For Bob Burke, there are so many memories from a lifetime of coaching.
Winning games at Chowan. Learning from John Wooden. Needling Jim Valvano. Coaching Nate McMillan. Offering words of advice for Mark Gottfried and others in the profession.
“To me, Bob Burke is the epitome of a coach’s coach,” former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom says. “He’s a basketball lifer, well-respected by his peers.”
Burke loves to tell stories and one is about his first visit to Chowan. He interviewed to be the head coach, then was given a tour of the campus in Murfreesboro.
“They showed me everything but the basketball court,” Burke says. “That was the last thing I got to see, and I remember them opening the doors and there it was, the Helms Center.
“It was quite a sight, pretty much brand, spanking new. I thought to myself, ‘I can build a dynasty here.’ ”
That was in 1980 and Chowan was then a two-year junior college in a small Hertford County town on the banks of the Meherrin River, a few miles from the Virginia state line and about 90 miles northeast of Raleigh. Building a basketball dynasty there would take some doing.
But Burke wasn’t being brash. It wasn’t his Staten Island-bred, Irish-Catholic background coming out. He saw the potential at Chowan and he made it work, winning 419 games in 22 years as coach, even as the school transitioned to a four-year university and moved to NCAA Division III in 1993.
While he is proud of the many players he helped develop at Chowan, including McMillan, Burke was Chowan’s Mr. Basketball. It’s why the school is honoring him Saturday with the dedication of the “Bob Burke Court” at the Helms Center.
About 350 people are expected, Chowan athletic director Ozzie McFarland says, and many will be Burke’s former players. The ceremony will be held at halftime of the Hawks’ game against Virginia Union.
“It’s hard to put into words what Bob Burke meant to this school,” McFarland says. “Bob’s record was unbelievable. I’ve personally met with several of his former players and all are quality individuals, a testament to the kind of coach he was. After Bob left Chowan, he coached in the NBA, in Hawaii, but Chowan was always in his heart.”
Snagging Nate McMillan
Burke, 70, and his wife, Jane, raised their two children – Rob and Ashlyn – in Murfreesboro. Rob Burke began sitting on the bench during games at 4 and was a gym rat at the Helms Center. Years later, he was Chowan’s point guard, helping his father win games.
“I had a different perspective of him, as a Dad and a coach,” says Rob Burke, the director of basketball operations at Georgia Southern. “People outside his circle probably thought of him as some crazy, wild, obnoxious coach, but the players understood that he cared about them and wanted to be successful.
“You know, he didn’t make a lot of money there, not in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He got the most gratitude from helping his players find that success, whatever it was. When I was younger I took for granted what he did, who he was. But his passion, his drive, was special.”
Bob Burke was a relentless recruiter, once saying he never took up golf because, “I’ve never seen a coach recruit a player on a golf course.” And once he got the players to Chowan, other coaches soon found their way to Murfreesboro.
“When it was a two-year school, it was a must-stop, a must-see destination for every four-year college coach,” Odom says. “And the thing about Bob was while he was very loyal to his players, he was incredibly honest with you as a coach. He’d tell you, ‘This player is good enough to play for you while saying another player probably should be at a different level.’ ”
Burke also could chide some coaches about players they missed. McMillan grew up in Raleigh and played at Enloe High for the late Preston McClain. McMillan’s mother, the late Jeanette Tyson, was employed by N.C. State.
But McMillan first played college basketball for Burke at Chowan, not Valvano at N.C. State.
“They were dumbfounded when they found out how good Nate was,” Burke says of the Pack coaches. “They didn’t do their homework.”
As Ray Martin, then an assistant coach at N.C. State, once recalled, “Here we were, recruiting all over the country, and here was this player right in our backyard with a mother working at our school.”
McMillan helped Chowan reach the 1984 NJCAA Championships in Hutchinson, Kansas. At N.C. State, McMillan and the Pack made it to an NCAA regional final in 1986.
McMillan played in the NBA, then coached the Seattle Supersonics and Portland Trail Blazers, where he hired Burke as an assistant coach after Burke was an assistant at the University of Hawaii.
Burke says he had another player from Raleigh who also could have made an impact for the Pack. Former Broughton High star Gary Mattison became Chowan’s all-time leading scorer from 1986 to 1988, leading Chowan to a 55-11 two-year record and another NJCAA Championship appearance. He committed to playing for N.C. State but fell short academically.
“If Gary had done what he was supposed to do with his academics, Rodney Monroe may have had to find another place to play because Gary would have taken his spot at State,” Burke says. “He was that good.”
Mattison wound up at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh, leading Division II in scoring as a senior.
“Such is life,” Burke says.
‘Who’s John Wooden?’
Burke’s life changed when he first came to North Carolina in the summer of 1967. Seems the Campbell coach, Fred McCall, had plans to add Bobby Cremins to his roster before South Carolina coach Frank McGuire intervened and persuaded Cremins to play for the Gamecocks.
McGuire told McCall there was another New Yorker playing at South Texas Junior College who could take Cremins’ place for the Camels. Soon, Burke was at Campbell, where he played two years and earned his degree in 1969 while also working as a counselor at the renowned Campbell College Basketball School in the summers.
Among the college coaches who worked the camp, and was a good friend of McCall’s, was the coach at UCLA.
“The first time I heard his name I was like ‘Who’s John Wooden?’ ” Burke says. “It didn’t take long to find out and I quickly realized he knew what he was talking about. I became a Wooden disciple.”
Burke incorporated the UCLA high-post offense into his own X-and-O schemes. It helped him win a lot of games at Chowan and is being used – although a different version of it, Burke says – by N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried.
Burke says he has attended some Wolfpack practices and “exchanged ideas” with Gottfired, and also has watched Roy Williams conduct North Carolina practices. Health issues led to his retirement but his input still is sought.
“To this day he still tells me he’s forgotten more about basketball than I know,” Rob Burke says, laughing.
As for Cremins, he later coached Johnny McNeil and Fred Vinson at Georgia Tech. They played for Burke at Chowan and were among the seven players Burke sent to ACC schools.
The Burkes, who have been married 46 years, now live in Wilson. Jane Burke, a Sampson County native, was a school teacher and administrator, serving as superintendent of the Hertford County schools. She’s also the one who made cookies for the players and gave them needed post-game hugs after Burke, a tempestuous type in games, had stalked, shouted and stomped his foot at the bench.
“There were ups and downs in being a junior college, of going to Division III and not being associated with a conference,” Burke says. “It was frustrating at times. But at a junior college you could explore and experiment more and if you had good players you were going to win.
“There was a lot more good than bad.”
Bob Burke says he was always proud of what he called “Chowan sweat,” by how hard his players worked. Jane Burke also recalls “The Snake,” the 5:30 a.m. runs in the football stadium for any of Burke’s players who broke team rules.
After the Chowan announcement of the naming of the Helms Center court, Jane listened as her husband made call after call to his former players, telling them the news.
“It was tough love Bob gave his players,” Jane Burke says. “But Bob would do anything for his players and I’ve heard many say, ‘Coach Burke, I would not have made it if not for you.’ ”
Many might be saying it again Saturday on “Bob Burke Court.”
The Burke coaching file
Head coach, college: Chowan, Greensboro College.
Head coach, high school: Wallace-Rose Hill.
Assistant coach, college: Campbell, Guilford, Hawaii.
Assistant coach, NBA: Portland Trail Blazers.
At Chowan: Had 419-217 record in 22 years as head coach. Had 12 consecutive 20-win seasons and made three appearances in NJCAA Championships in Hutchinson, Kansas (1984, ‘88, ‘92). Of his Chowan players, 42 later competed at Division I schools, including seven at ACC schools.