Doris Burke on Life Inside the N.B.A. Bubble

When the series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat starts on Wednesday night in the N.B.A. “bubble,” Doris Burke—a television analyst and sideline reporter for ESPN—will be calling the game on radio, the first woman to ever do so for the N.B.A. Finals. Burke, who played basketball at Providence College more than three decades ago, has been in sports journalism since the nineteen-nineties, calling both men’s and women’s games on radio and television. She became a full-time N.B.A. analyst three seasons ago, and quickly gained a devoted following. In a piece for The New Yorker published during last year’s N.B.A. playoffs, David Remnick wrote, “The good news is that the best broadcaster in the game is Doris Burke. This has been the case now for years. There is no one remotely close.”

This season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the league to relocate twenty-two teams to an isolated campus at Disney World, near Orlando; it was nearly cancelled again after the shooting of Jacob Blake, in Wisconsin, led to the Milwaukee Bucks going on strike. After two days, the players (most of whom are Black), the team owners (most of whom are white), and the league came to an agreement. The result was a new commitment to social-justice causes, and a promise to use arenas as voting sites this November.

I recently spoke by phone with Burke, who was preparing for the Finals from inside the bubble. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the challenges of calling games in a new environment, the politics of the N.B.A., and the ways her profession has changed during the last thirty years.

Where are you, and what have your last six weeks or so been like?

I am in what is referred to as the yellow bubble, which is the bubble where reporters and broadcasters are not in direct contact with the players and the coaches. Our broadcast positions are maybe seventy-five to one hundred feet away from the court, and we’re elevated slightly to get a better view. Any interaction we have with the coaches is via Zoom calls on game days. Very atypical interactions with players and coaches, but certainly it’s working just fine. We’re all joking here that every day is Wednesday.

What do you mean by that?

You wake up in the same hotel and see the same people, eat the same food, and continue on a very particular schedule, depending on how you’re trying to pass your non-working hours in the bubble. But, to be honest with you, Isaac, the working conditions really are as good as they possibly can be. We are staying in a lovely hotel. The staff here has been incredibly welcoming and gracious. I don’t want to complain, mostly because I am very mindful of the fact that there have been economic realities to this pandemic. The one challenge is that it’s difficult to be away from your family for such an extended period of time and not be in the comfort of your own home, eating the foods you eat and doing all the normal daily things that give you comfort in your home. You know where it really strikes me, and, forgive me, I’m so accustomed to asking the questions, not answering them, so if I ramble just take out whatever you don’t need.

No, I like not having to do work, so keep going.

It was interesting for me to be on Zoom calls with coaches and have a [Denver Nuggets coach] Michael Malone or a [Boston Celtics coach] Brad Stevens say, “This is day seventy-five,” and to feel the weight of what they were saying. Both of those coaches have young children, relatively young compared to mine, who are twenty-eight and twenty-six. When we had Denver’s last game, Michael Malone had just missed his twenty-second wedding anniversary and his daughter’s fourteenth birthday. Those are the challenges of the bubble.

How many days have you been there?

I arrived July 23rd. But keep in mind that after two weeks, during the initial stage of this, they started to rotate [the announcers] Jeff [Van Gundy], Mark [Jackson], Mike [Breen], and Mark Jones and I out just for a few days’ break at a time. I had one after two weeks. I then had to come back and do a month straight. The reason for that was my daughter was getting married on September 13th.

It’s not that they don’t want to subject people to weeks with Van Gundy?

[Laughs]

How does it make your job easier or harder, if it does?

They brought us down here a few days early so that we could get familiar with the campus and we could go over and see the positions where we would be broadcasting. We were spaced six feet apart. There was also an inch-thick plexiglass on three sides of you, including directly in front of your view to the court. The hardest part is there’s a point at which that plexiglass meets, and so if you’re looking toward the right or the left it’s not easy to see through the plexiglass. One of the things I said I was going to do as an analyst was take a beat. I have to take a beat longer to be certain that I’m getting the right player in particular. There was a seating game where I misidentified J. R. Smith as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, I believe. Now, this was weeks ago, so I could be wrong about who I misidentified. But I thought, O.K., even slower. You need to go even slower now.

There is something powerful about sitting courtside and watching closely the interactions of players with their teammates, with their opponents, with their coaching staff. To watch their body language and their facial expressions when adversity is hitting, when the tension is high, when the pressure is most palpable—there is something so powerful about being courtside. To me, it gives you a better chance to try to relay that to the viewer. I take enormous energy from the players on the court. We are watching the best in the world do their thing.

Did you have to call two games in a day at all in the bubble?

Yes. Yeah, there were two or three occasions. I don’t remember now. Forgive me. These weeks have all run together.

Had you ever done that before?

Well, I did it quite often, frankly. We always would call games in a day for all three weekends of the N.C.A.A. tournament. On the men’s bracket, they would call four. In fact, there was a year where I called four games in a day for ESPN: two in the afternoon, two in the evening.

When the protests started happening after the shooting of Jacob Blake, and it seemed like the season, or the playoffs, might stop, where were you and what were you thinking?

I was sitting in my room prepping for our game the next day. The Milwaukee players were not taking the court. What I remember thinking at that moment was, This is historic. I was riveted. I was riveted to the coverage. I flipped over to CNN, which I am always doing, to be honest with you, as I work. Even if there’s ESPN on, NBA TV, TNT, I’m always flipping back to see the news. I just remember thinking, This is going to be powerful, because it was clear from the outset of this campus that these men so deeply wanted to have some kind of impact for their community. Yeah, I just, I respect the hell out of what they’ve tried to do here.

What I think is lost, Isaac, to be honest with you, is the work that these young men did in their communities before George Floyd was killed. This wasn’t the first time they had been dealing with these things. It didn’t surprise me. It only elevated what I thought of these young men and their commitment to make change. If you’re paying attention to the interviews they’re doing, what comes across to me is the pain that they feel. I watched that [former Los Angeles Clippers coach] Doc Rivers interview and I cried. I cried. Here’s a man whose father was a police officer, who I know loves the United States, who I think feels quite fortunate to have had the career playing and coaching that he’s had, who wants to believe in our United States of America, who wants deeply to believe in it. To feel Doc’s pain and to know the kind of man that he is, I cried.

When you got into sports announcing, did you see your role as being anything outside of calling games, and do you see that role any differently now?

I think the start is important for me because this was not a career I aspired to. Beth Mowins is a good friend of mine. Beth and I have often discussed her knowing from a very early age that this is what she had hoped to do. She watched Phyllis George as a young girl and that put in her head, Oh, this is possible for me. To be honest with you, Isaac, I was incredibly shy outside of the four lines of the basketball court. Didn’t have a ton of confidence. There’s not a shot in hell I ever thought I’d be a broadcaster for a living. In college, I had bad hair, bad clothes, bad teeth, and bad skin. That was not a great combination for being a sports announcer.

There also weren’t many women who were doing—

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