Detroit native Burton starred for Gophers
This weekend Willie Burton becomes the first player from the Clem Haskins era to join the 16 men’s and women’s banners in Williams Arena. His jersey will be honored January 26 during halftime of the Minnesota-Michigan State contest, the seventh Black player to achieve this feat.
“It was something that I thought about when I first walked into Williams Arena on my visit,” said Burton (1986-90), Minnesota’s third all-time MBB leading scorer and one of two Gophers with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 200 assists.
“I noticed those guys’ [jerseys] hanging up. I really set my goals toward whatever it was that they did to achieve that. I wanted to try and do that.”
The Detroit native signed to play at Minnesota during his senior year at DePorres, where he helped win consecutive state championships in 1985 and 1986. “I came to visit and I just fell in love with the Twin Cities, the people and the culture, the standard of living. I saw my future and what I wanted out of life,” Burton recalled.
But things drastically changed after three Gopher players were later arrested on rape charges, which later led to former coach Jim Dutcher’s resignation and the subsequent hiring of Haskins from Western Kentucky. Some thought that Burton might not come after all.
“They thought I would change my mind,” Burton continued. “Coach Haskins was the new coach…and he was supposed to come visit me [in Detroit] in two weeks. About four days later, he was ringing my doorbell at my house. I listened to him and studied some of the things he’d done, and how he took players and made them better.”
Haskins recalled, “I had to recruit him over because everyone was recruiting him to come to their school. I went in and tried to sell myself to him on how I was going to coach him. I was going to be fair with him, but be hard on him at times. I think he appreciated the honesty.”
As a result, the 6’-8” Burton became an important part of a blue-collar squad that ushered in a new Gopher basketball identity. “The first two were pretty tough,” he recalled of the 9-19 and 10-18 seasons. “I only lost four games in high school. We didn’t figure it out completely in the first two years.
“The last two years we finally were physically able to carry out our assignments in the Big Ten,” Burton continued, “and grew together in learning each other.” In his final two seasons of 19-12 and 23-9, the Gophers reached the Sweet 16 his junior year and came a jump shot away from the Final Four in his senior year.
“We played efficient, and Coach Haskins somehow found a way for us, and he demanded that we play hard and play together,” Burton added. “I wasn’t necessarily the off-the-floor leader, but on that basketball court I made decisions that needed to be made.”
“Willie was a guy that took coaching and wanted to get better, and he worked hard at it to get better,” the retired coach said. “I think it speaks for itself, and he certainly was a great player and a great team player. I just enjoyed coaching him.
“Like most young people, he was a handful starting out, immature when he came in, but he really settled down and developed into one hell of a player. I can’t be happier for one individual more than Willie Burton, because he is so deserving,” Haskins said.
Burton was a 1990 NBA lottery pick, ninth overall, and played for several clubs from 1990 to 1999. He then played overseas before retiring in 2004 and moving back to his hometown, where he and his family now live. He is a Detroit Public Schools athletics program administrator.
Sunday Burton returns to his college home as the halftime guest. “Everyone that helped me also will get recognized,” he said of his teammates, coaches, trainers, strength and conditioning folk, team equipment managers, academic advisors—even arena workers at the time. “This doesn’t happen without them.”