Q&A with ESPN's Doris Burke
Doris Burke sometimes is referred to as a women's basketball analyst for ESPN and ABC, and that's only half her story. Burke is a basketball analyst. Period. True, she offers analysis of women's college basketball and the WNBA. But she also can be heard working men's college basketball and the NBA. A former all-Big East basketball player at Providence College, Burke blew out her knee in 1987 and stayed on at Providence as an assistant coach. Eventually, however, the broadcast booth found her and that was good news — for her and the rest of us.
Her experience as player and coach gives her the background to break down X's and O's as well as the Billy Packers and Mike Fratellos and her candor and preparation make her as insightful as the Charles Barkleys and Jay Bilases. Bottom line: Burke knows what she's talking about, whether it's men or women, college or pros, in-studio or at courtside. Burke, 42, has become, quite simply, one of the best sports analysts in the business.
Burke will be in town this weekend to begin work on ESPN's coverage of the women's Final Four at the St. Pete Times Forum. But on Wednesday, she called me from her home in North Providence, where she lives with her husband, Gregg Burke, deputy athletic director at the University of Rhode Island, and their two children.
What do you think is the state of women's basketball right now?
I think it's improving. The big thing is girls are starting to play at a younger age now and you now have girls playing 60, 70 games a year because of AAU basketball and that can only help improve the game. But I still don't know that it gets the credit for being as good as it is.
I was broadcasting the WNBA at the beginning (in 1997) and I'll be honest with you, it wasn't good basketball. It just wasn't. And I think it was critiqued, mostly by men, and it was decided the women's basketball just wasn't very good. That was what you heard on talk-radio and sports shows and that's kind of the reputation that stuck for a lot of people. But I encourage anyone who is a basketball fan to come back and take a look at this year's Final Four. Just give it a look and you'll see how good this game is. It's a much better game these days.
This Final Four has Tennessee, UConn, LSU and Stanford. All are either No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. They're powerhouses in women's basketball. Is it good to have a Final Four with teams like that, or would it better if women’s basketball had a Cinderella, a No. 10 seed in there, too? Someone different?
Well that's the great question that's always asked and I don't know that we really know the answer. You can see both sides of it. But I can tell you that in this Final Four, if UConn and Tennessee get to the finals, that's the game that everyone wants to see. And I will tell you right now that if UConn and Tennessee both win and play each other, it will be the highest-rated, most-watched game in the history of women's basketball. I'm confident in saying that. I mean, isn't that the game everyone wants to see?
Well, of course, because of the feud between Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and UConn coach Geno Auriemma. What do you make of the feud?
Well, no one really knows for sure what happened, but that's what makes this so fun and certainly is what makes this a special game ... if it happens.
The result of the feud is that these two teams no longer play each other in the regular season. Isn't that bad for women's basketball? Shouldn't these teams be playing every season?
I would like to think so, yes. It's the one game that even male fans, those who pay little or no attention to women's basketball, will sit down and watch. I've had friends who have no interest in women's basketball ask me who I thought would win that game in the past, and the matchups and all of that. That's the one game that draws attention beyond women's college basketball fans and I think it's a game that needs to be played each year.
You wear a lot of hats at ESPN and ABC. You're in-studio, you do game analysis, you do sideline reporting. Which do you prefer?
My favorite is game analysis.
Of all you do — women's and men's college basketball, the WNBA, the NBA — which do you enjoy covering the most?
Because I played the women's game, I really have enjoyed seeing the explosion of women's basketball and I like being a part of that, covering that. But I can tell you this, I've never seen as much passion and pressure as I've seen covering the NBA playoffs. The tension in the building and on the court is palpable. You can feel it. There's nothing like it.
Let's talk a little NBA. The Western Conference is loaded this season and a 50-win team could miss the playoffs. Who will miss the playoffs in the West?
Right now, Denver is (on the outside), but George Karl is such a determined coach and his team is so determined that I have a hard time picking against them. Dallas, I think, isn't looking good. Jason Kidd isn't blending in with that team as quickly as I thought he would. And how healthy is Dirk (Nowitzki, who is having knee and ankle problems)? But the West is crazy. Just crazy. Shaq with Phoenix and ... have you ever seen anything like this?
So, who wins the West?
Gregg Popovich has done such a great job in San Antonio. And you look at what they have done there and until someone beats them, how can you pick against them?
How about the East?
I like the Celtics. I didn't like them when they played Detroit the first time this season and the Celtics had no answer at guard for Chauncey Billups. But seeing what Kevin Garnett has done with the Celtics defensively, how he has made them a great defensive team. The Celtics might guard better than anyone in the NBA and I think that's why they'll win the East.
Let's wrap up with the Final Four then. If defense wins, who guards the best of the four teams?
Two teams in particular play great defense: LSU and Connecticut. And I think those could be the two teams who end up meeting in the final.
Wow, are you picking LSU over Tennessee in an upset?
Well, I'm not big on predictions because who knows what can happen in one game? But, yeah, I'm saying LSU has a chance to win. A chance. A lot could depend on the health of (Tennessee's) Candace Parker (who injured her shoulder Tuesday night). Like I said, who knows what can happen in one game? But it will be great to watch what happens.