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The Eire up there: The story of the only Irish-born player to ever make it in the NBA

How Pat Burke went from Tullamore to play with some of the biggest names in basketball.

Pat Burke takes it to the hoop for the Suns.
Pat Burke takes it to the hoop for the Suns.
Image: PAUL CONNORS/AP/Press Association Images

Editor’s note: This piece was first published in January but with the NBA playoffs about to tip off tomorrow, this baller’s story is worth revisiting.

IT WOULD BE too much to suggest that, had Pat Burke’s parents not left Tullamore for Cleveland in 1977, his physical attributes would have helped halt Offaly GAA’s seemingly interminable decline.

However, topping out at 6’11″ (2.11m) and nearly 18 stone (113kg), it is true to say there isn’t a full-back in the country who would’ve wanted to mark him in O’Connor Park or any other stadium for that matter.

But the Faithful’s loss was basketball’s gain and, as The42 found out this week, the only Irish-born player to ever grace the NBA has been using the sport to change the lives of children in Florida since retiring. 

But how does a young lad from Tullamore end up sharing locker rooms with the likes of Tracy McGrady and Steve Nash?

You won’t be surprised to learn that Burke’s journey begins with his parents’ economic emigration, but a foray into ice hockey may not seem obvious for a future NBA player.

“I was four when I left Tullamore,” Burke told The42 this week.

“My father is from County Mayo, just outside of Claremorris, and my mom from Tullamore. I don’t think the two of them had too much of a sports background.

“When we moved from Ireland to Cleveland, the first sport I really got into was ice hockey. My dad’s sister was signing up my cousin David into a local hockey club and, even though I knew nothing about hockey, I said I’d make a go of it.

“And I loved it. It was my first introduction to sports.”

However, nature soon put paid to any dreams of being the next Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr and the wait for the first Offaly-born NHL player continues to this day.

“After eight years of ice hockey, I had a huge growth spurt and that put everything on hold and, of course, it meant I had a new influence in my life in terms of people telling me what I had to play.

“My first year of high school (aged 14), I’d grown seven inches over that summer so everyone kept telling me to play basketball but I was hesitant because I had not touched a basketball in any meaningful or structured format so I knew I would have severe limitations and there was a lot of fear there.

“My sophomore year I grew another two inches so I was 6’7″ and it was very difficult to walk anywhere, from the hallways at school to out in the community, without having someone tell me that I should play basketball or asking me if I did.”

Playing all of these US sports — a year of American football spent mostly picking grass out of his helmet included — didn’t mean that Burke was allowed forget his roots, far from it.

“I had a healthy and happy Irish influence growing up and we were part of an Irish Heritage Club. Everyone in my family was part of it and my dad and mom’s families too. There was a big Irish influence in our household.”

A coach’s dream — a theme that repeats time and again throughout his career — because he had not developed any bad habits on the court yet, Burke played college hoops with Auburn and started to attract attention from the pros.

SUNS KNICKS BASKETBALL Burke denies Eddy Curry of the Knicks. Source: KATHY WILLENS/AP/Press Association Images

“Going into my senior year in college I was getting looks,” he says.

“I had NBA scouts coming to games and, at the end of my senior year, I went around and took part in draft workouts and tryouts for teams.

“My agent relayed to me that, with the 39th pick — if I was still there — that the Milwaukee Bucks would pick me up but it just so happened that year I didn’t get drafted at all.

“The New York Knicks contacted me after the draft and told me they were interested in signing me for their summer league and, at the end of that, they offered me a contract.

“However, my agent had shared with me a thought provoking glimpse at my future. He told me that a lot of teams had looked at me and thought I had potential but that I hadn’t peaked yet.

“He said: ‘it’s important that you know, if you go to the Knicks, you’re going to be playing behind a lot of players — but especially future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing — but if you go to TAU Ceramica, to where my friend is coaching in Spain, you’re going to play, you’re going to strengthen your game and you’re going to learn the skill-sets you need to make it as a professional.’

So, while the NBA was obviously tempting, it just made too much sense to head to Europe so I packed my bags and went to Spain.”

Burke spent just one season in Spain, but a loss in the final game of the season stuck with him, taught him that — no matter what you think you deserve — you have to continue to strive to be better if you want to achieve your goals.

It was a lesson he took with him to Greece when he signed with Panathinaikos in 1998 and obviously paid off as he won three league titles in succession with the club.

After a year with another Greek club, Maroussi, the then 28-year old became the first Irish-born player in NBA history when he was picked up by the Orlando Magic and Doc Rivers.

Clippers HAwks BasketbALL Doc Rivers is now the Clippers coach. Source: John Bazemore/AP/Press Association Images

“That first experience of going in, putting on the practise gear and just playing, it was magic.

“I’ll never forget coming out of the locker room and stepping out and there’s Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill and Mike Miller and all these guys you see on television and we’re just playing some pick-up basketball.

“But it was really fulfilling to know that I was holding my own and scoring and defending and I had quite a few of them coming up to me and saying ‘who are you, and where are you from’ and that was great.

“So was going through that whole NBA season and the glamour of visiting all of those cities and playing against the best. Seeing that night in, night out and everything that goes into it was brilliant.

“It does teach you about discipline though. If you’re a wise young man you will take on board the success of who is doing well in the league and what their blueprint is. Getting your sleep, your nutritional balance, etc.

“You learn too that there is a difference between European basketball and the NBA. The NBA is more individualised and the bigger contracts play the bigger roles and they’re going to have a bigger say in what’s going on.

“But in international basketball there’s more of team discipline, everyone is true to the same goal. There’s more of a connection, a brotherhood.

At the beginning of the season you don’t really know the other guys in the locker room and you might like a few guys, you might want to fight a few guys but, by the end of the season you have solidified as a team.

“And there’s an understanding that everyone is coming together to serve everyone else.

“Whereas, in the NBA, it’s not everything that people are seeing on the TV and there’s a lot of people pulling in a lot of directions, some guys looking for contracts, some guys looking for stats, there are a lot of different agendas going on.”

At the end of that season though, Burke was faced with a difficult choice. Rivers wanted him to return for a second year with Orlando but, for the development of his own game, Burke once more felt like Europe was the best option.

“I was sitting at home and Doc Rivers called me and he asked me ‘what do you want to do? I really enjoy coaching you’.

“But he admitted that he’d started me too early, put me in too fast and didn’t let me warm up to what the NBA was and I thought that was very honest of him. At the very beginning of that season I came out of nowhere and, for about the first 15 games I was the starting centre, and it was like I went dormant.

“But then I found my confidence again and he started to play me. So, on his end, he wanted to know what I wanted to do because he wanted me back but I told him that, as much as I appreciated him, I had it in my heart that I wanted to go back to Europe.

I just felt like my heart was more clear when I was playing in a more team-oriented structure so I wanted to move back to Europe.”

After two years in Spain — one with Real Madrid — Burke felt like he was ready for a return to the NBA and the chance to play alongside even more of the game’s greats.

“My agent contacted me and said the [Phoenix] Suns were looking to sign me in a back-up role which would have meant coming in and having to work really hard for minutes.

Spurs Suns Basketball Burke was a team-mate of Steve Nash. Source: Matt York/AP/Press Association Images

“However, the idea of hitting another reset and giving it a shot with the likes of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, that was exciting.

“Your frame of mind has to be appropriate for the situation and, at that stage — I’m going to say I was 33 — I knew that my best basketball and my physical game was behind me.

“But you always want to compete, you always want to show something, so there were a lot of battles in practise, a lot of guys who were ready to work as hard as they could, but the situation was that Mike D’Antoni played a six and a half man roster and, between 14 guys, it leaves a majority of us out.

“It was difficult but, the great thing about that team is that there was a lot of guys in the same situation; married, children, family guys who were probably more than halfway through their career.”

After two seasons with the Suns, Burke tried out for the Golden State Warriors but couldn’t figure out why his body wasn’t responding the way it should be. A quick stop in Phoenix and a visit to the doctors spotted the problem, he needed an appendectomy and, within a month, had his gall bladder removed

After a couple of seasons in Russia and Poland, Burke’s career came to an end in 2009 and he returned to Florida where it looked like a broadcasting career beckoned.

However, in 2011, he was approached and asked if he had ever coached kids.

“I hadn’t and it was maybe the furthest thing from my mind at that time,” he says.

“But, I’ll tell you what, those two young men came into my back yard and started working and something triggered inside me and I could sense these kids were lacking confidence, were lacking a sense of knowledge and it struck a chord with me about what I had gone through as a kid.

“I immediately started thinking about what I could do to assist them in the greatest way possible. So I worked with those two young men and, before you know it, there were about twenty kids coming into my back yard.

“I spoke to my wife about starting a facility even though I had no experience in running a business or any type of management or coaching so going into that was a big step, moving out of passion and prayer.”

And so Pat Burke Hoops was born.

Since then, more than 400 kids have been through the ‘Hoops Life’ programme and the important thing for the now 43-year old is that they’re not just learning a “silly game where you put a ball in a hoop” but valuable life lessons that will stand to them as they grow older.

Burke — who played for Ireland during his time in Europe — hasn’t been back in a while, but he plans on changing that soon.

“When I got to visit my family in Ireland, got to wear the Ireland jersey and to meet all the new guys who shared a passion for basketball too, it was really special.

“I got to be part of something that I had left at the age of four and that was an extremely fulfilling experience and I only wish that I was younger so I could experience it all over again.

“We don’t get back much, with the three kids it’s not really feasible this year but my youngest turns nine next year so I think that’s when we’ll travel over again.”

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