Sports

Throwback Thursday: ​Willie Burton's 53-Point NBA Game And The Likeliness of Unlikely Greatness

Willie Burton's 53-point game for the Philadelphia 76ers on December 13, 1994 is all the more remarkable given what he went through to accomplish it.

by Andrew Heisel
Dec 10 2015, 9:33pm

NBA.com video

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

The game stands out because the career did not.

When Willie Burton scored 53 points in a NBA game on December 13, 1994, the immediate response was, "Him?" The previous year, he had only averaged seven points a night. And a week before this new season began, the same Miami Heat team that had once made him a top ten draft pick—the team he would soon torch—had simply released him. Burton caught on with the Philadelphia 76ers and was scoring more, but it was just his sixteenth game with his new squad, and only his seventh start.

Decades later, Burton's eruption is often described as one of the most unlikely 50-point nights in NBA history. With the exception of still-active Toronto Raptors forward Terrence Ross, no 50-point scorer has fewer career points. With the exceptions of Michael Jordan, who temporarily retired, and Rick Barry, who jumped to the ABA, no other 50-point scorer spent the next season out of the league. Burton is one of about a dozen 50-point scorers never to have been an All-Star.

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Yes, you can list reason after reason why it shouldn't have happened. But Burton will tell you why it should have.

"I could score," he says when reached by phone in his native Detroit. "That's one thing I could do." During some of his time spent coming off the Heat bench, he adds, "I averaged twelve points in twelve minutes."

On the night he went off, Burton was facing his old teammates for the third time that season, and the second time in less than a week. "I'd been playing well against the team," he says. "I averaged maybe about twenty points the two previous meetings." Still, he notes, "I didn't know it was going to be that big of a night."

Burton is right: his performance didn't come completely out of nowhere. Just four days prior, the Philadelphia Tribune ran a story about the spark he'd been giving the Sixers: "Whenever the club's offensive scheme becomes stagnated, [Coach John] Lucas is quick to holler, "Willie!"

The night that story ran in the newspaper, Burton came off the bench and scored 18 points against Indiana. The next night, he started and put up 24 points in New York. So he got the start again against Miami. "It was just one of those nights where I was hot," Burton says. "A lot of times you get hot in a quarter or you get hot in a half. Things were clicking the whole game."

By halftime against the Heat, his 29 points had already eclipsed his previous career high.

"It wasn't like I was taking difficult shots. It wasn't like I was just coming down shooting the ball every time. I was just making them in the offense."

The deodorant company gets it. — NBA.com video

A highlight clip shows one or two nifty moves, but mostly Burton was simply creating some space with his dribble and then nailing jumpers. "They were just going in," he says. Correct. Burton was 5-of-8 from beyond the arc, and almost half of his damage came from the stripe: he shot 28 free throws, making 24.

Again, this isn't as remarkable as it seems.

"At one point I was second in small forwards in the NBA in free throws per minute," Burton says. "I always have drawn a lot of fouls ... I'm the all-time free throw attempt [leader] at the University of Minnesota still to this day."

Long before stat whizzes and basketbloggers made it a fetish, Burton was incredibly efficient. The advanced "game score" stat ranks his performance No. 16 in the last 30 years, and nearly everyone both above and a good ways below him on the list is either a Hall-of-Famer or a lock to become one. In fact, Burton is the only one in the top 100 never to be an All-Star.

As such, you could say Burton was lucky. The numbers would back you up. But looked at another way, maybe, just maybe, those same numbers indicate that Burton was unlucky to not have more nights like this one—that something else held him back.

Following the game, Burton told reporters that he didn't want to keep shooting after he got to 38 points, but his teammates kept finding him. "The more I made, the more they got me the ball," he says. "If a guy is hot, you keep him going."

"Things were clicking. You get that feeling. Things are clicking."

The crowd of just 7,000 went bonkers. At one point, Burton took a bow, only to be grabbed and given a stern look by Coach Lucas. Burton hadn't been with the team long, but his teammates—including Dana Barros, Clarence Weatherspoon, and Scott Williams—were as happy for Burton as he was, clapping and giving him chest bumps. After one basket, Sharone Wright, Derrick Alston, and Jaren Jackson offered him bows from the bench.

"We all had fun with it. It was a great situation. I was happy that they were supportive of me."

Willie Burton's time with the Miami Heat wasn't easy. —YouTube

A few years earlier, Burton had walked away from basketball. Late in his second season with the Heat, he was overcome by clinical depression and a drinking problem. Ten days after the big game, the Philadelphia Daily News reported how far he had previously sunk, relating a story of Burton looking out at the crowd during a game and crying, "The world is closing in on me!" The joy of basketball was gone: "Once, when he was in an especially dark mood, he left practice, drove the whole night through the streets of Miami, and did not stop driving until reporting to practice the following day."

After some time spent in the rehabilitation center of Lucas, his future Sixers coach, Burton came back the next season. "It was just a matter of coordinating and getting my feet back under me," he says. "You always deal with that, but I had to learn tools in order to consistently keep it all under control, which I did."

When he returned to Miami, Burton found himself stuck on the bench for two seasons behind an offense that was already getting plenty of points from Glen Rice and Steve Smith. Then, shortly before the 1994 season began, the Heat decided they could do without him.

"It wasn't an anger situation," he says of the pummeling he gave his old squad a month later. "At that time I wanted to leave the Miami Heat. For over a year, I'd been asking to be traded.

On the other hand...

"Of course it's a special night," Burton says. "It's against your old team. Everybody's watching. Everybody in Miami got to see what I was capable of if I had the opportunity to play more time."

And so Burton poured in bucket after bucket, just what he'd been paid to do, just what he'd proven he could do.

"As I said before, I could score. My first NBA game I scored 25 points," he notes, the most by a Heat player in his first game with the team, "and that stood until LeBron James broke that in his first game."

Burton is proud of the association. He's proud, likewise, that several other records he'd set in Philadelphia required the abilities of Allen Iverson to topple them.

The associations get even better: with his 52nd point, Burton topped Moses Malone for the highest total by a Sixer at Spectrum Arena. With the next one, he passed the arena record set by Michael Jordan. No other Sixer had scored as many points since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968.

The highlights show him high-stepping back down the court after he dropped his 49th point—not in a cocky way, but with giddy amazement, forgetting for a moment that the ball was in play and he had a man to cover. It's the thrill of all his talents coming to fruition, and surely also an awareness of the unlikeliness of it all. Life is long, and sometimes hard, and can leave your driving through the streets of Miami in the dark. It's not often that everything comes together, if only for a few joyful hours.

"It was surreal," he says. "It was almost like, 'Wow I can't believe I just did that.' ... Sometimes I sit back and think to this day, 'Wow. That's pretty big.'"

It inarguably is. But is it bigger or smaller because of who did it?

"People can give their opinion about what's likely and unlikely," he says. "But you make it to the NBA because you're a heck of a player first and foremost. Anyone in the NBA is capable of an incredible night.

"Sometimes, it's better for them not to see you coming. That's when you have the biggest advantage." Burton admits that such a feat would have been harder to pull off if he'd had a bigger name on the back of his jersey. After that, it became harder with his own name.

"That changed things for me a lot," he says. "That changed things a whole lot. For the rest of my career. I couldn't sneak up on anyone anymore."

The next night, Burton put up 28 points against the Pacers, but his numbers and minutes bounced up and down for the rest of the season. Four games later, he had just two baskets. A month later, he was good for 33 points. A couple months after that, he repaid the favor to All-Star teammate Dana Barros, who poured in his own 50-point effort. Then in the season's 53rd game, Burton badly aggravated an ankle injury, finishing his year.

He weighed his options the next season and went with the most lucrative offer—even though it came from Italy. It's a decision Burton regrets today. He would return to the league to join the Atlanta Hawks the following year, and then spend the next two with the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets.

In 2010, Burton went back to the University of Minnesota to finish his degree. — YouTube

Burton is proud to have averaged double figures over his NBA career, and he's especially proud of that perfect night. "It feels good. It feels really good," he says of looking back on it. "It also enables me to be remembered." After going back to the University of Minnesota in 2010 to finish his college degree, Burton is now involved in a number of youth outreach initiatives. He says youngsters frequently look him up on their phones and then show him footage of that night.

Their perspective is not much different from what his was. "I can remember standing on the floor, looking up at the scoreboard at my number at 40-something points," Burton says. "Like, 'Wow.' I can remember doing that vividly. You're still amazed by yourself ... At least, I was. Amazed at some of the things I had done."

"I did it from 40 on up. Every time I got a break to stop and look. Because I knew it was something special ... I wasn't sure if that would happen again, so I wanted to try to enjoy it."