Every NBA broadcast has three main on-air components, the play-by-play announcer, analyst(s), and the sideline reporter. For the play-by-play and analyst, their impact on a broadcast is easy to see, as they’re calling the action throughout.
For the sideline reporter, the ability to have that impact is much different. On some nights, their presence isn’t tremendously felt beyond the between quarter coach interviews and postgame walkoff interview with one of the players from the winning team. Other times, they are critical in relaying information if there’s a major injury during the game or in adding color to the broadcast with an anecdote about a player having a big game.
During the regular season and early in the playoffs Doris Burke serves in the analyst role, as she has become one of the best in the business at breaking down the game and offering insight into what the two teams are doing (or failing to do). For the NBA Finals, she shifts back to the sideline role she long held prior to her move to full-time analyst a few years ago, partnering with Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson in the booth.
Burke knows as well as anyone the differences between the two roles, but also the similarities in how much preparation is required going into a broadcast. Speaking with Burke shortly after the NBA All-Star break, she explained how legendary commentator Al Trautwig offered her the best advice she got on handling the sideline role and the frustrations that can come with it.
“The best piece of advice I received on that part of the job came to me from Al Trautwig from MSG Networks and of course NBC’s coverage of the Olympics,” Burke tells Dime. “I didn’t know how to do the job, so I talked with Michelle Tafoya and Al Trautwig, because they were the people in my universe who I knew, and Al once said to me, there are going to be nights where you step off the air as a sideline reporter and you’re going to think to yourself, ‘Wow, I really think I helped the broadcast and elevated our coverage tonight.’ But far more often than not you are going to get off the air and think, ‘Wow, they paid me to do that.’ Because the nature of sideline reporting is you prepare as hard as the play-by-play and the analyst who are there, but the opportunity to effect the broadcast is far less frequent.”
Basketball’s continuous action and lack of in-broadcast stoppages — which is to say, breaks in play that don’t result in a commercial break — make those chances to get information through on air even more scarce than, say, football, where there are far more gaps between plays.
Cassidy Hubbarth’s move into the sideline role at ESPN coincided with Burke’s transition to analyst, and the two regularly work on the same broadcast team with Burke in the booth and Hubbarth on sideline duty. As such, Hubbarth credits Burke with helping her find her footing in the role, and had a similar perspective on having good and bad nights in terms of impact on the broadcast.
“So it’s a dance, man,” Hubbarth said. “Like, sometimes we get perfect 10’s and sometimes we get eliminated on the first night. As far as me being able to get in in a moment, they’ll bring up a topic in the booth and I’m like, ‘I have more on that,’ and then some action happens and then we’ve got to wait for like a free throw, and then the moment’s passed. So it’s tough. You prepare so much and you kind of have to work with the producer, the booth, and make sure that I have my thoughts organized in order to get it out, so I’m not ruining the flow of the action because when I watch games, sometimes I don’t appreciate if there’s a long story going on and it’s not complimenting what’s happening in the game. So these are all things that are kind of in my mind of when’s the best time to fit this in?”