The NBA Playoffs Need More Doris Burke

From: Vice Sports

By: Miles Wray

May 5, 2015

Gone are those innocent days, weeks into the past now, when we could just kick back for a few hours with an NBA game that was charmingly inconsequential. We have little time or inclination to mourn this, for the most part, because every darn contest is precariously loaded with import and laden with unripe #takes at this time of year. This can give a night gravity, but it can also make the overall experience assaultive, and turn the postseason into a screamy echo chamber. This is all the more reason to mourn another epoch that we’re about to leave behind: the wonderful days of Doris Burke doing color commentary on ESPN broadcasts.

There may or may not be an official depth chart somewhere in H.R. at the Bristol headquarters, but it appears that ESPN regards Burke as a second- or third-stringer—someone to be deployed somewhere in the chaos of the first round but then relegated to sideline or halftime duty as the playoffs go deeper and the number of assignments become fewer. They’re wrong about this. Alongside ancient treasure chest of wisdom Hubie Brown, Burke is the best that ESPN has, and about as good as anyone currently talking during NBA games.
If this year is anything like the previous, ESPN’s non-Doris shoutsters will spend the remainder of the playoffs grumpily positing outlandish hypothetical rule changes, roasting the minute shortcomings of every non-champion (and the eventual champion, too), and haggling endlessly over the grammatical, philosophical, and metaphysical meanings of the “V” in “MVP.” That and whatever the hell Jon Barry is on about. Which means that I, and likely many of you, will eventually resign, hit the mute button, and cue up a rotation of ambient music to re-settle the soul while the game silently rolls on.

The skeptic might point out that, having never been employed in the NBA, that Burke is not qualified to pass judgment on the games transpiring in front of her. But Burke’s previous experience—a distinguished college career, which took place when there was no WNBA to jump to—makes her the best type of qualified for the job. Once the headset goes on, it seems remarkably difficult for pros-turned-analysts to avoid turning into henpecking perfectionists, no matter how inconsequential their past résumés. The modern broadcast, at least when not in the hands of its best practitioners, defaults to the unrelentingly critical—belittling the legacies of even the victors in the name of context, hammering away at even picayune mistakes and calling it analysis.

As a veteran of elite athletics, Burke is uniquely positioned to know the physical and spiritual demands of competing at an elite level; what sets her apart is her ability to communicate it without her peers’ macho hangups or high-horsery. As a result, a Burke broadcast carries a tone of appreciation for the nightly marvels that take place on NBA hardwood, without sacrificing any analytical rigor in the moment. It’s both brighter and smarter, and, maybe most importantly, more fun than the usual. These are the best basketball players in the world, remember?
Burke’s first-round assignment, Washington Wizards and the Toronto Raptors, was a series that even those own teams’ most optimistic fans understood to have no significant bearing on who will eventually be crowned NBA Champion. It’s easy—tempting, and not fully wrong—to dismissively label the Wizards as “bulky, square-shaped veterans” and the Raptors as “spindly jump shooters.” This is not Burke’s style, and she gave life to an otherwise lifeless walkover of a series by giving its component teams and players their due.

When a typical sports-watching day is spent inspecting split ends on three MVP candidates with a magnifying glass, it’s easy to forget that DeMar DeRozan possesses dastardly offensive invention that he puts to use for a nightly 20 points, that Nenê is a survivor of ten thousand bone-rattling bumps in the post but still eagerly anticipates the next, that Bradley Beal, as a 21-year-old amongst veterans, has had to rapidly mature in remarkable ways as a person in order to make his notable contributions as a player. No team is quite as boring as it appears, provided that the broadcaster discussing them actually finds them interesting.

These players all have their flaws, sure. The series almost certainly did not produce the next NBA Champion. But damned if it wasn’t enjoyable to watch these games, in large part because Doris and her affable play-by-play partner Mark Jones set the stakes in the right place and never made it seem anything less than meaningful, lively, and fun. What else, really, is the goal?

Is it sexism that’s preventing Burke from getting the call for the premier assignments? I don’t know. I hope not. I’m sure Burke, after decades in the industry, has dealt with plenty. What certainly doesn’t help is when Burke’s own colleagues don’t have to break character in order to boss her around on-air while she’s on sideline duty, nyuck-nyucking like they just asked their girlfriends to make them a sandwich:

There will be some wonderful playoff games in the next few weeks, and this is a thing to be thankful for. They would be that much better if Doris Burke was calling more of them. Free Doris.