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.