This article was originally published in May 2020
What is the most conventional route taken by your typical NBA player? Most dream their whole lives of making the league, dedicating all their time to maximising their hopes of defying the odds and reaching the pinnacle of basketball.
Not many of those who are lucky enough to be the amongst the 450 or so players in the league at any one time come from small towns halfway across the globe. They don't usually play organised basketball for the first time in their mid-teens. They certainly don't turn down numerous NBA contracts in favour of playing in the less glamorous European leagues.
Then again, Pat Burke isn't your typical NBA player.
Born in Tullamore in 1973, he is the only Irish-born player ever to play on basketball's biggest stage. Speaking to Balls, he said that despite moving to Cleveland early in his life he grew up about as Irish as was possible while living on the far side of the Atlantic:
I was four-years old so I don’t have any memory of the actual move over. I’m the youngest of six, so everybody else does.
Growing up Irish-American, my parents didn’t really have a connection to the American sports and competitions that were going on. The United States is always a melting pot, but people keep their culture.
The Irish clubs that were around Cleveland, a lot of the Irish people kept together with social clubs and dances, things like that. I’d say I grew up as Irish as I could in Cleveland, Ohio.
Despite his Irish upbringing, Pat has unsurprisingly lost his Midlands accent over the past few decades. His father was involved with the local GAA club in Cleveland, but it was another sport that his youngest son first tried his hand at.
It was ice hockey, a move influenced by his cousin of the same age also picking up the sport. While he played the game for a number of years, a significant growth spurt in his mid teens resulted in the natural move to basketball.
Despite having the height, Pat said he lacked the basic skills of the game in those early days. He picked it up reasonably quickly, with his lack of previous experience and bad habits making him the ideal player for a coach to work with:
They say that the biggest fear youth has is not fitting in, so I didn’t want to be out there looking like a dumbass. I was going to work as hard as I can to make all the shots and do it the way everyone else was doing it.
The coaches came in and saw this blank canvas, somebody with no bad habits. I wasn’t shooting with two hands, because I didn’t know anything about shooting. It was interesting, I think a lot of the coaches I had early on it was a refreshing approach to it because there was nothing there from before.
He progressed enough to receive scholarship offers from a number of colleges, accepting an offer at DI outfit Auburn.
Then came the reality check.
Whereas his near 7-foot frame allowed him to dominate the majority of the competition at high school level, his freshman year at Auburn served as a steep learning curve. Having assumed his height would assure plenty of playing time, Burke was dominated in practice sessions by his teammates.
He took this time to work on his body, and it was his introduction to the Irish basketball setup that he feels allowed him to flick a switch and move to the next level. The opportunity to play for his country also came about in a typically Irish manner.
"It goes back to growing up Irish in the USA. My Dad has a longtime subscription to the Irish Echo, an Irish paper out in America. He was reading it from front to back, and on the back there was a little advertisement that said ‘attention all Irish basketball players’.
"I was at school and he contacted me and said ‘there’s this number and I think you should call it’...
"I didn’t change the way I played or people’s perception of me until I left the school. I went and played for the Irish national team and when I came back I was playing differently, even dunking the ball differently.
"All of a sudden my teammates, who had probably thought that I should be at a DII school or something, they were looking at me like ‘what just happened’. It was great because when I went to the Irish national team I could reinvent myself, nobody knew who I was."
NBA interest began to arrive during his junior and senior seasons. Seven-footers always have a chance of being drafted, with size the most desirable commodity in the league in the 1990s. The fact that Burke's game had developed rapidly over the previous couple of years ensured he received looks from a number of franchises.
He underwent the typical pre-draft process, attending workouts with a number of different teams. Things looked promising. His agent spoke to the Milwaukee Bucks, who told him that they would select the centre early in the second round if he was still on the board.
When he shared the news with his loved ones, they reacted in a manner you would expect from an Irish family:
I went home to my family’s house and told them what was going on. It’s the funniest thing, I told my Dad that I didn’t want any type of social gathering because it might not happen. I showed up (on the night of the draft) and there’s a big tent in the backyard!
My high school teammates and coaches are there. They were so proud and telling me it would be fine, and I’m like ‘Dad, you don’t understand this might not happen, it’s embarrassing if it doesn’t’.
For whatever reason, Milwaukee took Jerald Honeycutt with the 38th pick. However, another opportunity would immediately present itself. He got an invite to try out for the New York Knicks, eventually making their summer league team.
In a tournament featuring the likes of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, Burke was voted one of the top performers. It led to an unprecedented offer from the Knicks.
Normally players who go undrafted will not receive any concrete offers from NBA teams, with those who do usually fighting for short-term non-guaranteed deals. Burke was offered a two-year, fully guaranteed contract by their head coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Pretty much anyone aspiring to be a professional basketball player would jump at the offer. However, Burke opted for a route less travelled. This would become a common theme over the following decade.
He explains why he instead accepted an offer in Europe from Spain's TAU Ceramica:
I went and had lunch with my agent out in LA. He said he was going to let me in on what everyone was saying about me. He said everybody was saying ‘your best days are ahead of you, you’re athletic, got great energy and all that, if you sign that deal with the Knicks, you’re not going to step on the floor’.
Patrick Ewing was there and he was going to take all the minutes. He told me if I went to Europe he had a coach in Sergio Scariolo who will take care of me and that I would play a lot of minutes, which was what I needed.
It just made sense. I could have been selfish and just wanted the glitz and glamour of the NBA but I probably wouldn’t have gotten better, so I took the trip to Europe.
To me, it’s one of the best things I ever did.
During this period, those in the NBA had a pre-conceived perception of what European basketball was. It was slow, unathletic, and, in short, not exciting.
When Burke first arrived at TAU Ceramica and saw how the game was being played, his response was 'what the fuck is this?' He struggled to adapt to the slower pace and the team-orientated approached was very different to what he had been used to.
However, he slowly started to come around. He spent one year in Spain, followed by four years in Greece. It was here that Burke would win a Euroleague championship and three league titles with Panathinaikos. He would continue to star for Ireland.
Having originally returned to Spain in the summer 0f 2002, a clash with his new coach presented an opportunity.
The centre been told he would be granted a few days off to attend his brother's wedding in Monaghan, his coach then tried to stop him from going. Ultimately he reneged on this, but Burke was forced to leave early and miss part of the reception.
While he was in Ireland, he was tracked down by a scout from the Orlando Magic, who said they had a roster spot open. He was heading back to the States.
The Irishman walked into a locker room containing the likes of Tracy McGrady (who was about to win consecutive scoring titles), Grant Hill, Shawn Kemp, and Doc Rivers as the coach. To his slight surprise, he blended in right away:
I remember the first day walking in, it was before the actual season started. The guys had been playing pickup ball and had probably been there for about a week or so.
I just came out of 30 days of the best training ever, my abs are ripped, I’m ready to run through a mountain and didn’t need a second breath. I went out there and was holding my own.
I remember Grant Hill coming up to me and asking ‘hey man, where are you from?’
I wasn’t a big name in college, but when I was there I had a head of hair, but five years later I had a shaved head and they were acting like I was some European guy. I told them my story and they accepted me because they were watching the way I was playing.
His time in Orlando was mixed. Having began the year as the starting centre, he was in and out of the rotation for much of the season. Despite this, he was offered another contract by Doc Rivers at the end of the year.
However, for the second time in his career, he would turn down a deal in the NBA in favour of a move to Europe. Having grown accustomed to European methods, Burke didn't like the way things were done in the NBA:
"I came out of college and I thought the NBA was going to be this unbelievable thing. Then I play the five years in Europe and have all this success, I’m winning championships and I feel like there’s a fit...
"I didn’t like the NBA atmosphere. I didn’t like the fact that the guys didn’t hangout, there was a different communication between teammates. It was more business than anything. I finished that year and I was kind of exhausted from the whole whirlwind of the NBA."
After two more years in Spain, including one with Real Madrid, another NBA opportunity popped up. This is time it was with the Phoenix Suns, one of the best teams in the league during this period. At 32-years old, Burke felt the time was right to give it one final shot.
His experience in Phoenix was one he enjoyed a lot more, even if he was astounded with the way Mike D'Antoni (still one of the best coaches in the NBA) and others went about things with backup players on the roster:
I was getting older, maybe this would be my last go around in the NBA. Maybe I’m wiser this time to approach it differently.
I was pleasantly surprised. The team atmosphere on the Phoenix Suns was amazing with Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Brian Grant. There was just a very tight bond...
When a coach communicates with you you can handle it, but Mike D’Antoni was not a good communicator. He might have changed over the years, but back when he had that seven-man rotation, the other seven guys he didn’t communicate with.
I’ve never seen anything like it. If you were starting he would come in and be like ‘hey good morning, what’s going on’, and if you’re one of the other seven you’re the plague...
Robert Sarver (Suns owner) came into the locker room at the end of the season, went up to Leandro Barbosa who was sitting right next to me, hugging him and saying ‘great job’. Then he walks this big horse shoe around me to Boris Diaw and does the same thing.
I’m looking at him like ‘what the fuck, who does this shit?’ That’s the way they are. If you’re in professional sports it’s ‘what have you done for me, you’re my investment’.
While this would be his final two seasons in the NBA, he was a cult hero for Suns fans. Here's an incredible clip of the big man hitting three three-pointers in under a minute in a game against the Sacramento Kings.
Spending three years in the NBA resulted in some unforgettable experiences. Burke played against some of the greatest players of all-time, including the name on everybody's lips at the minute.
Michael Jordan was in the twilight of his career when the Irishman arrived in Orlando, playing out his final season with the Washington Wizards.
Burke only shared the floor with 'His Airness' once, but he ended up getting much closer to him than he had anticipated. Here's how he ended up covering Michael Jordan:
We’re going to Washington DC. I had a conversation with Doc pre-game and asked if it was possible to play. Doc was approachable, a great motivator. He had that raspy voice, ‘Pat, you’ve never played Michael? I’ll see what I can do’...
It gets down to the last few minutes and I think we’re getting blown out by 15 or 20 points. There’s like a minute and 30 seconds left and I’m sitting there watching the clock. If it doesn’t happen at least I was here.
Then I got the call ‘Pat, let’s go’. I got up and I’m telling you couldn’t click a stopwatch fast enough I had my warmups off that quick and I’m checking in.
They’re taking the ball out at half court and I’m looking to see who’s got who and then I realise ‘oh my god, I've got Michael Jordan’.
Michael looks at me and said ‘just don’t hurt me big fella’.
"I’m thinking ‘Mike you can do whatever you want to do, like I’m going to ruin this, I’ll let this guy get away with anything’. I’m guarding Michael and I’m bumping up against him, and I was like ‘this is insane, how am I guarding him?’
"They run an offensive play, we go down the other end and shoot. I’m running back and I’m trying to find who I’m guarding because there was a miscommunication and I should not be guarding Michael Jordan.
"It’s almost like everybody on the Magic was smart enough to say ‘I'm not guarding him’.
"I turned at half court and I was guarding him again! He came down, I’m bumping him. It got down to the last ten seconds of the shot clock and they blew a horn. I’m standing right next to him and Jordan was walking off getting a standing ovation from everybody, he’s pointing up at people. It was cool."
As the only Irishman to play at the highest level of basketball, Burke keeps a close eye on the development of the sport back home. He has returned as a guest of Basketball Ireland on a few occasions, attending the National Cup final as recently as 2019.
He has been massively impressed with what Basketball Ireland has accomplished in improving the standard in recent years. He also has his eye on the brightest prospect to come out of this country in some time.
Aidan Harris Igiehon has struggled for playing time during his debut season at Louisville, but he is still someone many expect to end up in the NBA. Burke is a big fan of his and thinks the Dubliner is someone with genuine draft prospects:
He’s ten time more athletic than I was, it seems like he’s got a great head on his shoulders and is very competitive. It comes with a little bit of time because he has a lot of potential.
What I noticed was that a lot of upper classmen at Louisville who were getting the lion’s share of the minutes. I think he’s going to do some great things.
I think he’s definitely going to be drafted in the future...
Since I was there I think Ireland has done a phenomenal job with the coaching side of things. We don’t have this in the United States where you have to have a certificate to coach. Over here anybody can build a team and just start coaching kids...
I think that the best days of basketball, the incline in being more effective, is coming for Ireland.
The words of someone who cares deeply about the future of Irish basketball. Despite not being all that well-known by the general public, Pat Burke is up there with the best athletes produced on this island.