It’s amazing, what Burkett did with those opportunities.
Burkett’s exploits in three years as a basketball player won him inclusion in JSU’s four-member 2013 Sports Hall of Fame class, which was announced a week ago. But his graduate assistantship at JSU started him toward a highly successful career as a high school coach.
It all happened because of circumstances that led the Montgomery native to go unrecruited as a high school senior, a chance meeting and a broken wrist that turned his pursuit of professional hoop dreams into a life in coaching.
And to think, Burkett nearly balked at JSU’s locale.
“At first, when I talked to Coach (Bill) Jones, I initially thought the university was in Jacksonville, Florida,” he said. “Once I actually found out where it was, I really wasn’t that excited.
“I just felt like I just wanted to get away. I felt like, because I wasn’t heavily recruited, that I didn’t to get a fair shake in this state, so I wanted to just get away and go from there.”
Turns out, Jacksonville, Alabama, was the place for Burkett. He just took to round-about route getting there.
For reasons Burkett said were academic, he was ineligible for the first half of his senior year at Jeff Davis High. That span covered the first part of basketball season, and he wound up not playing at all.
That reality pretty much nixed his recruitment, so he wound up trying out at Faulkner University. Unhappy there, he followed friend Tim Wheeler’s recommendation to Wallace State-Dothan.
That’s where he met Henry Hart, then an assistant coach at Wallace. Hart played for Wallace then JSU before returning to Wallace. Hart took one look at Burkett and called Jones.
“He called me and said, ‘There’s a couple of guys that have come down here that are working out right now, and one of them is a really good player that I think could be a good player at Jax State,’” Jones said.
Hart recommended that Burkett go to Jacksonville -- the one in Alabama – and let Jones evaluate him.
“Once I met Coach Jones and Coach (James) Hobbs, it was all downhill (in a good way) from there,” Burkett said. “Just a quality bunch of guys, and they thought that I could help them immediately, so it was all kind of downhill from there.”
To say the least.
The 6-foot-6 Burkett came with size and an array of skills that allowed Jones to use him at any position on the floor. Burkett played mostly small and power forward and became one of the best players ever to play for JSU over his three seasons.
The Gamecocks went 72-13 over that span, with two Gulf South Conference championships and two berths into the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
Burkett became the 15th player in JSU history to score 1,000 points, finishing with 1,317 points. He was named the Gulf South Conference player of the year as a senior in 1992, after averaging 18.4 points and 10.0 rebounds and leading JSU to the 1992 Elite Eight.
More than Burkett’s numbers, Jones loved his utility.
“He could shoot the 3. He could handle the ball,” Jones said. “If we needed him to play point guard, he could. If I needed a clutch rebound in traffic with bigger guys, he could get it.
“Terrific hands and just absolutely understood the game.”
Jones said Burkett was a reliable producer, the guy who got him 15 points and eight rebounds a night maybe more, but rarely less. Burkett never saw a rebound he didn’t think was his.
He was also the guy who would lift extra reps in the weight room and run extra laps, the player who had it all.
Well, almost all. Burkett didn’t exactly have the textbook jump shot.
“He had his left thumb in the shot a little bit too much,” Jones said. “He has a flying elbow on his right hand, which makes his left hand become too prominent in his shot. He had kind of a right-to-left spin on the ball.”
Burkett’s shots went in, so Jones never doctored his form.
With all that Burkett had going for him, he was drafted by the United States Basketball League’s New Haven Skyhawks. A coach for the team had family connections in the Phoenix Suns’ front office, so there was a pathway to get a look.
But Burkett got undercut going to the basket and broke his wrist on the fall. The injury grounded his pro aspirations in the United States, so Jones made him a graduate assistant coach.
Burkett stayed with Jones long enough to finish his Master’s degree in public administration. After three years of playing overseas, he came back home and began coaching.
Jones helped him land the head coaching job at Saks High, and he got the Wildcats to the state semifinals in 2005 and 2006 and a runner-up finish in 2006.
He parlayed his success at Saks into his current job as boys coach at Hoover. The Bucs have won 28 or more games the past three seasons and made it to the state semifinals in 2012.
All with help from someone he didn’t know who sent him to JSU, where he didn’t want to go.
“Once again, I wasn’t excited, but my mom told me it could be a blessing in disguise,” Burkett said. “I think it definitely was.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.