Willie Burton's No. 34 jersey hangs in the Williams Arena rafters as a reminder to Gophers basketball fans of his storied career highlighted by Sweet 16 and Elite Eight runs 30 years ago.
For the first time since his jersey retirement ceremony last January, Burton was back on campus last week, cheering on his son's success with the Gophers on a different stage.
Senior Noah Burton's talents on the track helped him top the field in the 400-meter hurdles and 400 relay at the M City Classic, held at the U's new stadium.
Not bad for the first race in front of his famous father while wearing the Maroon and Gold.
"It was pretty cool," Willie Burton said. "He's doing his own thing. I'm now Noah Burton's dad."
After enrolling as a graduate transfer from Michigan State in January, the younger Burton is living a dream by competing for his dad's alma mater, where their family name holds legendary status.
"It's definitely inspirational," Noah Burton said. "To actually be here and to understand what he meant to Minnesota and what the Burton name holds. It's inspired me to shoot for the top."
The Gophers, who set program records in several races last weekend, are strong contenders for top honors on the men's and women's side at the Big Ten championships May 14-16 in Champaign, Ill.
“A little part of me does wish I still played basketball. But the part that separated the two sports for me is that I was winning in track and field. One thing I can say about my dad is he never really pushed me to go in his direction.”
In only his second Gophers meet last month, Noah finished second at the Illinois Relays with a personal-best time in the 400-meter hurdles. He broke that mark in front of his dad Friday with a time of 51.38 seconds, the third-best time in team history.
"He's just got a tenacity to him," Willie Burton said about his son. "I look at him and I remember what that was like for me at one point. Any challenge, bring it on."
A 6-8 sharpshooting forward from Detroit, Noah Burton's father left as the U's No. 2 career leading scorer with 1,802 points from 1986-1990.
"In my 23 years of living, I've never seen him shed a tear like that," the young Burton said about his father's emotional jersey retirement ceremony on Jan. 26, 2020. "I knew it meant a lot to him."
Choosing his own path
As one of Willie Burton's four children, Noah's old enough to recall stories about when his father was still playing pro basketball. Willie Burton played for five NBA teams in the 1990s but retired during the 2003-04 season with a club team in Lebanon.
"I remember that like that back of my hand," said Noah Burton, who was 6 years old at the time. "I remember the apartment we stayed in. And I remember going down to the court after games."
Basketball is still Noah's favorite sport. Yet, he said there was no pressure to follow in his father's footsteps on the hard court growing up. He played basketball and football but excelled in other sports.
Noah first reached the state diving and track meets in Michigan during his sophomore year at Avondale High in Auburn Hills. Able to do back flips into the pool, he taught himself how to dive in high school.
"Noah was a competitor ever since he was 3 years old and never liked to lose," Willie Burton said. "I sat back, and I let my son do what he wanted to do."
Gophers Hall of Fame track coach Roy Griak once told Noah he had a future in track when he visited the U with his father as an eighth-grader, but Noah didn't pursue a college scholarship until a few years later.
"A little part of me does wish I still played basketball," Noah Burton said. "But the part that separated the two sports for me is that I was winning in track and field. One thing I can say about my dad is he never really pushed me to go in his direction."
Becoming a Gopher
After three years at Michigan State, Noah had every intention of finishing his career with the Spartans, but the pandemic wiped out his senior year of track in 2019-20.
At the time, Burton was coming off all-league second-team honors the previous season. He finished 10th in the 400-meter relay and 19th in the 600 at the Big Ten indoor championships as a junior.
Without competing last spring because of COVID-19 concerns, many senior athletes graduated and moved on to the working world. Burton contemplated that route, but he also explored transferring and gaining that year of eligibility back from the NCAA.
"Coronavirus took away a season," Burton said, "so eventually I wanted to fight to get it back."
Burton reached out to the Gophers and connected with assistant track coach Ibrahim Kabia and head coach Matt Bingle to see if there was an open scholarship. Last December, Burton narrowed his decision to three schools, weighing the effects of the U's sports cuts. The Gophers are cutting men's indoor track — while preserving outdoor track — and also eliminating men's tennis and men's gymnastics after this school year.
"I thought about the budget cuts and everything going on," Noah Burton said. "But I guess I came here because it felt right in my heart. This was the right program and right setting for me."
It was a feeling that started at Williams Arena when Noah watched his father's jersey retirement — and now he's starring for the Gophers, just as Willie did all those years ago.