Inside Doris Burke’s ‘heart-stopping, terrifying’ NBA Finals interviews with the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich

Doris Burke (Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)
Doris Burke (Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)

When fans tune into Game 6 of the NBA Finals tonight (9 p.m. ET, ABC), they don’t know if they’re going to see the San Antonio Spurs win their fifth NBA title or the defending champion Miami Heat extend the series to a Game 7. They do know ESPN reporter Doris Burke and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, considered the toughest interview in the NBA – if not all of sports – are sure to provide compelling content in the form of Popovich’s in-game interview.

Front Row caught up with Burke to discuss what it’s like interviewing Popovich in the heat of competition.

How does Popovich’s interview style compare with his Heat counterpart Erik Spoelstra?
For me, the Pop interviews are heart-stopping, terrifying experiences. For everyone else, they are must-see TV. It makes me smile, once they are over, of course, that everyone else is having a good time watching them. As far as Erik Spoelstra goes, he divulges nothing, but in a much kinder fashion.

What has been your favorite Popovich interview/interaction so far?
Pop is unaware of this, but he is responsible for one of the best moments of my career. I was sitting in his office before a game that I was in the analyst role for. Pop looked me dead in the eyes and said: “Doris, you are a basketball person. You get this.” That moment gave me great confidence to sit in the analyst role on our NBA telecasts. Pop probably doesn’t even remember it, but I will never forget it.

On an story written by Marc Stein (appropriately titled Do not disturb: Gregg Popovich), you say “there is absolutely a level of anxiety each time I have to do an end-of-quarter interview with Pop.” How do regular season and even playoff interviews with Popovich differ from the NBA Finals interviews?
Here’s the beauty of Pop: He is exactly the same way, whether it’s game one in October or as he will be on June 20 [if the NBA Finals reaches a Game 7].

In a TrueHoop interview after Game 4 with Henry Abbott titled ‘Toughest Job in Sports,’ you say you know Coach Popovich likes and respects you. Can you imagine what the interviews would be like if he didn’t?
Pop is in the game of basketball because he loves the game and he loves his guys. He does not suffer fools, so I try not to act like one.

In a recent SportsCenter feature, you enlisted [ESPN NBA analyst and former NBA head coach] Jeff Van Gundy for “Popovich Practice.” While this was done in humor, did you actually speak with Jeff or anyone else about tips or suggestions for interviewing Pop during the finals?
Everyone, including play-by-play guys who occasionally have to do Pop interviews, has a Pop story. We all commiserate and swap stories. It reminds me of being in a locker room after a particularly hard practice and everyone is venting.

Editor’s note: Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat kicks off tonight with KIA NBA Countdown (8:30 p.m. ET) and the game is at 9 p.m. on ABC, ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3 and WatchESPN.

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