Usually the sideline interview with the coach isn't a big deal. But over the years Gregg Popovich has earned a special place in the basketball universe for his one-word answers, rants about happiness, and even hugs during his ever entertaining in-game interviews.
It has now become such a story that ESPN and ABC have been treating those interviews as part of the show surrounding the game. They're promoting them, and there are lead-ins at the beginning of the game, showing footage of Jon Barry and Dave Pasch doing a coin-flip to decide who interviews Pop. On Sportscenter, before games they have even been airing montages of Popovich's interviews to promote the game.
So what's it really like to interview Gregg Popovich? I got a chance to speak with Doris about this and many other parts of her job. She was very gracious with her time and I had a blast talking with her.
Doris Burke will work this Sunday's ABC game from the sidelines alongside Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. You can also catch Doris appearing regularly on the Wednesday editions of Kia NBA Countdown and as an analyst on ESPN games. If you can't tune in to the game you can catch Spurs legend Bruce Bowen calling the game on ESPN Radio with Kevin Calabro.
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You travel as much as a sports team, don't you? How much are you away from your home?
That's a good question. I try never to evaluate it, or look too deeply into it, but I have noticed that before the end of March there is never longer than a three-day stretch where I'm at home. I think I was on a plane and bored, and I couldn't read another article or look at a stat sheet when I crossed that piece of information.
Well, it's the Spurs and Heat on Sunday and San Antonio is missing three starters due to injury. Miami is not exactly in postseason form, so it's not quite a Finals matchup. Is there anything intriguing about Sunday that you are looking forward to?
To be honest with you, J.R., I don't do a ton of these Sunday ABC games because I do ACC Saturdays, and they can be anywhere from noon to six. Sometimes I'm shut out of those Sunday ABC windows. But as soon as this game came up on the schedule, I reached out to my bosses and asked to be a part of it..
Regardless of what I had Saturday, I would have asked off the college basketball game. I wouldn't have wanted to miss this game, no matter if all five starters on both teams were down. That series last year was so compelling, and it was so dramatic. No matter what the circumstances, I wanted to be there in Miami this Sunday, that's for sure.
I was reading Pop's comments today about how he's intrigued to be down those three starters, to sort of plug the holes with different guys and see how his team responds. I think we're anxious to do the same.
There are big threes in both Miami and San Antonio. But the Spurs' big three are kind of coming to the end of that era. At Pounding the Rock, we're taking time this year to appreciate what is so easy to take for granted. Like another 20 and 10 game from Tim Duncan, there have been so many of them that it's easy to forget they won't always be there. So I'm curious, during a Spurs game, what's your favorite thing to watch?
Well, I've been in the business for 20-something years, and one thing that is incredibly rare is excellence. What's rarer than that is sustained excellence. In this day and age, what's perhaps more rare than those previous two, is the self-effacing way that the Spurs go about their business. In the age of social media, where everyone seems to be in self-promotion mode, from the coach on down to the last guy on the bench, the Spurs don't take themselves too seriously. The game is serious to them, but they understand it's basketball.
So there is so much to admire. Winning: winning consistently, winning the right way, and winning with a humility -- in an age where humility is a lost quality. As much as Gregg Popovich absolutely terrifies me, he's one of my absolute favorites coaching at any level.
That's a perfect segue because I want to talk about Pop. You say that he terrifies you. Is there anyone else like him?
No one. Not even close. Listen, over my time in the business you meet everyone. Mike Krzyzewski, we sit down in his office about an hour before the game. I've interviewed Phil Jackson in those moments. I'm never nervous on television. Well I'm rarely nervous - if I'm doing a new job I may get nervous. But really, at this point after two decades in the business, the only thing I do that causes me any such angst is the interview with Pop.
And how long do they last, J.R.? They can be as little as 30 seconds. It's so funny that it is terrifying, and I'll be honest with you, my children, when they watch - I'll get texts in the aftermath from my daughter who is absolutely beside herself that this man would treat me this way. (laughs) And I laugh and I try to explain to her, that what she sees in that brief snippet, is not who that man is. She's not buying it.
Last season, there was an interview of a lot of the people who interview Pop. They had Craig Sager and David Aldridge, a number of other people who interface with him regularly, and they all said they're fine with him. What can you say as far as the difference between Pop off-camera and on-camera?
Let me make one observation, because it's a fascinating thing that really no one I have seen has acknowledged. Whenever Pop is interviewed by a former coach or an NBA player, and far more often it's an NBA player on our air -- except for Charles Barkley and that disaster -- he always answers the questions or at least comes across as more accommodating. I think that's cool, because the NBA is a fraternity. And if you've lived the life and experienced the challenges, I think Pop respects you because of that association. To me that's pretty cool.
Off-air I think he's ... smart and funny, and that he's knowledgeable about a range of subjects, and that he's a giving human being. It's completely evident to me, within minutes of talking to him, but also from watching him with his guys. In the most simple interactions, you can see the respect that he has of his players. Ultimately you should be judged by those working closely with you day-in and day-out. It seems to me that those men, whether they've had their ups and downs with Pop, ultimately they seem to genuinely care, and I would say love the guy. That's a far more important barometer than [anything] I would have to say about him after disrupting his coaching job between quarters.
You've had a couple of memorable turns with Pop. There was the turnovers interview that I think lasted about eleven or twelve seconds.
You know I almost cried. I was on the verge of tears after that one. Now, he doesn't know, and you try not to take it personally. But honest to God, I'm sitting back to my broadcast position, and I'm doing everything I can to fight back tears. I'm sitting at my position, thinking "Damn it." You try to do such a good job, and you know he doesn't mean it at you specifically. The thing that saved me in that moment was a conversation I had with Tony Parker. He said that when he first came to the Spurs, there were moments where he was in a similar situation. Those times when Pop had leveled him and ... that sort of saved me a little bit.
You know it's funny, when the "turnovers" line happened. The guys didn't hear it in the truck. The producer was not hearing it. And he rolls it back to make sure that they've locked on the tape, and he comes across my headset and said "Hey, Doris, you didn't tell me it was that funny." And ... I am almost in tears.
To the rest of America, and the viewers, it's must-see TV. And it's very entertaining. But no matter how many times I do it. When it's abrupt, or when it's awkward -- I don't know why. You think I could let it roll off my shoulders. You know, it doesn't.
I adore Pop, so it's not like there's any long-term bad feeling. It's just never very pleasant. That's the truth.
So there was the "Turnovers" interview, and there was "I can't tell you that." My writers and I get to interact with Pop every once in a while. We don't ask him questions all the time, but from time to time we do. We have heard him asked so many questions that there's almost an internalization to the point that as a question is being asked, we know when he's going to go off on somebody.
I think I've figured that out as well, by the way.
The thing about those questions though, is sometimes they are great questions. There's nothing wrong with the questions, he just isn't going to give that information out. I think the attitude the Spurs have at times is, "Our opponents can watch their own film and figure it out themselves. But they're not going to listen to this broadcast while I just give it all away. They're going to have to work for it."
But I'm amazed by how many of the people that interview him have ended up flustered, and they ask closed-ended or poor questions. Do you do any special prep when you know you're going to interview Pop?
I don't do any special prep, and my procedure is pretty much the same regardless of who I'm interviewing. I would say this, throughout the course of the first and third quarters, I'm listening to Jeff [Van Gundy] and Mike [Breen], or whoever the announce team is, because often times I'm taking my cues from their content, from the discussions they are having. I'm also looking closely at the stat sheets for trends, either offensive or defensive. Or it might be simple observations of interactions between player and coach -- if coaches have had extended conversations with a player, or players conversing. I'm sort of taking my cues from a lot of different places.
The one thing with Pop, I don't ever make a basketball observation. My questions to Pop are always open ended. He's forgotten more basketball than I will ever know. I try not to ask leading questions or a yes-or-no question. Always the most open-ended question about what he has observed in the previous 12-minute segment. That's all I'm thinking about.
That's probably why your questions are so good. That's something that Dave Pasch could take a note on. I think it was the first time he's interviewed Pop, and it was exactly what you would expect from someone who's not ready to ask those open-ended questions. He also asked a follow up as his second question that was the exact same question he asked the first time, and Pop was gone.
To me that was unfair to the play-by-play guy. To me it should always be the color guy. Here's why, [for the] play-by-play guy in the final minute or two of that quarter -- and this is whether they are interviewing Pop or somebody else -- it's almost as though you are switching gears in your head from calling the game, which is your primary responsibility, to now asking those questions of a coach and trying to formulate [the questions] in your head. Because it's impossible, to me, to switch gears that quickly. I know that because of this: I've called color on NBA games, and if I'm on a game with a play-by-play guy, the person going to ask that coach the questions for the most part is going to be me, so I generally jump up. But I will literally take a step back from [doing] color to say, "Ok, who am I interviewing? What are the questions?"
That sort of thing. Dave Pasch was put in a tough position there in my estimation.
Can you walk me through the logistics of that between-quarters interview. The buzzer sounds, the broadcast goes to commercial and what happens?
I am communicating with my producer, maybe with three minutes to go in the quarter, and I will say, "Is this a sponsored interview or am I straight out of break?"
If it's a sponsored interview, I know I am taking the toss from the play-by-play guy. If it's a non-sponsored element I know that I will be the one welcoming us back, giving the score, and heading into the interview. So the first thing you need to know, if someone's paying for the interview. That's pretty important in our business.
The second thing, I am always communicating with the director. More so if it's Gregg Popovich, or if someone is in the midst of a very tough quarter. I want to make absolutely certain that regardless of whether the play-by-play -- and this is still as we are going to break -- sometimes when I hit the floor, we might have a long roll-out to break, so I might still be hearing the play-by-play guy in my headset going in the break. But I want to be able to begin the interview right away. There are certain guys, Greg Popovich, Rick Adelman -- although it's been a long time since I've interviewed Rick in that situation -- but there are certain guys, whether we are going into the break or not, if they are standing there, I don't want that coach waiting. So we do the interview off-line.
So I might not hear myself asking the questions, and I can only hear the coach outside of my headset. We are tracking and taping that interview and trying to make it as expedient as possible, so that coach can get back to his job. So those are the kinds of things that go on.
Well, that sounds really hard to do. I didn't realize that there were so many things going on at once. Thanks for giving us that peek behind-the-scenes, and thanks for taking the time for this interview.