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Pat Burke strides out of the cavernous locker room in the bowels of the TD Waterhouse Centre, unhindered by the influx of microphones and cameras. It is the biggest names who are sought out for their thoughts, iotas of analysis for the local news, a snippet of trivia for the bunch of 24 hour sports channels which are addictive fare for America’s couch potatoes.
The likes of him rarely venture into the spotlight which illuminates the National Basketball Association. They put a hard shift in practice and grab a few precious moments of action to allow others to catch a breather. Then they must return to the end of the bench to act as cheerleaders for their favoured colleagues. Such is the standard existence of basketball’s journeymen.
Except Burke is unique in the NBA. His journey began not in the Bronx or Boston, the sport’s storied hotbeds but rather in the chilly winter air of Dublin.
Resplendent in a linen suit custom sewn to fit his 6’11” frame, the first Irishman to ply his trade in the world’s best league towers above the fray, his shaven head and light skin separating him visibly from his peers. Having ended his first season with the Orlando Magic, he is now waiting to learn whether he will be offered a new deal to play along side Tracy McGrady and his supporting cast.
He is used to such protracted deliberations. Just as Burke waited until last summer to come into the NBA, having hitherto opted to forgo a professional career in the United States. Instead he capitalised on his passport and earned huge sums in the well-funded leagues of Greece and Spain.
“Playing there was a lot of fun,” he reveals. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I met a lot of great people and the level of basketball was terrific. Plus the crowds were incredible. You’d go into places like Turkey and even in Greece where they were throwing firecrackers around inside the building and you feel like the crowd might jump on you at any minute. It’s intimidating in one sense but it’s also exhilarating in a strange way.”
In Greece, playing for Panathinaikos, he picked up a Euroleague title. “Winning that was a much bigger deal personally than starting my first NBA game. With Pana, we had a really tightly knit group on that team, more than I’ve experienced so far in the NBA.”
Is that a hint that the hype and glitz which surrounds big-time basketball is not all that it seems? Possibly. While top earners like Shaquille O’Neal reap annual salaries of $20 million, Burke accepted an amount worth less than 2% of that sum in order to give the NBA a final shot. Understandably so. At the age of 28, it was probably then or never.
“I just wanted to do it, to try it one time,” he concedes. “I’ve had so many people over the years tell me that I should go to the NBA.” Following an early flourish, there have been disappointments. The Magic, tipped by some to challenge for the title thanks to the brilliance of their superstar guard Tracy McGrady, were instead inhibited by an injury to his talented sidekick Grant Hill. Likewise Burke’s impression receded in tandem with his playing time, an average of 4.3 points per contest hinging largely on unexpected prosperity in the first half of the campaign.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been all as you would imagine,” Burke outlines. “Everyone dreams about the NBA and says that it’s all so exciting but it’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of stress involved. After waiting so long, it’s nice to finally come here and do it. It’s been largely enjoyable and now that I’ve done it and made it through a whole year, I can do other things without wondering from the outside what it would have been like.”
Despite ever-narrowing gulf between American basketball and the best of the rest of the world, there remains a huge contrast in the way in which the sport is run on each side of the Atlantic. The game itself, with contradictory rules. The level of play. The atmosphere. “Plus the way business is handled differs immensely between Europe and the NBA,” Burke adds. “The way players are received and the status they have in the city in which they play.
“There are pros and cons between both situations. I probably enjoy the interaction between the coaches and players more over here because the treatment of players is a lot better. There’s more give and take rather than it being a case of coaches saying ‘you will do this’. That’s a much more enjoyable situation because, to an extent, you are given latitude to express your thoughts.”
There was little of such liberty to be had growing up the Burke household. Having spent the first three years of his life in Tullamore (also the abode of Susan Moran, Ireland’s representative of last year in the Women’s NBA), he and his five siblings joined the Diaspora and set sail for a new life in Cleveland.
There he played ice hockey, not hurling. Watched Disney, not Bosco. Still though, native treats were omnipresent. “My parents were always involved in Irish heritage clubs and societies,” he recalls. “I remember them taking me to dances numerous times. We had no choice. When I was in junior high, me and my friends were organising an American style party and my Dad yanked me by the ear and shouted ‘you’re not going there, we have an Irish event to go to!’ Looking back, I’m glad he did it.
“It means though that my memories of Ireland are more of going back on vacations. In my mind as a child, everyone seemed to be always celebrating because when you were visiting relatives. They were so excited to see us all returning from America.” He smiles. “Of course over here, the Irish are perceived as being very merry people, which we are, but I think they were over-merry when I was there.”
Not that the dual identity did him any harm. “He loved hockey,” elder brother Kevin affirms. “One day though, I was trying to get something off a shelf and he reached over me. I’d not noticed it but he’d grown so tall. That’s when basketball became his thing.”
Having moved again, this time to Florida, Burke met a sympathetic high school coach in Marty Waters who honed the skills of this raw, leggy 16 year old. Then Auburn University came knocking with a scholarship offer. Alabama might not have been the most obvious destination for a tall, white kid but its lure was immediate, he confirms.
“I went and visited the campus and it was exciting. It has to be said it was very country as we’d say, very slow, very relaxed and very Southern. But it fitted me very well to go there. Skin colour was never a problem. Only my size I suppose made me feel I stood out in a crowd. Plus I have a wild side so it helped me to chill out a little bit.”
While there, he pulled on an Ireland vest to represent the Isle at the World Student Games. Bafflingly, and of immense regret to native supporters, he has still to sign up for duty at full international level despite the progress made by the Irish side in the last few years.
His explanation is acerbic. “After playing in Europe or here and lasting through a ten month season, the last thing I want to do is play in an atmosphere that’s not conducive to getting the best out of players.” Yet he holds out an olive branch. “Hopefully, they can get everyone together for one big shot at something major internationally because I’d love to be a part of that before my career is over.”
Where that will play out in the interim is anyone’s guess. There is no guarantee Orlando will give him a contract. “He’ll get offers,” one NBA observer confirms. “Every team needs a 12th man and he has shown enough to find a place in this league.”
Burke, heading home to his wife and twin sons, shares that aspiration. “I’m hoping that this won’t be the last year I’m here and even if I’m not in Orlando next year, I want to go somewhere and play minutes which are worth something. My career’s not finished so I’m going to wait and see what offers are out there before I make any decisions.
“I want to take care of myself and play as long as I can until it stops being fun. If it’s not too stressful and I’m enjoying it, I’ll keep doing it.”
Having journeyed from Dublin to the shadows of the big-time, there are surely ample miles left in Burke’s tank.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Irish Examiner
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