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Breaking Into the Booth

Some of the brightest minds in NBA media are often kept on the sideline, but figures like Doris Burke and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude are changing what we expect to hear from announcers when we tune in to broadcasts

(Getty Images/YouTube/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/YouTube/Ringer illustration)

To know how Doris Burke felt that morning, you have to understand her roles. That night, she would work the second game of her eighth consecutive NBA Finals as a sideline reporter. Courtside updates were hers to give, and the between-quarter interviews were hers to conduct. Burke’s coordinating producer, Tim Corrigan, was sorting through topics for what would be her first on-air appearance that night, a quick, 30-second hit. He had an idea, an unusual one for a sideline reporter: Why doesn’t she break down Klay Thompson’s defense?

"My boss is acknowledging I do both roles," Burke told me over the phone that day, adding that the two shared a smile. "That was no small moment for me."

Burke’s other job is as an in-game analyst, the only member of the ESPN crew to do both. She’s adored for her commentary, talking basketball with a diligence that hardly lends itself to exaggeration. Telecasters can overstate the moment, but Burke has a genuine energy. As the NBA fuses with pop culture, so has her celebrity: Drake wore her face on a shirt during a Raptors game to show he "appreciated" her, NBA Twitter recirculated a clip of Burke dribbling in a pencil skirt, and her relentless work ethic — hopping from the NBA to calling WNBA and college games in the same season — has made her one of the most respected guides of the game. But on this night, with her tending to the sideline, that responsibility would fall to the men on the call.

On an NBA telecast, there are only a couple of on-air roles to fill. The announcer’s booth is made up of two or three people — a play-by-play announcer, and up to two color commentators. The booth is complemented by a sideline reporter. Most broadcasts offer pregame, halftime, and postgame shows, populated by in-studio analysts and studio hosts.

Providing the analysis Corrigan suggested that night is largely taboo for someone filling Burke’s position as a sideline reporter, for obvious reasons. The time is limited. Color commentators are, with rare exception, almost always former players or coaches, and reporters don’t often meet those requirements. The analyst’s chair is already reserved for that voice, and that voice is almost never female.

"Do they need me doing basketball from the sideline?" Burke asked, listing off the résumés and many talents of Game 2 analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy to make her point. "No, they don’t. But the fact that they would welcome it. … Think about the shift. That is not an unimportant moment in the history of women in broadcasting."

Of the 52 people listed as ESPN, TNT, or regional network analysts this season, only three were women. Burke, Stephanie Ready in Charlotte, and Ann Meyers Drysdale in Phoenix. There are no female play-by-play announcers. On radio, Kara Lawson, who does color for ESPN, is the only woman in either role.

Which is not to say there are no women on NBA broadcasts. But their position is largely off to the side, just out of bounds: More than half of the league’s sideline reporters, 27 of 48, are female. It’s an entry to the field. And some use it to show their on-air capabilities, while others refuse.

"I always felt like the more versatile I was as an announcer," Burke said, "the more attractive I was to employers." Sideline reporting is, without question, an on-ramp. But will it lead anywhere?

"You have people in the business, women who will say, ‘I’m not doing sideline because I don’t want to get pigeonholed over there.’"

When the Indiana Pacers offered Ann Meyers Drysdale the chance to become the league’s first female TV analyst in 1979, her broadcasting portfolio started and ended with a few undergraduate classes.

"That was probably my first real job," recalls Meyers Drysdale, "and I was not good whatsoever."

The Pacers didn’t hire her for her on-air savvy: They liked her handle. The 5-foot-9 guard was already known as one of the most prolific basketball talents to ever come out of UCLA, and stories of her pickup games against Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving had traveled across the country. Pacers owner Sam Nassi was intrigued enough to invite Meyers Drysdale to try out for the team, offering her the security of a $50,000 contract.

Meyers Drysdale was the first female free agent to sign a contract with an NBA team, inking a personal service agreement that gave the team the option to keep her on in another role if she didn’t make the roster — or as the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Indiana, wrote, she would be "performing as-yet unspecified chores."

Though assistant coach Jack McCloskey called her "fundamentally" better than half the rookies at the tryout, Meyers Drysdale’s three-day stint ended without a spot on the roster, and she was reassigned to the Pacers broadcast. Almost 40 years later, she is one of only three female analysts working on an NBA TV broadcast.

Since then, Meyers Drysdale has done it all, including color for the 2003 NCAA women’s championship, which it turns out was Doris Burke’s first assignment on the sideline, one she "basically begged" ESPN’s brass to let her do. "I know her history," Burke said of Meyers Drysdale. "She paid a price I never had to pay."

Today, Meyers Drysdale’s analysis style is, in a word, efficient. In that 2003 championship game — a classic, featuring Diana Taurasi squaring off against Lawson — she showcased getting in and out of tight spots while managing to explain and embellish.

Meyers Drysdale is the only woman to get into the booth after a failed NBA tryout, but her story isn’t unique. For women, becoming an analyst takes persistence, readiness, and a lot of good timing.

Brooklyn Nets reporter Sarah Kustok has worked the Barclays Center sideline since the arena opened in 2012. Three years in, her executive producer approached her about filling in as a color commentator for a game. She said yes. He asked again. That gradually led to the seven solo-analyst games she worked this season. But despite her experience doing color commentary for women’s college basketball, and even though analysis was her "first love," she never considered it a career option.

"I love the NBA," Kustok said, "and I love being a part of it. So I thought, OK, you can either host or be a sideline reporter. Those are the avenues you can go to be able to cover these teams."

In the recent past, television executives have viewed the position of color commentator in a similar fashion. Back in 2009, then-ESPN senior vice president Laurie Orlando told The Washington Post that, "Women have historically moved toward sideline reporters because that is what has been acceptable." Her statement insinuated what network casting long confirmed: Women holding other positions in a broadcast was largely unacceptable. Even with experience calling games in college, the WNBA, or the D-League, women are pushed to other areas in the men’s pro game. Industry thinking on this matter may have shifted slightly over the years, but you have to look hard to see it. The women who do these jobs are making the best of the hand they are dealt.

"It’s natural to put women in reporter roles," Golden State Warriors sideline reporter Rosalyn Gold-Onwude told me. "It’s just kind of a space that’s been reserved for them." She performs multiple roles in the industry, moving from league to league in Doris-esque fashion. During the NBA season, Gold-Onwude is courtside for the Golden State Warriors, and in the summer, she’s an analyst for the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

The Oracle sideline has been hers since 2014, a championship season for Golden State, and her first as a sideline reporter at any level. The Warriors organization was already familiar with the former Stanford guard, since Gold-Onwude was in her second year of doing color for the Warriors D-League affiliate when Golden State pitched her to Comcast, their regional network partner, for the position.

To Gold-Onwude, the role was foreign, but taking a sideline position was far easier to imagine than, say, Jim Barnett’s as the Warriors’ color analyst. Jobs in the booth afford their holders with near–Supreme Court longevity: Viewers become attached, and play callers are allowed to ripen their style and grow raspy, becoming our on-air grandfathers. Would it be a Celtics home game telecast without Tommy Heinsohn’s accent?

Here’s another question: If you Googled a male color analyst’s name, compared with the name of a female sideline reporter, would it turn up the same "20 hottest analysts!" search results? Appearance, and the expiration date attached to any job that values it, has haunted women throughout the sports media industry. If a position as stigmatized as sideline reporter is open most often, is it because its occupants are moving up, or being forced out?

Sacramento Kings sideline reporter Kayte Christensen is pragmatic about this idea. A former Phoenix Mercury forward, she’s started doing a three-hour spot on morning sports radio to show versatility beyond "asking questions and coming in and out of break," and off of a telecast.

"It’s like, ‘OK, well, when am I going to be phased out because I’m older?’" Christensen said. "When is it that I’m too old to be doing this anymore?"

"If I looked like Dick Vitale," Meyers Drysdale said, "I don’t think I’d be working."

The stereotype of the position, young and blond and female, has obvious exceptions. But concerns of aging off the broadcast are true for everyone in the job, and if you can’t stay in a position, there has to be mobility out of it. The late sportswriter Frank Deford wrote that the real tragedy of sideline reporters is that they "can only go side to side, never up."

"You want to continue to move up," Christensen, who before staffing the Kings sideline was an analyst for college, the WNBA, and the Kings studio shows, said in April. "Unfortunately, the next step for me, as a woman, is like, ‘Well, maybe you could host a show, but you’re never going to be an analyst.’"

Stephanie Ready is an exception to the rule, and has been since the start of her career in men’s basketball. When Ready was an assistant coach for the D-League’s Greenville Groove, the first woman to ever coach a men’s professional team, people would ask if she was the coach’s wife or a cheerleader.

"I’ve always been mistaken for everything except the job I was there to do," Ready said. "I’m like, ‘Do you see any other cheerleaders around here?’ What am I, a one-woman show?"

The day I met Ready, her credential tag gave away her job title. Sitting in Staples Center before a Lakers game in February, the Charlotte analyst threw up her hands and laughed at the story she told, livening the media room. She belonged in this field now, outside the locker room, and in a room full of journalists and bloggers; like most other factions of the NBA, the room was almost entirely male.

"I don’t intimidate very easily," Ready said. "My parents did that."

Her analyst partner in the booth, Dell Curry, sat at a table over from us, watching his son Steph play during the fourth quarter of the Warriors game on TV. In an hour, the Hornets and Lakers would tip off, and the duo would clock in. If Ready was mistaken for anything on her walk to the court that night, it would be her last position, a job she filled for 11 seasons in Charlotte: sideline reporter.

Ready became the league’s first female full-time analyst in 2015. She is the same person on-air as she was in the media room — the type to follow up a conversation about the debilitating role of sexism in basketball with a simpler question: Do I want a Smucker’s sandwich? Her producer gave her two. Their broadcast team — Curry, Ready, and play-by-play announcer Eric Collins — started joking 20 seconds into the game. Nothing is too serious (especially the mediocre Hornets). "We sit courtside for NBA games and talk about it. What a great job," said Ready. But in her analysis, nothing goes unnoticed.

A three-person booth can feel overcrowded, and both she and Curry have to pick their spots. But they’ve found a balance from eight years of working together — a patter developed while Ready was still on the sideline and would fill in occasionally when the other analyst was out.

Dei Lynam, an in-studio analyst for CSN Philly, has that kind of familiarity with a partner in the booth. The first time she called a 76ers game — after 18 years of covering the team, and two failed analyst auditions — producers paired her with a third analyst: Her dad, Jim, who coached in the league for 23 years. A week after her debut with him, the team analyst, Alaa Abdelnaby, had another conflict. And this time, Jim Lynam couldn’t make it, either.

"My dad couldn’t do it," Lynam said. "And so I was like, well, all right. We’re going to find out if they like me enough to do a game by myself." They did, breaking the package deal they originally approached her with. Lynam went on to do seven more games that season, just her and play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff.

"It always takes people in the position of a hiring process," Burke said, "to have confidence in, and to see the work of individuals, and then they might be more willing to put them in those positions. … All these women, the Stephanie Readys, the Sarah Kustoks, they have talent and they know the game. It’s really a matter of them having the opportunity." Burke continued: "Once they get a chance to witness your understanding of the game, then most people in the hiring process will say, ‘OK, wait a second. Now this person would be capable of filling a spot in the booth.’"

Communicating a depth of basketball knowledge isn’t always possible in the 30-second on-air hits that sideline reporters get. Their responsibilities within that time constraint, like between-quarter interviews, detailing injury updates, and sharing conversations from the huddle, don’t naturally align with the chance to share an opinion on the game. In 2014, Sports on Earth noted the difficulties in those spots, including producer approval, as "the unknown external limitations on sideline reporters" that "only exacerbate stereotypes about women in sports media" — namely, that they don’t know the game.

Women in the media are not in the dark about what’s facing them. On her show Garbage Time, Fox’s Katie Nolan said in 2014 that "women in sports television are allowed to read headlines, patrol sidelines, and generally facilitate conversation for their male colleagues."

Nolan’s point isn’t an affront to the worth of those jobs, but a critique about how there seems to be no graduation from reporter, to use a newspaper equivalent, to columnist. "And while the Stephen A. Smiths, Mike Francesas, Dan Patricks, and Keith Olbermanns of the world get to weigh in on the issues of the day," Nolan continued, "we just smile and throw to commercial."

Since that episode of Nolan’s show aired in 2014, Ready has become a full-time analyst and Kustok has made appearances in the Nets booth the past three seasons. NBC approached Gold-Onwude to be the analyst for the A-10 tournament. Lynam called her first NBA game, and afterward was approached to do regular color commentary for the Sixers’ D-League affiliate, the 87ers. Meyers Drysdale and Ready made history by working the same game.

"We are seeing things change," Burke said.

One of the reasons the sideline tree has borne more fruit the past few years is because networks now allow more flexibility in the role. Ready uses her coaching mind-set on the sideline, referencing stats that her producers now incorporate into the booth broadcast. "I’ve been talking about conversion rate for like, I don’t know how long, the last five, six, or seven years," she says. In Sacramento, Christensen found herself in a similar situation. She was in an analyst chair before she was on the Kings sideline, and her producer felt comfortable using her in an atypical role.

"To this day," Christensen said, "my fourth-quarter hit in games is something that I choose throughout the course of the game, something that I’m seeing on the floor. … It’s an analyst hit, 100 percent."

She shared the idea during an annual broadcasting conference that Kustok attended, and both have continued with it since. "All of us who have [analyst experience] have started to try and add that," says Kustok.

But even for someone as well respected as Burke, with all her analyst chops, a completely hybrid role has yet to be realized because of the nature of the sideline. The high-profile games she reports on have narratives to address and pressing injury statuses to confirm, and those responsibilities come first. On any particular night, she says, you leave out a million pieces of information.

On her way to Oracle Arena for Game 2, Burke received a call: There was a chance that Steve Kerr would return that night after 11 games of absence. The pregame presser confirmed it, and less than two hours before the tip, her piece on Klay Thompson’s defense was out. Kerr would be the open, and Burke prepared for the switch. It was exactly the type of breaking news that the sideline job was created for.

Curls framed Stephanie Ready’s face for an early January game last year. When she first got in the business of explaining X’s and O’s — to her mom, in middle school, with salt and pepper shakers executing pick-and-rolls — a ponytail would’ve worked just as well. But there were fewer cameras back then, and phrases like "two-point lighting" held no meaning. Ann Meyers Drysdale was to her right that night, rocking the same bob she had at the start of her broadcasting career.

"When I was thinking about getting into this business," Meyers Drysdale would tell me later, "I met with a really high-powered agent in Hollywood. We had lunch, and he said, ‘Well, you have short hair and short fingernails. You’ll never make it.’"

Hair short and fingernails short, Meyers Drysdale and Ready sat midcourt in Phoenix’s Talking Stick Resort Arena. That night, the .500 Hornets would suit up against the Suns, a team that had already dropped 25 games before the All-Star break. The basketball was clearly not breaking any records that evening. That honor was reserved for Ready and Meyers Drysdale, nearly 40 years after the latter stepped into the Pacers booth. They were two female analysts working the same game for the first time in history. Two women putting an end to first times.