Doris Burke during game 4 of the 2024 Eastern Conference Finals. Photo by Michael Hickey / ESPN Images

Doris Burke is always looking out.

The ESPN NBA game analyst, who will become the first woman to call an NBA Finals game Thursday on ABC, keeps her head up. It helps her stay above the dragging tide of nonsense, but up there, it’s also easier to see her people.

When Rebecca Lobo first joined ESPN as a sideline reporter for the network’s WNBA package in 2004, she was a year removed from her playing career and green as could be. She jokes that the only help she got before her first game was someone sending her the plane ticket to Washington, D.C., for her on-air debut. There, she reconnected with Burke, then the network’s top WNBA game analyst. Sensing Lobo’s nerves, Burke gave the UConn legend clear instructions for how to ace her first call: Stand there, report that, speak like this.

The two worked together often after that, rekindling a relationship that began when Burke recruited Lobo to Providence College out of high school and continued when Burke called New York Liberty games in the WNBA’s early years. When she got the chance to share a broadcast with Burke, Lobo was a sponge. Before long, Lobo no longer needed hand-holding, and began her climb toward being the network’s top pro and college women’s basketball analyst.

But she never lost her mentor.

“If I would ask questions, she would answer them,” Lobo told Awful Announcing. “She would give me unsolicited but helpful feedback that I needed, and without — people can be competitive — without any of that. She just wanted to be helpful to me. And it was certainly a blessing.”

Rebecca Lobo and Doris Burke
Photo by Rich Arden / ESPN Images

Nearly two decades later, another apprehensive former WNBA star tapped Burke for a similar request. It was 2021, and Chiney Ogwumike had leveraged successful gigs covering the NBA in Bristol and as far out as SportsCenter Africa into a recurring role on the newly launched NBA Today. Soon after, Ogwumike ran into Burke at Arena ahead of an NBA broadcast but was reluctant to approach her.

Ogwumike recalled asking a different ESPN teammate for advice in 2015 when she first got a chance to call games and do studio coverage as an active athlete. Back then, Ogwumike was shut down. She worried it might be the same with Burke.

“I saw her in the makeup room and was like, ‘Hey Doris, you’re amazing. You’re here to call the game?’ I’m just an eager beaver, excited to talk to her,” Ogwumike told Awful Announcing.

Burke knew right away why Ogwumike was there, congratulating her on the new role with NBA Today.

Ogwumike perked up.

“I’m like, ‘I just want to be prepared,’” Ogwumike remembered. “And she says, ‘Why don’t you come hang out with me?’ So I spent the morning at the J.W. Marriott just shadowing her … as she prepped. She brought out her notes, she showed me everything she wrote down. She joked with me, she showed me how she prepared for a shootaround, how she’s preparing for the game, and just for hours, she just dedicated her time to show me how she prepared … that became the standard for me.”

Chiney Ogwumike during the 2024 NCAA Women's Final Four.
Chiney Ogwumike during the 2024 NCAA Women’s Final Four. Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images

Burke was here long before most. These NBA Finals are her reward but she’s not satisfied with those laurels. Becoming the soundtrack to the highest level of NBA competition is an incredible legacy. While the Philadelphia native and Providence College Hall of Famer prefers to keep the focus on the games and her work publicly, so many women in the business count her as an inspiration as well as a mentor. Over Burke’s decades calling games, she has not only risen to the top of basketball broadcasting but shepherded a generation of women analysts coming up behind her, sprinting along the path she laid.

Burke arrived at ESPN in 1991, and first called men’s basketball in 2000, starting with New York Knicks games on MSG Network. In 2003, she called her first men’s college basketball game at ESPN and rose to the network’s top NBA sideline reporter by 2009. By 2017, she was promoted to NBA television game analyst and started calling the Finals on radio in 2020. Last summer, she took over for the departing Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson in the network’s top NBA booth, replacing her longtime colleagues in a bittersweet and historic move.

While Burke counts Ann Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman among her inspirations as well as studio hosts like Gayle Gardner and Robin Roberts, it was Burke’s rise that marked an inflection point for women analysts in the business. Today, seven NBA teams feature a woman game analyst on their local broadcasts, as well as another two primary women play-by-play voices. More hold studio analyst roles for local networks. At a national level, Candace Parker, Stephanie White, Monica McNutt, Andraya Carter, and others have taken the baton from Burke and spread their knowledge of the game to a new generation of fans.

Whether it’s Jessica Mendoza on MLB or Mina Kimes on NFL, other newcomers have helped change the game in recent years. But women face a longstanding bias against analysts who did not play the sport they cover professionally, compounded with sexist doubts over a woman’s ability to cover men’s sports. Not to mention the additional expectations around looking good and even the sound of their voice.

Cassidy Hubbarth, Doris Burke and Beth Mowins pose for a photo with game officials and team staff during a regular season game on International Women's Day.
Cassidy Hubbarth, Doris Burke, Beth Mowins, and others during a regular season game on International Women’s Day. Photo by Rebecca Warren / ESPN Images

Nevertheless, basketball stands as an exception to that trend. That evolution arrived largely in the wake of Burke’s historic career, a crescendo to a legacy she never asked for but constantly worked toward.

“It’s meaningful, there’s no doubt that that sentiment hasn’t dawned on me. Obviously. What could be better for me than if in some way, this assignment helps women in some way?” Burke said to Rich Eisen regarding her impact on women in basketball media. “But what I’ve done my entire career is, what’s the next game I have and how can I be best prepared and hopefully bring the viewer as close to the game that I love. And I know how fortunate I am to sit there.”

That focus is respected among Burke’s peers but also likely worn into her from years in the spotlight.

Fans may see the rapper Drake crushing on Burke as the Toronto Raptors chase a championship, but they don’t see the nastiness on social media or the jeering from media counterparts that Burke and her successors face.

By handling those challenges and deflecting negativity, Burke made way for others. And whether they realized it or not, suits, viewers, and even other journalists were being primed for more Doris Burkes in the future.

“Doris has had things said and written about her, not by reputable people but by the average voice on social media, but it’s also different than it was 15 years ago,” said Lobo. “Now, if someone says ‘Go make me a sandwich,’ there’s at least a side eye from people. Things were a lot worse than that 15 or 20 years ago. Doris bore the brunt of it more than any other woman in basketball. That’s a fact.”

Beyond being the first to call NBA games and a media ambassador for the sport at its highest levels, for a long time Burke was also the only woman with that chance.

“She was being scrutinized as the woman … like, you better not misspeak. You better not say anything that you might regret, because everybody is going to point it out, versus some guys could get leeway in those days,” Lobo added. “She wasn’t going to get any.”

When ESPN and MSG Networks analyst Monica McNutt got her job as the primary radio analyst for the Knicks this season, Burke was one of the first people she called. Burke was thrilled but had a warning. Both the bosses and the fans pay a ton more attention to the voices calling games than the younger folks just getting reps.

“Sports fan is short for fanatic, and so in order to do this job, of course you have to have tough skin, right?” McNutt told Awful Announcing. “But I do think you also have to be able to parse out a fan who just strongly disagrees versus what is misogynistic or racist in my case, or sexist or whatever.”

The work is fulfilling, as is the privilege of being among the first in a space. But plenty in the audience don’t want change.

“For as much of a high and enjoyment and empowerment and all the things that you could love about your job, this job, particularly for women, there is kind of a really daunting underbelly,” McNutt said.

President Barack Obama fills out his 2011 Women's NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament bracket during an interview with Doris Burke of ESPN in the White House Library
Doris Burke interviewing President Barack Obama in 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Through it all, Burke continued to be a symbol to other women with their sights set on being in the analyst’s seat. Handling the ugly while also being a kick-ass educator and entertainer on television made it infinitely easier for others to have a target to aim at.

When Sarah Kustok graduated from DePaul, she didn’t plan to go into broadcasting. But she kept chasing the thrill she got competing as a student-athlete and wound up in sports media in her hometown of Chicago.

Like many, Kustok worked odd jobs and freelance hustles out of college, circling the league she loved most: the NBA. In 2012, YES Network in New York City came calling. She seized on the chance a few years later to fill in on color commentary, and by 2017, became the primary game analyst on Brooklyn Nets broadcasts.

“For a long time, I never even figured that could be possible. My favorite things were the NBA and calling games. And I never really imagined that those two things could ever mesh together,” Kustok told Awful Announcing. “So often people say, ‘See her to be her,’ well (Burke) was the one person we could see to have that dream and have that idea and have that vision of being in that role.”

With nearly a decade of experience in a similarly high-profile position, calling games with Ian Eagle and covering the Nets’ super teams of recent years, Kustok has even more respect for the grace in Burke’s rise.

“If she was not as competent and successful at what she has done, then it may not have built a trust of others to, I know for me, have me in that role and in that position,” Kustok said.

Dave O'Brien, Holly Rowe, Rebecca Lobo and Doris Burke at the 2013 Women's Final Four National Championship game.
Dave O’Brien, Holly Rowe, Rebecca Lobo, and Doris Burke at the 2013 Women’s National Championship game. Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images.

Burke’s path was impressive but by no means quick. She traversed all levels of basketball before getting the top job.

Speaking with Eisen ahead of the Finals, Burke credited the WNBA as a key stepping stone in her path to the top analyst job in basketball. The league came along a few years into Burke’s career as an announcer and gave her a chance to hone her skills and get reps calling higher-level basketball.

“I’m always indebted to the WNBA,” Burke said. “That was the first time as an analyst, doing what Raft or Dick Vitale or any analyst in basketball was doing, and that’s make a living as a color analyst.”

While Burke’s pioneering career created new opportunities for women, many remain conflicted about whether to pursue roles covering men’s basketball. Those jobs pay more and offer a greater profile, but they aren’t everyone’s end goal.

Lobo was raising a family at the same time she began her broadcasting career and remembers imploring ESPN executive Rob Savinelli not to see her desire to call women’s basketball as a lack of ambition. This spring, Lobo called the NCAA Final Four for tens of millions of people. Lower on the totem pole, it’s an even tougher balance to strike.

“It’s still the case that if you don’t cover men’s sports, you’re not going to make the money that you could. That is a fact,” Lobo said. “Although I think we’re in a moment now where that probably is changing. There’s a little more equity because the women’s stuff has rated better.”

McNutt, who has prominent roles covering both men’s and women’s basketball at ESPN, looks at the choice within the broader context of her life.

“My mandate, and I’ve shared this with Doris … it’s about building a life and not just a career,” McNutt said. “I’m fortunate to have a bunch of different hats that I can wear in this space that I enjoy, and I’ve got to figure out which one fits best for my life. And yes, the financial piece of it is a part of that puzzle.”

Ogwumike graduated quickly to NBA coverage through digital broadcasts and ESPN Africa but embraces the weight of earning respect for herself and her league while mixing it up with Richard Jefferson or Kendrick Perkins every day. She believed her presence on an equal playing field with those men could be powerful.

“First I had a little bit of imposter syndrome,” Ogwumike said. “But then you start realizing the power of your voice in that space. The power of my voice came from being a WNBA player.”

Ogwumike took a side door into ESPN that led her to the men’s game, but she never left women’s basketball. She earned rave reviews as a studio analyst throughout the NCAA women’s tournament this spring and brought her sister, Nneka, a WNBA champion and MVP, on NBA Today last winter to announce her free agency move to Seattle.

Doris Burke during game 4 of the 2024 Eastern Conference Finals.
Photo by Michael Hickey / ESPN Images

Being a pioneer isn’t just about timing. Beyond entering the industry when the WNBA and women’s college basketball were growing or advocating for herself when Van Gundy or Doug Collins left the booth, Burke also never slipped up.

Where men in broadcasting fight for jobs and gaffe themselves out of them every day, Burke stayed the course and lived up to an unstated standard she had to assume was sky-high.

“If someone else had been the first and they either weren’t good at the job or did something inappropriate related to the job, it would tarnish things for everybody too. Instead, it hasn’t,” Lobo said. “She’s kind of the perfect trailblazer for the rest of us, because she’s great at it, she’s liked, and also no-nonsense.”

Yet rather than be hardened by the pressure cooker, Burke made space for other women to relax.

Cassidy Hubbarth, Doris Burke, and Monica McNutt at the 2022 NBA Finals.
Cassidy Hubbarth, Doris Burke, and Monica McNutt at the 2022 NBA Finals. Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images.

About a decade ago, Cassidy Hubbarth was booked to fill in for Burke as host of NBA Countdown for the first time. That meant flying out to Los Angeles for the show and an audience of millions. Hubbarth connected with producer Mark Gross, who suggested she ask Burke for some pointers before the broadcast.

Burke passed Hubbarth her notecards and walked her through show prep. Later, the two called many games together with Burke as analyst and Hubbarth on the sideline. But while Burke let Hubbarth in on her tricks of the trade, the primary message she passed to her younger friend was more personal.

“We’re different, but she sees that I have a particular style, and that I should feel confident about that style and that that style has gotten me to where I am today,” Hubbarth said.

Doris Burke at the Basketball: A Love Story Premiere.
Doris Burke at the Basketball: A Love Story Premiere. Photo by Will Lanzoni / ESPN Images.

Burke clearly doesn’t want the generation she birthed to be her. That would mean putting herself on a pedestal, something Burke avoids.

Burke has described feeling imposter syndrome that she combats with hard work. From coaches in sideline reports to athletes she’s interviewed for ESPN, she has the respect of the NBA. And she delivers the good as a gifted, veteran analyst.

From “saying a lot without talking a lot” to her incredible “recall” to her relationship building to her storytelling to her graciousness as a teammate in the booth, there are as few holes in Burke’s broadcasting game as there are in the way Luka Dončić will go to work on offense in Boston on Thursday night.

“Even though she talks herself about imposter syndrome, she’s the one who isn’t the imposter … because she’s led the way, she’s opened all the doors,” Hubbarth said.

NBA analyst Doris Burke.
Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images.

The women Burke has taken under her wing respect her greatly, as do her predecessors.

“Once you get the opportunity, you have to work at it, and she’s worked at it,” Meyers Drysdale told Awful Announcing. “She’s done a great job.”

The first time that NBA opportunity came may be one of the few times Burke allowed herself to feel it.

“You pour your heart and soul into something, and you’ve taken steps, and I don’t know that I consciously allowed myself to dream that,” Burke told Andrea Kremer in an episode of HBO’s Real Sports after getting the analyst job. “But it happened.”

Burke is already a signature NBA voice for the league’s primary broadcast partner. She is the voice of NBA2K for young people learning the game. If you love basketball, you know Doris Burke.

The generation behind her is proving it.

When asked about the echoes her voice has had and what it will mean to be on the call for Game 1 after traveling this long road, Burke pressed pause.

“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,” she said on a media conference call this week. “So maybe I can push it to the side just for a little while and reflect when it’s all said and done.”

Good luck.

When she looks out Thursday, Hubbarth and McNutt will be chopping it up pregame for ESPN Digital, while Ogwumike breaks down games from the concourse at the Countdown desk.

The next Doris Burke will be here before long.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.