MANASQUAN — When Doris Burke was growing up in Manasquan, spending hours on the court near her home at Indian Hill Park, she dreamed of playing in the NBA.
Burke, who graduated from Manasquan High School in 1983, and now works for ESPN, never planned on being a pioneer when it comes to women in broadcasting, she claims it was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time.
However, she has become the first woman to work as an analyst for an NBA Conference final and NBA Championship on television and radio.
A passion for the sport of basketball and the ability to see the game like the point guard she was as a player, has also helped raise Burke to one of the top basketball analysts.
Burke is now back in Orlando, Fla, for the NBA Conference finals and finals, working the games for ESPN radio, after doing the games through the Eastern and Western Conference semifinals on television.
Burke arrived at the bubble on July 23, she did get away for a month and attended her daughter’s wedding, but arrived back in Orlando on Sept. 14.
“As soon as you land and check in you get tested,’’ said Burke. “You are required to go to your [hotel] room and quarantine until you get the results. I was given the all clear which was a relief.’’
Burke has a gold level credential for the bubble, which means she works 10 to 20 rows up, 75 feet from the court. She and her broadcast partner are separated by plexiglass and she is looking through plexiglass to the court. When the television shows the announcers before the game they turn and face away from the court.
“Each announcer has their own distinct space,’’ said Burke. “They built some structures that would be seats in the arena. It has been an interesting experience.’’
Burke learned quickly to take a little extra time when describing the action.
“Mike Breen and I had a couple of practice games and we looked over the location,’’ said Burke. “I decided to take a beat longer than is typical. One of the seeding games I misidentified a player. That causes a sleepless night for an announcer. It is unacceptable. They are unique circumstances, but let’s take one extra beat and make sure we are on point.’’
Burke can’t help but be impressed with how the NBA has been able to package its playoff games.
“It has been a monster logistical undertaking,’’ said Burke. “What has been achieved in game presentation and safety protocols through the start to the conference finals is nothing short of extraordinary. I know when I am in my hotel room watching games I am amazed at how lost in the game I become. Because my job is to broadcast games you recognize some of the difference, but when it is a one-possession game in the final moments, it has looked and felt like a normal NBA game.’’
Burke admits she does miss the interaction with fans at an NBA playoff game and the energy they help create in an arena.
“One of my favorite parts, being fortunate enough to do what I do is walk into an NBA arena and feel the air of excitement,’’ said Burke. “I have said on many occasions the tension is palpable. People say how the regular session is different from the playoffs with the intensity, the attention to detail with scouting, the nature of the physicality. The pressure feels completely different. I miss interacting with fans prior to tip, engaging with fans about a match up if their team is playing well or down in a series. You miss some of those normal parts of the game that is not possible in the pandemic.’’
Burke feels fortunate to be able to broadcast a historic season, but admits there have been challenges along the way.
“I know how fortunate I am to have a job,’’ said Burke. “I am not sure we have felt the full financial and emotional ramifications. I remember saying to my daughter at one point, it has been three weeks and the walls are closing in. I had the same Greek salad for lunch 35 days here.’’
As a media member who has a gold credential and does not have direct access to players and coaches, the precautions Sable-Burke had to follow going back into the bubble are not as strict as those with green credentials such as ESPN court-side reporter Rachel Nichols.
“We are fortunate with our credential level,’’ said Burke. “We don’t have to quarantine for seven days, someone like Rachel Nichols has been through two seven-day quarantines, which means you are in the same space for 24 hours a day.’’
Burke’s ‘escape,’ in the Bubble has been on the golf course.
“One thing that is particularly good for my mental health is they have a really good golf course,’’ said Burke. “Even those who don’t play are on the driving range smacking balls.’’
It is all worth it for Burke.
“It is unusual,’’ said Burke. “I do feel fortunate, we are documenting history.’’
Burke can appreciate the sacrifice the players and coaching staff are making to make the NBA playoffs work in the ‘Bubble,’ in Orlando, Florida.
“It is a huge sacrifice,’’ said Burke. “I say to people all the time imagine being away from your family for that long. These guys had it to the day. We had a zoom call with a coach this morning of the game. Michael Malone [Denver Nuggets coach] was saying it had been 69 days since I saw my wife and children. These challenges with the players and staff are real.’’
Burke knows it will be a well-earned NBA Championship.
“I am thrilled that these players have an opportunity to pursue what they work so hard for and I reject the notion this championship will be less valuable than any other. The grind here is realy with players and coaches.’’
A WARRIOR CONNECTION
Burke never intended to have a career in broadcast journalism when she left Manasquan for Providence College. She thought her path would be in coaching and teaching and she was on her way as an assistant coach at Providence when she got her first broadcasting opportunity.
She was asked to broadcast Providence women’s games on the radio, she was good, it led to Big East games before the start of the WNBA in 1997 opened more doors.
Burke worked WNBA games for ESPN and New York Liberty games for Madison Square Garden Network, working for MSG she became the first woman to announce a New York Knicks game.
The trajectory continued and now Burke is a fixture at the NBA playoffs.
It was several years ago when Manasquan basketball player Dara Mabrey was signing her letter of intent to play college basketball when she said the example she wanted to follow was Doris Burke, a Manasquan graduate, a record-setting player in college and a barrier-breaking basketball analyst.
“Over the course of time women come up to me and say thank you,’’ said Burke. “That warms my heart. If in some way my career path makes it easier for a woman behind me, nothing gives me greater joy, but that was not my intention. I don’t want to say I fell into my life, but it was not something I dreamed of.
I have said a million times how lucky I feel. I have been playing, coaching or watching basketball since I was seven years old. I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate. I have had some intrepid bosses. A change in society takes place when different people participate. I have been fortunate in timing they were willing to have faith in me and make those choices.’’