I still remember the day, August 24, 2010, like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, if otherwise nondescript, Tuesday afternoon in the late summer of Ann Arbor. Students were trickling back to campus just a couple weeks before the first home football game of the season and I found myself living the life, chilling with some friends on Greenwood Street, back to my home away from home a few days early for some work training before the start of my junior year.
Two nights before, my parents had dropped me off at my buddy’s college house and were immediately taken aback by the pungent smell of old, cheap beer emanating from the front porch and the silver keg sitting about two feet in front of the entranceway to the messy house. Surprisingly, they trusted Nick enough to leave me there and turned back around to Grand Rapids, probably praying like heck I would make it through the next two days and into the school year.
For whatever reason, Monday was unmemorable, a day full of sitting around watching and listening to training presentations and then relaxing back on Greenwood. Tuesday was supposed to be the same sort of day – a few hours of training followed by watching TV and walking the streets of Ann Arbor on the most picturesque of days.
Taylor, the friend who would go on to live with me a year later and who was also back in town for our training, and I decided to rent a couple movies to help pass the time. One of the films was about serious air guitar competitions, a recommendation from the tall, bald, mustachioed man working the desk at the Askwith Media Library. The other, Grizzly Man, had been on my must-watch list for a while.
We got back to our temporary college house and were sitting on the couch chatting before we would pop in one of the flicks when Nick walked down the steps. I think he was holding a laptop, but I’m not absolutely certain. All I remember is what he said.
“Trey Burke committed.”
He said it with a slight air of excitement, but not much more. Taylor chimed in to ask who Burke was, and Nick and I, being avid college basketball fans and followers of the Michigan team, did our best to fill him in.
We knew who Burke was, a Columbus, Ohio native and former teammate of Jared Sullinger, but didn’t have a ton to go off of. There was a little bit of video and a few scouting reports that added up to suggest that Burke was a fringe top 100-150ish point guard that wasn’t great at anything but was above average at most things. He had decommitted from Penn State a few months earlier and had just received a Michigan offer to add to a mostly unimpressive list of other offers, among them Cincinnati, Butler, Iowa, and Nebraska.
We read through all the material we could find, including message board comments that were mostly positive, but not overly optimistic. Many posted some form of a quick welcome to Trey Burke, but few predicted grand success in the future, just excitement that basketball season was around the corner. Others said he looked more like a mid-major player than a guy competing in the Big Ten. Carlton Brundidge was still going to be the key to the 2011 class; the common perception was that Burke would be a good facilitator, a good player.
Our talk lasted all of about five or 10 minutes before we moved on to our next musings. Little did we know then that I would be writing this article two and a half years later.
The 2010-11 Michigan basketball season was a great bounce-back year for the Michigan basketball program after the 2009-10 squad had failed massively to live up to expectations, finishing the year at 15-17 and missing every postseason tournament after being ranked 15 in the preseason polls.
That season was highlighted by the emergence of Darius Morris, a 6’4″ scoring point guard out of Los Angeles who was John Beilein’s first major signee at Michigan. As a freshman, Morris was relegated to a backup role, but his fantastic sophomore season helped lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament, where they pounded Tennessee before narrowly missing out on the Sweet Sixteen on a missed floater by Morris.
That floater would be the last shot Morris ever took in a Michigan uniform. After two seasons, he decided it was time to pursue his dream of playing professionally and entered the NBA Draft, where he was selected in the second round. I wrote a story then too, calling on Michigan fans to support Morris in his decision, and asking how anyone could question a college-aged kid in his quest to play the game he loves full-time while bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – at a minimum.
In the back of my mind, I wondered how Michigan would fare without their clear-cut best player, their floor general, starting in the fall. Yes, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass would provide veteran leadership and shot-making, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. had all the makings of a Big Ten superstar, but there no longer was a point guard to bring them all together and make the magic happen. I just didn’t want to think about it.
With Morris leaving, there was suddenly a lot more minutes available. Many, including me, speculated that Douglass would be forced to play out of position for at least 20 minutes a game while Burke and Brundidge would battle it out for the other 20 minutes. In my mind, a freshman, especially one as small as Burke, simply could not lead a team for extended periods of time in the Big Ten.
The summer came and went with my brother Justin and I frequently arguing about who would be the best freshman in the class. I still believed Brundidge was the newcomer to watch once the fall rolled around again. He maintained that Burke was worlds ahead of him, pointing to the ridiculous “Journey to Ann Arbor” workout videos that Burke had posted to YouTube. I didn’t listen.
That fall I was just as excited as always for Michigan basketball to come, but I was as unsure as ever about the merits of the team. I knew Beilein was a great coach, and I knew Michigan had some very good players, but the point guard position was becoming so important in the offense, and I kept questioning. Ultimately I guessed that I’d once again sweat it out on a nightly basis as the team sat on the bubble all year long.
A couple weeks before the season started, the buzz over this Burke player started to pick up. My friend Andrew posed as his sportswriter-uncle’s intern to get into a private Michigan practice and came out blown away by number 3. I still remember one Monday night after a Maize Rage meeting walking with Andrew, listening to his thoughts on the team a week before I would be able to view an open practice myself.
He started off that walk by telling me that Burke was the real deal.
“He will be the best player on this team by the end of the season,” he said.
I almost laughed out loud as we passed the Union. The best player on the team? Certainly he had to be joking. I told him I just hoped Burke earned some playing time at the point guard spot – that would at the very least be a good sign for the future. He insisted I was way off, that Burke would start before I knew it. We then walked our separate ways, I with some hope, some dream, but still some doubt.
From there, we know the story.
Burke went on to take the college basketball world by storm his freshman season, leading the team to a Big Ten championship and playing with the swagger and confidence of a man far older than 19 as classmate Carlton Brundidge struggled to earn minutes.
Once I finally got to see Burke play in a couple real college games, I had no reason to doubt any longer. Early on, I knew he was going to be a special player, and he ended up exceeding even those expectations.
By the midway point of Trey’s freshman season, I started to take him for granted. Sure, he missed plenty of shots, and no, he didn’t always make the right pass, but damn near all of the time Burke was the best player on the floor. I developed a sense of calm within games that I had never experienced before. I knew Trey Burke was on Michigan’s side, and I was at peace.
The Wolverines still lost games that season, 10 to be exact, and not everything ended up Michigan’s way, but it was a terrific winter to watch.
Sadly, that season ended with a disappointing and disheartening loss in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite earning a 4-seed, Michigan was upended by the Ohio Bobcats.
Novak and Douglass’s storied careers had come to an end, and my time as a Michigan student was winding down as well, but I looked ahead to the next season with renewed vigor, knowing the team would be in Burke’s protecting hands.
Then the news came like a blow to the stomach. Word got out that Burke was considering an early exit to the NBA, and there were rumblings around campus that he had stopped attending class, leaving most to conclude that his time at Michigan was indeed over. A few days later, reports that firmly confirmed these conclusions came out – Burke had decided to forego his college career after just one year at Michigan. Pictures of his packed-up dorm room emerged on Twitter.
I thought back to the article I wrote one year earlier about Morris’s decision to go pro and ran through every reason I gave as to why he couldn’t be blamed, eventually realizing that Burke was in the same boat. How could anyone question a teenager deciding to pursue his dreams and loads of money that most of us couldn’t even imagine making? Sure, another terrific year in college might boost his draft stock, but was the risk of injury worth it?
No one knew for sure. Michigan fans just hoped against hope it wasn’t true.
A couple more days passed with no announcement of Burke’s intentions, and a glimmer of that hope shone brightly in the sky. More stories started to come out explaining that Burke was reconsidering his decision, but still no one was certain.
Then came the announcement. On April 9, 2012, Burke single-handedly blew the clouds out of Ann Arbor by announcing that he would return for his sophomore year at Michigan. Within minutes of the declaration, most surmised that, barring a catastrophe, the 2012-13 season would serve as a swan song of sorts for the baby-faced sophomore. He would give it a go one more time in Ann Arbor in the hopes of winning a championship and improving his draft stock.
That summer passed very slowly for Michigan fans around the world as Beilein assembled his best-ever recruiting class to enter into the equation with Burke and Hardaway already in the fold. Prognosticators slotted Michigan in the top five of polls in the preseason, higher than in nearly 20 years, and Burke was viewed as an All-American.
With Burke leading the way one last time, the Wolverines gave fans a ride for the ages, opening the season with 16 straight wins to climb to number one in the country. There were some bumps in the road that followed, however, and doubts crept up.
When the Big Dance rolled around this time, the sentiments weren’t so high. Michigan had limped to a 6-6 record over the final 12 games preceding the NCAA Tournament, and another 4-seed seemed to be an unfair omen for Michigan fans looking for one last joy ride.
As always, though, Burke answered the call. For the most part he wasn’t spectacular in Michigan’s run to the Final Four, but when it mattered most, he was there. He was there to shut down Nate Wolters in Michigan’s opening round victory over South Dakota State, and he was there to wreak havoc on VCU’s overly-aggressive defense despite a lack of gaudy numbers that first weekend.
Burke was there with 23 magical second-half points in the Wolverines’ fairy tale comeback over Kansas and he was there in Michigan’s blowout of Florida.
He was also there in Michigan’s victory over Syracuse, their first Final Four win in two decades. Perhaps most memorably, however, Burke was there against Louisville in the national championship that wasn’t meant to be.
It was an unfitting end to such a brilliant college career, a game that saw Burke marred with two questionable foul calls, including one on an incredible block of Peyton Siva that could have changed the outcome of the game. Burke fought to the end in that game as he always did, however, scoring 24 points and putting the team on his back despite a couple noticeably painful hard fouls that he took himself.
In the end, for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be. Burke brought home all the individual awards one can earn, but I know he is the kind of player that would have given them all back to win that last game.
That was always part of the beauty of Trey Burke’s game. He always gave it his all for the team, whether Michigan was trailing by four late or winning by 20 in the first half, and he thought every shot was going in. Sure, he missed more than half the shots he took in his college career, but I was fine with any shot Trey deemed suitable. He made me a believer in the bad shot, the long two, the off-balance layup, the pick-pocket, and the 10-foot-behind-the-line three.
He also made me a believer in the clutch factor.
Before I knew Trey Burke, I was on the side of the statisticians and mathematicians that adamantly proclaim that there is no such thing as being clutch in sports, that ultimately a player will make the same percent of his shots at any given time if there are enough trials.
To them, I say watch Trey Burke.
Watch the Ohio State home games of this season and last, when Burke made three game-saving plays in all. Watch the Michigan State game of this year, when Burke snatched the ball right from Keith Appling’s backside to ensure that Michigan would not fall apart down the stretch. Watch the Purdue game in West Lafayette, when Burke led a one-man comeback with three after three and floater after floater to keep Michigan’s season from going down the drain. Watch the Kansas game in the Sweet Sixteen, when Burke willed his team to overtime and eventually victory with The Shot, truly believing his team would win despite some computer programs giving Michigan less than a one percent chance of doing so.
To you, Trey Burke, I have a confession to make. I doubted you. Before I saw what you could do with my own eyes, I didn’t believe in you. I was skeptical that a 6’0″, 175-pound kid from Columbus, a kid that didn’t even get looked at by the Big Ten team right down the street, could carry a team for two seasons.
No one told me to write this story, but I felt that I owed it to you.
It’s players like you that make the game of basketball special and the University of Michigan special. Players that play the right way, and do so with such grace and smoothness rarely on display these days.
I never once thought you would be the savior of Michigan basketball, but now there is no doubt in my mind.
Sooner rather than later, I know we will see your ‘3’ hanging in the rafters of Crisler, adorned with “BURKE” across the top in huge letters next to the past greats of Michigan basketball, and across the way from the “2012-13 NCAA Runner-Up,” “2013 Final Four,” and “2011-12 Big Ten Champion” banners.
Until then, I wish you the best of luck on your journey to the NBA. When college basketball season rolls around again this fall, I will be excited as always, but there will be a small hole in my heart that is made a just a little bit bigger by your departure, after Novak, Douglass, Morris, Manny Harris, and so many others have moved on before. I will miss watching you play, seeing you so effortlessly lead Michigan to victory while wearing the Maize and Blue, but thank you for giving me that reason.
Thank you for making me a believer in not only you, but in the game of basketball. I always knew it was a beautiful game, but I was never certain it could be played as beautifully as you did these past two years.
Thank you for always helping me remember these past two years, and that day two summers ago that I will never forget.
Thank you for those banners, and for bringing Michigan back to where it belongs.
Thank you, Trey, for everything.