Willie Burton was driving to work in Detroit a few days ago and noticed a Dodge Shadow, a smallish vehicle that went out of production in 1994. The 6-foot-8 Burton gave a smile and thought, “How could I ever have fit into one of those things?’’
There was another reason for Willie to smile, and a very timely one.
On Sunday, Burton’s No. 34 jersey will be retired at Williams Arena, a tribute being embraced in incredible fashion by his teammates and coaches, by other staff and student managers, by all who rode with him through the amazing turnaround — from 21 straight Big Ten losses from the end of the 1986-87 season to the start of 1987-88, to the Sweet 16 in 1989 and the Elite Eight in 1990.
Players are arriving from numerous locales for a celebration that starts Friday and moves to a local pork-chop haven Saturday night. The stories will be limitless, with many involving Burton, the one great talent with those Turnaround Wonders, and Clem Haskins, the iron-willed coach who made it happen.
One tale causing a howl will be the sad finish in Minnesota for Willie’s Dodge Shadow.
Burton was a Detroit kid. He wasn’t a dorm-library guy; he was a check-out-the-action guy. Willie needed mobility for that, so he became the second owner of a Dodge Shadow.
“We saw the car and everyone said, ‘That car is either going to wind up back in Detroit or in Clem’s garage,’ ” teammate Richard Coffey said.
The losses were mounting. Burton’s play was erratic. And Clem got a call informing him Willie’s Shadow was being towed from an off-campus parking lot at a very late hour.
“That car was headed back to Detroit the same day,’’ Haskins said this week, chuckling slightly.
Haskins claimed the keys, tossed ’em to assistant coach Dan Kosmoski and said, “Drive that car to Detroit and tell his family where it’s parked.”
The Gophers’ next game was in Michigan.
“I drove overnight, starting at 10 p.m.,’’ Kosmoski said. “Another assistant, Don Evans, was in the passenger’s seat. And then we caught the team bus at the Detroit airport.’’
Coffey said: “Clem was the right man at the right time for Willie, and Willie was the right player at the right time for Clem. You can’t go from the absolute bottom to one shot from the Final Four without a great player, and Willie was that for us.’’
Haskins, talking from his home in Campbellsville, Ky., made sure to get past Clem-Willie tales and to the Burton tributes.
“When we needed it down the stretch in ’89 and ’90, Willie absolutely carried us,’’ Haskins said. “He was phenomenal the last eight to 10 games ’89, and half of those wearing a mask after Perry Carter broke his nose at Ohio State. Willie had 29 against Kansas State; he had 26 against Duke in the Sweet 16.
“And when we made our Big Ten and NCAA run in 1990, that was a basketball clinic from Willie. He was a character, for sure, but much more than that, he was a competitor.’’
Haskins, 76 now, paused and said: “I’m so proud of what Willie has done with his life.’’
Burton returned to the University of Minnesota and completed work for a degree in 2013. He has been an administrator for athletics in the City of Detroit school system for the past two years. He’s working with 20 high schools, 75 elementary and middle schools and 10,000 student-athletes.
“I’m also finishing up my master’s degree at Wayne State,’’ Burton said. “First time I’ve ever had a 4.0 grade-point average, I can guarantee that.’’
Just this week, the 51-year-old was at a gym crowded with young players, picked up a basketball and put on a shooting exhibition.
“The jump shot? Of course, I still got it,’’ Burton said.
Haskins was finding players wherever possible when he arrived in 1986. Coffey came in as a veteran of the 82nd Airborne. He was a 21-year-old freshman with a serious outlook toward a college education.
“First day ever on campus for us, I’m walking with Willie, tall, skinny, loose as can be, and I said, ‘What’s your major?’ ” Coffey said. “And Willie said: ‘Major? I’m here to play basketball and go to the NBA.’
“He did those things for sure, but to look at Willie today, working in education, doing his best to have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of kids … it’s something that makes all of us feel great.
“When that number 34 goes up on the wall Sunday, that’s for all of us — for a bunch of guys who became a basketball family in the hard times and still are that.’’
Burton also made that clear: “It’s my jersey, but it’s for the team, the coaches, and also for Harry, our equipment guy, and Roger, our trainer, and Joe-Joe, who turned up the heat in Williams Arena so we wouldn’t freeze to death.
“It’s also for a player like Jim Shikenjanski, who never did get enough recognition for what he meant to our team. Shik was the first ‘stretch 4,’ and nobody knows that.
“And especially for the fans. All those games we won in Williams Arena as we were going from nothing to something … we won on that elevated floor because those fans got crazy supporting us.’’
That’s what the halftime celebration will be about on Sunday. Before that, come the more private events on Friday and Saturday, and the stories: Willie and Clem, you can’t have one without the other.
“I told Willie that I would stay away Sunday if it would create any kind of political problem with the university,’’ Haskins said. “And Willie said, ‘Coach, if you’re not going to be there, I won’t be there.’ ”
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