Q&A: Doris Burke
Former Providence standout to get Silver Anniversary Award
Former Providence College women’s basketball standout Doris Burke, who has worked for ESPN since 1991, ranks 10th all-time in scoring and second in career assists. She has served as a sideline reporter, analyst and play-by-play broadcaster for NCAA men’s and women’s basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. Burke was the first woman to call a Big East Conference men’s basketball game, the first woman to be hired as a regular commentator for a men’s college basketball package and the first woman to call a New York Knicks game on radio and television. She was presented USA Today’s Rudy Award for the Best New Face in Sports Television in 2003 and was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
The Silver Anniversary Award recognizes former student-athletes and distinguished individuals on the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their college athletics careers. Burke and fellow recipients Tim Brown, Kevin Johnson, Sean Payton, Amy Perko and David Robinson will be honored January 13, 2012 during the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis.
Q: In your career, you’ve had a number of firsts -- first woman to do this, first woman to do that. Were you conscious of that at the time?
Burke: People have called me a pioneer, and I’m very uncomfortable with that. There are parts of my job that I do that maybe other women have not had yet a chance to do, but there are also many women who have preceded me in the business, and they paid a price that allows me to be where I am and to function comfortably where I am. They probably had uncomfortable moments be it in locker rooms or wherever that I didn’t have to endure because they went through it first. I feel incredibly lucky to stand on the shoulders of people like Jackie MacMullan and Robin Roberts and Gayle Gardner and a lot of women who paid a price long before I did.
Q: Do people tell you they want to follow in your footsteps? What is the advice that you give when they do?
Burke: It’s amazing how many times an undergrad will come out of the stands on campus and say, “I’d love to be in your position.” It’s constant. Usually I’ll give them my email address and my phone number and my address and ask them to send me tapes or whatever they might have or to email me questions. My advice is usually the same, ‘You’ve got to be willing to, one, work hard; two, accept rejection and not take it personally. In life, you get told ‘No’ a lot more often than you get told ‘Yes’, and you’ve got to keep swinging. You learn that as an athlete. You learn that you don’t win every single game, but it’s the process of preparing for that game and ultimately knowing that at some point the price you paid will pay dividends. So my advice is to be tough-minded, work incredibly hard, don’t be afraid to try new things and be as versatile as possible.
Q: What do you say to people who want to achieve what you have achieved?
Burke: You learn as a student-athlete, as a player of any sport, that you don’t win every game. Failure is a necessary part of life. For me, the most important thing is how you are preparing and the work you’re putting in because eventually you break through. Eventually you’ve paid a price and because you’ve paid a price, you will ultimately have success. It does take endurance, and it does take a little bit of a tough skin. In my business not everybody likes me as an announcer; it’s a very subjective thing, but you plug away. You just keep plugging and try to do the job to the best of your ability and you’ll find success somewhere.
Q: How has learning to work as a team helped you?
Burke: I think the one thing that would surprise anyone who’s not in the television business is exactly how many people it takes doing their particular job well to have a good telecast. As a sports fan - and this is the way it should be - you’re just interested in watching the game unfold and sort of getting lost in the competition that you’re watching. One of the things that’s amazed me; I did not study Communications in college, basketball was my strength so that made my job easy, but I had to learn the technical aspects of TV. So what amazes me is how many people it takes in the truck from the graphics, to the producers, the director, to the video tape guys, everybody, the play-by-play person, the reporter on a particular game, all of those individuals have got to pull their own weight so to speak. They’ve got to do their job well. Sometimes I’ll bring friends into the television truck and they’ll be blown away by how much is going on in the midst of that and what you come to appreciate I think as a student-athlete playing on a team sport, you appreciate others’ work ethic. You understand that their strengths make you stronger. So all of those lessons I learned as a kid playing basketball, whether in college or high school, translate very well. There’s an appreciation for others’ abilities.
Q: How did you balance the athletics and academics because it was an academically strong school?
Burke: Being a student-athlete you realize quickly that you’ve got to be able to compartmentalize different aspects of your life. You get up and from 8 to 11 your focus and your attention and your drive is focused on, ‘Hey I’ve got to get to class, I’ve got to take notes, I’ve got to do all the things that are going to make me successful as a student.’ And then the afternoon hits. You might take a break, get some lunch, socialize with the other kids on campus, but then at 3 o’clock your mind switches. You focus now on a different aspect of your life. You say, ‘Okay, it’s time to be a basketball player.’ I think as human beings, we’re all different things. When I come off the road, I’m a mom. I put aside my work and I focus on my two children. And all of those lessons learned come from being a student-athlete.
Q: What was it like when you recently returned to Providence and spoke?
Burke: Believe it or not -- and my children laugh at this -- public speaking is not anything I’m comfortable with. When I’m on television, it’s a camera man and me and I’m talking about the game of basketball, which is my ultimate comfort zone. My kids laugh and say, “Why would you be uncomfortable with public speaking?” This was a night when Providence College was honoring its donors, and I couldn’t say no. These were the people who enabled me to have an opportunity to get a basketball scholarship. So when Father (Brian) Shanley, the president of Providence College, asked if I would be the featured speaker on this particular night, I had this enormous pull to say yes, and an enormous pull to say no. The ‘No,’ would surprise people. I don’t like public speaking, but the ‘Yes’ was that those people had an impact on my life that was personal. They allowed a 17-year-old kid who would have had very little chance to be educated, to get a free education because of my basketball scholarship. I wanted to take the time to say to those people, “Thank you. Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for giving me a chance.”