This piece was supposed to be about the retirement ceremony for former Golden Gopher basketball great Willie Burton. However, just like Sunday’s halftime ceremony to retire Burton’s #34 jersey at the University of Minnesota Williams Arena, the news of Kobe Bryant’s untimely death forced Burton to share the day.
“It’s just a sad day for basketball, and for the Bryant family,” said Burton. “I feel for the three daughters who are left, and the one daughter they just had. She’ll never know her father. She’ll never know her sister.”
Bryant and Burton’s paths crossed while Burton, the number three all-time leading scorer in Golden Gopher basketball history, was new to the NBA, and Kobe was a talented teen possessed with a burning desire to join the league.
“When I was playing with the Philadelphia 76ers I used to play one-on-one with Kobe, every day,” said Burton. “He was a determined and overly competitive kid from the Philly area who wanted to get better.”
Bryant was five-time NBA Champion, two-time NBA finals MVP, NBA MVP and 18-time NBA All-Star. The accolades could go on and on. When Bryant retired in 2016, the Mamba Mentality transferred off the court and into life after basketball. Bryant never struggled with the transition to his post-basketball life, something Burton can relate to.
“We use our imagination, and we ran our own lane—a scorer’s type of mentality,” said Burton. “We see things that others don’t. Not just on the basketball court, but if nurtured properly, we can do the same things off the basketball court.”
And they have. Both men attacked the next chapter in their respective lives with the same work ethic that fueled their on-court successes.
Off the court, Bryant produced the ESPN+ Series “Detail,” a kids and families podcast called “The Punies,” and an Oscar-winning short film “Dear Basketball,” which is based on the poem he wrote to announce his retirement from the NBA.
Willie Burton returned to the University of Minnesota in his 40’s to earn his B.S. in Multi-Disciplinary Studies, which he’s applied in his work with families by taking struggling youth development programs and turning them into nationally recognized programs.
Burton is now one class away from wrapping up his MBA at Wayne State University (with a 4.0 GPA). He also created ‘Excel U,’ an evidence-based behavioral change curriculum for grades K-12 in partnership with NASA Institute for Space Studies, designed to empower student athletes and the mentors who guide them. “As a parent, I was so thankful to have had my children with me today, and this thing just inspires me to continue the outreach to these children and to try to connect with them with new and innovative outreach programs,” Burton said.
The late Kirby Puckett was quoted saying, “Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.”
Puckett’s quote hits home with the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria and the other people who perished in the helicopter crash drives that quote with an exclamation mark.
For Willie Burton, it’s a lesson he certainly didn’t need to be reminded of, but one he is determined to turn into something positive.
“We’re only going to be here for a limited amount of time, and that’s the reality. I hope everyone understands that and tries to focus on using the time you have wisely, don’t waste any of it.”