PORTLAND — Early in her broadcasting career with ESPN, Doris Burke recalled a moment when a Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach made for an easy interview before a game at Madison Square Garden.
That assistant became Blazers head coach Terry Stotts.
"I was flying from a venue, from another game the night before," she said. "And Terry was phenomenal to me. I'm just really happy for Terry that he has a really solid core to work with, maybe for the first time in his coaching career."
The Blazers have captured the nation's attention, as evidenced by increased appearances on national television.
Point guard Damian Lillard plans to make history in becoming the first player to do three events during All-Star Saturday at this year's All-Star weekend. He also will compete in the Rising Stars game as well as the 63rd All-Star Game alongside teammate LaMarcus Aldridge.
Burke spoke with The Columbian over the phone with the Blazers appearing on ESPN twice last week. The color analyst, sideline reporter and occasional host of NBA Countdown spoke about the Blazers' surge into the national spotlight.
In noticing the team's problems defensively, Burke considers the context in which the Blazers find themselves. They were awful last year, switching their defensive schemes and principles on a nightly basis. For Burke, they are just starting to build their defense.
"I will say that a system like that, like Chicago, like Oklahoma City, it takes time to build habits in practice every day," said Burke, a former college basketball player who has been covering men's and women's basketball for more than 20 years. "You build habits, you build a mindset."
It's not just the defense that takes time.
"Where they were a season ago, offensively as a unit, understanding Terry Stotts, all of those things that go into the process of being a contender," she said. "You have to evaluate a team based on where it is in the point of history."
Burke likens it to evaluating Scott Brooks in his first or second year of having Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Something else that Burke sees in the Blazers that she compares to Oklahoma City is the organization going out of their way to acquire players of high character.
"Just as you see Oklahoma City and Indiana and San Antonio, who probably started the whole trend in this direction: acquiring high-character guys is just as important as acquiring talented guys," she said.
This team is the process of becoming a championship contender, Burke says. But that process doesn't just accelerate on its own. She raves about the acquisition of Robin Lopez not only for basketball reasons.
"What I see from both of the Lopez brothers is … guys who come in with a fundamental work ethic," she said. "A team-first mentality. 'OK, what do you need me to do?' "
Lopez's unselfish attitude is something the Blazers have raved about all season.
As far as what the Blazers can accomplish this season, Burke says only time will tell.
"Let's let the season play out," she said."I like the rhetoric, I like the approach and I think the personal aspect for me is: Are they committed? And are they improving on the defensive end?"
The NBA season has its ups and downs. Nothing is guaranteed in the Western Conference playoffs. Burke doesn't see the Blazers going to the NBA Finals or winning a championship. But what she sees is a team that's moving in the right direction.
"The reality of what you're seeing from Portland are steps in the process to becoming championship caliber," Burke said.