Ascending Burke still chasing goals

He wasn’t necessarily destined for all of this, but he was named for it.

Trey Burke is a basketball name if there ever was one, right?

Alfonso Clark Burke III was born in downtown Columbus, Ohio in November, 1992. “He was Trey by the time we got home from the hospital,” his father, who goes by Benji, said.

He had a basketball in his hands shortly thereafter.

Twenty years and a few months later, Trey Burke is first-team All-Everything in his second year of college basketball. Wearing No. 3, of course, Trey has driven Michigan to Saturday’s Final Four, and since arriving in Atlanta he’s been named the Wooden Award winner, the Oscar Robertson Award winner and the Associated Press pick as college basketball’s national player of the year.

“It’s astounding,” Benji Burke said. “It’s unbelievable, but to the people who really know Trey and how he’s worked it’s more believable. He works like he’s the last man on the team. The whole thing is a blessing he’s earned.”

Said Trey’s mother, Ronda: “Putting it into words is pretty tough. It’s indescribable.”

Trey’s basketball genes come from his father’s side. Benji had been an accomplished high school player in Columbus, then played junior-college ball before landing at Northwest Missouri State. That’s where he met Ronda, a track and field athlete who had “zero” basketball roots and as much idea that her life was about to be devoted to AAU tournaments, extra workouts and the ups and downs that come with the basketball sometimes going through the rim and sometimes falling out.

It wasn’t long before she caught on, though. Trey followed his dad’s every move to local adult league games and even to his basketball video game in the basement, and just a few miles away was the home of Alfonso Clark Burke I, Trey’s grandfather, who had a basketball hoop in the backyard. Because of the family’s connections and reputation in the basketball community, Trey was allowed to play in a league with 5 and 6 year olds at age 4, and despite the fact that the ball was about as big as Trey was, he developed a hook shot that was successful with some consistency.

He’d throw it in, and instead of following it with some celebration or other impromptu extracurricular that certainly comes with kindergarteners (and younger) playing (dis)organized basketball, he’d glance at his parents while running back on defense.

“He had this look,” Ronda Burke said, “that was like, ‘This is what I do.'”

It’s still what he does, just with a little better shooting form, and he’s still doing it very much his own way. Born and raised in a city that’s positively crazy for Ohio State football, a kid who’s quietly become maybe Michigan’s best point guard ever had his Heisman — er, Wooden — moment last Friday.

Michigan trailed Kansas by 11 with 3:47 left in a South regional semifinal. With Burke shooting and distributing, per usual, the Wolverines rallied and trailed by 3 in the closing seconds when Burke pulled up from about 28 feet and shot a rainbow.

“I cried,” Ronda said.

It rained gold in Cowboys Stadium the rest of the weekend. It led to Benji and Ronda booking more plane tickets, this time to Atlanta for the Final Four. It’s kept Benji’s phone charged, too.

“It’s brought back my old friends from 15, 20 years ago,” Benji said. “It’s the good kind of crazy.”

In January, playing in front of friends, family and familiar enemies at Ohio State, Burke missed the last shot in a 56-53 Michigan loss. Similar situations presented themselves at Wisconsin and in the regular-season finale vs. Indiana.

“Having missed in that spot a few times before, that shook Trey, but it never stopped him,” Benji said. “It was a crazy scene (in Cowboys Stadium) but I mostly remember just knowing that he was going to shoot it. Maybe the best part of his game is the mental preparation, the demeanor … he believes in himself always.”

Up by 3, the sound strategy would have been for Kansas to foul before the shot. Trey Burke knew that, and he pulled up from further than any Kansas defender would have thought possible.

They didn’t really know Trey Burke.

“I had to see the TV highlights to realize how far it really was,” Benji said. “It brought back memories. He’s always wanted to take that last shot.”

Growing up, Trey’s teams didn’t lose very often. He was in third grade when he met Jared Sullinger, the former Ohio State star now with the Boston Celtics, and Benji Burke coached them. Benji said Trey didn’t really “take off” until he was in high school, but he always carried “a certain drive … he hated losing more than anything in the world.”

Benji remembers an AAU game, maybe before Trey was even in middle school, when one of those few and far between losses happened. Trailing “by a bunch,” Trey threw in a deep 3-pointer and called timeout with 10 seconds left, refusing to accept the result had long been determined.

He never lost a Columbus City League game, either in middle school or high school. Coached by Sullinger’s father, Satch, he won a state championship at Columbus Northland High School as a sophomore; Trey’s final two Northland seasons ended with losses in the regional finals and state finals, respectively. He followed Jared (2008-09 and 2009-10) as Ohio’s Mr. Basketball in 2011.

There are important matters at hand, so this is no time to talk deeply about the future. But last April Trey Burke had packed up his dorm room and returned to Columbus thinking he was NBA bound before reconsidering his goals and priorities. After this season — he’s averaging 19.2 points, 6.7 assists and 2 steals per game — it’s hard to imagine him returning to school.

It’s not hard to imagine his best basketball is still to come.

Ronda Burke said Trey has for years written down his goals for the following season not long after the previous one has ended. She didn’t reveal everything that was on this year’s list — she might not know all of them — but after Michigan was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year by Ohio University, she said Trey came into this season not interested in taking even the slightest bit of satisfaction in anything short of the Final Four.

“He’s locked in,” Ronda said. “He’s matured some. Falling short in some games has driven him in others. He has a tunnel vision when it comes to basketball. The way he’s handled everything and grown up makes me extremely proud.”

Two Aprils ago, the thing atop Trey’s list was to do the requisite work and make the necessary improvements to be ready to be an impact player immediately, not a year or two down the road. He had committed early to Penn State, realized it was too early, then was ready to pick Cincinnati from a handful of other intriguing offers. His parents insisted only that he make other visits, then mom “immediately” fell in love with Michigan’s coaching staff and academics.

Trey had long desired to play in the Big Ten, and Michigan coach John Beilein had assembled enough talent to make a young point guard whose whole life had been dedicated to basketball think he’d thrive in Ann Arbor. Darius Morris then made the somewhat surprising decision to enter the 2011 NBA Draft, leaving the Wolverines in need of a point guard immediately.

It was what Trey Burke had written on his list of goals.

Saturday night, he lives another in the Final Four.

“So much goes into it,” Benji Burke said. “The timing and luck have to be there. And when it all comes together, sometimes that work you’ve done for years pays off.

“Maybe I should be more off-the-wall excited, but I see it as continuing on a path he’s always been on. He’s dedicated his life to this.”