“This gentleman said, ‘(The in-game interview with) Gregg Popovich is my favorite part of the game,” Burke said. “I said, ‘I’m glad you’re enjoying it.’”
For Burke, it always is a thrill ride with a distinct possibility of a crash landing. And guess what? Burke will get another full dose of the San Antonio coach during ABC’s coverage of the upcoming NBA Finals. She will be in her usual role as sideline reporter.
There will be no turning away when it comes time for Popovich’s in-game interviews. Not after a now infamous exchange between Burke and Popovich during the Western Finals. Popovich tersely said “turnovers” twice in response to Burke’s questions.
The interview received quite a bit of attention, and Popovich was roundly criticized. Not that it matters to him.
However, it does matter to Burke. She is one of the best sideline reporters in the business with her direct questions and observations about basketball.
In the first of a two-part interview, Burke discusses her in-game experiences and relationship with Popovich; dealing with LeBron James; and the value of the in-game interview.
How do you approach an NBA Finals that you know includes Greg Popovich?
There’s no coach in the league, including Phil Jackson when he was in the league, where I feel more angst for the (in-game interview) than Gregg Popovich. Do I go into the finals with the idea in the back of my head that seven more times at the end of the quarter I have to interview him? You bet you I do. There’s no question about it.
I try very hard not to take his reactions personally. I’ll be honest with you. It is not easy.
What is your relationship with him?
He makes it clear in every conversation we have how much respect he has for me.
Gregg Popovich is one of my favorite coaches in the league in terms of his approach and what he stands for. I’ll give you a contrast when it comes to me and Gregg Popovich. He’s responsible for one of the greatest moments of my career. And one of my worst.
The worst was the first time I had to interview him for his in-game interview. Keep in mind, I have great admiration for him. Instead of just asking him a simple question, I tried to be smart. In doing so, I think the final line, the lead-in to my question was, “What was the problem with your defense?”
Well, he crossed his arms, he got the scariest smile on his face I’ve ever seen, his face got a little red. I really do not have any recollection what he said. When I went back to my seat, the producer came in my ear and said, ‘Doris, do you mind if we don’t run it?’ I said, ‘Thank you for not humiliating me.’ It literally was that bad.
Well, fast forward three years and I’m doing the color analyst work. A different job. We go to his office during the pregame. Some subject came up, and he looked directly at me, ‘Doris, you’re a basketball person. You know what I’m talking about.’ He wouldn’t remember it, but for me, a woman doing that job, he’ll never have any idea how much that meant to me. And how much confidence that gave me.
Has he ever told you how much he doesn’t like doing the in-game interview?
Well, it’s blatantly obvious how much he objects to it. He wants to be in the huddle with his team. It’s not optional for him. Unfortunately for the sideline reporters, it’s not optional for us either. If he doesn’t want to do it, he has to effort that kind of change with the league. We’re going in whether he wants to do it or not.
I think he has a great feel for human beings. He could sense if you’re less than secure. Or he could sense if the person asking the question is making it about (the interviewer) and as opposed to being about the game.
My worry is how he comes across to the viewing public. The one-word answer isn’t the true representation of Gregg Popovich, the man. In fact, it’s 180-degrees from the man.
You mentioned Phil Jackson as someone who also caused you “angst.” How so?
When the in-game interview first was instituted, so many coaches objected to doing it. They made it clear by the brevity of their answer or their tone of their answer, or their body language.
Phil is like Gregg Popovich. If you come with a question he doesn’t feel is appropriate, he will not hide his displeasure.
Who are the players and coaches who get it?
When Indiana upset the Knicks, David West in the post-game interview, gave me two well-thought, interesting responses. I don’t remember specifically what he said, but as he was leaving the court, I made a point of saying to him, “David, I so appreciate you taking the time to think about my question.” It was that good.
Doc Rivers is tremendous. If he’s angry, he’s going to let you know. He’s going to lay it on the line.
How about LeBron James?
I give him a lot of credit. He’s the big star and he has to answer questions after every game. It’s basketball. You can’t reinvent the wheel, and there’s only so many ways you can ask a question.
After the Heat won last year, I asked him, ‘Put this championship in perspective in light of everything you’ve gone through.’ I don’t have the exact quote, but it was excellent.
He is another very thoughtful guy. He tries to respond to the question that is asked as opposed to going in the direction he wants to go in.
How do you feel about the purpose of the in-game interviews?
I don’t think my feelings are necessarily important. There are times where we get great answers. What the percentage is relative to poor answers or pat answers, I don’t know. I will say this: I know that ESPN is very proactive in terms of focus groups. They are constantly asking viewers about what they like and don’t like. My sense is the in-game interviews get some positive feedback. Otherwise, they would serve no purpose.
The fans want to hear from the coaches, from the players. The only thing I’m trying to do when I ask a question is, “What would I be curious about if I was watching the game at home?”
As difficult as it was when Popovich said, ‘Turnovers, turnovers’ to me, I got three different texts from people in the business who said, ‘It is must-see TV.’ They understand the kind of reaction Popovich is going to have, and for them, it is entertaining content.
Part 2: On whether being a sideline reporter hurts Burke’s credibility as an analyst?