He’s unique in another aspect as well — he’s believed to be the first Irishman to suit up in the league that began shortly after the end of World War II.
Burke, who stands 6-foot-11, is a reserve center for the Orlando Magic. After graduating from Auburn University in 1997, he eschewed the NBA, choosing instead to explore the world and play basketball in Greece and Spain. With twin infant sons now on the scene, however, Burke grabbed the opportunity to stay near his Florida home when the Magic offered him a contract in September.
Burke is the youngest of six children in a family that has had something of a nomadic streak. His parents, Michael and Christina, are originally from Claremorris, Co. Mayo, and Tullamore, Co. Offaly, respectively. They actually met in Cleveland, returned to Ireland, where they married, came back to the U.S., where they had the first of their three kids, then went back to Ireland, where the next three, including Pat, were born. The family was actually living in Tullamore when Pat was born, but he arrived unexpectedly when his mother made a day trip to Dublin. Three years later, the Burkes returned to the metropolis hard by Lake Erie.
There was nothing about Michael Burke, a landscaper by trade, to suggest that his youngest son would one day trod sundry floors of parquet and other hardwood.
“Not at all,” was Pat Burke’s reply when asked if his father passed along an athletic strain. “Most of the kids in the family never got into sports. One of my sisters played high school basketball, but injured her knee.”
Burke’s passion as a youngster was ice hockey, which might seem typical of someone growing up in Cleveland. But one summer, as a 13-year-old, Burke shot up from 5-10 to 6-5. There was little precedent for this, as Michael Burke measures in at 6-2 and Christina at 5-6. Only one of Pat’s brothers clears the 6-foot threshold, with the other siblings below that.
Still trying to gather confidence to negotiate the world with 7 extra inches stacked on, Burke didn’t try out for freshman basketball. But by sophomore year, he was 6-7, so he made the plunge.
“It wasn’t as fun as people made it look,” Burke said. “I was very discouraged.”
Midway through the season, the Burkes uprooted themselves for the milder climes of Cape Coral, Fla.
“My coach back in Cleveland called ahead to tell [the hoops coach in Cape Coral] I was coming,” Burke said.
That summer, Burke’s teammates invited him to join them in their workout sessions and things started falling into place.
“I had more of a hunger to do better,” Burke said. “I was receiving more attention, too, and I felt good.”
Burke finally maxed out at 6-11 by his senior year of high school, and he was much more comfortable with himself physically. His team, which he said had plenty of talent, couldn’t seem to put it together, though. Despite the lack of a showcase, such as a state tournament, that might introduce Burke to a wider audience of college coaches, he wasn’t lacking for suitors.
“I seriously considered Loyola Marymount, American, Stetson and Auburn,” Burke said. “Auburn was the last school I visited and I felt most at home there. I just felt it was the best school for me.”
Burke redshirted his first year there, then was a mainstay in the pivot over the next four seasons. Auburn, playing in the tough Southeastern Conference, was a team that rarely played its way into the national rankings, usually finishing the season with double-digit numbers in both the wins and losses columns. And with the notable exception of one Charles Barkley, it wasn’t known as a school the produced a great deal of NBA talent.
Burke also gained international exposure when he played for Ireland in both the 1993 and 1995 World University Games, held in Buffalo and Japan, respectively.
Looking back on his college days, Burke singled out a game against Mississippi State, in which he outplayed Eric Dampier, as a watershed event that brought him to the attention of a wider audience.
“That game gave me a lot of media attention, some ESPN highlights,” Burke said.
After receiving his degree in Communications from Auburn, Burke participated in several NBA predraft camps.
“Leading up to draft day, I’d been told by a number of teams that they would pick me up if I was still available when their turn came,” Burke said. “Well, I sat there and it didn’t happen.”
Burke then spent the summer playing with the New York Knicks’ entry in a Los Angeles summer league. Jeff Van Gundy offered him a guaranteed contract to understudy Patrick Ewing, but Burke opted instead to accept an offer for more money from a team in Spain.
After a year in Spain, Burke returned to the States, where he went to camp with both the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite their offers of guaranteed contracts, the lure of more money won out again, this time from a team in Athens. He spent several years there, helping to win one European championship.
Last summer, Burke returned to Europe and gave Spain a second whirl. But something was missing and it wasn’t just the twin sons his wife Peyton had given birth to in the spring.
“The situation just didn’t feel right,” Burke said. “I wasn’t enjoying the coaching staff, the team didn’t seem motivated.”
While he was in Tullamore attending the wedding of one of his brothers, Burke took a call from his agent.
“He asked me, ‘Are you enjoying your time in Spain? Well, the Orlando Magic called me and want to know if you want to go through veterans camp with them,’ ” Burke recalled.
Burke didn’t immediately jump at the offer, but upon his return to Spain he mulled the Magic’s proposition and decided to return home. Advantages for him were being in great physical condition, as he was one month into the European season, and he knew Magic coach Doc Rivers, who had coached him several years ago in a summer league.
Burke found himself in a starting role as the season began, due to injuries to Shawn Kemp and Horace Grant. Kemp has since returned to full strength, while Grant was released in December after airing out a dispute with Rivers.
The Magic aren’t looking for any offensive fireworks from Burke, as they possess one of the more potent one-two combinations in the NBA in Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. That is, when that duo is healthy, which has been far from often this year. Burke sees about 13 minutes of playing time per game and is comfortable with his role on the team.
“Doc tells me to work hard, don’t pass up open shots,” Burke said. “I set screens, do little things. Those two [McGrady and Hill] make everyone’s job easier since they control the ball, they’re getting you the ball.”
Burke is relishing the chance to test his game at the highest level, without having to be hampered by rookie jitters.
“Due to my age and experience, I don’t have the butterflies like people might expect,” Burke said. “I think the excitement is when you see how many people fill an arena.”
He also draws distinctions between the way the game is played on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Everything here is maybe two steps quicker, more athletic, a lot more organized, both in the game and off the court,” Burke said.
Although Burke faced off against Auburn’s SEC rival Louisiana State in college, Shaquille O’Neal had already departed for the NBA by that time. So, when the Magic and Lakers met earlier this season, Burke had his first taste of the man who was the Orlando franchise before leaving for Los Angeles several years ago.
“I played 11 minutes against him,” Burke said. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot from him. I did try to push him. But he’s like a statue. What can you do? I don’t think you can push a guy who outweighs you by 60 pounds.”
After an auspicious beginning, the Magic are straddling the .500 mark, looking to gain wild-card entry into the playoffs. Although his return to Florida would be more rewarding if he was playing on a title contender, Burke appreciates the chance to relax at home with his burgeoning family.
“Graceson and Sadler [his sons] were born two months premature,” Burke said. “But they’re really good eaters and are where the charts say they should be.”
But as history has proven, when it comes to this clan, they often find themselves in places other than where the charts or common wisdom says they should be.
PAT BURKE BY THE NUMBERS
4.0 points per game
2.3 rebounds per game
13 points vs. Golden State, Dec. 13, 2002
11 rebounds vs. Indiana, Nov. 22, 2002