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Tara Sullivan

While Doris Burke told the world of the NBA stoppage, she was afflicted by coronavirus, too

ESPN's Doris Burke was diagnosed with coronavirus just days after calling the NBA's last game before the league halted its season.
ESPN's Doris Burke was diagnosed with coronavirus just days after calling the NBA's last game before the league halted its season.Ethan Miller

Doris Burke could easily recognize the instant her professional life was about to change. She was on the air when it happened.

Someday, when the history of this coronavirus pandemic is told, the NBA’s early action in suspending play will be remembered as the wake-up call the rest of the sports world needed. It was the revelation that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 that spurred the drastic action by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and it was news that broke while Burke, one of the best television analysts in the game, was in Dallas calling the March 11 game between the Mavericks and Nuggets.

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While she and play-by-play partner Ryan Ruocco shared the news with the viewing audience, while their colleague and ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi conducted that memorable and compelling courtside interview with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the broadcast group made it to the final buzzer of what would turn out to be the final NBA game completed before the hiatus.

What Burke couldn’t have known was that as her professional journey was about to pause, her personal nightmare was only beginning.

Memories of the debilitating fatigue and searing headaches that had begun in earnest around that game weren’t just the result of her hectic and packed travel schedule, which is what she initially attributed it to. Instead, it was COVID-19, the same virus she and her colleagues were discussing on the air, sending its initial warning signs.

As the 54-year-old Burke is now able to share, weeks of harrowing symptoms finally having subsided, she is among the lucky ones to recover. She is still somewhat weakened from the virus’s effects, but is taking her first grateful steps back into a life that had been forced into isolation that would be helped back toward health by good doctors, socially responsible behavior, and above all, loving family members.

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“Literally from the first Monday where I had no symptoms and I got through a day, I didn’t eat normally but I was close, from that moment forward, the overwhelming feeling I have is gratitude,” she said over the phone from her home outside Philadelphia, one she plans to depart soon for her second home in her native Providence. “I am thankful that I turned the corner and came out the other side. Thankful that none of my colleagues, my daughter, or her fiancé have gotten sick. Thankful I did not have terrifying symptoms that come with this virus. I swear, every single day, just gratitude.”

It was her daughter Sarah, Sarah’s fiancé John Mickles, and his mother Leslie, who were by her side. Sarah and John, both attorneys, had made a decision to leave their own apartment high inside a crowded downtown Philly apartment building and stay with Doris. As her symptoms worsened and her fear and anxiety heightened, they welcomed the advice of John’s mother Leslie, whose career first as an ICU nurse and now as a nursing educator put her far in front of the curve of action. Leslie dropped off necessary supplies — fluids, a thermometer, gloves, and masks — and urged Doris, through her son, to get tested. That finally happened on the night of March 17, when the local emergency room was still relatively calm, when she could get in and out in just over two hours, a test, an EKG, and a chest X-ray included.

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As Burke noted, she was not felled by the worst respiratory symptoms, and for that, she can only be thankful.

“I had zero appetite. The searing headache and fatigue were my worst symptoms," she said. “You’re telling me I could have had pressure in my chest and gasping in my chest? I felt fear as it was, I can’t imagine if I was manifesting those symptoms. It would go beyond fear.”

Such is the world at the moment, where fear is as great an equalizer as the virus itself. We are in this together, and Burke’s words are a powerful reminder to be grateful to feel supported throughout this pandemic. What she felt watching as one of Cuban’s first thoughts was to take care of his arena workers, or remembering the picture of him as he heard the news in real time, an image she credited director Jeff Evers for capturing.

What she felt hearing, and reading via text, the constant check-in from the group of colleagues working that night’s game with her. What she feels knowing the league she has come to represent for so many viewers took a leading role in raising the awareness of danger.

Why she feels just fine knowing we will all get back to normal someday, but only when the time is right.

“Other than for the very selfish, we enjoy what we do and fans enjoy it, and another part of that, and the reason I hope so hard that these men have an opportunity to finish something, some semblance of a season, is that we see firsthand that they pour their hearts and souls into it. They care deeply about what they do,” she said. “Whether circumstance allows it, I don’t know, but it certainly would be a nice thing. If they can No. 1 crown a champion, find an MVP a defensive player of the year, that would be nice. But I think about my colleague, Scott Van Pelt. He had a physician from New York on the other night, and he closed telling the doctor, ‘We need you.’

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“The doctor said, ‘Can I say one more thing: We’re going to need you, all of you, anyone in sports. Because there is nothing I like more after a hard shift than going back to my home and turning on a game.' That hit home.

“So yes, I cannot wait for the NBA to return,” she said, “and whenever that happens I will celebrate it. But honestly, it could not feel less important.”

Come Monday, Burke, who did her first workout (a light Peloton ride) on Wednesday, will be two weeks symptom-free. She can make that drive to Providence and reconnect with her son, Matthew. She can also get back in touch with the group of doctors who have come together in search of a cure and believe they can find it in those who survived and developed antibodies.

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The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project has already received a commitment from Celtic guard Marcus Smart. Burke plans to join him.

We’re in this together.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.