When ESPN announced last week that it had reached an extension with Doris Burke that would keep her in its NBA broadcast booth for years to come, our first thought was whether the beloved ESPN veteran could soon rise to the network’s top NBA analyst chair. Currently, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson call ESPN’s biggest games, including the NBA Finals, alongside play-by-play man Mike Breen, but given Burke’s talent and popularity, it was easy to wonder whether she would eventually find her way into that role.
Well according to Breen himself, Burke’s ascension is essentially inevitable. Here’s what the play-by-play man told Richard Deitsch on 590 Sportsnet in Toronto:
“The direct answer is yes,” Breen said. “Someday she will be. She is that good. I think right now I have two that I am working with who are a play-by-play man’s dream because every single telecast I do with them I laugh and I learn. They make me laugh because of their sense of humor and chemistry, and how much fun they have during the telecast. But they also just know the game so well and they know players’ personality so well. So I am hoping that they are going to be my partners for a long time.
“But Doris is one of the premier analysts in any sport and I have watched her from the beginning. I was the one who did the first NBA radiocast with her many years ago. I have watched her grow, and let me tell you everybody around the NBA — players and coaches — the respect factor is as good for her as any analyst around. She is an extraordinary talent who loves the game as much as anybody I have been around. She will be the lead analyst some day. I don’t know when. But whoever does get to work with her at some point whether it is me or someone else is going to be very fortunate.”
Breen obviously won’t join the movement to get Burke in the NBA Finals booth ASAP, since that would mean denigrating one of his current colleagues, but it seems to say a lot that he would so unequivocally vouch for her abilities in the analyst role.
After serving as a game analyst only occasionally in previous years while primarily working the sidelines, Burke was promoted to full-time analyst last fall. She called games this past season alongside Mark Jones before returning to her sideline role for the conference finals and NBA Finals. Many fans (including a majority in an Awful Announcing poll) have suggested she replace Jackson on ESPN’s top NBA broadcast team.
This one keeps coming up in our mentions. Who would you prefer as the third person along with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) May 26, 2018
However, getting Burke in the NBA Finals booth might not be quite that easy. As our Ben Koo pointed out last week, ESPN is unlikely to simply discard Jackson.
But here is the reality. Jackson has a multi year deal with the network and it’s very likely that deal specifies that he’s a lead team announcer. Additionally, it’s possible that ESPN likes him calling games like the conference finals and NBA Finals because of his former role as coach of the Warriors.
And there is also this uncomfortable elephant in the room. Removing Jackson for Burke would result in an all-white announcing booth, which is not exactly ideal when covering a sport that has by a wide margin mostly black players. (Dear god, I hope to hell Breitbart doesn’t take this one blurb, reframe this entire piece, and fan it out to the masses).
That’s a legitimate optics issue for ESPN and is certainly a lot more pronounced because it’s the NBA. And while they did have an all-white booth for the Finals with just Breen and Van Gundy in 2012 and 2013 while Jackson was coaching the Warriors, that might attract more attention and criticism in today’s political climate. I would imagine most fans would still be in favor of the move and not think twice about it, but that would certainly be a thread that could be pulled down the road.
And so Burke will have to keep waiting. She is 52-years-old and has said she wants to retire at 60, so she doesn’t have an abundance of time, but with the love of her audience and now Breen’s endorsement, her turn seems likely to come soon.