New Jersey’s Doris Burke takes the point at ESPN’s NBA Countdown

By October 29, 2013Uncategorized

Oct 29, 2013
By Dave D’Alessandro
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It’s time to draw a deep breath here, because we have news to share that may disappoint some basketball viewers – notably those who have been conditioned to crave that shrieking cross-talk from a roundtable of beered-up frat boys in order to feel plugged into the NBA zeitgeist.

Here’s the news: One of those shows is about to get infinitely smarter, because ESPN has assigned a distinctive talent to host its pregame show, NBA Countdown, on Wednesday nights.

And we don’t say Doris Burke is distinctive because her voice is an octave higher than the male variety, we say it because we’re always a little surprised whenever a network actually selects the best man (person . . . whatever) for the right job.

“She is as good a basketball broadcaster as anyone in the business – not the best woman, the best broadcaster,” says Jeff Van Gundy.

Yes, the coach is trying to get an early start on his preseason list of earnest proclamations here, but in this case JVG may be right. The job in question requires a traffic cop, a communicator, an adult voice that moderates the discussion with an emphasis on substance over style. It needs. . . .how best to put it?

“A point guard,” says Mike Breen.

OK, go with that, Professor Play-By-Play.

“She was a standout point guard at Providence and she is still the ultimate point guard and team player now,” says the voice of the NBA. “She does whatever is needed to make the team better. Analyst, she’s done it. Sideline, done. Studio, she’s done it. She shows no ego, and it’s never about her – only the team. That’s why Doris will excel in this role.”

As you can tell, Burke has many advocates, especially in our precinct, with her folks and most of her family still concentrated near her hometown of Manasquan. But it’s more than that: In her 10 years covering the NBA at ESPN, the Jersey girl always struck us as the archetype for this particular task, as few combine her technical knowledge with a clarity of expression.

Now she just has to figure how she wants it to play out, while sitting alongside two very strong personalities, Jalen Rose and Avery Johnson.

Fear not, she’ll get it.

“I’ve spent a lot of time visiting with people who do the job already,” Burke says in a phone chat from Rhode Island. “Mike Tirico, Rece Davis, Chris Fowler, and friends at MSG, where I did my first NBA games (as a Knicks fill-in analyst in 2000). This is a completely new position for me, and I have to learn the mechanics of hosting and being a commentator.

“So I’m not quite sure yet what my approach will be. The one thing I will say is, I’m comfortable in my ability to talk about the game, and comfortable in my ability to ask good questions to solicit good responses. And the best part is that Avery and Jalen have so much to offer. So I’m going into this following Mike Breen’s advice: We’re there to talk basketball, something we all do every day. No reason to over-think it.”

There’s no reason to be overworked, either, but this mother of two college-aged kids does it out of habit. She’ll still do sidelines (including the Nets-Miami opener), her usual quota of analyst shifts (including the Nets-Bulls on Christmas day), and a full NCAA slate (both men and women).

So she’s already as visible as anyone doing the NBA on ABC/ESPN, and perhaps her greatest achievement is that she’s made gender irrelevant. See? It took us until the 15th paragraph to mention that. It not need be mentioned at all; we just thought it was interesting that someone who fell into broadcasting by accident is now so crucial to the network’s NBA presentation.

It was John Marinatto’s idea, actually: Burke left coaching in 1990 to raise her kids, but the Providence AD talked the former Big East star into a radio gig – she did play-by-play for the women, color for the men – and since that career launch, she’s worked at virtually every network in the East.

And every step of the way, she’s demonstrated a point guard’s sensibility toward the game, whether she’s alongside Dan Shulman or sticking a mike in Gregg Popovich’s mug between quarters.

Speaking of which: We still remember the night Pop finally gave up treating her like a piñata — as he does with every other between-quarters interloper – because her questions disarm his snark. The Spurs coach prefaced one answer with a simple, “Doris, you’re a basketball person, you’ll get this. . . .”

It was a public validation that Burke says “did more for my confidence than Pop will ever know.”

“I know there will be even staunch viewers that don’t like me, no matter what role I’m in, because our business is a very subjective one,” ESPN’s new point guard says. “Some people just naturally relate more to one than another. But one thing I tell young broadcasters is that you have to have a thick skin, because you’re not going to please everyone. Be yourself, and let your talent and preparation carry you. And be as lucky as me.”