New UH assistant basketball coach Bob Burke put a few of his mementos from his coaching career up on the wall of his office at the UH athletic department. He previously coached at Chowan College in North Carolina.

Building on Success

New Rainbow assistant basketball
coach Bob Burke will try to do here
what he’s done for years — win

By Cindy Luis

There were not enough boxes to pack up Bob Burke's mementos from his 33 years of coaching basketball. There could never be enough boxes to hold all of his memories.

The new Hawaii men's assistant began moving into his new office this week, waiting on the approval of a work order that would get him some nails. The pictures were hung on Thursday and the 56-year-old Burke was ready to get to work, ready to change his team cheer from "Let's go Braves" to "Let's go 'Bows."

The former head coach at Chowan College in Murfreesboro, N.C., still shakes his head over how quickly he has changed time zones and wardrobe. Burke hasn't adjusted his internal dining clock -- he didn't buy Wednesday's lunch until 2:30 p.m. -- but he's feeling very comfortable in shorts and "flip-flops."

"It's a beautiful place and a great basketball program," Burke said. "There will be adjustments, but I've been an assistant before, at programs that have played for the (NAIA and NJCAA) national titles.

"I'll have to get used to flying more, going to places I haven't been before in our conference. But the timing was right and things came together."

The call from Rainbow coach Riley Wallace was out of the blue. Burke was at home, relaxing in his underwear, when the phone rang with an offer to replace Scott Rigot, who had taken a job at Kentucky.

Burke had turned down job offers before and there was some hesitation about making a move across the country and across an ocean. Burke, a native New Yorker, had spent his entire coaching career in North Carolina.

In 1971, he was hired at Greensboro College, becoming the nation's youngest head coach at age 25. He followed with stints as an assistant at Campbell, his alma mater, and Guilford before settling in for the past 22 years at Chowan, going 419-27.

"I had never been to Hawaii and, when Coach Wallace called, I told him that I'd have to come out first before making a decision," Burke said. "I've moved before, but it would mean that my wife (Jane) would be moving away from her family for the first time."

But the Burkes were seeing other moves being made by their children that helped ease the decision-making process. In early July, son Rob took the assistant's job at Campbell, and daughter Ashlyn, a model and actress, was in New York as an MTV VJ.

"It was basically, 'Let's do it,' " Burke said.

It is Burke's longest trip since making the decision to go from New York to play at South Texas Junior College. The 6-foot-1 former guard remembers playing against some big names and some big players back then, including Texas A&M's 6-7, 245-pound Randy Matson, who broke the world record four times in the shot put, set an NCAA record in the discus, and won silver and gold medals in the shot put in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, respectively.

Burke also remembers a 13-hour bus ride from New York to Buies Creek after committing to play for the Fighting Camels of Campbell. He got off the bus and was told to get unpacked and get ready for the school's summer basketball camp that was starting in a few hours.

"They told me they were putting me in the group with Johnny Wooden," said Burke. "I asked, 'Who's that?' "

It was 1965 and UCLA, behind Wooden, had won two NCAA titles. But to a New Yorker such as Burke, the bigger, more prestigious tournament was the NIT, held in Madison Square Garden.

"It's not like it is now," Burke said of the NCAA Tournament. "You knew UCLA had won a couple of championships, but ... "

What Burke also knew was that UCLA had recruited someone whom he had played against in grammar school by the name of Lew Alcindor. The All-American center who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 6-6 in sixth grade.

Long after graduating from Campbell, Burke continued to work at the summer Campbell Basketball School. As did Wooden, the late LSU coach Press Maravich, retired Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, and Georgia State's Lefty Driesell, who shared many a boardwalk talk with Burke during summers "up north."

Burke has more stories than time to tell them on any given day. He sent two of his Guilford players -- M.L. Carr and World B. Free -- and one from Chowan -- Nate McMillian -- to the NBA. He has tales of the late Pete Maravich.

Burke also revels in his memory of pitching both right-handed and left-handed in Yankee Stadium as a 13-year-old all-star.

And then there's the time UCLA came to play in New York and Burke and two friends went looking for tickets to a sold-out game. Burke caught Wooden outside the team bus and mentioned his need; minutes later, tickets were produced and "my friends said they'd never doubt anything I said again," Burke said.

Burke has no doubts about his abilities, particularly on the recruiting end. In his 33 years, he's made more connections than AOL.

"Most of my contacts are East Coast, some Midwest," said Burke, whose first congratulatory note at his new office was from North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty.

"I haven't gone to Europe (as Rigot did) and I'm looking forward to new places to recruit.

"I want to make a contribution here. I'm not worried about who gets credit. I think playing hard and playing together are the two most important factors for any team. Winning will take care of itself."

Burke likes both ends of the basketball game, offense and defense. He's long appreciated the UCLA 2-2-1 press used by Wooden and his offense, a variation of the flex offense Wallace uses.

Burke took Chowan from a two-year junior college to the four-year Division III level. The challenge at Hawaii is to help keep the program at a winning level, with hopes of at least getting past the first round of the NCAA Tournament, something the Rainbows have never done.

"I want to prove to myself that I can do certain things," he said. "I'm not trying to prove it to the world. If I can get self satisfaction ... . It's what I try to tell my players, to feel good about themselves and not worry about the end results.

"I'm a coach, I'm in it for the right reasons. If you think you're the reason you're winning, you're wrong. You win as a team."

The first two books that Burke unpacked this past week were Wallace's "The Rainbow Circle of Excellence" and Wooden's first book, "They Call Me Coach." Wooden personalized the inside cover with some words of wisdom; Wallace's book is unsigned, but "I'm looking forward to reading what he has to say and stepping inside that 'Circle,' " Burke said.

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