Willie Burton was drafted 9th overall by the Miami Heat in the 1990 NBA Draft and went on to play eight seasons in the NBA, where he averaged 10.3 points per game throughout his career. Burton is one of the players credited with transforming the Miami Heat from an expansion team into a mainstay NBA franchise. Off-the-court, Burton is actively involved in public speaking and mentoring youth. He recently returned to the University of Minnesota, where he played collegiately, to earn his college degree. The Detroit native is working to start a local NBRPA Chapter in Motown and recently sat down with Kevin Jachim to talk about his career and life after the game.
Q: Congratulations on receiving your degree at the University of Minnesota. What kind of process did you go through and what do you plan on doing with your degree now?
It has always been a passion of mine to go back to school and get my degree. I found out about the Goal for Grad program and I also found out that the NCAA has a program for former athletes who have not yet finished their degrees. I think that all former athletes, not just NBRPA members, should explore this option because it was a huge help for me in completing my degree. Right now I am exploring what I want to do with my degree. I have a multidisciplinary degree in communications, history and social science, and business so I have a number of options where I want to continue my career path on. I am looking to work in schools or even be a youth initiative coordinator for young student athletes. Currently, I work with adults and mental health and I also am a curriculum developer for kids. All in all I work with people to help them through their life path.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do for the National Speakers Association?
I speak on a number of different topics but mainly I give out my story. Some of the things that I have gone through covers areas that include what it was like playing basketball and what my life has been like after basketball. Depending on where I am speaking or what kind of message that place wants to get across to their students or their employees ultimately pinpoints what I am going to speak about.
Q: What kind of steps have you been taking toward starting an NBRPA chapter in Detroit?
Right now we are in the final process of getting the our documentation in to start the Detroit chapter. We want to make sure that we are doing everything properly and do not want to miss any of the little things. Tentatively we have elected a board of directors. Currently I am acting as the president, Derrick Coleman and Willie Norwood are the active vice presidents, Earle Higgins is the secretary, and Jimmy King is acting as treasurer. We want to make sure that everything is right and set in place because the last thing we want to do is rush this process. We have put a lot of time and effort into starting this chapter and we want to make the Detroit chapter a thriving one.
Q: What was it like being a player that helped transform the Miami Heat from an expansion team into who they are today?
When I first got to Miami it was great just to be able to play basketball somewhere that it never snowed. That was very different for me being someone from Detroit where it is always cold and snowy. Playing for the Heat was an exciting time, a learning experience and a learning curve. I got an opportunity to play with some fantastic guys. Steve Smith, Glen Rice, Manute Bol, and John Salley were some of the guys that helped transform the Miami Heat from an expansion team to the franchise that it is today.
Q: What is it like watching players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade make the Miami Heat so explosive and exciting?
I think it is excellent the way that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have helped form the Heat organization to where it is today. I think the franchise has been growing since the day it began. When Wade came to Miami, along with Shaquille O’Neal, it brought more attention and visibility to the team and organization. I think that the Heat have done a marvelous job with their coaching and their management of the team with the players that they select specifically to fit their style of play. Watching LeBron James break a record of mine that was held up for 20 years was exciting for me, because it brought my name back up in a positive light. I even forgot about the record until it actually happened. To see a player like Ray Allen, who is a good friend of mine, wear the same number that I wore is exciting because I can actually point at him and tell kids that I used to wear that number and how I know him.
Q: What are your thoughts on University of Minnesota’s new men’s basketball coach, Richard Pitino?
I think that different universities make hiring decisions based off of what they feel. I am a supporter of the University of Minnesota – good, bad, or indifferent – and I have to be supportive of what they are doing. I try and lend any assistance that I can give the University of Minnesota with any decisions that need to be made. I do not think it is a bad decision hiring Pitino because now he is changing the scope of the game for the Gophers. He is making the game a higher, more fast-paced game like his father does at Louisville. Pitino is going to run this team with a flashy, fast-paced, high-intensity pressure defense and I think it is going to be very exciting. I look forward to what he is going to be bringing to the University of Minnesota because the offensive style that he coaches is an NBA style of play and I think that they have a number of tremendous athletes that can take advantage of his coaching tendencies.
Q: What else are you up to today?
On top of the program that I am working on with the Miami Heat and with the National Speakers Association I am helping put together a curriculum piece for student athletes to market across the United States at www.educatedstarsoftomorrow.com. It will be the only evidence based nationally recognized curriculum specifically geared towards student athletes and the goal is to use the NBRPA network to help get it started because there is nobody else who knows the game of basketball better than the legends of the NBA. Hopefully this program will be launching this September.
Q: What has the NBRPA done for you?
The NBRPA is a place for retired guys that have finished playing the game to find their way in life after basketball. For years, all we did was play sports everything was taken care of for us. Now being retired we have to adjust to everyday life and the NBRPA has helped us do exactly that. The NBRPA is a place that makes us feel like we are at home and a part of one big family. The NBRPA is doing a tremendous job of expanding what they are doing and growing as an organization and I am proud and happy to see some of the things take shape the way they are. The NBRPA gives us a place to go, opportunities, and also gives us a way to reconnect with guys that we haven’t been in contact with since retiring from the NBA.