Pat Burke stands alone as the only Irish born player in NBA history. Emmet Ryan sat down with the former Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns big man to talk about his adventures in Europe with Panathinaikos, his fondness for Felipe Reyes, playing under Mike D’Antoni, and how he learned a lot about himself by realising how little he really knew
A kid has collapsed to the ground in tears. He’s suicidal. A middle aged ex NBA baller doesn’t know the first thing to do. Knowing he didn’t know turned out to be the smartest option.
Pat Burke’s journey from Tullamore to that day in Orlando was one of learning lots about what he didn’t know and working out what to do from there. His whole basketball life was about realising how he had to work, grind, and be mentally ready to change everything when faced with a challenge.
Burke was in Ireland in April to work with Ireland’s regional academies, his first formal link with the national team programme since his time as a player.
“It’s exciting. The focus, obviously, is on the youth and how Ireland is looking to put together the structures to get more of a standard with the kids. We’re getting the coaches to reinforce the same skill sets at different age levels,” Burke told BallinEurope.
“There was 300 kids there. They were all very excited and motivated, it was a great moment. The future of Irish basketball is in the youth.”
Burke stands alone in Irish basketball, the only man born here to play in the NBA. Curiously, the lone Irish born woman in the WNBA is also from Tullamore, Susan Moran, despite the town of just under 15,000 people being far from a basketball stronghold.
Other players that have played in the NBA hold Irish passports, like Mike Hall, while Mario Elie played in the league here and won a cup before going on to win three NBA championships. The link between Ireland and the association remains awfully thin.
That could change in a few years as Aidan Harris Igiehorn, from west Dublin, is making waves in college recruiting and has been touted as having a legitimate shot of making it to the show.
Burke’s advice for the young man, entering his senior year in high school, is simple. For him, it’s about Harris Igiehorn letting himself be coached.
“A lot of the time when kids ask me those questions, I tell them it’s important to be vulnerable. You have to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you can get in front of a coach that gets that position, like if he’s a big man to work with a coach that has been that position so he can ask what does the coach see that he needs to improve? Then take it from there. Take it in stride. You can’t work on 15 things but if you work on 3 things in a really focused way on a 1 or 2 year plan, that’s what you need to get to a higher level,” said Burke.
“In coaching, what I see lately is an attraction to height, size, and physical prowess but it’s not everything. It takes many things to form the greatest teams. When you are tall and you are coming through, you’ll gain the attraction of all the coaches that want to coach you but that doesn’t mean they are all equipped to take you through on what to do next. You can fall into a little trap there. Everybody wants you because big guys are glamourous, they can block shots and slam dunk, but the fact is that big guys take longer to get to the level where they have success.”
Pat Burke being interviewed by Conor Meany at the National Basketball Arena in April 2018
In his day Burke was a bit of a maverick as a big man who liked to shoot the three. That’s become almost passé in the current era and Burke’s noticed a lot of changes in the role of a five.
“The coaching style used to be that you took the kid and used him for the purposes that you wanted. You’d take a kid, tell him to get down low, get rebounds, use him for post moves and all that stuff. Today’s world is one where kids are drawn now to the success they see in images, what they see in the NBA and college. They see new hybrid athletes they break the stereotypes. There are 6’10” point guards like Ben Simmons, then you have players like Kevin Durant who can get threes,” he said.
“15-20 years ago they wanted those guys down low. The training is different now. If you take an athlete and they work on these challenges long enough, they are going to overcome them. They’re not going to dribble high, they’ll dribble low, and be successful with what they are doing. In today’s NBA, you need a whole other skill set to succeed.”
Life with Zoc
Burke’s success in Europe catapulted him to the NBA but it was on this side of the Atlantic that he tasted championship success. We now present the greatest Irish moment in Euroleague history, Pat Burke’s block in the 2000 Euroleague championship game.
It was a nightmare to find highlights from what was a successful and effective time for Burke in Athens. His memories of the time there however are great and he reflected on the experience of being coached by Zeljko Obradovic.
“Coach Obradovic broke down, as many Serbians do, the game to the math and science…the mechanics of the game. If you take two dribbles from this side, what does it do to the impact of crushing defensive commitment so you pull someone out of the space? He knew it so well he had a symphony moving,” said Burke.
“He knew if he could get his point guard to do specific things with the ball, he could then get the ball to somebody else. He’s very demanding in practices, he’s probably the roughest on the point guards more than any other position. He knew his craft, he wasn’t the same type of coach as a Mike D’Antoni or a Doc Rivers. Mike D’Antoni and Doc Rivers would massage ego a little bit, it’s not that they were picking favourites it was was that they had to do a lot of babysitting,
“Zeljko Obradovic wouldn’t do any of that stuff. Everybody was treated the exact same, if it was your turn to get yelled at then you’d get ready to get yelled at.”
While getting yelled at Burke managed to pick up three league championships with PAO. Beyond the titles and runs in Europe, where he also reached a Korac Cup semi-final with Maroussi, Burke has fond memories of his time living in Athens.
“It’s a very international city. There’s so much passion in Greece, every conversation sounds like an argument even when they are agreeing on something. They are ready to drop anything to celebrate life,” he said.
“They are passionate about sports to the point that it’s not just a cultural difference, difference doesn’t begin to describe fans throwing coins and water bottles,”
“Living in ancient Greece, it was funny. When you are just driving around and you are looking at the Parthenon on the way to work. With all the things that could be maddening, whenever I’d step on a flight to leave I’d be missing already.”
The long way round
Getting to Athens was part of the journey for Burke. He’d logged an impressive spell at Auburn despite being late to the game. Still, he knew if he was going to make it at the top that he still had work to do. That sent him to Vitoria for his first taste of professional hoops.
“Going back to Auburn, my momentum out of there was getting NBA scouts coming to games. I felt my dream was there and then but it didn’t happen. I made a decision out of college. I had a NBA contract that I could have signed with the Knicks but I went to Tau Ceramica (Baskonia’s name at the time),” said Burke.
“My agent had shared with me that everyone he was talking too saw my potential being in the future.”
The switch to life back in Europe took to Burke quickly. It was his first time playing in a city where basketball was the big deal.
“Auburn is a football school. We were in a large conference with the SEC but it wasn’t like we were a basketball school. When I went to Vitoria, there was more of a fanbase than I’d ever experienced. It was great, I was blessed that I was there with a great group of guys,”
“The coach at the time, Sergio Scariolo, was still coming into his evolution but now you look at what he’s achieved with the Spanish national team. That first year, it was very hard to adapt and evolve into what he wanted me to do, I remember many times taking the basketball and kicking it into the stands.”
The other green jersey
It was during his development with Auburn that Burke first got involved with international hoops. A modest ad in the paper led Burke on a path to what would be Ireland’s best ever days at senior level.
“My dad, every since we moved from Ireland, has been subscribing to the Irish Echo. I think it was my freshman year at Auburn and in the back there was an ad that just said ‘Attention all Irish basketball players, contact this number’,” said Burke.
It was another Burke, an unrelated one, who was on the other end of the line. Enda Burke was working of getting players with Irish links together for the Universiade as it’s now known.
“I ended up calling and there was a tryout going on in Rochester, New York. Enda picked me up and I was sitting there nervous because this was a national team. By the time we got to the tryout, we were all so excited to show our best and beat each other up…but I think everybody was already on the team. We were all trying out for the World University Games in Buffalo in 1994. That was the beginning of it,” said Burke.
Another run with the student level side in Fukuoka, Japan followed and from there it was on to the senior men’s side. Getting involved at FIBA level however involved negotiating the nature of European hoops.
“I had taken a break for a while and I was nervous about getting injured. There was a lot of static about European clubs releasing me for it. When I played in Spain, they would be patting all the Spanish national team players on the back and then when I brought up the Irish national team they’d say I was going nowhere. That rubbed me wrong because how was Ireland ever going to get an opportunity if they never had it?” said Burke.
When Burke got on the floor with the national side, things clicked fast and he could feel there was something good brewing.
“The camaraderie with the team was great. As we were all coming together for Ireland and starting to play, we knew we had something special going on. We had a lot of guys with experience playing professionally,” he said.
The decisive moment would come however in September 2005. Ireland had a two-legged clash with Denmark to book a spot in the A Division. Burke had averaged 11 points, 6.5 boards, and 2.2 assists in the group phase to get Ireland the opportunity but he couldn’t factor in the decider.
“When we got to the point that Denmark was in our way from breaking out to the next level, I had already made the decision before the training camp that I’d be leaving on that date because I wanted to put my best foot forward for the Phoenix Suns,” said Burke,
“I was sitting there looking at this plane ticket thinking what do I do? The guys were like ‘we got it’. It’s one of those moments you can’t get back. At that point we were going around doing small interviews for radio and TV, some of the scores were coming forward in the sports section. Getting the game before the Denmark game, it was against Switzerland, on TV was exciting. I had a lot of family it Ireland and I was happy they could see that.”
Ireland dominated the first leg 80-66 in Dublin before going down 86-70 in the return to bow out. Burke would stay involved in the national side through another campaign before his retirement from that stage. Now he’s hungry to find another way to contribute.
“I’ve wanted to be back as part of what’s going on. It goes back into what skills and things I can do and how that affects what Basketball Ireland needs. I like to think of myself as a teammate. You let me know how I can help, I would love the opportunity to help these kids go on and do bigger and better things,” he said.
Splitting time with the young king
Regular readers may be shocked to learn this but there was a time when Felipe Reyes was a youngster. Burke can testify to that because he was there with King Felipe during the Real Madrid legend’s first season with Los Blancos. Burke landed in Madrid after a stint with Gran Canaria. Even having only spent a year alongside Reyes, Burke still checks in on how the veteran is doing.
“He’s just a warrior. He’s built extremely solid. He’s under-sized but his ability to get 11 or 12 rebounds every game…you just couldn’t stop him. He’s extremely humble. Every now and then I’ll go and check out Euroleague and he’s one of the guys I’ll check out. I can just remember that he was the constant professional,” said Burke.
“He’s getting towards the end, he’s had a great career, one of the most successful careers. Anytime you can stay at one club for that long, it’s great for you, for the club, for the fans, and especially your family,”
“My advice to him would be, if he’s looking to continue into some space within basketball, he’s going to be great. Player development, working with youth, or any other side of it.”
Burke’s time in Madrid was fruitful, winning the ACB title in his lone season. The two experiences in Spain and his time in Greece helped Burke with his pair of stints in the NBA.
Europe was fun and educational for Burke but it wasn’t the end goal. He’s a baller and he wanted to go up against the best. In 2002 he got the call from Orlando and he was ready.
“Going to Spain was one of those moments where I knew I’d have to do lot of hard work, working on some of the things that hadn’t worked in the college part of my career. Then, going through the Greece part, before finally making it to the Orlando Magic, it was exciting,” said Burke.
“I can still remember coming out as starting centre for the Orlando Magic, my family was in the crowd, it was one of those moments where you’ve hit a level where you’re finally out there with the top of the world.”
Turbulent times with Mike D’Antoni
Burke was back in Europe after a season with the Magic. The stops in Gran Canaria and moreso Madrid were enough to get him back on the radar. The Phoenix Suns were on the rise and Burke was in their sights. Mike D’Antoni was a coach who had experience in Europe and knew what players coming over could do to translate their games. The dream however didn’t quite go to plan.
“I liked the pace of the game with him, the 7 seconds or less. It was interesting to watch and made for exciting basketball,” said Burke
“It was my second stint in the NBA. When I was coming into Phoenix, Steve Nash had just won the MVP, Amar’e Stoudemire was doing amazing things, and they had Shawn Marion too. It was a star studded roster. When I came in Mike D’Antoni said he’d play 6 and a half guys and the rest would hate him. There was 14 of us there but everybody was so convinced they were in the 6 and a half that nobody even thought he was talking to them,”
“When it started to happen, the one thing I didn’t like was the relationship side. There’s a side of business that can just be transactional if you just let business be business. If you take on the responsibility to build a relationship, we could have been all okay with that but he wasn’t equipped with that ability, for him he would shriek and shy away from it. Maybe he had enough experience too that some of those NBA athletes that were getting hundreds of millions of dollars would slap him in the face if he said anything.”
Now comes arguably the greatest Irish moment in NBA history, comparable only to the performance by Burke for Orlando in the video above. During a blowout of the Sacramento Kings on 5 December 2006, Burke went in late and he went off big.
The fan favourite tag hit Burke quickly. He took part in a parody of reality TV and was on hand for a promotional video ahead of the St Patrick’s Day game against the Denver Nuggets. Even here in a jovial piece promoting a game, the obvious issues he had around playing time were clear to see.
“The second year, I was still hell bent on getting into that 6 and a half man rotation. From the beginning of that off-season I worked harder than I had ever put in to anything. After every session I was running, lifting, and doing strength training,” said Burke.
“We went into the very first game against the LA Lakers. As we’re doing shootaround, Mike brings me over to the side and he says ‘Pat, I’m going to be honest with you. You should be starting for this team…I can’t start you because there’s so many millions of dollars in that starting five’,”
“I looked over at the starting five and I told him ‘Mike, I’m ready. If anything ever happens’ and he told me ‘great, do that, stay ready.’ For months, I was on the side of the course after every practice doing my sprints, lifting, I was on the treadmill. Steve Nash would come to practice and cup his hands over his eyes, he said ‘I can’t even look at you, you’re working so hard.’ I was never getting in.”
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It reads like Burke was bitter and he was but that’s in the past. Burke has reached a point in life where he can see the way business sometimes goes and also where he didn’t help himself at points.
“Four or five months go by, I just got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I just stopped. If you remember that run, we went into the playoffs against San Antonio. Steve [Nash] gets hip-checked into the time table by Robert Horry, Amar’e and Boris Diaw step over the line and get taken out of the last game,” he said.
“I hadn’t trained or practiced in months, none of the guys did. When the media came up to me and said I was the only active big man on the roster, they asked what the Suns coaching staff was saying to me. I said they hadn’t said anything to me and hadn’t said anything to me for months. I knew I put a nail in my coffin there. Then they started asking more questions so I decided to put another two nails in as well. I said if you looked at San Antonio and the Suns, you tell me which one has a world championship, which one is creating a roster that’s healthy and which one is so close to injury because they have a 6 and a half man roster that’s not working. Nail. Coffin. I’m done,”
“The next day my agent calls me and asked if I was trying to get kicked out of the NBA.”
That was over a decade ago and while Burke isn’t close to D’Antoni he’s seen him develop as a coach, much as Burke’s own life has evolved.
“I think everybody changes. That’s Mike D’Antoni in my perspective from 2006/07, I’m sure in the time that he’s been down this road that he can look back on so many things and just keep evolving,” he said.
“Anybody who is at that level, they’re there for a reason, because they’re hungry. He’s an alpha male, he wants to win. That means he’s going to have that moment where he’s vulnerable, where he asks what he’s not doing [right]. I guarantee you, he’s made so many changes he’s light years from where he was 10 years ago.”
Checking in with his old haunts
Burke lives in Orlando these days and has a natural interest in the Magic, having also been a radio commentator on games for them after retirement. The glory days feel awfully in the past for his first NBA side and he’s unsure of what’s next.
“With the Magic, professional basketball is a lot of rolling dice when you are trying to build something fast. You can spend a lot of money but if the chemistry isn’t right you’ve just spent a lot of money on a bad chemistry project,” said Burke.
“If you look at something like San Antonio and what Pop has done. He’s taken a programme that’s got a lot of discipline, one that understands building internal leadership and a vetting process so you don’t get people that penetrate what’s going on there. It takes time and knowhow to do that,”
“The Magic are not there. They changed their management a few years ago, they cleaned everything out and everybody got motivated but think about it. If you go from one teacher and you think about switching to another class, how do you know the other teacher isn’t worse than the one you just had? When they cleared out and started over, the illusion was ‘here we go’ but nothing has changed.”
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By contrast Phoenix, who finished the NBA season with the worst record, look to have a clear path back to successful hoops in the eyes of Burke.
“With the Suns, they’re at a point where they’re in a rebuild. One of my former team mates, James Jones, is part of that so I had an opportunity to visit him a couple of months ago. He was telling me how cutthroat it was behind the scenes, that you either get it done or you get out,” said the former Ireland international.
“The experience he has allows him to scout people quickly but you’ve got to understand a team’s needs, what it has too much of, and how to put something together for the future. It’s not a job I would love to be in. It’s nice to talk about it but it’s not simple.”
“I never felt like quitting. I just knew in 2009 that I wasn’t getting the butterflies anymore,” said Burke.
After Phoenix, he made one final trip to Europe. He won the Russian Cup with Khimki before moving to Poland for a year with Asseco Prokom. There he’d claim the seventh and final title of his professional career, a Polish championship. It was time to step away.
“It became more of a job than a passion. I was still producing and helping a team but I knew it just wasn’t in my heart to keep going,” said Burke.
“I was able to make that decision while I was still healthy and I can still go and play basketball if I want to today without anything hurting. That’s very rare, many of my former teammates have a lot of challenges and health problems with their knees, backs, and shoulders. I feel very fortunate.”
Knowing it was time to stop playing came easy to Burke. The next step was another matter entirely.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My major at school was in communications so I went into radio broadcasting of basketball for a while. You can do something and no what degree of like or love you have until you have a distinction of something else,” he said.
“I was around the game, I thought I loved it, then a friend of mine asked if I’d ever trained kids. I had two kids come into my backyard, started working with them, and something clicked. With the path I’d taken from playing in high school and college, I’d forgotten what it was like to be a kid. I wanted to help them, I realised I wanted to learn this. It’s fun and it’s rewarding,”
“Within a month there was 20 kids coming into the backyard. My wife Peyton looked at me wondering what were we doing. I told her that I liked radio broadcasting but I loved helping kids. That was when we made the decision to open up a training facility.”
A retired baller working on coaching up and coming young players isn’t exactly a shock. It’s a natural move, just like broadcasting or coaching. That’s when the moment happened that changed the way Burke thought about everything he was doing.
“There was a young man who came into the training sessions at the beginning and he reminded me so much of myself. I didn’t start playing until I was 16 when I had a huge growth spurt. This young man came in, he was so shy and reserved. He just wanted something to do. I told him he was just like me, he was in a great place, and that he was going to have fun here,” said Burke.
“Within a couple of sessions he was doing jump rope and it kept getting caught on his shin, and he’d stop and start again. I looked over and I could tell something was about to happen. He collapsed to the ground, was breathing heavily, and started to cry. I was paralysed there thinking, this is a basketball court, this is where you come to have fun. Then I thought about it, when I was 16 years old I was terrified to go on a basketball court and I was probably the worst at everything,”
“I shared that with him, picked him up and walked him to the side. He shared with me that he was contemplating suicide. It hit me that I was thinking this was just a game but I was so far removed from being a youth that I’d forgotten what it’s like to go up against obstacles.”
They worked with the youngster and helped him out but it was a lightbulb moment for Burke. There he was working on something he enjoyed realising that there was more he could do. The struggle, the journey, the natural kick in the face that is life. He knew one thing that mattered, that he didn’t know everything. It was time to get back learning.
“As adults we look back and say you’ve got your whole life ahead of you but we forget what it’s like to be that kid who’s thinking ‘what life?’, right now they see it as the worst point of their life. Friends, family, everything was coming down on him,” said Burke.
“I started to think that I wanted to do something different. I went out and found a leadership and life skill coach. I hired them for a year. They flushed so much crap out of my head and helped me to be more powerful with leadership, to take a vision and make it a reality.”
“They had me on an emotional rollercoaster. There were times I was breaking down crying, times I was laughing hysterically, times I was pissed off. As I went through that journey with them, after we were done I asked if we could do this with kids. That’s when we sat down and put together the whole Hoops Life idea and concept.”
Hoops Life is Burke’s training programme for kids, helping them with both basketball and life skills.
“It’s an unfiltered front. Not everybody’s going to go on and play professional basketball and, look at me, at some point if they do they’re going to stop playing sports. It’s about preparing them for something bigger. We talked to parents about creating a programme to help their kids develop self-awareness. The parents looked at me and turned their heads the way a canine does when it hears a funny noise,” he said.
“After a while, the kids came in, and over a 12 week programme we’d see real improvements, in school scores and mental health. It was about helping them with behavioural change, not just dribbling a ball. Those kids almost kept me in check, kept me emotional, and on the honest front. I kept thanking them that it was their honesty and trust in me that was allowing me to grow. We’re now at a point with 115 kids on the programme and coaches coming in looking to take on the approach,”
“It’s about escaping ego. It’s hard. I’ve been in those NBA locker rooms and the struggle is real. When that ego comes in, it can blow up the whole room. When you get someone to come in and create that vulnerability and admit they don’t know what they are doing, maybe you can see it.”
Burke, still loaded with energy, takes his leave. A full house is awaiting him in the next room to hear his story. In the game a career like his would get the label of a journey man but for Burke it really has been a journey, man.
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