Basketball: Burton's biggies mentality a boon

By Anendra Singh


He had all the attributes of a first baseman in baseball while growing up in the United States.

Lanky, flexible and possessing lightning reflexes, Willie James Burton jnr stood head and shoulders above others as a "cornerman" for his team at the age of 12 in Millen, Georgia.

There was just one snag, though. The youngster hated the lucrative bat-and-ball game, which his father, Willie James Burton snr, had played.

"The balls were too hard and you had people throwing it at you too fast and I got hit with it a few times when I went to bat and ... ," the co-assistant coach of the HBS Bank Hawks basketball team explains in his distinctive gravelly Georgian drawl.

Luckily for Burton, a friend, Alonzo Holmes, lived down the road in his neighbourhood and introduced him to basketball, triggering a life-long affair with a sport he adores.

"So I started basketball pretty late," the social worker for youth from Hastings says before joining the Paul Henare-coached Hawks for a double header starting today (7pm tip-off) against the Otago Nuggets in Dunedin in the round seven Bartercard National Basketball League (NBL) match before travelling further south to Invercargill to take on the Southland Sharks tomorrow.

Burton arrived in New Zealand in 1985 after completing his studies at the University of Georgia.

Thanks to several connections with former Manawatu Jets coach Joe Frost, Burton found himself celebrating his 22nd birthday in New Zealand.

He played for the Jets until 1986, then preened his feathers with the Hawks from 1987-88 before returning to the Jets (1989-90).

The Taranaki Mountain Airs beckoned from 1991-93 before Burton returned to the Bay to roost from 1994 until 2006 when he was part of the team under coach Shawn Dennis who won the franchise's first and only NBL title.

"We should have won in 2005 against Auckland when we lost by a point," says the hard man who frustratingly won every conceivable individual title in the NBL but couldn't savour a championship until 2006 despite making a rash of play-offs.

Leaving home to attend university in the US was bad enough for Burton, so suffice it to say leaving the shores of his birth country to play basketball in a country he didn't know anything about was a character-defining moment for a young man.

He reconciled that with fulfilling a life-long ambition of playing a sport, travelling and making a living off it.

Burton was no mug. The Denver Nuggets had drafted him but he didn't make the cut.

"I went to the camp but there's not much you can do about that.

"Some of the best athletes in the world are drafted and don't make it.

"You had to be in the right place at the right time. I wasn't in that that place or time."

Regrets?

No, none at all.

"I love New Zealand. I met my wife [Suzanne] here [Palmerston North] and we have two lovely boys.

"They aren't just good kids but they are good at school work, too."

Incidentally, the Burtons named their eldest son, Alonzo, 20, after his childhood friend, Alonzo Holmes.

Contrary to popular belief, Alonzo the son, who is a rookie with the Hawks this season, is not named after Alonzo Mourning, the former Miami Heat centre and NBA star.

However, the Burtons' other son, Dominique, 16, is named after former Basketball Hall of Famer and Atlanta Hawks star Jacques Dominique Wilkins, the small forward who was nicknamed "The Human Highlight Film" as one of the best slam-dunk exponents in NBA history.

He emphasises neither he nor Suzanne ever forced their sons into playing basketball.

Instead the parents supported them. Burton has been coaching their age-group teams for the past six years and Suzanne has been a manager.

Alonzo, a former St John's College pupil, is hoping to secure a US scholarship this winter.

"Alonzo has plenty of time. He's enjoying his time with the Hawks and working on his skills," Burton says, adding going to the US without any NBL experience with older, experienced players in the NBL will be "like jumping off a cliff".

"The senior guys are teaching him the dos and don'ts so it's good."

Needless to say, it makes it easier and enjoyable for Burton to go to the Hawks' midweek scrimmages with his son.

The last time Burton visited his birthplace was in 1997 but taking his family there is on the agenda.

That family concept extends to the Hawks' culture. He lauds Henare for bringing in a successful constitution from the New Zealand Breakers, where he led them to a historic maiden Australian National Basketball League (ANBL) title last season.

"They [the Hawks] aren't just good players, they are good people."

While they have beaten the Nuggets and the Sharks convincingly, Burton says the Hawks aren't looking too far ahead of themselves.

The Hawks haven't always looked slick. If anything their past few performances have been ugly, leaving fans wondering what they could achieve if they operate like a well-oiled machine.

Conversely, it is easy to argue the unbeaten Paora Winitana-captained outfit do not need to peak until the play-offs, where they have stumbled in the past few seasons in the hunt for their second bragging rights.

The balance and depth of the squad is no doubt the envy of other NBL franchises.

"Paulie has put together a special squad who get on and perform for each other.

"They are all on the same page to win but there's no guarantee we'll do that, although they have the right attitude and listen to Paulie, [co-coach] Kirstin [Taylor] and myself.

"We wouldn't tell them to do anything we wouldn't do," he reveals of a coaching stable that includes a steely resolve Taylor (nee Daly) brings to the table as a former Tall Fern and professional point guard.

Ironically, Dennis appointed Burton assistant coach after the latter retired on a high note with a 2006 NBL title but it was too soon for the veteran.

"My heart wasn't in it because I had just finished playing," he says, grateful Henare offered him another crack four seasons later.

Henare was just a towel boy wiping the sweat off the floor when Burton graced the courts here.

"I first trained and played with Willie in 1994-95 when I was at [Napier Boys'] High School so we go back about 20 years," he reveals, adding he and Taylor were point guards so Burton brings his immense experience as a forward who can relate to the "biggies" in the Hawks squad.

"He was the best rebounder to play in the league, collecting five to six titles, and was a good passer of the ball for a big man. Any time he stepped on to the court, whether training or playing, he meant business and had fire in the belly."

Henare says while they were former players and friends in the yesteryear, their relationship as one coach to another is evolving into a promising one akin to what he has developed with Taylor.

Bench point guard Reece Tuala-Fata and rookies Ezra Nikora and Jacob Walsh didn't travel yesterday because of budget constraints that limit the Hawks to taking only 10 players.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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