N.C. State star DJ Burns is big, but his stature is only part of the story

N.C. State star DJ Burns is big, but his stature is only part of the story

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Since he was a boy, DJ Burns Jr. has stood out for his bigness: big personality, big body, big talent, big joy. When he started traveling for AAU basketball at age 10, other parents demanded to see his birth certificate. His parents had to convince him to stop giving away winter coats to classmates whom he believed needed them more. He conducted his first television interview after Winthrop offered him a Division I basketball scholarship — in eighth grade.

“By the time he finished kindergarten” his mother, Takela Burns, said, “he was taller than his kindergarten teacher.”

He has always seemed too big for one campus or conference to contain, and Burns has finally found a stage sized for him. Burns is the 6-foot-9, 275-pound ball of delight at the center of North Carolina State’s giddy rampage to the Final Four. He is built like a bouncer, passes like a magician, moves like a tap dancer and leads like the Pied Piper. He can sing and play the piano, stand-up bass, tuba and saxophone. His high school basketball coach thinks he could be a politician or a preacher. He has a dual college degree in sociology and health.

Burns has become the grinning, gaptoothed face of this March’s wildest journey. North Carolina State won five games in five days — including one in overtime after a banked-in three beat the buzzer in regulation — to win the ACC tournament and the necessary automatic berth that came with it. It outlasted Oakland in overtime in the second round, then blitzed higher-seeded Marquette and Duke last weekend to extend its magic carpet ride all the way to suburban Phoenix and a national semifinal Saturday against top-seeded Purdue.

“That has been quite overwhelming,” Takela said. “But gleefully overwhelming. That’s kind of oxymoronic. But it’s like, ‘Wow.’ But pleasantly wow.”

“It’s been kind of crazy going from having almost zero media attention to a camera following you around all day,” Burns said last week. “It’s been cool, but you know, definitely noticed it.”

Burns’s father, Dwight, works full-time as a high-ranking agent in the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. As a side gig on fall Saturdays, he helps lead the security detail for Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney. If you’ve seen the uniformed officer protecting Swinney when he shakes hands with the opposing coach after games, you have seen DJ Burns’s father at work.

Dwight Burns received national airtime again this past weekend, flexing his arm and patting his biceps as his son scored basket after basket, compiling 29 points against Duke.

“For any of our closest friends and family, they’ve seen me do that ever since D.J.’s been playing basketball,” Dwight Burns said, laughing. “For the people that haven’t seen it, it’s been kind of difficult trying to make it through the airport nowadays.”

Frank Hamrick, Burns’s coach at York Preparatory Academy, said the gesture was indicative of Burns’s parents: present, supportive, never overbearing. They allowed him to unobtrusively coach Burns in a way many parents of high-level youth players do not. During games when Burns received the ball in the post, Dwight would yell, “Go to work!” But that was the lone instruction Hamrick ever heard.

Growing up in Rock Hill, S.C., both kids and adults gravitated toward Burns. In second grade, Burns would come home missing coats and sweatshirts he had given away. “Honey,” his mom would tell him, “you got to take care of yourself first.”

“DJ is his mama reincarnated,” Dwight said. “Everybody’s been asking me, they see my smile when they meet me. I’m like, ‘DJ does not get his smile from me. DJ does not get his personality from me. He is his mama reincarnated.’ DJ is a fun-loving people person who doesn’t meet a stranger. He wants to take care of the underdog, wants to make sure that everybody is okay — sometimes to the detriment of himself.”

While Takela grew up, she watched her mother, Alberta, temporarily take in nine children who had been fostered or put up for adoption. An entire community — friends, distant family, church members, everyone — called her Grandma Bert. At holiday dinners, Burns ate next to Alberta’s adoptive, unofficial grandchildren.

“Our Thanksgiving looks like the Rainbow Coalition,” Takela Burns said.

Burns had an October birthday, two months after the cutoff for kindergarten. His family secured district approval for him to start a year early. “He passed all of the entry tests with flying colors,” Takela said. “And he was huge.” He wore a suit for kindergarten graduation pictures, “and he looked like an 8- or 9-year-old,” Takela said. “He just has always been a bigger guy.”

Hamrick loved poetry and taught his players his favorite poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. During one game, a series of calls enraged Hamrick, and he berated an official until a technical foul seemed imminent. Suddenly, Hamrick felt a pair of hands on his shoulders. He heard Burns whisper in his ear: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

“Quoting Rudyard Kipling to me in a basketball game,” Hamrick said. “How many 10th- or 11th-graders have the courage to go up to their head coach and reprimand him using his own words? I just shut my mouth and sat on the bench.”

Takela, an assistant principal during Burns’s childhood, recalled telling her son: “This is an A household, and you have an A lifestyle. So I want to see A’s up in here.” When he earned a C in geometry class, Takela made him take it again. She suggested to the teacher that she relate lessons to basketball, and Burns thrived. The angles on a basketball court always made sense to him.

“Basketball is just something that just always brings people together,” Burns said. “That’s why we love it.”

His size made him stand out, but Burns’s instincts and intellect separated him. Even as he banged in the post, he read the floor like a point guard. Winthrop, right in his backyard in Rock Hill, offered him that scholarship when Burns was an eighth-grader. He would receive more than 20 scholarship offers — Virginia and South Carolina recruited him hard — and settled on Tennessee.

Burns had taken enough classes to graduate high school a year early. His family formulated a plan with Tennessee and decided Burns could handle the academic rigor a year ahead of schedule. And he did. It was the lifestyle he wasn’t ready for.

“Maturity-wise, he was not ready,” Takela said. “He needed to be back home to grow and mature. After you go to the University of Tennessee as one of their star athletes, whether you redshirt, you got access to everything and every party. He had fun.”

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes shared Burns’s difficult adjustment during his redshirt season with his parents. They all decided Burns needed a restart. His parents thanked Barnes for keeping Burns’s departure low-profile.

Burns came home to Rock Hill and Winthrop. When Burns transferred, “he had already done some things and lived his best life,” Takela said. He made the all-Big South team as a freshman, led the Eagles to two conference championships and was named Big South player of the year as a junior.

Ready to take on big-conference basketball again as a transfer, Burns and his family scheduled five official recruiting visits. They were so impressed with N.C. State Coach Kevin Keatts that they skipped the last four.

Burns has averaged 18.3 points during the NCAA tournament, but soft touch around the rim is his secondary skill. Burns operates the Wolfpack’s offense through post-ups that often start near the three-point line, backing his defender down as he surveys the court. His balletic feet make him a chore to guard one-on-one, but his vision and passing decimates double-teams.

His blend of quickness and size has attracted curiosity from NFL talent evaluators. (“DJ Burns ain’t playing football,” Hamrick said. “He don’t mind hitting you, but I don’t think he wants to get hit.”) He played football until eighth grade before he chose to train year-round for basketball, a tight end who plowed over opponents after catching passes.

“He loved football until it got a little heavy when he had to drag people down the field,” Takela said. “His teammates would go to the coaches and let them know, ‘DJ’s playing too rough!’ ”

Despite his unconventional body type, Burns may have a future in the NBA. Denver Nuggets MVP center Nikola Jokic, the best player in the world, declared himself an admirer of Burns, citing his passing and shot-making and how clearly his teammates enjoy playing with him.

Burns’s professional future can wait. He has loved becoming an NCAA tournament star, but at times he has admitted to his mother that it can be overwhelming. She reminds her son that this is what he dreamed about. Burns only needs to manage his time, not change anything. He has not grown famous for any reason other than that the broader world just discovered him now.

“He gets to be himself,” Takela said. “He’s getting all of this to be himself. Such a blessing.”

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