Willie Burton will walk across a stage Saturday morning to receive his University of Minnesota diploma, and it will not be difficult to distinguish him from his classmates.
He will be the 6-8, soon-to-be 45-year-old wearing maroon basketball shoes beneath his robe.
“It signifies to me that I will have earned the respect of my [former Gophers] teammates,” Burton said of his sneakers. “They all have their degrees. I finally caught up to them.”
It’s been a long, roller coaster ride of catch-up. Burton led the Gophers to the Elite Eight of the 1990 NCAA tournament, leaving school a dozen classes short of his degree after it became apparent he would be a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Burton was selected No. 9 overall by the Miami Heat, and his NBA career spanned parts of eight seasons, notable as much for what happened off the court as on — mood swings and erratic behavior, in-house treatment for alcoholism and depression — although it should be noted that Burton had his moments, three times averaging double figures scoring.
When his NBA days ended — his final season was in 1999 with the Charlotte Hornets — Burton became a basketball vagabond, playing in the USBL, the CBA and for teams in Greece, Russia and Lebanon. His travels ended in 2004, when he says he happily moved back to Detroit to at first become a stay-at-home father with his four children.
He says the desire to earn his degree grew stronger as he talked of the importance of education to his four children. And a sense of urgency developed with his oldest daughter set to graduate from college next year, and Burton desiring to get there first.
But there has been much more to recent years than chasing his degree. Burton had a personal epiphany when he returned to his hometown of Detroit, and saw so many high school kids struggling with so many of the same demons he had encountered. Who better to help, Burton thought, than someone would knew firsthand?
“Oh, man,” Burton said, laughing. “You want to catch a thief, hire a thief.”
And so, even as he has commuted parts of the past three years from Detroit to finish his college degree in multidisciplinary studies from the College of Continuing Education — aided by the Gophers Graduation Program that helps former athletes return to school — he has been working with Detroit officials in the public health and education systems on curriculum to help students with the problems so many of them are facing.
He also has worked directly with many of those youngsters, said former director Dr. Calvin Trent, a clinical psychologist who headed Detroit’s public health department during Burton’s time there.
“He’s very passionate about what he does, and some of that passion comes from having lived the experience,” Trent said. “That’s so important, because they know he’s not talking off the top of his head. He’s coming from a different place than a counselor or a therapist. He’s somebody who went through what they went through.”
Burton’s most personal project can be found on the website educatedstarsoftomorrow.com, designed for high school student-athletes — but applicable, he says, to any students — to help them prepare for the challenges they will face after high school. Burton hopes to complete work on the project this summer, and have pilot studies in place in several cities as early as next year.
He has personally recruited a half-dozen educators to help him with the curriculum and website, including Alayne MacArthur, a New York educator he first encountered on a conference call a couple of years ago. When the call ended, Burton called her to seek her help with his project.
“Willie is really mission-driven about this,” MacArthur said. “He’s so passionate about it, like crazy passionate.”
That something special
Burton played basketball with that same crazy passion. He was part of Clem Haskins’ first Gophers team in 1986-87, a squad that also included fellow freshmen Richard Coffey, Jim Shikenjanski and Melvin Newbern. The youngsters were charged with rebuilding a program that the previous season was rocked by sexual assault allegations against three players in a Madison, Wis., hotel, and the subsequent resignation of coach Jim Dutcher.
The Gophers were 6-30 in Big Ten play during Haskins’ first two seasons, losing 17 of 18 conference road games. But in 1988-89, during Burton’s junior season, the team earned an NCAA bid and reached the Sweet 16. The next season the Gophers went a step further, reaching the Elite Eight before losing to Georgia Tech 93-91 a step removed from the Final Four.
Burton was the team’s star, a free spirit who finished his career as the Gophers’ No. 2 all-time scorer. He also was a player who could light up an arena with his energy.
“All my years of coaching, Willie was one of the all-time greats I ever had, one of the few people who has something about him you can’t really explain — a charisma,” Haskins said last week. “Willie would pick up a towel and wave it, and 16,000 people would jump out of their seats. There was just something about him that was unique, as a person and as a basketball player.”
It all looked so promising when the Heat made Burton a lottery pick, and he averaged 12 points a game as a rookie. And then it all started sliding away. His playing time diminished as his second season progressed, and his mental state darkened. He would sit alone in a closet, having to be coaxed out by his roommate and cousin. He would drive, aimlessly, for hours after games, one night going all the way to Key West. One game he broke down at halftime and cried after a scoreless first half.
Burton was hospitalized for depression in April 1992, leaving the team before the playoffs. He spent five weeks in a treatment facility, then subsequently was treated for alcoholism. Those experiences, Burton says, have fueled his desire to help youngsters.
Burton said he had mental health issues while at Minnesota, but they were held in check by what he called “a loving and caring environment” fostered by Haskins and his wife, Yevette. The move to the NBA, Burton said, led to a world where “overnight, everything changes.”
Burton originally signed a five-year, $7 million contract with the Heat. He had a brief resurgence with Philadelphia, scoring 53 points one night and averaging 15.3 points for the 76ers in 1994-95. But the next season he was playing with a team in Milan, Italy, before a mutual parting of the ways led him to finish the season with the Florida Beach Dogs of the CBA. By 2000 he was making $500 a week with the Oklahoma Storm of the USBL.
Burton finished his career playing two seasons in Europe, never realizing his goal of returning to the NBA after a brief stint in 1999 with Charlotte. But looking back, he says, he has no regrets the way it all worked out.
“The natural answer would be to say yes [to regrets],” he said. “But to be honest, with all the problems I had, if I could do things with those problems, everyone understands I could play. All I wanted when my career was over was to come out somewhat healthy and to have left my mark.”
His goals coming to Minnesota in 1986: to earn his degree and to have his jersey retired atop the Williams Arena rafters. Burton is the Gophers’ No. 2 all-time scorer behind Mychal Thompson, but university rules now required a player to have earned his degree to have his jersey retired.
Burton’s first goal finally will be completed Saturday.
“It’s like closing a chapter that’s been left open for a long time,” he said.