Gophers honor hoops legend Willie Burton

Burton helped lead Minnesota to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight during his time with the Gophers.

Gopher basketball alumnus Willie Burton addresses fans at Williams Arena on Sunday, Jan. 26. Burton was inducted to the Gopher Hall of Fame during halftime.

Gopher basketball alumnus Willie Burton addresses fans at Williams Arena on Sunday, Jan. 26. Burton was inducted to the Gopher Hall of Fame during halftime.

Matthew Kennedy

At halftime of Sunday’s 70-52 loss to Michigan State, the Gophers honored Minnesota basketball legend Willie Burton. Burton, the third all-time leading scorer in Gopher history, was a key cog in helping Minnesota in some of its most successful years on the hardwood. 

Burton is a native of Detroit, Michigan, making the occasion even more special as his jersey was retired with his home-state team in the building. 

Burton played for the Gophers from 1987-1990 and led the team in scoring both his junior and senior seasons. In each of those years Minnesota not only made the NCAA Tournament, but survived to the second weekend, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. 

Even though the ceremony honored Burton’s individual accomplishments for the Gophers, Burton was quick to point out his teammates’ importance. 

“That’s what it’s about ⁠— a team. Yes, Willie Burton did a few things and was a little different, but at the end of the day we all won together,” he said. “They set screens and passed balls and when I decided to break the play, they didn’t fight me. They believed I knew what I was doing, and they supported me because I made a decision to do something outside of what coach said at times, and they were behind me.” 

Burton’s career, not only in the NCAA, but the NBA is impressive. After averaging 15.3 PPG and six rebounds with the Gophers, he was selected ninth overall by the Miami Heat in the 1990 NBA Draft. Burton played eight seasons in the league, averaging 10.3 points playing for the Heat, 76ers, Hawks, Spurs and Hornets. 

“I was just a young GA when I started recruiting, and I really enjoyed watching Willie play. That’s a guy that shouldn’t have gotten away because he was originally set on playing for [Michigan State],” Spartans head coach Tom Izzo said. “I’m proud of what he’s doing for himself and other kids in the community. He’s a class act and was a very versatile player.”

Since retiring from basketball in 2004, Burton helped found Excel U, a service that helps student-athletes, coaches, parents and educators work together more fluidly. It also aims to increase student-athlete academic skills through tutoring programs. 

The ceremony also featured the controversial appearance of former Gophers head basketball coach Clem Haskins, who was involved in the scandal that ultimately led to Minnesota vacating its 1997 Final Four appearance. Regardless, he was welcomed warmly by fans and members of both teams alike. 

Despite the festivities, the actual game was quite disappointing. Michigan State took care of the Gophers once again to sweep the season series. 

“It’s a disappointing game,” Pitino said after the game. “Appreciative of the fans, appreciative of Willie Burton, and obviously the day that he had. Disappointed that we couldn’t get a better outcome.”

It was the latest in a series of tough losses against the Spartans. Notably, Michigan State knocked Minnesota out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament in the Round of 32. 

The loss didn’t dampen the celebration of Burton, who received an outpouring of support throughout the game. His number, name and picture will forever hang in the Williams Arena rafters for all to see.

“I love what Minnesota does here with putting up pictures with the numbers on their retired jerseys … I caught myself staring up there during halftime and once the game ended, it was really special,” Izzo said.