Five years after the end, Trey Burke has a new beginning
Trey Burke lined up across from Corey Person with only winning on his mind.
This wasn’t a practice drill between the two guards — Burke a sophomore on his way to winning National Player of the Year, Person a walk-on in his senior year. Nor was it a pickup game after practice. It wasn’t even on a basketball court.
In a football tailgate lot outside Michigan Stadium, the Michigan men’s basketball team was hosting an event for recruits, and a pickup football game had broken out. Playing wide receiver, Burke’s competitive urge kicked in.
“He wanted to win so bad — not only did he want to win, he wanted to embarrass (Person),” recalled then-graduate manager Kyle Barlow. “And (Burke) dominated him.”
It didn’t matter that this was a different sport. It didn’t matter that this was as informal a setting as you could get. Burke had to win, and he did.
That was what every basketball recruit visiting Ann Arbor realized that day — and what the Wolverines’ coaching staff had come to understand a year prior — when they saw Burke play against live competition for the first time at a closed-door scrimmage against Toledo. Trey Burke, it turns out, makes a strong first impression.
On that day in October 2011, Burke had walked into the scrimmage with Stu Douglass, the presumptive starter at point guard. Instead, video analyst Pete Kahler, assistant coach LaVall Jordan and administrative specialist C.J. Lee watched together, mouths agape, as Burke came off the bench and gave Michigan its answer.
Almost immediately, Burke stripped the ball from an opposing player, blew by Toledo’s transition defense and scored. He followed that by coming off a ball-screen and nailing a jumper, then picking up an assist. The coaching staff had known Burke was good, but not this good, and not this soon.
“We’re like, ‘Whoa. We might need to give this kid the key to the car,’ ” Kahler said. “It was just very clear right away that (Burke) was just more athletic and more skilled than anybody on the court.”
“It was the first experience of him in live competition,” Lee, who played point guard at Michigan between 2007 and 2009, added. “And it was something that was just noticeable. It’s like, ‘This guy is made to do this.’ ”
When Burke came out, the offense slowed down. When he checked back in, it sped right back up. This wasn’t just a few good minutes. It was a precursor for the next two seasons.
Anyone with eyes knew then and there that Burke was simply better than Douglass. Including Douglass.
“Stu went up to (Michigan) coach (John) Beilein and said, you know, ‘Coach, we gotta start him at the point,’ ” Kahler recalled.
It took all of one game — the opener against Division II Ferris State — for that to come to fruition. Three days later when the Wolverines faced Towson, Beilein heeded Douglass’ advice. The starting job belonged to Burke.
Burke’s legend starts there and, for now, ends 18 months later with a seemingly clean block, a whistle and a national championship game loss to Louisville. Everything that happens after is often considered a mere footnote because until four months ago, Burke was just another player who peaked in college before flaming out at the next level. Burke still may end up being just that, but he’s as close to rewriting that script as ever.
There’s a formula to a season ending: Coaches frustrated, teammates nervous for the impending finish, shots that normally fall rimming out. In the 2013 Sweet 16 against Kansas, Michigan was following that to a T — until Burke broke it.
Burke had been trying to rally the troops throughout the second half, telling his teammates in timeout huddles it wasn’t over, they could come back — all the things you say partly because you believe them and partly because not saying them would be admitting defeat. It wasn’t until the Wolverines were down eight with two minutes to go and Burke forced a 10-second call on the Jayhawks’ Elijah Johnson that they became more than platitudes.
At that point, LaVall Jordan started to holler, using a white Gatorade towel to smack the raised court, getting louder with each shot.
As Burke kept hitting shots — a stepback 3-pointer over Jeff Withey to cut the deficit to five, a transition layup to cut it to three — Jordan began ignoring the playcalls Kahler suggested to him.
“Pete!” Kahler remembered him yelling. “Just let that boy rock!”
When Burke hit a shot, Jordan would scream, “That boy is special!” annunciating each word by hitting the towel against the court, sending fluff towards Kahler, as the rest of the bench stared, wide-eyed, the Wolverines pulling ever closer.
Still, Michigan needed to foul Johnson and pray for a miss on the front end of a 1-and-1 to have a chance to tie at the end of regulation. Whether Johnson made or missed his free throws, the plan was the same: get the ball in as fast as possible, set two high ball-screens for Burke and go from there.
Everyone knew the last shot — Michigan still needing a 3-pointer to tie — belonged to Burke. But he wasn’t supposed to pull up, at least not from 30 feet. He did anyway and drained it.
“The follow-through was like a goose-neck,” said then-junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “It was perfect, pretty, you couldn’t teach it any better.”
“After (Burke) hit the shot … and then we all went to the timeout, he kept saying, ‘We’re not losing this game,’ ” then-senior guard Eso Akunne recalled.
The Wolverines still had to defend with 4.3 seconds left, a situation they had blown earlier in the season after a Hardaway triple had seemingly won a game at Wisconsin. But after Naadir Tharpe’s try at a game-winner fell short, Michigan could see an impending loss on the face of every Kansas player.
Throughout that year — even with a starting lineup that included three other future NBA Draftees — Michigan had leaned on Burke, and Burke had delivered. Now, with the season on the line, he had done so again.
“It’s almost like a warm blanket,” Kahler said. “You’d go on the court and (know) that, no matter what happened, we had that great chance of winning. We were probably gonna win because we had Trey Burke on the team.”
The blown lead oozed into the Jayhawks’ body language and the comeback into Michigan’s, as Burke rollicked around the court, scoring the Wolverines’ first five points of overtime. All the while, Jordan kept thwacking that towel.
“Just let him go!” Kahler recalled Jordan belting. “Don’t need to run plays, just set a ball-screen, let him go to work.”
When the buzzer sounded, handing Michigan an impossible 87-85 victory, it had Burke to thank.
“Probably next to getting married, one of the best feelings in the world,” Kahler said. “I’m serious.”
Needless to say, Burke hadn’t expected to be taking commercial flights to Canton, Ohio and Greensboro, North Carolina four years later. But with his basketball career in need of a revival, life took Burke to White Plains, New York, home of the G-League’s Westchester Knicks.
Four years after Burke played in front of the entire country during the Final Four, he was running point in front of barren arenas off the beaten path. At Michigan, Burke had been vocal in huddles during games, but often led by example. Now, at age 25, he was one of the team’s oldest, most experienced players.
With the Wolverines, the closest Burke had come to mentorship was when Caris LeVert — another future NBA player from the Columbus area and a year behind Burke — came to Michigan. The two trash-talked, telling each other, “You can’t guard me,” until there was no choice but settle it on the court. They played before practice, after practice — even on gamedays, at least until Kahler kicked them out of the gym.
“They would go back and forth — who can’t guard who, or who would win 1-on-1 — and then there was just sorta, ‘Alright, shut up and grab a ball,’ ” Person said. “Next thing you know, they’re at it again.”
In Westchester though, Burke embraced being the old guy in the locker room.
Burke told teammates where they had to be in practice. He told them about his time in the NBA — about how, early in his career, an opposing player blew by him for a layup and how Burke realized this was different than college — and about anything else they asked. In film sessions, he spoke up.
“We had about seven or eight rookies — everybody was instantly willing to listen and learn, because not too many times, coming in your first year, you get that cool of an opportunity to have somebody like that around,” said Paul Watson Jr., a Westchester guard last season. “... Trey was a leader for us instantly.”
And, most importantly, after his career had sunk to its lowest point, Burke was having fun again.
In one contest against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, he was held scoreless in the first half. The Mad Ants focused their entire defense around trapping him. Then Burke came out of the locker room and went on a tear, scoring 28 in the second half of what became a victory.
“(Burke) told the guys (at halftime), he said, ‘I’m good. You guys keep doin’ what you’re doin’. You guys are open and I’m gonna find you,’ ” said Westchester Knicks coach Mike Miller. “... And then (in) the second half, it balanced out and he went on one of those runs.”
Miller and Burke’s teammates alike all knew from the day he signed, the Knicks would call him up eventually. When that call finally came in mid-January — bringing Burke a little less than an hour south and a second chance — there was little room to squander it.
John Beilein likes his players to be “over-ready” for the NBA before declaring for the Draft.
“I don’t want our guys to get drafted,” he said recently. “I want our guys to have a career in the NBA.”
After electing to stay his sophomore season, Burke did not just lead Michigan to the National Championship Game and win National Player of the Year. He also learned how to deal with a truly excessive level of attention.
By the end of his sophomore season, Burke couldn’t walk to class without someone coming up to him and asking for a photo. When he went to basketball camps, parents would join their kids in seeking autographs. People came to West Quad and asked for Burke’s room, hoping to hang out.
“I didn’t like walking with Trey anywhere,” Akunne said. “If you got 10 minutes to go somewhere, it would take 30.”
So, Burke qualified as over-ready for the next level.
Fittingly, then, Burke’s family turned draft night into a production, taking a mass of people to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They thought Burke might end up going to the Orlando Magic, picking second, or the Phoenix Suns at five.
But when the Cleveland Cavaliers took Anthony Bennett first, surprising, well, everyone, the draft took a turn. It took until the ninth pick, when the Utah Jazz traded up, for Burke’s name to come off the board.
“If I can remember, Trey didn’t work out for the Jazz,” said Benji Burke, his father. “And so, it was a surprise because we didn’t know that they were interested in a point guard.”
Surprise or not, Burke’s first year in Utah was a personal success. After missing the season’s first 12 games with a broken right index finger, Burke easily fit into then-Jazz coach Ty Corbin’s spread offense.
Playing alongside Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, Burke averaged 12.8 points and 5.7 assists his rookie season, enough to earn All-Rookie status. But that success didn’t translate to the Jazz, who went 25-57, fired Corbin and hired Quin Snyder. When the next draft rolled around, they took Dante Exum — another point guard — and by the end of the next season, Burke was coming off the bench for the first time since his freshman year of high school.
He never started a game with Utah again.
Snyder broke the news to Burke just before the 2015-16 season opener. When the Jazz tipped off at Detroit — a mere hour from Crisler Center, where Burke had built his career — he would be on the bench.
Burke had rolled with the punches when benched the prior season. He had played well in the preseason. And he was hurt by the decision.
“(The Jazz) said that they needed him off the bench, and so, you know, that’s just a nice way of saying, ‘We gonna go in a different direction,’ ” Benji said. “So, when you’re still the most productive point guard on the team, but you comin’ off the bench, you know, things don’t look good.”
When Burke was traded after the season, it didn’t come as a surprise. According to Benji, he was trying to get out of Utah. The Washington Wizards swapped their 2021 second round pick for Burke — piddly compensation for someone who, two years prior, had been a lottery pick.
Beating out John Wall and starting with the Wizards was out of the question, but Wall had played over 36 minutes per game the previous season. He couldn’t play all the minutes again, reasoned Burke. When the trade happened, Burke told reporters he was “thrilled.”
Turned out, Wall saw a slight uptick in minutes. Burke rode the pine, averaging all of 12.3 minutes over 57 games. From the end of February on, he was completely out of the rotation, playing in just four games over the season’s last six weeks.
“To be honest, he didn’t even get an opportunity in DC,” Benji said. “You can’t do anything with eight minutes a game and be effective. … That’s just a year where he rested, basically.”
When Burke hit free agency, he waited, then he waited some more before taking the plunge to the G-League.
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Twitter feed was inundated with memories. After Burke’s call-up, Hardaway — who now starts in the backcourt for the Knicks — opened his phone to a slew of photos from Michigan’s 2013 Final Four run.
While Burke’s career was dive-bombing, Hardaway was carving out a place with the Atlanta Hawks. In the summer of 2017, he signed with New York for a life-changing four years and $70 million. Once Burke joined his former teammate, it didn’t take long for him to start finding a place of his own.
After a few nondescript performances, Burke dropped 18 points and 11 assists in a loss at Denver. The next night, in Phoenix, he scored 18 again.
“He wasn’t turning the ball over and he was doing all the right things and giving the ball to people at the right time in the right places,” Hardaway said. “... The first couple games coming out of the gate, he — on a regular basis — his first eight shots, six of them would be makes. That was a given.”
New York, hapless as ever, was in the midst of a tank-job that saw it finish 29-53. But Burke was establishing himself as a mainstay, playing his best basketball in years. By late March, he had earned the starting job, his first game in the role coming against — of all teams — the Wizards.
Nineteen points later — including a driving layup to put the Knicks ahead for good with 35 seconds to go — starting point guard was Burke’s job to lose. A night later, after a 42-point, 12-assist performance against the Charlotte Hornets, it was just his job, period, end of sentence.
“It was nothing new to me,” Hardaway said. “Cause everybody (was) surprised at what this guy could do. I’m not surprised at all. I’ve seen it from when he was a freshman at Michigan all the way ‘til now.”
Now, a month after the season has ended, nothing is certain for Burke. The Knicks fired head coach Jeff Hornacek at the end of their season, and Burke has seen things go downhill with a new coach before. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, and Burke will need to do more than play well for three months to get that money, and even more than that to fulfill his goal of one day making an All-Star team.
But he’s closer to all of that than ever before. So what changed?
“I think he got back to being Trey Burke, as opposed to trying to be somebody he’s not, just to get minutes or be on the team,” Benji said. “He got back to playing the way Trey Burke plays.
“And the way Trey Burke plays got him every national player of the year award. The way Trey Burke plays is he was a No. 9 pick. The way Trey Burke plays is he was, what, third in voting for Rookie of the Year. And so the way Trey Burke plays is he’s gonna grind, he’s gonna fight, he’s gonna claw, he’s a scoring PG and he’s having fun doin’ it.”
And maybe Trey Burke won’t go down as another player who peaked in college. Maybe Trey Burke has bought himself a new lease on basketball life. Maybe this comeback story will end the way comeback stories are supposed to end. Maybe — just maybe — Trey Burke’s legend still has a chapter left to be written.