By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 18, 2013
COLUMBUS — Benji Burke peeks over his menu, trying to order his dinner and watch the television at the same time. There’s a waitress next to him, leaning in while waiting to take his order.
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Benji doesn’t order until, up on the screen, the basketball goes out of bounds, and even then, it’s a 10-second conversation without eye contact.
When the food arrives, Benji’s eyes still almost never leave the screen. He talks to friends without looking at them, occasionally glancing down at his phone during commercial breaks. Up on the TV is his only son, Trey, who is playing basketball for Michigan in State College, Pa.
The Wolverines are playing Penn State, a team that doesn’t have a conference win. This shouldn’t be much of a contest, yet Benji’s right leg doesn’t stop twitching and won’t stop twitching until the end of the game.
Benji’s got his support system here at a local bar in Columbus. It’s a group of 10 men, all of whom are former Ohio State fans and almost all of whom have known Trey since he was born. Most are still wearing red. One, Alonzo Shavers, even played football for the Buckeyes.
Yet none of them miss a Michigan basketball game. Even the women at the salon where Benji gets his hair cut plan their weeks around Michigan’s schedule.
At a venue full of Buckeye jerseys, posters and memorabilia, the majority of the TVs are tuned into the Michigan basketball game, which starts with an assist from Trey.
To everyone but Benji, Trey is Michigan’s star sophomore, the best point guard and one of the best overall players in the country. He’s the most important player on a Michigan squad that is widely considered to be a fringe top-20 team without him.
But to Benji, Trey is his project and his lineage, a lifeline to a game he loves more than just about anything and a growing reminder of what it means to raise a son and not his former player.
And for the first time since Benji coached Trey in basketball — which he did for most of his son’s life in AAU — their relationship has settled.
Penn State gets fouled on a made layup, and a waiter walking by lets out a first pump and an “and-1!” call. The entire group stands up, telling the waiter he needs to be somewhere else.
That waiter doesn’t return to the table.
Everything Trey does gets a reaction. If he has a nice assist, one of them shouts out that he taught the kid that move. If Trey has a turnover, the men blame Benji and his coaching. Nothing goes unnoticed, nothing goes without a comment.
The men yell out, “What’s the count” every couple minutes during the game, but the count isn’t the score of the game, or even Trey’s point total — they’re counting his assists.
At this point, Trey’s averaging 6.9 per game on the season, but they want him to get eight against Penn State. If he averages eight over the last four games of the season, it’ll put him in the same company as former Michigan State great Magic Johnson, who is the only Big Ten player to average 17 points and seven assists in a season.
They want to see his name next to Magic’s, even if it says Michigan and not Ohio State next to Burke.
Trey’s relationship with this raucous, competitive group of men started when Benji began bringing his son to the Nelson Recreational Center gym when Trey was just learning how to walk. Trey was dominating in his first organized league by the time he was 5.
Still, nothing compared to those weekends at Nelson.
Walking around the gym, he would dribble with both hands, focusing on his left, trying to impress the older guys playing the real games on the court. He can still vividly remember standing on the sidelines, dribbling with his off hand, waiting for his chance. Trey would beg to play with them, to no avail.
After the games, the group hung out in the parking lot, a once-a-week reunion of sorts. Trey would still be dribbling, still working on his off-hand, trying to get his dad’s friend O.J. to play a game of keep-away with him.
With no rims in sight, just the asphalt of the parking lot, O.J. would take the bait and try and take the ball. He would get the steal almost every time, but once or twice every weekend, Trey would get him to bite on a crossover and leave him behind.
The men would whoop and holler because while they might have owned the gym, for a couple of fleeting moments once a week, the kid owned the parking lot. In those moments, he felt like he was one of the guys, not just the runt who had to sit out and watch them play while he dribbled.
It would make Trey’s day, until the group would go back to the Burke’s and hang out in the basement, where Trey was left out from playing cards and even his own video games.
The men were never mean on purpose, but they were hard on the young boy. It makes Trey laugh now, but back then, sometimes he wondered if they merely tolerated him instead of liking him.
Sometimes, Benji felt guilty knowing his group was too harsh with Trey, and that maybe even he was too hard on his son. But every weekend, there was Trey, still trying to tag along at the gym and be with the guys. He couldn’t tell Trey not to come, and he couldn’t tell his friends to not be themselves. He still remembers how that felt, the line of tension between his son and group of friends.
“I think they were hard on me because they knew it would help me grow into the person I am today,” Trey said. “It was fun growing up around my dad and all his friends because they allowed me to grow up quicker than I would have if I wasn’t around them.”
Now the men are back at the bar, planning their nights around watching Trey’s game from the sideline.
A few weeks ago, Trey watched a family video of a kid, probably 3 or 4 years old, throwing a legendary fit after being tagged “it” in a game of duck-duck-goose.
Trey couldn’t believe he was watching himself; he thought he was watching somebody else.
Trey’s better at concealing his emotions now. The stage is bigger, the consequences are greater. Still, inside his 20-year-old body is that same little kid who couldn’t stand losing at duck-duck-goose.
A bad turnover by Trey makes the group groan and look down at their food, even with Michigan holding a comfortable 10-point lead.
Benji starts to say something about the play but stops midway through the word “can’t.” Instead of finishing the thought, he claps his hands and drowns the criticism with a sip of water.
Before Trey started his Michigan career, his relationship with Benji felt more like a coach and a player. They were close in physical proximity but didn’t have a deep relationship.
Brian Snow, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com, still remembers shouting matches between the two during games, Trey on the court and Benji on the bench. Sometimes Trey wouldn’t even speak to his father after games.
He could’ve played the best game of his AAU career, and Benji still would’ve had something to pick apart. Praise only came when Benji was talking to other people. Trey never heard any of it.
“When it was just me and him talking, he was so — I don’t want to say negative — but he had so much constructive criticism towards me,” Trey said. “He would always tell me what I needed to work on or what I didn’t do right. It was always something.”
In the summer before his senior year, Trey visited Michigan three times before committing, even though his mind was pretty much set on Cincinnati. But Benji pushed for Ann Arbor, painting a picture in the weeks before Trey made his decision. The kid was 17 years old and didn’t see the things his dad did about Michigan.
The two walked around Ann Arbor, talking about the education, the opportunity to play right away and the $23-million project to renovate the Crisler Center.
Benji wanted Trey at Michigan, but he knew his son wouldn’t take strong advice from his old coach. He let Trey come to his own conclusions, not trying to convince him of anything.
Trey had to see Benji as his dad, and Benji had to learn that he wanted to be a father that coached, not a coach that’s also a father.
“We’re way closer now,” Trey said. “We used to be close because we were around each other every single day, but we didn’t have the relationship we needed to have away from the court. I felt like there was certain things I couldn’t talk to him about because he was a coach and a dad.
“It was hurting our relationship off the court. Life isn’t just about basketball.”
Benji and Ronda picked Trey up in April 2012, his dorm room already almost packed, trash bags full of clothes on the floor. Michigan coach John Beilein and the staff had decided to give him a weekend off to go home and relax. It took his parents less than 20 minutes to start talking about the year ahead and the hardest decision he would ever have to make.
Earlier that week, Jeff Goodman, a senior college basketball writer for CBS Sports, reported that Trey was expected to leave Michigan for the NBA. It was assumed he was gone, a one-year flash of maize and blue, albeit a flash with one of the best freshman seasons at Michigan in recent memory.
Trey, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, slumped down in the back seat of his parents’ car and talked about the future, just needing to go home. He had been ranked no higher than the nation’s 15th-best point guard by any major college scouting service in high school — and now he was popping up on NBA Draft boards.
“As a senior in high school, you thought he was going to be a big-time player,” Snow said. “With that being said, I never saw him being this until he actually became it. If you would have told me he was going to be a potential lottery pick and the best player in the Big Ten, I would have laughed in your face.”
Trey had already told a Michigan trainer that he was coming back to school but didn’t know if he even believed himself. He was sick of deciding, worn out, his mind having been made up in each direction so many times with the help of so many voices.
Trey, the hyper-competitor, thought that he could work himself into the first round, and that the scouts who projected him in the second round were probably the same people that had ranked him low coming out of high school.
Trey knew what he was capable of, even if the NBA didn’t.
But again, he had to listen to Benji, who had been telling him all year that he needed to go back to school, for at least another year or two.
“This isn’t a kid with Russell Westbrook athleticism,” Goodman said. “He needed another year to mature and get stronger. He’s done all that and he’s clearly to me been the best point guard in the country and probably the best player in the country.”
Back in Columbus, Trey got to see friends and family he hadn’t seen in a while. He got to sleep in his own room, the room that has his Ohio Mr. Basketball award hanging up on the wall. He finally got to play basketball with O.J. and the rest of the crew, who of course brought him back down to earth, ribbing him the entire time.
And back in his living room with a corner full of trophies, he got to watch basketball with his dad away from the noise surrounding his decision. It wasn’t a coach and his player getting home from basketball practice anymore — it was a father and son watching the game that pulled them apart, only to eventually bring them closer.
Ultimately, Trey had to listen to Benji again.
Anthony Rhodman — Trey’s former trainer — sits across the table from Benji in a Yankees cap worn low, checking his phone every couple minutes while watching the kid he’s been training since high school up on the screen.
With 11 minutes left in the contest, Trey assists on a dunk to give Michigan a 15-point lead. Even on the road, a big lead against the worst team in the Big Ten seems to have relaxed the bar.
Rhodman has had Benji’s ear the whole game, the one guy who can break the stare from the table to the TV. As he did in high school, Rhodman trained with Trey last summer. He’s the man tasked with channeling that tireless work ethic into something productive.
Rhodman had to focus the energy of the kid who was relegated to watching his dad and his friends play on the courts without him, but worked on dribbling with his off hand instead of pouting.
“I told myself, ‘Man, if you are coming back to school, you can’t have any regrets,’ ” Trey said. “ ‘You have to go at it two, three times harder than you went after it last year.’ ”
Teammate Corey Person, a fifth-year senior guard and the old man of the squad, said that Trey “was going crazy working out over the summer,” visiting the gym at least two-to-three times a day.
“I think some of the best players in the country are the guys who weren’t ranked high and people didn’t kiss their butts when they were younger and coming up,” Goodman said. “They had to work for everything, and that gives you a mentality a lot of these other guys don’t have.”
Trey’s sophomore year has gone about as well as it could go. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year — the first Wolverine to win that award in 24 years — and is on the short list for several Player of the Year Awards.
“This second year has helped me so much,” Trey said. “It allowed me to grow up. Last year, I was looking to go to the NBA just because I was so shocked. I actually had the chance to go to the NBA — that’s been my dream since I was young.
“I think that was just so thrilling to me, just that I had the chance to go. I tested it out, but coming back this year has helped me to grow so much.”
Averaging more than 19 points and almost seven assists a game, Trey was .2 assists per game away from joining Magic Johnson in that 17-and-7 club. He scored at least 15 points in every Big Ten game this season and led the nation with a stellar 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. From last season to this one, Trey improved both his field-goal and 3-point percentages by more than .5 percentage points.
The men at the bar groan when backup point guard Spike Albrecht enters the game, because Trey is effectively the only Wolverine who can drive and get into the paint.
Michigan’s offense runs through Trey’s ability to create for everyone else on the floor, and when he isn’t in the game or isn’t playing his best basketball, point production stalls.
“If we have a point guard in the future that does 80 percent of what he does, we’ll always have a good team,” Beilein said. “You need to have a young man that really sees the game at the pace he does. To do it like he does is exceptional.”
The lead has disappeared, and the bar is getting nervous. With five minutes left in a now-tied game, Benji stands up to watch. He won’t sit back down until the game is over, until he has walked over to the side of the bar, away from the group, to call Ronda and talk about Michigan’s 84-78 loss to the Nittany Lions.
As the game winds down, Benji starts acting out plays and maneuvers, using barstools and his friends as imaginary defenders.
With the Wolverines down three, Trey makes two free throws to get Michigan to within one. Those would be Michigan’s last points of the night, and Trey walks to the locker room as the Penn State students rush the court.
After the game ends, the guys stick around for a couple of minutes to talk about how Michigan’s chances at a Big Ten title are shot.
After calling Ronda, Benji sits back down and takes out his phone, searching his son’s name on Twitter every couple minutes while shaking his head. It was one of Trey’s worst games of the season — he finished with 18 points, but also a season-high six turnovers.
Benji refreshes the page, shakes his head and mutters, “People forget he’s just a sophomore. He’s going to have bad games.”
It took the men at the bar less than six minutes of game action to start arguing over his NBA Draft stock. Some think he’s a lottery pick, others say he’ll fall to the end of the first round. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Trey will leave for the NBA after this season.
Goodman thinks he could be a top-10 point guard in the NBA, while all Snow could say was, “I can’t really tell you how he’s going to do in the NBA. What I can say is that I’ve learned to never doubt Trey Burke.”
Soon, Benji will call Trey, who is sitting on the runway headed back to Ann Arbor, and none of that will matter.
What matters is that Benji will tell Trey that he needs to fight harder through screens, but that his shot looked fluid. Trey had an excuse ready, but didn’t say anything. He held his tongue, knowing his father, once coach, was right.
The two have the same facial mannerisms when trying to explain something — their right eyes squint while the left stays the same, and both motion with their hands to push the conversation along.
Leaving the bar, Benji’s right eye will squint as he explains to Trey that even though it’s by far the worst loss of the season, there are still games to play. There was a time for criticism, but now he’s just a father trying to build up his son.
At this point, maybe that’s all the critique Trey Burke needs.