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Bob Ryan

Doris Burke is ESPN’s multi-sport star

Doris Burke

ESPN

Doris Burke

The girl can’t help it if she’s better than all the guys. Most of them, anyway.

You may be aware that ESPN employs a legion, a flotilla, a mile-long line of box cars filled with analysts and pundits. On-air talent roll call in Bristol takes five hours, with coffee and lunch breaks factored in.

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Among those many talking heads, one stands apart.

Jeff Van Gundy can’t do what she does. Dick Vitale can’t do what she does. Kara Lawson can’t do what she does.

ESPN employs only one person with the sufficient knowledge, credibility, and performance skills to be a basketball analyst for the men’s college game, the women’s college game, the NBA, and, in years past, the WNBA. That person is Doris Burke.

“It’s simple,’’ said Mike Gorman, who knows a thing or two about what makes for a good basketball analyst. “She’s very, very good. I’ve even encouraged her to do play-by-play. I think she’d be terrific.’’

She is entering her insane season, when she routinely bounces from college men to college women to the NBA. Given that she is not exactly in the habit of affixing a stamp to a telecast and plopping it into the nearest mailbox, this means her days are quite full.

“They are three distinct sports,’’ she pointed out. “I try to immerse myself into the everyday, the ongoing story of each one, but it does get a little overwhelming at times.’’

She is, in fact, somewhat concerned about the quality of the work she is bringing to one of the subjects, but it may not be the one you think.

“My concern is, ‘Am I doing justice to the women’s game?’ ’’ she said. “I spend most of my time in the winter with the men, but when the calendar flips and March comes, I worry about doing the right thing for the women’s game.’’

Fortunately, she says, she has help.

“I could not live without our Research Department,’’ she said. “They make my job so much easier.’’

Gorman and others say the lady may protest a wee bit too much. Doris Burke comes to the women’s game as one of them, a first-rate Providence College playmaker who remains second on the school’s assist table, who was a second-team All-Big East player, who twice made the all-tourney team at the Big East tournament, who as a senior was the PC Co-Female Athlete of the Year, and who is in the PC Hall of Fame. That was when she was known as Doris Sable, before her marriage and divorce from Gregg Burke.

“She’s about substance,’’ Gorman declared. “She stays in the game. It’s never, ‘So-and-so is one of nine children.’ It’s about the basketball. And she knows her basketball.’’

Doris Burke probably could coast a little by this time. She has to know she is a valued commodity. But she tries to be prepared.

“It means reading, it means talking to people, it means going to practices and, of course, it means watching games,’’ she explained.

“She’s perfect for something like a postseason tournament,’’ Gorman said. “She can go to a practice the day before, watch what happens, talk to the coaches, and then put all that together with her feel for the game to handle four games.’’

Acceptance for a woman discoursing about sports never will be universal. She knows that. There always will be a subspecies we shall call Lunkhead Neanderthal Male Americanus.

“I know there’s been a website called ‘Ihatedorisburke,’ but I can take that,’’ she maintained. “The people that’s hardest on me are my kids.’’ For the record, her offspring are Sarah, 19 and Matthew, 17.

Of far more import is her acceptance among male coaches, both college and professional.

“I’ve never met any resistance from a coach - ever,’’ she said. “They’ve been great.’’

Oh sure, was that unfortunate incident involving San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, for which she takes full responsibility. Saddled that day with the thankless task of being a sideline reporter, a job that dignifies no one, she tried to get a bit too clever as she asked the oft-prickly mentor just why and how his team had played so poorly to close out a quarter. His pithy reply threw her.

“I was red in the face,’’ she recalled. “I don’t remember what he said, but I started babbling. Not a good moment.’’

Contrast that with the time Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle finished one of those horrible between-periods interviews, started to move away, and then turned back, grabbed her shoulder, and said, “I just want you to know you do a hell of a job.’’

“I thought, ‘Rick Carlisle!’ ’’ said Burke. “That made me feel good.’’

Despite her background and accomplishments, we still have to ask, is she not just a tad intimidated by working NBA games?

“Yes,’’ she said, candidly. “When I do the NBA, part of me is very careful with my verbiage. There’s no way for me to understand what it’s like to play or coach at that level. There’s no way for me to understand what it’s like for my job to be on the line.’’

But in the end, it’s still just basketball, and “basketball is something I’ve been playing since the second grade.’’

Little Doris Sable grew up in Manasquan, N.J., dreaming of playing in the NBA. How much of her male audience can’t relate to that?

Doris Burke has every right to analyze a basketball game, be it played by males or females. She is living proof that being a hoop junkie is not gender-specific.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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