One-on-One with Doris Burke

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor
Burke's got the veteran touch with ESPN.

Doris Burke is a versatile and veteran commentator who has called both men and women’s games for ESPN in the NCAA, WNBA, and NBA. She was most recently in Cleveland on February 4, working as a sideline reporter for the Los Angeles Lakers-Cavaliers game.

How would you assess the progress the Cavaliers have made from the beginning of the season until now?

They certainly seem to be a more cohesive unit since the Ricky Davis trade, roles seem to be more clearly defined, and guys are more comfortable in the things they’re being asked to do. Carlos Boozer has a presence about him each and every time he’s on the floor, and looks like a man with a purpose. He’s seem to know when and where he can get his stuff. With Eric Williams, you know he’s going to guard well on a nightly basis, and makes those little plays that don’t turn up in the box score—a solid screen to free someone else for a jumper or a roll of a screen that’s perfectly timed. LeBron James—with all the things that make him special—seems to be coming more into his on a night-in, night-out basis. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen too much of Dajuan Wagner, but I’m not sure where he is at this point, though.

How has Cleveland’s success directly fed fan enthusiasm this year?

I have to believe Cleveland fans are excited about the immediate future and the future in general. You’ve got guys who are very young and are able to be productive. I sensed inside The Gund, there was a palpable energy at the start of the game that you don’t see in a lot of NBA arenas. It’s like the fans are on the edge of their seats the moment they step inside the building.

Are the Cavaliers well-received around the league this season?

Cleveland’s road numbers indicate people around the country are anxious to seeing that team play. How much of that is the LeBron factor, I don’t know. At one point, I think the Cavaliers were second in the league in road attendance [The Cavaliers average 18,812, second in the league behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ 19,331.] There is so much enthusiasm around LeBron, so I think there’s a curiosity factor. Now answering that question, I can’t see those numbers dropping at all. On TV, only a handful of people can move the meter so to speak—only a handful of personalities can move ratings. LeBron seems to single-handedly affect those ratings.

Do you think LeBron should have been a reserve in the All-Star game?

As a fan, I wanted to see him play, just as I wanted to see Carmelo play. I would want him there.

Is the NBA trying to forge a rivalry between LeBron and Carmelo to boost ratings?

I don’t know if it’s the league, or the media. There’s was so much discussion around the picks in the draft with two guys who are so close in age, even though one of them spent a year in college. Naturally, I think the league wants to see rivalries develop. Think about some of the great ones historically: Bill [Russell] and Wilt [Chamberlin], and Michael [Jordan] and Larry [Bird]. Those have been the times when the league has been the most talked about. I think it’s natural for fans, the media, and the league to want that to develop. Whether it happens remains to be seen. What makes great rivalries is when individual or team matchups occur, something’s got to be on the line, and usually that’s a championship. For that rivalry to develop to its fullest, a championship has to be on the line.

Have your expectations of LeBron changed prior to the season’s start until now?

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect this kind of production. I think there was so much talk, and it was documented so well. Basically, every major media outlet had looked to see which high school athlete had done the best, from Kevin [Garnett] to Tracy [McGrady] to everyone in recent history that’s come out. LeBron has completely established a new boundary. At this point, he would become the new standard by which all players coming out of high school would be measured. To me, that’s almost an impossible to measure to. How many guys are going to react to the performance pressure on a night-in, night-out basis the way LeBron has? I can’t imagine too many guys with the physical and mental makeup to handle it the way he’s handled it.

A quote that intrigued me about LeBron came from Paul Silas, who said he believed LeBron could average a triple-double. How exciting would that be? The area where LeBron could have the most positive impact is the team. It’s not all about putting up 40 points. The man sees the floor, seems to think the game and play ahead, and is willing to involve people around him. That’s the most exciting thing. If he finds his teammates and his scoring average doesn’t come to define him, he’s got a chance to be really special if he can impact his teammates’ performance. Maybe he starts changing the way 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17-year olds start thinking. Maybe they’re on the court trying to make the passes he’s trying to make, not just the dunks and jumpers and spectacular SportsCenter type of plays. His unselfish nature is what I find the most exciting.

What has been your best and worst interviews this year?

The best interview was with Gary Williams of Maryland when they upset top-seeded Florida with a team that wasn’t expected to win games on the road because they had lost so much over the course over the last two years. It was the best simply because of the circumstances and Gary Williams is one of the most emotional, leave-it-on-the-court type of coaches. He was, as you would expect him to be after upsetting the number one team.

I don’t know if I’ve had a worst this year. When I started my career, I can say my interviewing skills were not my strong suit. I’ve been a color analyst for so long, and this sideline reporting is so new to me. There’s one story where we had to stretch time during one game, something like 20 minutes between games and we were filling that 20 minutes. I was supposed to keep this person on as long as I could, asked two questions, and froze because I couldn’t think of anything. I threw it back to my partner who absolutely saved the day and I don’t even remember even what she did, but she danced through the next four or five minutes, and carried us through to the next break. That was probably the most horrific and scariest times because I felt like I let everybody down.

Are you ever intimidated by any players or coaches?

For men’s college coaches through to the NBA, I think basketball people are basketball people. When you start talking the game, gender has gone out the window, and they just talk basketball with you. From that sense, no.

What changes have you made from being a color analyst to a sideline reporter?

The roles are completely different. As a color analyst, you are concerned with how a coach is running a particular defense or why they’re trapping a specific spot or what kinds of adjustments they’re making at halftime. You’re concerned about matchups about individuals or the team. From a sideline perspective, it’s much more story-driven. It’s much more concerned with athletes and showing the viewer a side of the athletes they didn’t know was there.

I remember the story with Cleveland where Eric Williams became a single-parent father where the mother of his son was murdered. Eric is such a positive person and has had such a positive impact on the Cleveland Cavaliers on the floor. It stems from the kind of man he is off the floor. And it’s nice to give the fans a perspective on who these athletes are. Sometimes, fans get caught up in the performance these players had on the court. The reality is that these are people with lives and characteristics, many of which are positive, and it’s nice to be able to share those kinds of things.