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Masks Up, Ratings Down

“The NFL’s first COVID-19 crisis raises doubt about the efficacy of protocols and whether the pro and college seasons can be completed, while Jimmy Butler smack-talks LeBron in an NBA Finals that needs viewers.”

Jay Mariotti

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Call it Coronakarma. In the same week COVID-19 hospitalized President Trump — just hours after he mocked the size of Joe Biden’s mask, said “the end of the pandemic is in sight’’ and continued a year-long delusional dance challenged in U.S. presidential history only by Frank Underwood in “House Of Cards’’ (and he wasn’t real) — how fitting to see the NFL slammed by its own virus crisis.     

A coincidence, it is not. In the league’s hellbent quest to snag as much of a $17 billion pot as possible this season, commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners embraced Trump’s urging that major sports play on through the pandemic, even if some of those owners loathe the president. As COVID continues to rage for a ninth month in America, what did all of these men gain from an abundance of hubris, ignorance and hypocrisy?

Grim answer: A place in medical limbo and potential American infamy, with the most powerful person in the free world and the most prominent sports enterprise in the Western Hemisphere weakened because neither treated the pandemic with appropriate concern. Trump has been tethered to his room in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, at the mercy of antibody cocktails, experimental treatments, steroids and whatever else they pump into his 74-year-old, somewhat obese body.

The NFL? Goodell has the freedom to apply common epidemiological sense and call an immediate timeout on the season, which would allow the league and its franchises to reassess protocols and make sure they know what they’re doing while risking the health of thousands. But that’s not how football people roll, even as players and coaches eschew masks, violate policies and make a daily mockery of a virus that has killed almost 210,000 Americans. The league marches on, despite evidence that sports playing inside restrictive environments — NBA, NHL — can avoid COVID-disruptions and complete seasons, while football on the professional and college levels is encountering the same perils outside a Bubble that pummeled Major League Baseball. The college game recklessly marches on, too, as fans foolishly allowed into stadiums on COVID-ravaged campuses are clustering without masks and social distancing, forcing SMU police to clear the entire student section Saturday and the SEC to ponder an autumn of outbreaks in the stands, which conceivably could spread to players.

People still don’t get it.

Until, you know, they GET it.

The sports model on how to survive in a pandemic has been authored, for the most part, by none other than LeBron James. Assuming Game 3 was a momentary and embarrassing snooze and not a sign of more lethargy ahead, the Lakers remain comfortably positioned to win the NBA Finals, though they’ve allowed a hungry badass named Jimmy Butler a crack in the concrete door. Disgusted as he left the court before the buzzer — the loss to the undermanned Heat means two more days in the Bubble — James can’t allow himself to commit eight turnovers and let various teammates, including Anthony Davis, be no-shows again in Game 4. Otherwise, the “LeBron legacy’’ questions become loud and persistent; the Heat, after all, are without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, leaving Butler to carry the night and mouth “trouble’’ to his Miami teammates in the closing seconds. As in, the Lakers are in trouble. They aren’t in trouble yet, but it makes for a more watchable series.

Butler, for instance, admitted to telling James, “You’re in trouble,’’ not long before James exited the court with 10 seconds left — not a good look, and one we’ve seen before in failure. Butler said he simply was responding to what LeBron told him earlier in the game. Observe how far Butler has come from humble beginnings, in life and basketball: He’s mouthing off to the King. “First of all, we’re not going to act like I’m just out there talking trash, because I’m not,’’ Butler said. “LeBron said it to me at the end of the first. That’s what happened. I just said it to him in the fourth quarter.’’

James took the high road, describing Butler as one of the game’s great competitors and someone he’ll miss when he retires from the sport. “I don’t feel like we’re concerned,’’ James said about a Lakers performance he deemed as “poor’’ Sunday night. “We know we can play a lot better. We have an opportunity to take a commanding lead Tuesday night.’’

And if they do, he’ll be one victory from an achievement more sweeping and impressive than finally claiming a title for Cleveland in 2016. For more than three months, James has stayed true to Bubble life, followed all the protocols, vigilantly fought racial injustice and police brutality, urged people to vote and vowed to win in Kobe Bryant’s memory while aiming for his fourth title. Shouldn’t everyone be taking notes in America, in sports?

Much of the country still refuses to grasp what’s happening, whether it’s a president who will return from the hospital and claim COVID really is the common flu or a league boss determined to navigate a season out of greed when Vegas odds don’t favor him. “We’re continuing to be vigilant, flexible and adaptable,’’ said Goodell, trotting out words he used in July when October demands much more urgency. In the space of days, the Tennessee Titans were shut down by a COVID outbreak of 20 cases while Cam Newton — one of the NFL’s biggest stories so far and a self-described “Superman’’ —  also tested positive for the virus. That quickly, the league was blindsided by an inescapable 2020 truth: Its expectation of completing the season, through the Super Bowl in February, can shrink to utter folly at any moment.

If there’s one certainty about this mindbleep of an infectious disease, it’s that anyone who thinks it’s a bunch of hooey soon will have his head or ass pressed against a toilet for days. The virus likely is determining the future leadership of this country. On a much lesser scale, it already has shot holes in the almighty NFL shield. Or, more to the point, COVID has popped at least four of Goodell’s “32 separate bubbles’’ before the regular season is a month old. When Newton’s positive test coincided with another positive test at the Chiefs facility, the league shifted Sunday’s hyped Chiefs-Patriots matchup to Monday night in Kansas City — assuming more tests don’t turn up positive. Cold reality is, the NFL schedule no longer can be written in anything but pencil. The two games postponed Sunday could be four games next week. Or seven next month.

Wrote Newton in a somber-faced Instagram selfie, which shows a mask worn improperly on his neck: “I will never question God’s reasoning; just will always respond with `Yes Lord!!’’’ I appreciate all the love, support, and WELL WISHES!! I will take this time to get healthy and self reflect on the other AMAZING THINGS THAT I SHOULD BE GRATEFUL FOR!!!’’

Brady, after throwing five touchdown passes Sunday to outduel Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, didn’t comment about the health status of his New England successor. It’s best he said nothing; Brady was the one flouting protocols by practicing without a mask at a Tampa public park. “We were told during training camp that this could happen, if you’re not diligent, you’re not careful,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m home-schooling my kids, we’re not having guests over at the house. You have to do those things if you want to play the games on Sundays.”

Sounding much like commissioner Rob Manfred when MLB was reeling from outbreaks, the NFL is pointing fingers. The problem, the league says, isn’t with the protocols; the failure lies in the protocols not being followed, which the league expects to find as representatives scour the Nashville landscape for clues. This as the league conducted a conference call with all teams concerning COVID “accountability, learnings and requirements.’’ What Goodell won’t admit, like Manfred, is that the NFL didn’t communicate COVID evils strongly enough from the season’s outset. Seven head coaches have failed to wear face masks on the sidelines, including two (Jon Gruden and Sean Payton) who contracted the virus, setting a poor example for the league and the U.S. population. Ravens coach John Harbaugh lowered his mask to argue with an official, spraying saliva droplets in the poor guy’s face. Last week, several Raiders players weren’t wearing masks or socially distancing during a charity event in Nevada. No amount of fines or threats of suspensions and docked draft picks seems to faze the men in uniform when in the heat of battle.

Leave us alone, they say. We’re busy.

“I understand that we’re all chasing perfection,” Harbaugh said. “We try to be as perfect as we can. It’s a pretty hard standard to hold other people to. But you try the best you can. That’s all I really have to say about it.”

Perfection? We’ll accept mask mediocrity at this stage.

All of which throws America into a deeper daze as it searches, in vain, for any semblance of normalcy in sports. Distracted by Trump’s illness and the many news channels smothering it, sports fans have tuned out the NBA Finals; Game 1 was the lowest-rated Finals game since 1994, when millions were busy watching O.J. Simpson in a white Bronco. At least baseball is playing its postseason in its customary month, but if viewership has taken a beating in previous autumns, how many will watch now? Ratings are undeniably down throughout the industry. And it’s not hard to explain.

The scope and grandeur of sports simply isn’t the same. It’s difficult to wrap oneself into a game when your team, even the Lakers or Stanley Cup champion Lightning, is in a Bubble with no fans or pomp. Or when you have no idea if a game will be postponed or how many missing players will dilute the experience. Or when the NFL’s biggest stories are Josh Allen and the 4-0 Bills, the Kevin Stefanski-revived Browns and the dismal Cowboys, who are worse under Mike McCarthy than they were under Jason Garrett. Or when college football actually is moving forward with a four-team playoff when ACC teams are playing 11 games, the SEC and Big 12 are playing 10 games, the Big Ten is playing nine and the Pac-12 is playing seven. At some point, the joy of having sports is interrupted by the jolt that sports is still very messed up and disjointed without fans in the arena and disposable energy across America. Even when Russell Wilson throws 16 TD passes in four games and leaves the stage to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, a delectable treat is shrouded in the 2020 haze.     

Though only a few realists wanted to hear it, football is the sport most vulnerable to the coronavirus. As I’ve said and written, ad nauseam, dozens of players and personnel on each team are perpetually in close contact — on lines of scrimmage during games and practices, at facilities, in locker rooms, on road trips in planes and hotels and dining rooms. The NFL has been administering daily COVID tests — and an outbreak happened anyway, with the Titans reporting positive tests for 10 players and 10 personnel members. That should sound alarms that the worst could be ahead. Exposed to the outside world every day, NFL and college teams are required to be extra-diligent when they return to their living quarters or, perhaps, wander into public restaurants and bars. For weeks, the NFL’s plan seemed to work. After the Titans’ outbreak, the most accomplished coach of his time, Bill Belichick, voiced pride in how the Patriots were eluding COVID issues. “We monitor everything every day. We don’t just do it when there’s a problem or something comes up somewhere else,’’ he said. “We do it on a daily basis and make everyone aware — because this is everybody. It’s not just players; it’s players and coaches and staff and everybody else. If we can do something better, then we talk to them about how we can do it better. So we try to monitor it the best we can, and we, I think, are pretty vigilant with all of us.”     

Until Newton was placed on the dreaded reserve/COVID-19 list. This forced the Patriots to take a game-day flight — two planes, 3 1/2 hours in the air — and turn to backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham in a rushed reset Monday night. See how this already has altered competitive balance at the most important position in team sports and further discombobulated a schedule complicated by a Titans-Steelers postponement? It doesn’t require much imagination to see how the season could become a logistical entanglement; at least MLB, when it was bombarded by summer outbreaks, had time to shut down a team or two for weeks. The NFL doesn’t have such a luxury. As for the idea of sequestering everyone in hotels in home cities, the Players Association shut it down.     

Of course, there still is no exact science about how COVID is contracted and spreads. In the Titans’ case, multiple positive tests over several weeks seemed to take an eventual toll. In other cases, a player can catch it from a family member or child or simply by happenstance. On the college level, Notre Dame’s outbreak was linked to players and coaches sitting together for a team meal — dumb, dumb, dumb — and a player vomiting on the sideline. Such irresponsibility is a poor reflection on school leadership — namely the president, Red. John I. Jenkins, who was maskless when he attended the ceremony for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Apologizing to students, Jenkins wrote in a letter: “I know many of you have read about the White House ceremony I recently attended. I write to express my regret for certain choices I made that day and for failing to lead as I should have.’’ Days later, after Trump saluted Notre Dame during a debacle of a presidential debate, Jenkins tested positive for the virus.     

If it can happen in Tennessee, if it can happen in South Bend, it can happen anywhere.     

The NFL insults us all by treating the virus like an ankle sprain and simply playing the game a night or two later. College football, with a power base in the Southeast, can be even more careless. The coach who slayed LSU last month, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, hasn’t been wearing his facial covering as mandated by the SEC. “I tried to remember the best I could. Then I found myself talking all the time,’’ said Leach, who calls the team’s offensive plays. “So between me taking it down to talk, me lifting it up and it falling down on its own and me remembering to put it back up, I think there were a number of challenges there.”     

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, responded with a two-page memo to coaches and warned of consequences. Leach responded with trademark sarcasm in a back-and-forth with the New York Times. “Do you ever find that pretty soon those things will start to smell bad, and all of a sudden, you’re going: `What’s that smell? What’s going on out there?’ No, there’s nothing going on out there. That’s your breath,’’ he said. “I find myself too preoccupied to do it, and then all of a sudden I notice it’s around my neck down there.’’     

Eventually, Leach centered on the political heart of the matter. “I try to do my best with it,’’ he said, “but once you’re six feet apart, I can’t help but wonder if some of this isn’t a homage to politicians.’’     

Saturday, Leach and Mississippi State were muffled in a shocking loss to Arkansas. The Razorbacks’ first-year coach, Sam Pittman, dutifully wears a mask, saying, “I couldn’t live with myself if I thought I had transferred the virus to somebody.’’     

Coronakarma, to paraphrase John Lennon, is gonna get you.

BSM Writers

What Tom Brady Needs To Know Before His First Fox Broadcast

“Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tom Brady announced he is retiring from the NFL today. It happened literally a year to the day since the last time he retired.

The last retirement lasted just 40 days. Before the end of March of last year, Tom Brady had decided he was done pretending to be happy about embracing life off of the field and announced he was returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a third season.

I guess we cannot rule out that that will happen again. The difference this time around, at least for Tom Brady’s professional life, is that he has a plan for his future. Now that his playing days are over, it is time for him to start his ten-year deal with FOX to be the analyst in the network’s top NFL booth.

Audiences do not know what to expect. No one can deny that Brady brings star power. He is the GOAT after all, but we cannot say for sure if he will be any good.

The pressure is tremendous too. Not only is Tom Brady embarking on a new career, but football fans seem to have taken a liking to the guy he is about to unseat. Whether Greg Olsen gets kicked back down to the number two booth or he is forced to share the spotlight in a three-man booth, plenty of people will look at Brady as the reason we hear less from the guy regarded by many as the best analyst on TV right now.

Brady does not have much room for error here. Since that is the case, I thought I would get some perspectives from people that can help him out. I asked three people to give me their best advice for Tom Brady.

Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.

THE PLAYER TURNED ANALYST: ANTHONY BECHT

In 2000, the New York Jets used the 27th pick of the NFL Draft to select Anthony Becht. He played for five different teams during his twelve NFL seasons.

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Courtesy USA Today

His broadcasting career began in 2013. Becht worked on ESPN for eight years as an analyst on the network’s college football games. He has since abandoned the booth to return to the sidelines. He will be the head coach of the St. Louis Battlehawks when the XFL starts its third first season this month.

I texted and asked him to look back on his broadcasting career. What does he wish he knew before he started? Here are the three pieces of advice that he had for Tom Brady.

1. Less is more. Folks want to watch the game and just know the “why”. Providing tangible information in a five or six second window is key.

2. Fans want to know about your personal experiences as a player – information and stories they can’t get or wouldn’t even know about because they never did it at the level we did. Share those when the time comes in a game.

3. Have a strong opinion about what you agree or disagree with, but be able to voice it without being demeaning towards players and coaches. It’s an art form and takes time to articulate that in a way that’s done right. I never bash any player or coach because a lot of work goes into be a professional athlete and coach. That needs to be respected but critiqued appropriately.

Anthony Becht via text message

THE PLAY-BY-PLAY LEGEND: TIM BRANDO

Tim Brando has worked with a lot of people. That happens when you have been calling football and basketball action on TV for as long as he has. When I called him on Wednesday to discuss what is ahead for Tom Brady, he drew on his experience with another Brady.

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Courtesy FOX Sports

Brando was working with Jole Klatt in his early days at FOX, but he and Klatt were not going to be an exclusive team. He remembers Brady Quinn coming in to their booth shortly after his NFL career had eneded. Quinn was about to make his debut for FOX. Before they were ready to turn him loose, the network wanted the former quarterback to get a feel for the pace and atmosphere of a broadcast booth.

I do think it’s important that you have a new talent understand what that workplace is like in the booth – the choreography that takes place, because there is choreography. If the ball is deflected, your spotter’s hands are coming together like a bad clap. If there’s a hit, who caused the hit? Who stripped it? So there’s a hand signal for stripping the ball and then recovering the ball with the arms closing together. So who got the recovery? Who caused the fumble? Those things are always helpful.

There are things that are going on frantically in the booth, but you as a broadcaster have to remain calm, understand it, and sound succinct and confident. That just takes time and it takes reps. 

That’s one of the great things I think that Greg (Olsen) probably had an advantage in, as do a lot of analysts that get better over time. They do games of lesser importance that maybe the whole world is not watching. 

Tim Brando via Telephone

Tom Brady won’t have the luxury of time or of reps under the radar. He may get to do a few practice games, but the first time he will be calling a game on live television, it will be one of the biggest of the week.

Brando says in that case, it is really important that Brady use his instincts to his advantage in the booth the way he did on the field.

I don’t know Tom well, but I know him well enough to know that he prides himself on preparation. I don’t doubt for one minute that he will be prepared. He’s obviously an incredible competitor. You know, this is a this is a business of competition too. 

If you’re a great player, just like a coach, you love the ecstasy of victory. You don’t want to admit it, but you love the agony of the defeat as well. That feeling of defeat is something we feed on to motivate you for your next performance. In television and sports television, you don’t get that in terms of winning and losing, but you do get it if you look at it as a great performance, 

I believe that all great broadcasters are performers at heart. It takes a certain level of of a theater. It’s live. It’s not scripted. 

I think some players that get in the booth that are looking to have that same, you know, euphoria that they have after playing and winning a game. Some of them get that and understand that in broadcasting and get out of that the same thing and others don’t.

Tim Brando via Telephone

THE BROADCASTING COACH: GUS RAMSEY

Plenty of broadcasters turn to Gus Ramsey for critiques and advice. The Program Director for the Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting at Full Sail University is also a broadcasting coach working with clients at all levels of the business. They trust his opinion because of his professional experience.

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Courtesy Full Sail University

In a prior life, Ramsey was the producer of SportsCenter on ESPN. He has worked with a number of incredibly talented people and been tasked with taking newbies to new heights, so I asked him what he would be thinking if it were his job to get Tom Brady ready for his first FOX broadcast.

Sometimes great athletes forget that most humans don’t know what the athletes know. Things that are basic or simple or even mundane to the athlete are incredible pieces of wisdom or insight to the average fan.

When I was at ESPN we had Tony Gwynn in for an episode of Baseball Tonight. In our show meeting, Tony was explaining why a hitter was slumping because we was cupping his wrist. He went on explaining it for 30 seconds or so. The room was in total silence, eating up every word. The greatest hitter of our generation was doing a deep-dive on hitting. It was amazing.

Tony suddenly got a little self-conscious, stopped explaining and apologized for “going on too long” and we were all like “No!! Keep going!” Tony thought is was boring. It was just the opposite.

Athletes can think things they’ve learned and repeated their whole lives are common knowledge so sometimes they don’t share that info because they think “everyone knows this.”

I want to walk away from a broadcast feeling like I learned something. Sometimes the ex-athlete doesn’t realize how much educating they can do in a broadcast.

The other thing I always encourage former athletes or coaches to do is to take the viewer where they’ve never been; on the field, in the locker room, in a contract negotiation, etc. If you can get that viewer to fully appreciate the feelings and emotions of what goes on in those places, you enhance the experience for us.

Terrell Davis was an analyst on NFL Network for a bit after his career. He once described Champ Bailey running back an interception 100 yards by saying as Bailey got to the 50 yard line “right here it feels like someone put sandbags on your ankles.” I’ve never run 100 yards in a football uniform in Denver’s altitude, but Terrell’s line helped me better understand what it feels like.

Gus ramsey via text message

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BSM Writers

Mark Packer Loves Reading Your Memories & Tributes to Billy Packer

“I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports.”

Tyler McComas

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It still stands today as one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of Arizona basketball. Three simple words said it all as the Wildcats celebrated an overtime win over Duke to win the 1997 national championship. “Simon says championship.” Those were the words of legendary broadcaster Billy Packer as Miles Simon fell to the floor with the ball in his hands. It’s one of many lines his son, Mark Packer, has been reminded of recently.

It was the perfect three words after the country just watched Simon carry Arizona to college basketball glory. Packer captured the moment perfectly, just like he did during every Final Four for 34 years.

Packer passed away last Thursday at the age of 82 but his legacy and impact in sports broadcasting will never perish. He was heard during every NCAA Tournament from 1975 to 2008 and was on the call for some of college basketball’s most iconic moments, including Michael Jordan’s shot to win the 1982 National Championship, Bird vs Magic in 1979, and even Kansas completing an improbable comeback to win the 2008 championship in his last broadcast. And the best part of it all was that Packer did it his own way, with his own unique style.

“It has really been remarkable,” said Mark Packer. “When Billy passed Thursday night we put it out on Twitter and it took off but I didn’t really know what to expect on Friday and Saturday as far as reaction. But the tributes have been fantastic and our family has loved it.

“I have heard from just about everybody and their brother. Folks I never thought I’d hear from, I’ve heard from them, such as commissioners, whether it be the NBA, whether it be other Power 5 leagues, I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports. To me, that’s been comforting to all of us. It just reinforced all the stuff we knew he was about and brings back special memories.”

Packer’s style of broadcasting has been well-documented over the years. He was honest about what he saw and always spoke his mind. Granted, that didn’t always sit well with college basketball fans, but Packer wasn’t concerned about that. He was honest because he cared. 

“He wanted the game of college basketball to be the best it possibly could be,” said Mark.  “When he saw things he did not like, the one thing he always did was speak his mind. He ruffled feathers and he didn’t care. His intent was to make the game the No. 1 priority. You realize now he didn’t have it out for your team, he was just speaking his mind.”

That style meant fans would often yell at games, ‘You hate Duke! You hate North Carolina!’ Packer’s honesty was often taken by fans as he hated their favorite team. He used to laugh at that, just as Mark does know when he thinks about those moments. That’s because Mark can remember feeling the same way as other fanbases as a kid growing up rooting for NC State. 

“When he was calling an NC State game I thought he was always out to get my team,” laughed Mark. “He’d be doing a game in Raleigh — we grew up in Winston-Salem — and the next morning after the game I would be eating breakfast before school and I would say ‘Man, Billy, you really got on so-and-so last night, what’s your problem with NC State?’

“He used to just laugh, because I thought he had an agenda against my team. Of course the funny thing is, we’d go on trips with him to other games and you’d hear fans say, ‘Billy Packer hates my team!’ It almost became a laughing joke, even amongst the family members, that Billy Packer was out to ruin your team’s day when he does a ballgame.”

Mark has always referred to his dad the same his television partners did. That goes for his two other siblings, as well. “Dad” was rarely, if ever, said in the Packer household. Instead, the legendary broadcaster was called by his first name.

“The fact they called him Billy on television, we never called him dad,” said Mark. “We just called him Billy.”

As you can imagine, ‘Billy’ had a lot of stories. That’s normally the case when you’re around the game’s greatest players and broadcast the legendary games we still talk about today. Packer was always quick to share those stories with his family, which made for an entertaining childhood.

Out of the hundreds of messages Mark has received since his dad’s passing, he says he hasn’t heard any stories he’s never heard before. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t been telling him stories about his father.

“We’ve heard them all, quite frankly,” laughed Mark. “Maybe the thing that was so funny about it was that it reinforced some that we thought were total BS when we heard them the first time.”

Packer will always be synonymous with college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. He was the voice of the sport during its golden era and helped bring the magic to TV sets across the world. If Mark had to guess what his dad is most proud of regarding his broadcasting career, he says it would be just that. 

“From a broadcasting standpoint, probably the Final Fours,” said Mark. “When you, I think the number was 34 I heard, and he did so many of them, for us, we kind of took it for granted. It was just something he did. It was March and Billy is about to go do March Madness. It was just fabric for not only him personally, but also the family. He just loved the sport and wanted it to be good.”

Mark has carved out an incredible broadcasting career of his own. He’s hosted both radio and TV shows with outlets such as the ACC Network, WFNZ in Charlotte, and ESPNU. Having a front row seat to one of the most iconic careers in broadcasting, undoubtedly helped shape his career. Mark is very forthcoming as to what lesson he took from his dad the most. 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Mark said. “That’s prep. He always studied. He was always coming up with notes and angles and facts. I have always done that with the radio and TV shows, that you constantly prep, you constantly read and make notes. You may not use but 10 percent of whatever you’ve been studying, but somewhere down the road you’ll use it again.

“When we were cleaning out his closet I ran into an entire box of old notes that he had from games from yesteryear. I kept every one of them and I can’t wait to look at them and relive those games and see his prep work and point of detail for all those games.”

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster

Anatomy of an Analyst: Doris Burke

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.”

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Basketball and Doris Burke have been synonymous for many years. At the age of 7, she started to play the game that would eventually get her to the top of her profession. Along the way she’s recorded many firsts for women in this field which I’ll detail later. Burke has also become an inspiration to other women already in broadcasting and those thinking about a career in media. Pretty impressive. 

Burke was raised in Manasquan, New Jersey. She was the youngest of eight children, and started playing basketball in the second grade. She starred at Providence, where she was the team’s point guard all four of her years there and made an impact immediately. 

During her freshman year, Doris Burke led the Big East in assists. She was a second-team All-Big East player once and twice made the all-tourney team of the Big East Women’s basketball tournament. Burke held seven records upon graduation, including finishing her career as the school and conference’s all-time assists leader, a record that has since been broken. She served as an assistant coach for her alma mater for two years from 1988-90.

From there it was time to embark on a Hall of Fame career.

ROAD TO ESPN/ABC

Burke began her broadcasting career in 1990 as an analyst for women’s games for Providence on radio. That same year, she began working in the same role on Big East Women’s games on television, and in 1996 she began working Big East men’s games. 

Doris Burke has been working for ESPN covering basketball in different roles since 1991. It has also allowed her to do other things along the way that were unchartered for women in the business. In 2000, Burke became the first woman to be a commentator for a New York Knicks game on radio and on television; she is also the first woman to be a commentator for a Big East men’s game, and the first woman to be the primary commentator on a men’s college basketball conference package.  In 2017, Burke became a regular NBA game analyst for ESPN, becoming the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full regular-season role. 

If that wasn’t enough, from 2009 to 2019 she served as the sideline reporter for the NBA Finals on ABC. I mentioned it was a Hall of Fame career and it was officially deemed as such in 2018. Burke was selected to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the Curt Gowdy Media Award winner.

AS AN ANALYST

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.” Relying on her past experiences in the game as a player and coach, the information she brings her audience is relatable. Some analysts struggle to bring home a point in a way that a casual fan will understand. Burke has no trouble with this. Her ability to spell it out, concisely and conversationally sets her apart from most analysts, male or female. 

Burke attacks her job, knowing that some will question her authority when it comes to commentary on the NBA. She doesn’t mind steering into the skid.

“I am mindful of the fact that I have not played or coached in the NBA,” Burke said to Sportscasting.com last year. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t do a very competent job. I think I try to do that every single night, and I’m never afraid to ask questions.” 

It’s all about the information to Burke, and has nothing to do with the fact she’s a woman covering the NBA.

“If you enhance a viewer’s experience, it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she said. “As long as you are competent and put in the work … you’re going to be accepted.”

Doris Burke learned the ropes so to speak from several women that came before her. In an NBA.com piece from January of last year, she outlined how much she enjoyed watching former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Gayle Gardner. Early on in her career at ESPN, Burke got to work with Robin Roberts on WNBA and women’s college basketball broadcasts along with Ann Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman. Roberts was Burke’s inspiration as she started her career path. She admired the professionalism that each displayed. 

“Working alongside Robin Roberts … the one thing I would tell you is the most powerful means to change or impact somebody is by your actions,” Burke said. “She was the epitome of professionalism and competency and garnered the respect of the people around her because of the work habits she had. Watching Robin early on let me know that the basis for everything is the work you put into something.”

While Roberts may have been influential to Burke, Burke has been a beacon for other woman that are getting opportunities in broadcasting.  When asked about their role model, YES Network analyst Sarah Kustok, 76ers play-by-play broadcaster Kate Scott and former WNBA player and current Miami Heat studio analyst Ruth Riley Hunter all mentioned Burke by name.

“Burke is the best example for anyone — male or female,” Hunter told NBA.com. “I love the way she describes the game. She adds so much to every broadcast, and when I was playing in the WNBA I was always really inspired by her work.”

Burke is popular amongst her colleagues at ESPN/ABC, thanks to a tireless work ethic an ability to adapt to whichever sport she may be calling that day. Count Jeff Van Gundy among her biggest fans.

“She’s the best, most-versatile analyst and commentator at ESPN,” Van Gundy said of Doris Burke in 2017 via Deadspin. “She does it all—great interviewer, commentator, studio analyst—everything. And she is an expert at it all—women’s and men’s college basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. She’s the LeBron James of sportscasters. There’s no better broadcaster out there right now.”

Burke is equally a big fan of Van Gundy and the top broadcast crew for ESPN/ABC’s NBA coverage. That includes Mike Breen and Mark Jackson as well. 

“We are talking about three of the best to ever do it. Mark, Jeff and Mike have held down the NBA Finals for over a decade with commentary that is the best of the best. Hubie Brown is a living legend. All of those men have been nothing but gracious and supportive of me,” Burke told the Athletic. 

Doris Burke is considered one of the best NBA analysts around.  Her bosses at ESPN made sure to re-sign her to a multi-year deal and promised she will be involved in “high profile” NBA games in both the regular season and playoffs. Burke will also call finals games on ESPN Radio and appear on the NBA Sunday Showcase program on ABC.

Good for her and good for fans of the NBA on ESPN/ABC.

DID YOU KNOW?

In 2010, she was featured as the new sideline reporter for 2K Sports ‘NBA 2K11’ video game. She has appeared in every version since, including the latest ‘NBA 2K23’.   

As a senior at Providence in 1987 she was the school’s Co-Female Athlete of the Year.  

Her basketball idols growing up were Kyle Macy, Kelly Tripucka and Tom Heinsohn.  

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