only way that any trailblazer is successful, whether it’s an African American or a woman or anyone, is based on the results and their performance,” noted Roberts on a press call. “And Doris Burke’s performance and results are unprecedented and unmatched in this industry.”
Her new colleague Rivers has admired her TV work from afar. “I like how serious she is about basketball. Loves it; it’s her passion,” said Rivers, who led the Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship.
As NJ.com noted, Burke was the first woman to announce a Big East men’s basketball game on TV, the first woman to do a New York Knicks game on TV or radio, and the first to become an NBA analyst on national TV.
Sports TV colleagues like Bonnie Bernstein widely respect her.
“Doris is a glowing example of what ‘the possible’ looks like when your passion drowns out noise,” said Bernstein, the former ESPN and CBS Sports reporter turned founder of Walk Swiftly Productions.
“From the gritty, youngest-of-eight growing up in Manasquan, New Jersey — a basketball junkie in an era when playing sports wasn’t a ‘cool’ thing for girls to do — to this. Sitting courtside as an NBA Finals analyst. It’s just the latest trail Doris has blazed in a career full of them.”
But it’s not easy being Burke, either.
Every time the pioneering analyst calls a game, there’s the usual legion of online critics screaming how dare she, a woman, call a men’s pro sport.
Bomani Jones told Front Office Sports that Burke has an ace up her sleeve. Unlike NFL or MLB analysts, critics can’t wail “she never played” the game.
As a player, Burke was an All-American point guard at Providence College. She left the school as the all-time assists leader of the Friars women’s basketball team — and was twice named to the All-Big East team.
“Basketball is not gender-specific,” Jones added. “Doris Burke played basketball. Doris Burke has been around basketball. There is no plausible argument that anybody can make for why a woman would not be as capable of doing this job than any man would be.”
“With Doris, there’s zero novelty factor involved in her doing basketball. She is a basketball player who knows a lot about basketball; talking about basketball. Her name just happens to be Doris. That’s it,” said the host of “The Right Time with Bomani Jones.”
“There’s nothing else you can point to. And so I think that’s going to make it for her, a very easy transition into this, at least in terms of dealing with the Neanderthals who always struggle with women getting to places that they’re not used to.”
Of course, Burke’s turn on the NBA Finals will be short-lived if ESPN cannot maintain its media rights.
She previously told Front Office Sports she’s “pulling like hell” for ESPN to retain the NBA’s top broadcast package, including exclusive NBA Finals coverage on sister Disney network ABC.
ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said the network has already opened negotiations with the NBA.
“We have a fantastic relationship with the league. It’s critical that we get this deal done,” Pitaro said at the IMG Summit at Soho Farmhouse outside London. “We see the value in that property across our various platforms — not just ABC, of course, ESPN. We expect that deal to be much more forward-thinking, forward-leaning and progressive, so we expect a significant direct-to-consumer component.”