A life well lived

Published 5:57 pm Friday, September 24, 2021

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MURFREESBORO – It’s been nearly 18 months since Bob Burke entered the Pearly Gates with his whistle and clipboard in tow, but it was still like one could hear that unmistakable, thick New York accent here Saturday morning within a place he loved so dearly.

Chowan University celebrated the life and legacy of Coach Burke in front of a crowd of nearly 300 gathered alongside the basketball court that bears his name at the Hawks Athletic Center. There were many in that audience who were capable of sharing a Bob Burke story or two, but the program was limited to a handful of his former players, one particular lifelong friend, and his family members.

They all came to pay tribute to a coach, a mentor, and an ally whose 419 career wins at Chowan University may never be equaled.

Two of his former players, current-day NBA coaches following their pro careers, said their lives would have been much different without Burke. Nate McMillan (Class of 1984), who was part of Chowan’s NJCAA Final Four team in 1984, is the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Fred Vinson (Class of 1991), a graduate of Northampton County High School-East, is an assistant coach with the New Orleans Pelicans.

“There are many individuals who come in and out of our lives,” McMillan said. “When I reflect on those individuals and the impact they had on my life, I’ve grown to learn just how I’ve been built. These people, they are bricks that are put together to form the foundation I’m standing on today.

“Coach Burke equipped me with the tools I needed, both mentally and physically,” McMillan added. “He tattooed in my mind the importance of approach and preparation. He engrained the power of consistency. He entrenched the significance of hard work, not just on the hardwood, but with every breath you take. Discipline trumps all, and that message still rings in my ear today.”

McMillan said Burke built many young players into leaders.

“Coach Burke has contributed the most bricks to my foundation,” McMillan noted. “He never stopped teaching and I never stopped learning. Rest in peace, my coach, I love ya.”

Vinson, who didn’t have any college scholarship offers out of high school, said he recruited Burke to be his coach, knowing of his track record of sending players to the ACC.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today had it not been for Coach Burke,” stressed Vinson. “He gave me an opportunity and I’m so grateful for having him in my life.”

Vinson, who finished his collegiate career at Georgia Tech, said Burke – despite his tough demeanor – loved his players.

“That’s why he always pushed us so hard, he wanted to bring out the best in each one of us,” Vinson remarked. “He pushed me to a point to maximize who I was as a player.

“When I came home he would always search me out just to catch up on what I was doing…he always cared so deeply about his players,” Vinson recalled. “He fought for his players and he fought for his life to the very end. I love you, Coach; you’ve meant so much to me and my family.”

John Hindelong – a retired Wall Street Healthcare Analyst – was a high school basketball teammate of Burke. He shared memories of the two growing up on New York’s Staten Island as well as the lasting friendship carried forth into their adult years.

“From the time I first met him, Bob was a basketball guy,” Hindelong recalled. “There was no doubt in my mind he would be successful at it. He was born to be a coach and he did it well.”

Hindelong added that Burke’s famous tough guy image was built when they played, “street rules basketball….no blood, no foul, no ref. No one wanted to finish in second place.”

“We had a great team in high school and won a lot of games and championships,” Hindelong said. “I liked to pass, and Bob liked to shoot and he was good at it. He wanted the ball when the game was on the line.”

While Burke went on to play collegiate basketball at Campbell University and then became entrenched as a college coach at Chowan, they remained close friends.

“His biggest win ever was when he won the heart of Jane Britt, that beautiful Southern belle who became Jane Burke,” Hindelong stressed. “They built a family with [children] Rob and Ashlyn. His family and my family became great friends.

Surrounded by family and former players, Bob Burke (seated) makes remarks in January 2016 when the basketball court at Chowan University was dedicated in his honor. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Hindelong closed by saying his friend’s greatest accomplishment was the way he impacted the lives of young men.

“Bob not only helped them get an education, he taught them the values of hard work and dedication to team….values they can bank on for the rest of their lives,” he noted. “That’s more, much more, than wins and losses. He lived a great life. Rest in peace my friend.”

Burke also impacted the lives of other coaches.

“We always tried to beat each others brains in, whether on the court or in recruiting,” stressed John Thompson, the head basketball coach at North Carolina Wesleyan College since 1995. “I remember when we beat Chowan for the very first time. It gave me a sense of confidence, that maybe I had a chance of being a successful coach. That’s how much respect I had for Coach.

“I never called him Bob; I always called him Coach out of reverence and respect,” Thompson added. “He was a coach’s coach; he was a mentor to so many. We became great friends.

“There are many great coaches who have graced the collegiate sidelines in North Carolina….Krzyzewski, Smith, Valvano. But any conversation involving the best college basketball coaches that have ever been in North Carolina, Bob Burke has to be in that conversation,” Thompson concluded.

Coach Burke’s wife and children, who fought back tears, offered their thanks to those assembled while also sharing thoughts about a man who also heavily influenced their lives.

“We didn’t have a normal life…we spent more time in this gym than we did at home,” said daughter, Ashlyn, who later in life had her dad as her assistant coach when she led the women’s basketball program at Brunswick Community College.

She added that she and her dad shared a love for another “hardwood” – dancing the night away during trips to the beach.

“Those are memories I’ll forever cherish,” Ashlyn noted. “We also had a lot of late night conversations about life. He could turn a basketball conversation into a life lesson and he did that with so many people. He was a great role model to my brother and I and so many others. He showed us how to love and respect all people. It’s a life I could live all over again. All I ask of you is to please keep the Bob Burke stories alive. That way he’s always with us.”

Rob Burke, hired earlier this year as the head men’s basketball coach at Chowan following coaching stops at several other colleges/universities, said his dad pushed him just as he did all his players.

“I’m so appreciative of that; that’s why I demand so much of my players today,” he said. “I’ll crawl in the foxhole and go to war with my players, just like my dad did.”

He thanked all for their “unwavering support for me, my mom, Ashlyn, and our entire family.”

“I’m still amazed on the impact my dad made on people of all walks of life,” Rob said. “Coaching is not an easy lifestyle, but my dad made it easy. He created our family within the Chowan family and within the Murfreesboro family. He created avenues for all of us to be successful. He coached us up for life…having a level of toughness, facing adversity head-on, treating everyone equally, believing in someone who perhaps doesn’t believe in themselves and driving them to be the best they can be. He challenged us all, and we’re all better off for that.”

Jane Burke, a professional in her own right as an educational administrator, said she never doubted her husband’s love and loyal affection for family, for his players, and for Chowan.

“We laughed, we cried, but more so we loved,” she stressed. “We stood together, in good times and bad. We stood strong in principle for our children, making the right decisions for their future and making them strong to stand on their own two feet.”

She closed by saying, “To Bob, my vision of your raised eyebrow and that mischievous smile will always be a special reminder of your everlasting imprint on my heart. You are now my guardian angel, guiding me to stay strong and reflect on your standards and your beliefs. Your memory will be in my life forever.”

Chowan President Dr. Kirk Peterson gave opening remarks, noting Burke’s numerous former players and assistant coaches attending the event.

“It speaks volumes that so many of his former players have returned to this court to celebrate the life of their coach,” Peterson said. “He is a giant of the game and a legend here at Chowan. He brought legitimacy to Chowan basketball; he demanded excellence of his coaching staff and players; and he taught perseverance and a work ethic.”

Most fittingly, Peterson shared a still famous comment from Coach Burke: “I was always a Chowan man. I never said I was an NBA coach, or the coach at the University of Hawaii; I was a Chowan man. That’s where my identity came from and that’s where it will always be.”

Former players Shawn Hubers (Class of 2002), now a high school principal, and Bobby Ray Smith (Class of 1987), currently a Facility Director with the New York State Division of Juvenile Justice, respectively gave the invocation and benediction.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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