Columnist

Preference: Debbie Antonelli over Doris Burke; Former NC State player brings more depth to her mic

Antonelli sparkles on CBS and Turner's NCAA broadcasts; she's prepared, insightful and effusive

 

While ESPN’s Doris Burke gets most of the attention among women basketball announcers, I’ve often wondered whether viewers are aware of others. Doris is heaped with so much praise that you’d think she blazed the trail, the first woman to hold a game commentator’s microphone.

Let’s get this out of the way. It’s nice to see that women analysts have finally gotten their due. They deserve it. Then again it’s not completely surprising, given the fact that the women’s game has erupted over the last quarter century in lockstep with the growth of live sports television.

Just as the Big East has ESPN and Dick Vitale to thank for its swelling popularity in the 1980s, women’s basketball too has the all-sports television juggernaut to thank for its increased visibility.

Title IX ushered in a welcoming era for women’s hoops in the 1970s. Women’s basketball first took hold at tiny athletic schools like Delta State which had superb teams then. At roughly the same time, Queens College and Immaculata drew over 11,000 fans when they played at Madison Square Garden in 1975.

The big athletic schools were late to the game but rallied furiously to take center stage not long afterward. Eventually the Immaculata’s faded and the DIs became the behemoths, Tennessee under the late Pat Summit and of course Connecticut under Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma.

There’s a little history here. NBC had carried  the men’s Final Four from 1969-81, the first on-air television network to do so.

I was told that when NBC worked on its rights renewal in 1981, NCAA President Walter Byers (he reigned for 37 years) didn’t like the way network boss Art Watson interacted with his own staff during meetings between the two parties. It bothered Byers sufficiently that he accelerated his conversations with rival CBS. The NCAA, thinking equality, took the opportunity to push for the inclusion of the women’s championship in what was then still a men’s only broadcast package. Easy enough. CBS usurped the rights from NBC beginning with the 1982 NCAA Tournament and the women’s championship game was part of the deal.

Cathy Rush, who had coached Immaculata in its hoops heyday, did color on CBS.

ESPN, hungry for programming in the mid-80s, picked up the national semis in 1985 and the entire Final Four in 1996. Ann Meyers Drysdale was play-by-player Mike Patrick’s partner for ten years. Doris Burke began working the sidelines in 2003 and eventually took the lead analyst’s chair at the women’s Final Four in 2006. She did it for 12 years.

Doris was later given NBA assignments, first as a reporter then as an analyst. ESPN apparently felt that Burke, born Doris Sable, had lofty credentials that merited NBA work.

I judge color commentators by what I learn from each one while watching a game. Please don’t get me wrong, Doris isn’t bad, she’s actually pretty good. But what the big fuss about her is, I don’t know. I might be missing something but I’ve talked with several NBA broadcasters who will privately give me a puzzled look when asked why Doris has been bestowed honors including the Gowdy Award for broadcasting by basketball’s Naismith Hall of Fame.

This isn’t in any way discounting her accomplishments. She has worked long and hard to earn her stripes. In the Northeast, where Burke did much of her early work , she announced Providence College women’s basketball on radio. She then caught on with the MSG Network when it needed an analyst for its WNBA coverage. Raised in New Jersey, Burke picked up work wherever she could, doing Penn State basketball and Big East games. It gave her an opportunity to hone her skills.

Given Doris’ visibility in the Northeast, particularly in New York , she became known to the ESPN folks and was hired in 1991. Over the past fifteen years as the world became more accepting, Burke was assigned more men’s basketball which to that point had not been given to women.

Now, there’s already talk about having Doris replace Jeff Van Gundy or Mark Jackson if they ever return to the NBA as coaches. I absolutely applaud the move of the Hall to honor a woman. I can understand why Ann Myers didn’t get the Gowdy. She’s in as a player, inducted in 1993.

Whether Burke can break down players or game film, I don’t’ know. I do know that I once cringed when I heard her in the studio talk about Chuck Daly’s great 1979 Penn team that made it to the Final Four. The fact that its coach then was Bob Weinhauer didn’t dawn on her, nor did she ever correct herself. I’m not sure that there’s great depth to her knowledge and experience. Unlike listening to Hubie Brown, Doug Collins, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Bill Raftery, Fran Fraschilla or yes, Debbie Antonelli, I don’t come away enlightened.

I don’t see Antonelli’s work much but I do know that whenever I do, she brings depth. You don’t get vapid, predictable or banal commentary. Debbie’s comments reflect those shared by coaches. She played for the late and legendary Kay Yow at NC State and studied under her. Antonelli later did a little coaching herself. When on-air, it’s quite obvious that she’s doing more than regurgitating press notes or referencing quotes she penciled while interviewing coaches.

On air, Antonelli talks about personalities, emotions, patterns, preparation and the thoughts that go through coaches’ heads. Debbie will address strategy in simple terms, going over or under a screen, talk effusively about hoopsters who excel, like Terrance Mann did Saturday. She talked about switching when in man for man defense. I don’t get a lot of that from Burke.

Anyone who hustles and is a bit of an entrepreneur can appreciate Debbie’s start. When she did, not only were there no jobs, there were few broadcasts. Antonelli was an administrator at Ohio State, heading up sports marketing. As word has it, there was little interest in women’s basketball so she cultivated a television station in Ohio that was prepared to run the games. She figured out what it would cost to produce the telecasts and hit the streets herself, selling the required sponsorships.

She then began to announce the games and made a career of it, one at which she continues to excel.

Antonelli’s done tons of work since, for ESPN, the WNBA and regional networks. It’s this time of year when CBS and Turner smartly use her in the opening rounds of the men’s NCAA Tournament, and when her contribution is appreciated.

From this seat, Debbie Antonelli is the best men’s basketball commentator among today’s women.

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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