Picture this for a moment.
The coach calls you, ‘Pat, let’s go.’
You enter the court, second last game of the regular season, Orlando Magic taking on the Washington Wizards in D.C.
“Everyone take a man, hey, who’ve you got? who’ve you got?”
You look around at the one spare man. He’s yours. There’s only one problem.
He’s the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Pat Burke will forever hold the distinct honour of being the first-ever Irish born basketball player to play in the NBA.
He also almost held the distinct honour of being the last ever player to guard the legendary Michael Jordan.
“I say this every time I tell the story,” laughs Burke. “If they didn’t have one more regular-season game I would’ve been the last player to ever guard Michael Jordan, imagine that?”
That very season, 2002/2003, was Burke’s first in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, having spent five years playing in both Spain and Greece.
The 6’11 center played 62 games for the Magic throughout that campaign. But, as the season neared its conclusion, sharing the court with Jordan was something he had yet to experience.
Out of the rotation at the time, Burke asked his coach, Doc Rivers, if the opportunity arose could he allow him the chance to play against the game’s greatest ever player.
Little did Burke know just how close to Jordan he’d really get.
“I requested to Doc, bear in mind I was out of the rotation at this point, that if there was an opportunity, could I get on the court,” said Burke.
“Doc in his raspy voice was like, ‘Pat, you’ve never played Michael Jordan??’ And I was telling him I’d love to be able to say that I did and have that experience.
“So that evening, we’re in D.C. It’s one of those nights where they’ve got some of the 50 greatest players of all time in the crowd, they’re doing all kinds of great stuff. I think we’re losing by like 15-20 points, there’s no coming back.
“Doc, thank God, he thought of me, he says, ‘Pat, Pat, let’s go.’ I got up so fast. I’m telling you I probably ripped the fabric off my warm-up suit going to check-in!
“As I’m checking in, it was a dead ball at half court on our side. I came on and I look out to the court and when you go out there you want to know who you’re guarding. So, I’m looking at all my teammates and they’ve all got somebody and Michael Jordan is right by my shoulder and I look around and Jordan realised that I was going to be guarding him.
“So I looked at him and he says to me, ‘Just don’t hurt me, big man.’ So I say to him, ‘Mike you’re going to do whatever you want to do.’ So he inbounds the ball, I’m bumping into him elbowing him thinking, ‘This is amazing, I’m guarding Michael Jordan.'”
“I ended up giving it a shot.”
Born in Dublin, Burke and his family moved from Tullamore, Offaly to Cleveland, Ohio when he was just four years of age, with a career in basketball the last thing on the former center’s mind for many a year.
In fact, it was ice-hockey that first caught Burke’s attention before a huge growth spurt led to the inevitable questions from his friends and family.
“Hey Pat, why don’t you try basketball?”
“I played ice-hockey for eight years and loved it,” begins Burke.
“Then when I was around 14 I grew seven inches. It wasn’t really my idea to go play, I was still the same person I was the year before just a little taller. The world kept telling me to try out for basketball.
“I only started listening to them going into my second year of high-school. I was two inches taller then too, which increased the influence of people telling me I should try basketball so finally, I ended up giving it a shot.”
Burke is humble when speaking about his basketball beginnings. Was there a moment during that time when he felt he could make a living out of the game?
He admits he never considered himself to be exceptional. The Eureka moment never came. Burke worked extremely hard though and after playing college hoops with Auburn University, he was eligible for the 1997 NBA Draft.
A career defining decision
Frustratingly, Burke’s name was never called. However, after being courted by a number of teams in Europe, he was invited to work out with the New York Knicks.
“I always looked at this in a humbling way but the evening I didn’t get drafted I was a bit pissed,” Burke concedes.
“I was thinking, ‘How did I invest so much time and now this is not working out?’ so I had something to prove. I was working out with the Knicks and made it to the summer league and I played quite well.
“At one of the practices Jeff Van Gundy, when he wasn’t swearing at everyone, he said to me, ‘Hey Pat, we realise that you were born in Ireland and have some really good offers in Europe. But I’d like to offer you something that the New York Knicks have never offered anyone in the history of the franchise. We’re going to offer an undrafted rookie a guaranteed contract.’ My head was exploding thinking, ‘Well what do I do now?'”
After weighing up his options, one of which may have been spent in the shadow of the future hall of famer Patrick Ewing in the Big Apple, Burke signed with Spanish ball club TAU Cerámica.
Three consecutive league titles with Greek side Panathinaikos, as well as a prestigious Euro League Championship in the 1999/2000 campaign followed, but NBA eyes were always on him.
He even almost became a Bull.
“I held talks with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls. I was actually sitting down negotiating with Jerry Krause. The deals though were much different then.”
Move to the Magic
When the right opportunity did come in the NBA, it wasn’t quite the way in which Burke had anticipated.
After returning to Spain and TAU, the Irishman ran into early issues with notorious head coach Dusko Ivanovic and his robust leadership style.
Burke was reluctantly allowed two days off to go to his brother’s wedding in Monaghan and bizarrely he was at the reception when he got the call from an Orlando Magic scout about potentially joining the team.
“I had two days. I had to leave at 1 am from the reception. A phone call comes into the reception in the lobby and it’s a scout for the Orlando Magic, somehow he found me. I get on the phone and he says, “Pat how are you enjoying TAU?” and I’m laughing telling him about having to leave my brother’s wedding and that when I get back I think I’m going to tell them I don’t want to be there.
“The scout tells me there’s interest from the Magic and they think it’s going to be a great year to pick me up. So, anyway I go back and have another one out with the coach and I say I’m done, I fly back to America with no contract with anyone.
“Thirty minutes down the road from my house are the Orlando Magic, they give me a deal just for the veterans camp and I make the team.”
All that glitters..
The team Burke joined was a talented one, led by perennial All-Star Tracy McGrady and flanked by the ever-impressive Grant Hill.
From the outside looking in, the NBA sells the dream of what being a player is like, “last-second shots, crazy alley-oops and Michael Jordan,” as Burke puts it.
But the reality of being a player in the league is very different. Money may talk in the world of sports but in the NBA, it roars.
Burke recalls an exchange between the Magic’s star duo of McGrady and Hill which to him represented a microcosm of what the game at the highest level was really like.
“I can still remember being in the locker room, we’re playing Atlanta. Tracy McGrady is to my left and Grant Hill is just across. We’re the only three people in the room. Grant Hill says to Tracy, ‘Hey, I’ve got to talk to you, I’ve got a problem with Doc (Rivers)’
“Tracy was just sitting there all nonchalant and he’s like, ‘Problem solved man.’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What is going on?’ and Grant says it again, “No Tracy I need to talk to you, I’m having a problem with Doc.’
“He says this about three times and the same response keeps coming from T-Mac, ‘Problem solved.’ Finally, Grant says, ‘What are you talking about?’
“Tracy goes, ‘Grant how much money did you make this year?’ and Grant kinda shrugs and goes, ‘You know what I make we have the exact same contract.’ Tracy says, ‘Ok how much?’ It was like 14 million or whatever. Then T-Mac goes, ‘How much does Doc make?’
“Grant is like ‘I don’t know a lot less,’ and T-Mac looks and him and says, ‘Problem solved.’
“Who talks like this? There’s a great marketing approach to the NBA to make people like you and me and everyone else think it’s all amazing, that its Shangri-La out there but a lot of the times when you get to the nitty-gritty of it, it’s Shangri-shit.”
“I think he’ll be next…”
Burke would go on to play for the Phoenix Suns after leaving Orlando but found minutes hard to come by before a return to Europe, playing in both Russia in Poland.
A staple of the Irish national team in the mid-2000s, Burke dabbled in radio upon his retirement before setting up HoopsLife, a youth development and leadership programme through basketball before it’s closure in 2018.
In the 16 years since Burke became the first Irish man to play in the NBA, there, unfortunately, hasn’t been a second – although that may soon change.
Burke believes that Louisville’s Aidan Harris Igiehon, who was born in Clondalkin, is a likely candidate to follow in his footsteps.
“I think he’ll be next. He’s very athletic, he’s got the size. He was very highly recruited coming out of high school. He’s definitely on track.”
Igiehon may be second and given the exceptional work of Basketball Ireland’s player development, it’s likely there’ll be a third fourth and fifth down the years.
There’ll only ever be one first though and he was (almost) the last player to guard Michael Jordan.
Originally published on May 17, 2020.