Doris Burke makes history after calling NBA Finals

Doris Burke has been a mentor to many female analysts and announcers.

However, it will be one of the announcers who helped pave the way for Burke to eventually become the first woman to serve as a game analyst on TV for a championship final in one of the four major professional U.S. sports leagues who will be watching with pride Thursday night.

Before calling Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics, Burke said Robin Roberts was one of her biggest influences when she was starting out as an analyst calling women’s college basketball games.

Roberts, the co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said Burke’s acknowledgement of those who came before her has been among her best qualities.

“What I really appreciate about Doris is that she is respectful and acknowledging those who came before her and who helped pave the way. She knows how her being there is going to make a difference, as I and others have made a difference, for her to be where she is,” Roberts said.

Burke, who joined ESPN in 1990, has covered the finals since 2009. She was a sideline reporter for ABC’s coverage from 2009-19 before serving as an analyst on ESPN Radio for the past four finals.

Burke knows this year’s assignment is different.

“My focus is in preparing for the games in front of me. … But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I am sort of mindful that there is something meaningful here, right,” she said. “And the meaning for me would be if, in some way, this assignment makes life for women in sports easier or somehow aids in their process, then nothing could be more meaningful.

“Anybody calling their first NBA Finals game would probably be nervous, and I think if I allow my mind to drift too much into that space, it will make that nervousness a little bit worse.”

Ann Meyers Drysdale, the first woman to work an NBA game for one of the broadcast networks in 1997 for NBC, said Burke has deserved this opportunity.

“She’s worked hard. Somebody has given her an opportunity, she’s taken it and been productive,” Meyers said.

Burke has also acknowledged she feels “fortunate to be operating at the point in history within which I’m operating.” Quite simply, she saw the experiences Roberts and Meyers went through breaking barriers while also forging their own path. But Burke is also in a position to mentor analysts and announcers who are coming up.

“I say it every time I see her and Ann Meyers Drysdale. I wouldn’t have the role and the position that I have without them not only having done the job, but doing it with so much competence and diligence,” said Sarah Kustok, an analyst for Brooklyn Nets games on YES Network. “How she has thrived in that role has set the table for so many of us.”

Burke’s influence goes beyond basketball. Jessica Mendoza said she pushed management at ESPN to start doing baseball after seeing Burke call a game. Mendoza started doing MLB games in 2015, was part of “Sunday Night Baseball” from 2016 to ‘19, and has done the World Series on ESPN Radio since 2020.

“When I heard Doris on an NBA game as an analyst, not a reporter, it just completely changed my thoughts about my own position but also women in general that have played the sport,” Mendoza said. “She has helped me out with advice and how to approach things like she experienced her first few years. You know, all the questions that I can only ask a handful of women in the world.”

During a conference call this week, Burke did not get emotional discussing her milestone, but in praising her teammates — announcer Mike Breen and analyst JJ Reddick.

Breen will be calling his 19th finals, but his first since 2006 where Jeff Van Gundy hasn’t been an analyst. Van Gundy and Mark Jackson were laid off last July as part of job cuts by the network. Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson called 15 finals together.

Last August, Breen, Burke and Doc Rivers were announced as ESPN’s main NBA team. Those plans changed in late January when Rivers left to coach the Milwaukee Bucks.

“He’s never said it’s been difficult, but knowing Mike and the position he’s been put in, you know, this probably has not been easy, necessarily, throughout the course of the year,” Burke said. “There’s points at which Mike has navigated us through spaces, and I am incredibly appreciative. JJ has been as good a teammate on the air and off as I could possibly hope for.”