Junior College Paved Way For Burrow
Two-Time MVP In National JC Tournament
At the time, All-American Bob Burrow was only the second junior college basketball player the Baron, Adolph Rupp, ever recruited to the University of Kentucky. But Rupp was probably glad he did.
Up until Burrow attended little' Ix>n Morris Junior College out of Jacksonville, Texas, he wasn't very well-known. He had spent most of his prep career in virtual obscurity in small Arkansas and Texas high schools.
"Maybe if I had been a little better player, I would have been noticed more," said Burrow in a telephone interview from his office in Ft. Knox, where he currently works as the assistant superintendent of business at the Ft. Knox community schools.
Cats' Pause Columnist
But Wells, Texas, where Burrow graduated with 14 other seniors in 1952, was a small town in the eastern part of the state and wasn't exactly the garden spot of the basketball world. His family had moved there from Arkansas when he was a junior, and Burrow hadn't played much basketball. But Wells High had only one sport in the football-dominated state, and it wasn't with a pigskin.
"The school was so small it couldn't field a football team, really," said Burrow. "Texas had four classes, I believe, and we were amongst the smallest schools in the state. We had a girls' basketball team and a boys' basketball team. And the girls were more popular- than the boys."
But Burrow's high school coach, Milford Burroughs, was very encouraging and helped Burrow make his decision to attend Ixm Morris even though Burrow had one scholarship offer from a senior college when he graduated from Wells.
"When I went to Lon Morris, Coach Burroughs went with me," said Burrow. "He had a lot of influence on me. He told me I could play ball at any senior college I wanted to if I improved."
Burrow who had averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds his senior season at Wells led Lon Morris to the National Junior College Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, and was voted the tournament's most valuable player both years.
By then, Burrow had several offers from several senior colleges, including the University of Kentucky. Rupp, a Kansas native, didn't miss anything that went on in his home state.
"I was a lot better player by then," said Burrow. "I had improved quite a lot in junior college. I had just needed the maturity and more playing time."
Even though a lot of schools were after Burrow, he was set on UK. The talented Bob Pettit of Louisiana State University had even visited Burrow, but Burrow chose Kentucky.
"When I was growing up in Texas, Kentucky had quite a reputation," Burrow explained. "It was the basketball capital of the world, a place where they played great basketball. When they recruited me, one of the alumni flew me to Lexington on a visit. What I saw really impressed me. I met Coach (Harry) Lancaster and talked with him. I didn't meet Coach Rupp until after I had committed. Rupp told me I was only the second junior college player he had tried. The first one hadn't worked out, but he thought it was worth a second shot. I was glad he did, and he was glad, too."
The Wildcats had lost three players from the season before center Cliff Hagan, guard Frank Ramsey and forward Lou Tsioropoulos in an undefeated 25-0 season after which the 'Cats turned down an NCAA tournament bid. But Burrow a 6-7, 230-pound center was still uncertain if he could help the team.
"It's a big step to go from a junior college to a senior college," Burrow stated. "The competition is greater. The play is rougher. There's more contact. It's like going from high school to college. It's a pretty big step."
Even though UK had recruited him, Burrow felt like he still had to make the squad.
"I don't know whether people expected a lot out of me or not," he said. "But I soon found out that the practices were more difficult than the games. I remember my first game against LSU. I only scored two points. I was scared to death. I had never played before that many people before (at the Memorial Coliseum). But after the game Coach Rupp just patted me on the back. He helped me gain confidence as time went along.''
Before his two years were up, though, Burrow would score 50 points in a game and set a Southeastern Conference record for most rebounds in a game, 34. He also set a school record for the best career rebounding average, 16. Such play earned him All-America recognition in 1956.
The two seasons Burrow played at Kentucky, the Wildcats went 23-3 and 20-6. The clink in UK's armor, which had its roots in the gambling scandals and probation year, began to show in the mid-1950s. But the Wildcats still won the SEC title in 1955 and participated in the NCAA Tournament both seasons.
"The first season I was there (1954-55), we thought it was going to be a difficult one," Burrow stated. "We weren't rated anywhere in the Top 20 or mentioned in any way. Coach Rupp got us out at mid-court after a pre-season practice and said, 'If I'd known we weren't going to be rated, I would have bought an ad. Later in the season, we beat top-rated Utah and second-ranked I^salle in our Christmas tournament (the UKIT), and then we were ranked No. 1 for a while.'"
But then the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets came into Memorial and handed the Wildcats their first homecourt loss, 59-58, in 12 years, ending a 129-game streak. The Yellowjackets would defeat the Wildcats, 65-59, later in the season at Atlanta.
"Both times we played them, we didn't play good ball," said Burrow. "I really can't explain it."
The next season, the Wildcats finished second in the SEC race.
Burrow's Kentucky Days
"I was disappointed with my second year," said Burrow, who averaged 21 points per game, two better than his junior season. "I thought we should have won the SEC. We just didn't play up to our potential. It boiled down to a game at Alabama, and we were close at halftime down by only two points. But they blew us away in the second half (101-77).
"We were pretty much expected to win the SEC," Burrow continued. "According to Coach Rupp, it was embarassing not to win it. Of course, the league is a whole lot stronger now."
Upon graduation, Burrow played two seasons in the National Basketball Association. His rookie year was with the Rochester Royals and the next season Burrow played with the Minneapolis Lakers.
"There were only eight teams in the league then," Burrow stated. "And each team carried only 10 players. It was a lot different than it is now. Rochester's star player was Maurice Stokes, and his salary was only $20,000 a year. I didn't play that much. I only averaged about six points a game. I wasn't that good. I couldn't hack it, didn't get the job done. When you can't get the job done, you go somewhere else where you can."
Burrow was disappointed he didn't spend more time in the pros, but he found happiness in Ft. Knox, a "great place to work, but not the best place to coach basketball," he said.
He coached the Ft. Knox basketball team for at least 10 years before quitting the game for good.
"They've always had success there with football," Burrow said. "But basketball hasn't been that successful. Ft. Knox, of course, is an Army base. And people get transferred in and out of there all the time. During one season, I lost two starters that way. It was just heartbreaking. But, as you know, life is not always a bed of roses. While I was there, we won more than we lost. We even won the district tournament one year.''
But Burrow and his wife, Lelia, would soon make another contribution to the basketball world with their sons Brett and Grant. Brett, of course, plays for CM. Newton's University of Vanderbilt team and Grant is currently attending Aquanis Junior College in Nashville, where he will play next season after transferring there from Paducah Junior College.
Like his father, Brett has blossomed after his high school playing days were over, even though he and Robbie Valentine of the University of Louisville were voted co-MVPs their senior year at North Hardin High.
"He's improved each year," said Burrow of his son, who is now a senior and averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per game last season for the Commodores. "He's only 200 points away from Vanderbilt's 2,000-point club. So that's not too bad."
Bob Burrow said his son weighed only 190 pounds when he entered Vandy but is now 230.
"He needed strength and stanima to play SEC ball," Burrow said of his son. "They put him on a weight program and they've done a good job with him."
One wonders why Burrow's son didn't follow in his father's footsteps and attend UK.
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