Willie Burton: Finding Willie, 1995

[When the Miami Heat took Willie Burton in the first round of the 1990 NBA draft, team officials woo-hooed the choice. With good reason. Their internal scouting report on Burton, a 6-feet-6 star at the University of Minnesota, read in part, “A very vibrant person, likes to talk, likes to communicate, is easy to deal with . . . and loves the game of basketball, loves it day in and day out.” 

Burton immediately flashed his love of the game, scoring a then-NBA record 24 points in his first pro outing. He also soon flashed a character trait that hadn’t made the Heat scouting report: unpredictability. Burton could be “vibrant” one week, totally upbeat, and down in the dumps the next over tweaks to his playing time. The stress-induced unpredictability was increasingly exacerbated by Burton’s taste for alcohol. He was toasting the Miami nightlife, slamming down shots of Jack Daniels, wobbling home to sleep it off, then showing up for practice the next day, sometimes late, sometimes in a funk over his playing time, sometimes upbeat about the future. The Heat coaching staff scratched their collective heads as Burton’s behavior grew more erratic. He missed a team flight, wept uncontrollably at halftime, and once reportedly exclaimed during a game, “It seems like the world is closing in on me!”

In 1992, Burton was diagnosed as battling depression, or more clinically, bipolar disorder. To get help and mentorship, Burton checked into a Houston treatment facility run by former NBA star and recovering addict John Lucas. It was a start, and doctors advised Burton to take lithium tablets daily to stabilize his behavior. “The basketball, it has always made me feel good,” Burton said of his situation. “I don’t have dark thoughts when I’m on the court, playing. The frustrations seep out of me like sweat. All my problems just go away.”

What were those problems? As a child in Detroit, Burton witnessed his first shooting at age five. The whole bloody ordeal traumatized him. So did seeing his first stabbing a few years later. To hide his trauma-turned-fear of the mad, mad world swirling so menacingly around him, Burton clearly self-medicated at the corner bar. But the Jack Daniels, like the lithium tablets, only masked the symptoms of his trauma. They didn’t address the cause of his emotional disconnection from this mad, mad world and, most important, from himself. That would have to come later, after his eight-year NBA career was a wrap, through years of therapy, support, introspection, and reconnection with the healthy human emotions that had been severed in his childhood. 

But before then, and after four unpredictable seasons in Miami mostly as an underutilized role player, Burton was cut by the Heat before the 1994-1995 season. In the article below, from the March 1995 issue of the magazine The Fan, Burton has joined the Philadelphia 76ers, coached by none other than Lucas, now a mentor to Burton. As in Miami, things would go well-then-erratically for Burton during his one season in Philadelphia. He’d yet to heal himself; making peace with the world on the pressure-packed NBA fly a recipe for failure. “Playing pro ball ain’t an easy life, period,” Lucas later summed up the challenge. “What people don’t realize is that you’ve got to perform every night. You can’t come out there high stepping. It’s a real long season.”

But back in the 1990s, mental health wasn’t a topic that the NBA or sports fans in general wanted to discuss, mainly because it had never been a part of the discussion. If talented players “flaked out,” it was their problem, not management’s. But Burton was among the first to go public with his battle, including here with reporter Jack McCaffery, then with the Delaware County Daily Times. Burton tried to put a human face on the pro life and show that whether you’re a first-round NBA pick or an overnight clerk at local Wawa, we’re all just trying to figure things out and make the best of our lives.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The New NBA has issued a statement to mark the month as well as become more proactive on the topic. But here’s to guys like Willie Burton, who though hurting during their NBA careers, had the guts to go public with their mental health challenges and confront  the social stigma for the better.]

John Lucas advises Burton.

When Willie Burton left Detroit in 1986 in search of a new home, he never thought he would find one in an airport hotel on the fringe of Philadelphia. He was a gifted basketball player from a two-time state championship high school team, and he was bound for the University of Minnesota, where he envisioned warm nights inside, shielded from an ambush of Northern winters. 

“Minnesota was beautiful. It is like here—the leaves falling, the weather. The people are also friendly. Basically, I am just an old-fashioned person. I’d like to stay home with my wife and kids.”

He was happy in Minnesota, and he is happy now in Philadelphia, where he is a key scorer for the 76ers, and a family man, and John Lucas’ shooting guard of the future. He’s even content with his slapdash accommodations: He and his family live in a suite hotel near the airport and—just as well—not near much else. 

It was the “much else”—to be specific, the nightclubs—that Willie Ricardo Burton found between Minnesota and Philadelphia that almost cost him, a family, and a career, and a life.

He was the ninth player selected in the 1990 draft, a lottery pick, and thus an instant millionaire. The catch was, he would have to play for the Miami Heat. Even then, his college coach—Clem Haskins, a former NBA star—had begun to notice something different about the popular, life-loving, old-fashioned young man he pulled from inner-city Detroit. Even then, folks close to him worried that the lifestyle switch from homey Minnesota to steamy Miami Beach would be too much for him to handle. 

Even then, Willie Burton was trying to figure out what was wrong. “My main problem,” Burton allowed, “was depression. And once I started to get into depression, I just tended to float around. I went from bar to bar to bar. I had a stack of VIP cards as high as four fingers. I never could find happiness. And that was what I was seeking. I never found it. I would wind up driving around in my truck and burn up two tanks of gas. I used to take medication. It’s possible that I will take it again.

“I had a chemical imbalance,” the 26-year-old Burton said. “I was always on a high or a low. If it was good, it was like New Year’s Eve. If it was bad, it was like the Agony of Defeat video.” He smiled and hummed the Wide World of Sports theme: “Dam da, da-da, da-da-da.” Then he paused. “There were never any in-betweens,” he said. 

Willie Burton was a fine player for the Miami Heat, so gifted that his teammates avoided almost any kind of post practice test of basketball skill—shooting, dunking, running. “When everything is going OK in Willie’s life,” said John Salley, the NBA veteran and Burton’s teammate with the Heat, “when Willie doesn’t let the outside life interfere with his basketball life, you can’t stop him. When everything is in line, when he is responsible and mature, he is unstoppable on the court. He’s right-handed, he’s left-handed, he can dribble, he can shoot, he can jump, he can rebound. I mean, he can play basketball.”

The problem was, everything was not right in Willie Burton’s life during the four seasons he spent in Miami. And by the third year—that was the year he checked into the John Lucas Residential Treatment Center in Houston—his tremendous mood swings limited him to 26 games. He could no longer deal with his highs, his lows, and his no in-betweens. And, people say, he began to miss practices, team buses, and finally, opportunities. He would learn he was suffering bipolar disorder, a form of depression, that often drives people to seek higher highs. And once he did that, once he began quenching his many thirsts by flipping those VIP cards around Miami nightspots like a poker dealer, his skills, his playing time, and his NBA value all diminished. 

“My college coach was the first one to notice it,” Burton said. “He said, ‘You are either up or you are down.’ He was the first one to pick it up. But as long as you try to look normal, no one says anything. I ran a lot. People saw me. But I tried to keep my head balanced.”

As it happens, that was not possible without medication. In Burton’s case, he was treated with lithium, a drug found to be very effective in combating bipolar disorder, the most biochemically-based of the many types of depression, according to Dr. Joel Fish, director of Philadelphia’s Center for Sport Physiology. 

“Bipolar disorder is defined as mood swings,” Fish said. “It means a person is prone to extreme highs or extreme lows. There is some kind of biological connection and something about body chemistry that provides these mood swings. Sometimes it is even connected to an identifiable event, like breaking up with a girlfriend or a wife. Medication can be very helpful in evening out the moods.” 

Beyond personal traumas, bipolar disorder can be caused by stress, Fish, said, stress that may be the result of the pressures of major college and professional basketball. “Stress can impact the moods,” he said. “But I underline the word ‘can’ because it is debatable. Research has shown that stress can influence mood swings. Bipolar disorder, more than anything else, is brought on by body chemistry. That is what is accepted. But there is evidence that stress can interact with the body chemistry and have that kind of influence.”

As long as Burton continues to play in the NBA, he will be confronted with stress about every 24 seconds. But, Fish emphasizes, bipolar disorder is beatable. “Of all the different disorders,” he said, “those with bipolar most consistently say they have been helped. They take the prescribed medication. And learning to deal with stress in a more effective way helps the treatment.” 

By the time Burton was able to find emotional relief, however, the Heat had given his minutes to other players. During his fourth season, he had played in just 53 games, a starter in just one. When he was cut prior to the season, Burton listened to offers from other teams, but turned once more to the source of his greatest comfort, John Lucas. He signed with the Sixers for just higher than the league minimum. 

“I could have received more money from other teams—and better teams, too,” he said. “Every one was a playoff team. But I believe fate led me here. That’s the best I can tell you.”

Fate led him once to Lucas, the Sixers coach and general manager, who is a recovering drug abuser. That time, Lucas helped realign Burton’s life. This time, he helped Burton resurrect his basketball skills—skills that took on legendary proportions the night he scored 53 points, breaking Michael Jordan’s Spectrum record, against of all teams, the Heat.

“I call him Sweet,” Salley said. “And I knew Sweet was going to show them. Luke treats him like a man and gives him the freedom to let go—and he can go. A lot of the problem he had with our team was that there were a lot of guys who could play. They had to get the minutes. So he was just in the numbers game. But he had unbelievable respect here. Even in the shoot-around, it was like, ‘We know Willie can go.’ And we had to try to not let him get going.

“He is an unbelievable talent. But he never got the total green light, the total let-go. I am happy that in Philly, everybody is seeing what Willie Burton can do.”

About a week before his outburst against the Heat, though, Burton may have passed a more stringent test. That was the night he scored 19 points in the Miami Arena, pulled down three rebounds, and distributed a half-dozen assists. There was a time when none of that would have been enough, when such a performance would only be the beginning of a long night. It would have ended in a bar. Instead, he returned to the team hotel.

“There are some things I still have to get down,” Burton said. “Timing, rhythms, moves, the left-handed hook, the spin back to the left. I don’t have all that down yet. I have to work on that timing. I used to be able to make steals with ease. It was all timing. But there is always something to work on.

“It feels good here. The situation just feels good. Everybody from the coach to the team manager is pulling for you. I attribute that to Coach Lucas. I’ve never seen anybody like him. I have seen great coaches, but he has the ability to keep us doing what we have to be doing, but also to keep us in a relaxed state.”

Whatever Lucas is doing to keep Burton in personal and professional harmony, it is working. Nonetheless, Burton’s coach in Miami, former Sixers player and coach Kevin Loughery, talked in understated tones about a player he seemed to suggest had given him a lot of heartache. 

“He was great,” Loughery said, in a distinctly matter-of-fact tone. “He came back and tuned us up. I think we all knew he had talent. I hope he can maintain it and be able to continue on.”

Good for Willie. That’s about all Loughery had to say. After all, he had been through the worst. It is now up to John Lucas. 

“He reminded me a lot of an old guy who used to play here—and he wore No. 6,” Lucas said. “If you turn around Willie’s No. 9, it looks like a 6.”

No. 6 was Julius Erving, a responsible citizen, whose game was bewitching and whose off-court life was anything but. Burton may one day become a player who will remind fans of Erving. But even Lucas knows that Burton’s off-court behavior still needs monitoring before he can ever be considered even an upside-down No. 6.

“Willie’s problem is concentration,” Lucas said. “If Willie can lock in and concentrate, he has no problem. I am proud of him. I feel like a father to him. So maybe I treat him a little differently than I might treat some other players. I get on him a little more. I don’t want him to drift. He’ll lose his concentration from time to time.

“He has been fine here. He’s done very well. But if he has a good game, I’ll tell him to turn around and be half as good tomorrow. Willie has to keep his concentration, not let his inner-self get to him if things are not going right.

“Willie doesn’t know his potential yet. But John Salley called me personally about Willie. He told me it was a no-brainer. I would like to keep him with me. We’re like two peas in a pod. We both come from a lot of the same history.”

Burton no longer spends time in the Lucas recover center, nor does he admit to taking any more lithium. “It is not a necessity anymore,” he said. “I don’t feel an inner need to run. And that has to come from within.” Right now, he splits time between shooting guard and small forward for the Sixers, where he is driven to fill another need, which is to fit in as a player—and as a teammate. 

“He is a guy who came in and brought a real upbeat attitude,” Shawn Bradley said. “He is inspiring to you. He pushes you in practice and in the games. And he has a good work ethic, too. He works on his shot after every practice. Coach said it is nice to see those kind of players rewarded for their hard work. That’s Willie. And that translates to other players, too.”

Perhaps it was because he failed once in the NBA that keeps Willie Burton striving to recover a career. But perhaps it’s because he just cannot imagine letting John Lucas down. Not now. 

“It is hard to explain how much John Lucas has meant to me,” Burton said. “He believes that right is right and wrong is wrong, and I have no problem with admitting that. Some coaches I have had—it was their way, no matter if they were right or wrong. And that can tear a team apart.”

Burton never felt such a bond to a coach or an organization in Miami. “The fans at the Miami Arena supported me,” he said. “But it just seemed like there were some individuals in that organization who gave up on me, never gave me another chance, no matter what I did. I never moved from where I was. My teammates fought for me tooth and nail. They were being quoted as saying that if I were on another team, I’d be starting. And what they said would happen is now happening.”

Today, his objectives are much more expansive. Mostly, they include the raising of his children his son, Armani, 2, and his daughter, Natasha, 4. “I want to do the things your father did for you,” he said. “Take you to the park, things like that. Nowadays, it’s not the park, though, it’s Chuck E. Cheese.”

He goes to pizza joints with his kids, and to the movies, and to South Philly for cheese steaks after the games. But he doesn’t attack the night anymore, like he did in Miami, when he was way up, or “agony-of-defeat” down.

“When I was deciding where to play, one fact, went through my mind: What is best for Willie as a person and as a player?” Burton said. “It was here.”

“My whole lifestyle has changed. I am married, have children. I stay home as much as possible with my wife, Carla. It gives me some rest. Someone once said a man without a purpose has a life not worth living. I have found a purpose—outside and within.

“There is no doubt about it. In my mind, I was on a search.”

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