PHILADELPHIA — In mid-April, on the last day of the N.B.A.’s regular season, a group of reporters gathered at the Wells Fargo Center here, buzzing with an urgent question: Would Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ impossibly elastic 6-foot-11 phenom, be in the lineup that night?
The player had recently been sidelined with a sore ankle. Whether or not he played against the Philadelphia 76ers could determine his team’s draw in the playoffs. A win would assure the Bucks a sixth seed. A loss could drop them to eighth — and an opening-round series against the top-seeded opponent.
But Mr. Antetokounmpo, known around the league as the “Greek Freak,” had other thoughts on his mind. Sitting courtside in what looked like a toddler-size chair, the Freak noticed an athletic woman in workout clothes a few yards away.
“Oh, that’s Doris,” he blurted, with all the self-control of a celebrity gawker. “Hey, Doris!”
“Doris” would be Doris Burke, the longtime ESPN basketball personality, who, 27 years into her career, last September became the first woman to land a regular job as an N.B.A. analyst on national television — cracking what many consider one of the highest, hardest glass ceilings in broadcasting.
For decades, women who cover men’s professional sports were subjected to the crudest form of hazing. The CBS reporter Lesley Visser has described entering an N.B.A. locker room in 1982 only to be heckled by a player for the Washington Bullets, who yelled (injecting an expletive), “Oh, God, no one told us there’d be a broad in here.”
But with Ms. Burke, the relationship appears to have come full circle. Members of the basketball intelligentsia routinely describe her as one of the game’s top analysts. When asked on a podcast about a recent Burke-called game, Kevin Durant, the most valuable player of last year’s N.B.A. finals, interrupted the interviewer to proclaim, “Doris is the greatest.” The Dallas Mavericks’ coach, Rick Carlisle, said she comes across as having played and coached at a high level, “yet has the gift for making the complex simple.”
Ms. Burke has shrewdly diagnosed the playoff malaise of struggling stars, and helped advance the compelling theory that Philadelphia’s rookie point guard, Ben Simmons, may be shooting with the wrong hand. (“I think he might be shooting righty next season,” she said.)
At times, watching Doris Burke work an N.B.A. arena can feel like watching Katy Perry work a bat mitzvah. Fans line up to take pictures with her. Maintenance workers gawk. A boy flanked by two friends told Ms. Burke that he admired her “voice and her knowledge.”
“They don’t even blink that I’m sitting in this chair tonight,” she said a few minutes later, almost surprised at the thought.
Yet despite the respect of her peers and her legions of fans, Ms. Burke gives off the vibe of someone who feels in a precarious position, ever conscious of the skepticism toward women in a male-dominated profession. And it is all coming to a head as a deadline looms.
“My contract ends Oct. 31,” she told me at one point. “It’s very anxiety-producing.”
Doing Her Homework
On the morning of a broadcast, Ms. Burke receives four emails from ESPN to help her prepare — a collection of news clippings and statistics.
But she has long since formulated her thoughts on the teams by this point. Ms. Burke, 52, typically watches two games each night to track details like defensive sets and substitution patterns, taking notes throughout.
“I will fall asleep on the West Coast game,” she said. “I’ll have to rewatch it in the morning if it’s worthy.”
She is particularly obsessed with the end of close games, when she will rewind plays three or four times to make sure she has properly digested them.
By the time she arrives at the arena for a morning shoot-around, Ms. Burke usually has something fairly specific she wants to nail down. On this day, she was interested in defense — specifically, how the Bucks planned to stop Mr. Simmons. Before long, Ms. Burke bee-lined to the Bucks’ 27-year-old assistant coach, Josh Broghamer, who would not have looked out of place at a high school rec league.
Mr. Broghamer seemed almost surprised by the attention. He described how the Bucks planned to pressure Mr. Simmons far away from the basket to make it easier for his defenders to get around screens (essentially stationary blockers) that the Sixers might set.
“How much are you changing schemes?” Ms. Burke asked, alluding to the concept of changing defensive tactics midgame.
“I don’t know that we’re changing schemes,” he said. “But you have to get back and play D.”
You could watch Ms. Burke make her way through game day and forget that a woman, and not one of the dozens upon dozens of men from over the years, was doing this job.
Still, there are some challenges that only she must deal with.
After lunch and a little downtime, she changed into her broadcast attire and caught a car back to the arena. She had set aside more than an hour for her makeup session before a 5:45 p.m. interview she planned to tape. But because of some confusion over where the makeup artist would meet her, the process took a little longer than usual. At 5:35, Ms. Burke had to hustle to a locker room on the other side of the building, where Phil Dean, her producer, and the play-by-play man, Mark Jones, were idly passing the time. Mr. Jones had left the hotel an hour later and looked smart in a gray suit and fuchsia tie.
(And Ms. Burke must endure an additional indignity: “Is anybody in here? Hello?” she called out as she walked around the corner to a bathroom.)
There are also subtle ways that men treat her differently. “I’ve had more coaches in pregame meetings apologize for cursing,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I swear like a pirate. You don’t have to worry about that.’”
Even some who work closely with her can have the occasional blind spot.
In February, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that it would give Ms. Burke its top honor for writers and broadcasters. A colleague who’s a play-by-play announcer, Mike Breen, promptly sent her a congratulatory text saying she set the standard for women in basketball broadcasting.
When he next saw her, he apologized. “I needed to take out the word ‘female,’ and say she’s the best broadcaster in the business,” Mr. Breen said. “I’m an idiot for using it.”
From Big East to Big Time
In 2003, ESPN approached Ms. Burke with a proposition: How would she like a spot on the network’s top men’s college basketball broadcast?
Ms. Burke, an all-Big East guard at Providence College in the mid-1980s, had been calling games since 1990, when she gave up a career as an assistant coach in order to start a family. She had progressed from calling women’s college games on radio to men’s games on television, even men’s and women’s pro games. By the late 1990s, she was doing dozens of broadcasts each year.
But the offer came with a catch: Ms. Burke would have to work the sideline — conducting interviews and doing short bits humanizing the players — while the broadcasting fixture Dick Vitale did the color analysis.
Mark Shapiro, then an ESPN executive vice president, told Ms. Burke that it could be a serious reporting job, not fluff. “There was a notion that sideline reporting was a chance to showcase diversity,” he told me. “The men would be in the booth, and if there’s a place for a woman broadcaster, it’ll be on the sideline. Making the stereotype worse was that sideline reporters needed to be pretty. It was ridiculous. It was overdue to be called out.”
Still, Ms. Burke was hesitant. She had always thought of herself as an analyst. “My whole push was I wanted to do all basketball,” she said.
Other female analysts had the sense that there was a double standard. A man hoping to become an analyst on a major broadcast would typically start off doing less visible jobs and land higher-profile analyst assignments as he progressed. Former N.B.A. players like Tim Legler and Mark Jackson largely followed this path. Female analysts, on the other hand, often seemed to be diverted to the sideline at a certain point — and many stayed there for years.
“I had seen so many women get pigeonholed,” said Kara Lawson, a former University of Tennessee and W.N.B.A. star who started her career as an analyst in the early 2000s.
Ms. Lawson, who became the full-time analyst for the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards in 2017, said she had rejected numerous offers to work the sideline over the years. “The basketball guys are not doing years of sideline,” she said. “I saw myself as one of them.” (TNT has used former men’s players on the sideline in special “players only” broadcasts since 2017.)
Ms. Burke’s solution to the problem was, in effect, to work two or three jobs at once. She appeared in dozens of games as a sideline reporter, then dozens more each year as an analyst, frequently for regional coverage on lesser ESPN channels.
By the early part of this decade, she had made it by any reasonable measure: She was the regular sideline reporter for the N.B.A. playoffs, including the finals; a regular analyst on ESPN for some of the highest-profile men’s and women’s college games; and an occasional N.B.A. game analyst.
But the pace of the work was preposterous. “It was three separate jobs,” her adult daughter, Sarah, told me. “The anxiety came with ‘I was so focused on the N.B.A. the past six days, I haven’t had a chance to see this one team’ — going into the game with that kind of pressure.”
Ms. Burke, who is divorced, could have been forgiven for wondering when she would finally get a promotion that allowed her to focus on the premier telecast: men’s professional sports.
Andrea Kremer, a longtime ESPN reporter who now works for HBO “Real Sports” and the NFL Network, said she believed there was a failure of imagination among male broadcast executives. She recalled having lunch with a top ESPN executive nearly 10 years ago, when the network was on the verge of filling its analyst opening on “Monday Night Football.”
“He was saying, ‘ We’re going to go unconventional and blow everybody away,” Ms. Kremer recalled. The executive swore her to secrecy and then revealed the name: Jon Gruden, at the time a former head coach of the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I was laughing,” she said. “Really? If you want to be unconventional, I’ll tell you who to put in the booth. Put me or Michele or Suzy or Pam” — that is, the longtime sideline reporters Michele Tafoya, Suzy Kolber and Pam Oliver.
Susan Bordo, a gender and women’s studies professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton,” said another element was mostly likely at work: Women tend to be viewed favorably when they’re in a supporting role but suspiciously when they’re seen as trying to advance themselves.
The sideline reporter role “provides a certain comfort that the gender roles are in place,” Ms. Bordo said.
She speculated that, in the same way that many women were able to have accomplished political careers when they succeeded their deceased husband in office, it would be easier for a woman to succeed as an analyst after many years in a supportive sideline role.
“Some women are going to do better in the public imagination when they’re seen as having been devoted wives first,” she said.
For most of her career, Ms. Burke said, she often felt something ranging from indifference to icy skepticism, even outright hostility from certain fans. A picture mocking her swollen eyes, after a brutal travel schedule, once circulated on the internet.
But about three or four years ago, much of the skepticism began to melt. “The reception toward me is fundamentally different,” she said. “It is so fundamentally different when I walk into a building.”
In 2016, the video game NBA 2K, which is beloved by players, promoted Ms. Burke from sideline reporter to color analyst. “I will say they enhanced my body parts in that game,” she said. “I have a fairly significant backyard, but they enhanced it slightly.”
Then, in September, life imitated PlayStation. When a regular position in ESPN’s analyst rotation opened up, Ms. Burke, with a nudge from her friend and colleague Jeff Van Gundy, called ESPN’s lead N.B.A. producer to express interest in the job.
The producer couldn’t give her an immediate answer but did not play especially coy. “I think by the end of the day we’ll have some good news for you,” he said.
Ms. Burke was not the first full-time female N.B.A. analyst. In 2015, Fox Sports Southeast named Stephanie Ready, a former college basketball player and assistant men’s coach who had spent years as a sideline reporter, an analyst for its local broadcast of the Charlotte Hornets.
But after two years, the network sent Ms. Ready back to the sideline. Executives assured her that they were pleased with her work but said having her in the broadcast booth made it hard to collect information about injuries and other developments.
“I was very disappointed and surprised when they told me that,” Ms. Ready said in an interview. “I’m thinking, this supposed to be a meritocracy — that if you’re good, then you’re supposed to stay or excel, progress.”
The change caught the attention of Ms. Burke, who was just then stepping into her full-time role in ESPN. “That was a difficult decision to watch from afar,” she told me.
The fragility of a television career seems to periodically weigh on her. ESPN has yet to open serious discussions about renewing her contract after it expires this fall. Although this is not unusual for a broadcaster, Ms. Burke said that having a new job since her last contract, along with recent changes at the network, including the resignation of its president, John Skipper, had heightened her anxiety. (ESPN has a strong reputation for promoting female broadcasters, and executives have said they are extremely pleased with her performance.)
While awaiting the start of the game in Philadelphia, she glanced down at her phone and saw that Mr. Durant had decided to restructure his deal with the Golden State Warriors.
“Contract year,” Mr. Dean, her producer, said.
“I know all about that,” Ms. Burke quipped.
She said she hoped to retire from broadcasting by age 60 so she can spend time with future grandchildren, maybe even coach high school basketball. But she wondered whether women older than that would be allowed to continue on television if they chose to.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I have paid attention to disparities, or what I consider to be different treatment,” Ms. Burke said.
Then she considered her own situation, and how she might be treated differently from Mr. Van Gundy or Mr. Jackson, the two top N.B.A. analysts for ABC and ESPN.
“The reason I’m fiendishly drawing end-of-game plays when I’m taking notes is what if I screwed up something down the stretch of a game?” Ms. Burke said. “How might that be interpreted relative to if Jeff or Mark, who both coached the game, did the same thing?”
Her voice wavered slightly.
“I do worry about that.”