All that legacy talk heading into Thursday’s Game 7 between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs sounded pretty grandiose at the time.
It just sounds silly now.
Luther “Ticky” Burden affectionately pats a wall with his fist, and his eyes gleam as he looks up at a ceiling that seems impossibly low to allow the shooting of a basketball. The tattered nets say otherwise.
He has any number of Bunyanesque feats of hoopification at his disposal: a 23-for-26 night against Mont Pleasant, dropping 44 points on North Carolina, beating Dr. J one-on-one in a gym on Long Island . . .
On Friday afternoon, though, the 6-foot-2 former NBA shooting guard burnished his legacy through a simple gesture far from the bright stadium lights, confetti and Craig Sager’s suits.
As sunlight streamed through windows and doors thrown open to South Pearl Street at the Trinity Center gym, Burden donated some mementos of his career to be put on display at Trinity. The center has been providing social service programs to South End kids for 101 years, including a 4-year-old from up the street who moved beyond the walls by learning how to stay within them.
There is some urgency to leave a permanent mark at Trinity because the former Philip Schuyler High School star and All-American at Utah has been stricken with a condition called primary amyloidosis that requires a liver transplant.
Burden’s body has lost some of its ability to dissolve proteins, and the big molecules collect and stick themselves in places where they’re causing trouble. Some of it is motor difficulty — Burden is walking gingerly with a cane these days. It can cause heart failure, too, among a variety of serious conditions.
So he’s being treated with drugs at Columbia University while his wife, Cynthia, a breast cancer survivor who has been cancer-free for five years, is home in Winston-Salem, N.C. While in New York, Burden took the opportunity to head north with some photos, clippings and trophies for a permament display at Trinity.
“What I want to do is let the young kids that come into this building see that there was someone many years ago that aspired to be just like what they want to be right now,” he says. “And he did it, and it’s not impossible, to come into this place here and leave this place a better person. I want this to show them that if Ticky Burden could do it, then they can do it, too.”
Burden is introduced to a group of 30 or 40 well-wishers and media by the charismatic political activist Dr. Alice Green, a former executive director of the Trinity Alliance who founded the Center for Law and Justice.
“I was here when Ticky was this high,” she said, holding her palm at her knee. “You’re family here. It’s a place where people can blossom in very, very different ways.”
Burden’s way germinated on the old varnished planks of the gym.
Like a flowerbox on a sill in a tightly congested neighborhood, it became a template for his game. It wasn’t much, but everything he needed was there.
The ceiling is only a few feet above the top of the backboards, and the end walls are only a few feet beyond the baskets.
This forced Burden to be ready to check himself abruptly when driving to the rim, and forced him to snap off his shots quickly, compensating for the lack of arc simply by beating the defender to the punch.
“This is where I learned it. I learned it right here. From this wall,” he says, patting the wall. “I’m looking at it, and now I know how I learned not to run over folks, because of this wall. People used to ask me, ‘How do you not get charges?’ I said, ‘Well, you never played at Trinity. It’s in Albany, New York.’ It brings back so many memories.”
The quick-shot reflex he developed was sound strategy for avoiding blocks, but you still had to make them.
He did. Burden held the Section II Class A scoring record of 1,726 points for 15 years.
“This kid was the greatest shooter I’ve ever seen,” says Ron Sontz, Burden’s coach at Philip Schuyler.
“You had to shoot a line drive,” Burden says. “I would come to a spot so fast and shoot a line drive, and guys would say, ‘How’d you do that?’ Well, you never played at Trinity. They [coaches] weren’t messing with me. Because that thing was going in.”
Burden, who never had the benefit of a three-point line, held the U.S. record for points in a FIBA World Championship tournament for 36 years before Kevin Durant broke it in 2010.
He played one season with the Virginia Squires and two with the New York Knicks in 1976-78, in the twilight of the Knicks’ championship team that included Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Phil Jackson and Bill Bradley.
Knee injuries forced him out of the game, and soon after he was linked to a bank robbery in Hempstead that landed him in jail for two years before being released because the police didn’t have a search warrant when they raided his house.
To this day, he contends that he wasn’t directly or knowingly involved in the crime, and took the fall for the real robbers.
Burden eventually settled in Winston-Salem, where he has been a long-time program director at the Y and AAU who teaches kids how to get that shot off.
Among them are Chris Paul and Josh Howard, who were 5 when they came into his gym.
He is 60 now, pepper in his beard having long conceded to salt in the territory on his cheeks and chin.
Four months ago, he was diagnosed with the liver condition, and “the timetable is immediately,” he says.
“I’m in a six-month-to-a-year time period where I have to get this done. If I don’t get it done, then you’ll be reading about me in the obituary.”
The gleam never leaves his eye, even when he says this.
It’s a modest little ceremony on South Pearl Street for one of the greatest players in Section II history, but parents and kids nod as Ticky Burden talks, and the little giftbox of a gym seems ready to burst open.