Willie Burton hopes the next chapter in his post-NBA playing career can be just as impactful as the one he had as a legendary Gophers men's basketball star.
Burton, 54, is returning to his alma mater this fall to work toward a doctoral degree in sports exercise and psychology, while supporting Gophers sports and continuing his mission to uplift young athletes through school programs in inner-city communities.
"We're excited he's going to be around more," men's basketball coach Ben Johnson said.
When the 6-8 Detroit native isn't walking through halls and sitting in classes with students the age of his children, he will be a regular at Gophers sporting events and practices.
His No. 34 jersey was retired two years ago and hangs in the Williams Arena rafters — a reminder of the glory days leading Clem Haskins' teams to the Sweet 16 in 1989 and the Elite Eight in 1990.
"I want to expand on just being in the rafters," Burton said. "I want to make it larger than the rafters. I want it to be more about education and remind people that's also important, as well as being a productive member of society and giving back."
Part of giving back to the community meant founding Educated Stars of Tomorrow in 2011, a mentoring program in Michigan.
Burton expanded that idea to launch Excel U last year. It has a broader reach to online and personal development of scholar athletes with help from coaches, teachers and tutors in areas from academics to mental health.
Burton not only will focus on his doctorate this year and be a professor's assistant at the university, but he also plans to collaborate with schools in the St. Paul district in a community-building role to be determined.
"He has so much relevancy to share," St. Paul Schools superintendent Joe Gothard said. "Whether it's parents, coaches, teachers, students and student-athletes because he's experienced a lot. The fact that he continues to seek his education and earning a terminal degree, he just brings so much to the table."
At Burton's Gophers jersey retirement ceremony in January 2020, he stood on the Barn's raised floor waving as the crowd cheered similar to when he dominated as an All-Big Ten guard.
Burton, who ranks third in Gophers history in scoring with 1,800 points from 1986-90, continues to impact in the Twin Cities as a motivational speaker and steadfast supporter of Johnson, who is entering his second year with the Gophers program.
Burton's middle son, Noah, was a sprinter at the U last year before transferring to Texas Tech to finish his career. His youngest son, Bronson, attended Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck's lineman camp earlier this week.
Willie Burton sightings at the Athletes Village facility will soon be even more frequent. He'll also be helping with Dinkytown Athletes, a new NIL (name, image and likeness) collective with the Gophers.
"He's got a great relationship with our staff and our players," Johnson said. "He's a guy who really bleeds [maroon and gold]. He's been a great supporter of mine and what I'm trying to do. But at the end of the day, he's about Gophers basketball and the University of Minnesota. You can feel his energy and he truly wants what's best for student-athletes."
In 1990, Burton left college four credits short of graduating to pursue his pro basketball career, leading to the Miami Heat drafting him ninth overall. He spent eight years in the NBA and several more overseas before retiring.
As part of the Gophers graduate program started in 2006, Burton returned to complete his bachelor's degree in 2013. The U program has helped 92 athletes in 15 different sports get their undergraduate degree since its inception, including 1982 Big Ten basketball champion Tommy Davis this spring.
After Burton earned his master's at Wayne State in 2020, he's back again to where his legend started. But it's not just about building on his education as it is him empowering the next generation.
"All you can ask for is an opportunity," Burton said. "It's up to them to find their way. I just have to be as supportive as I can."