By: Mitch Albom
ATLANTA — They met for the first time in a sweaty Crisler Arena, three summers ago, when a quiet Trey Burke arrived with his parents for a campus visit.
They committed to each other a few weeks later, when John Beilein, walking down a street in Belgium, called Burke back in America and heard him say yes, he was coming to Michigan. “I think I had a nice Belgian refreshment after that,” Beilein recalled, laughing.
Their association likely ends tonight, before a worldwide audience in the NCAA national championship game at the massive Georgia Dome, after which Burke, a sophomore point guard, will set his sights on the NBA. And another coach-kid relationship will have finished too soon.
It’s true what they say about the Final Four. The road really does end here. Beilein, who is old enough to remember when you stuck with all your players for four years, accepts the new, accelerated relationship as “a fact of life.” He accepts that two-and-done is twice as long as many coaches get with their superstars.
But however fast it has gone by, Burke and Beilein are now inexorably linked, the way Mateen Cleaves and Tom Izzo are linked, or Bobby Hurley and Mike Krzyzewski, or Rumeal Robinson and Steve Fisher.
Coaches and point guards are tethered on their trip up the mountain. Beilein and Burke trusted each other from the first day they met, on that hot August afternoon in Ann Arbor, and their reward has been returning Michigan to national prominence and making it to the last game of the college basketball season.
Two years of memories.
Tonight they’ll learn if the scrapbook is silver or gold.
Student and teacher
As story lines go, these two are wonderfully matched. Burke, 20, was an unlikely superstar, not highly recruited, late to the glory game, yet he has risen, under Beilein’s tutelage, to heights even he didn’t dream about — and he has been dreaming about this “since I was 6 years old.”
Beilein, in his own way, is equally unlikely on this stage. In a business full of express trains, he’s the old-fashioned local, making every stop, chugging along. He’s 60 years old and just now seeing his first Final Four. If Louisville’s Rick Pitino is played by Al Pacino in this Final Four movie, then Beilein is played by John Lithgow. Glamour is not his thing.
But as students find the teachers when they are ready to learn, Burke found his mentor when he widened his view. Decommitting from Penn State opened his options. And in Beilein he met a “very nice” coach “who didn’t really talk to me about basketball” the first time they met, Instead, “he talked about off-the-court, academics, social life. That allowed me to trust him more.”
Beilein, meanwhile, saw “a winner” in Burke. Although he readily admits, he didn’t plan on using him so quickly.
“You can recruit a point guard every two years,” Beilein said. “(Trey) was that every other year. But when Darius Morris left to go to the (NBA) draft, here we are sitting with this freshman point guard. And I’m saying, ‘This is gonna be a heck of a year for us to win with a freshman.’
“But after that Maui Invitational, I had no doubt that he was gong to fill in beautifully.”
In Maui, Burke, who still hadn’t taken his first college final exam, averaged 12 points and six assists over three games against Memphis, Duke and UCLA. “Thrown into the fire,” as he put it, he has risen steadily since that early challenge, all the way up to the nation’s best player, as evidenced by the Naismith Award, the Wooden Award, the Oscar Robertson Award and Associated Press player of the year honors.
Burke is a phenomenal playmaker, a dangerous long-range shooter, and a guy who is unafraid of the big moment. Tonight, he has a chance to grab the biggest prize.
The one that really matters. Win an NCAA championship, and you are forever cemented in history. Doesn’t matter what happens next. Cleaves had a short and unmemorable NBA career, but he will be a college hero forever thanks to the 2000 title with Michigan State. Robinson played only six unremarkable years in the NBA, but his performance in 1989 is retold again and again in Wolverines Land.
Burke can — and likely needs to — shine in tonight’s game against top-seeded Louisville to cut down his own net. This is not a gimmick team. The Cardinals have stud players who have been around and know how to win. They will press in a maddening fashion, and Burke will need to be the steadying hand on the offense. He also will square off against Peyton Siva, a more experienced senior guard who is fantastic at stealing the ball.
The other Michigan players all refer to Burke as “our leader.” It is time to be exactly that. U-M got a great lift Saturday from its bench, on a night when Burke hit just one basket in eight attempts. But while role players spark victories along the way, come that big Monday night in April, the winning team is usually the one whose stars play like stars.
One shining moment
No matter what happens tonight, Beilein will almost surely bid farewell to Burke — and most likely junior Tim Hardaway Jr., along with the seniors. Some are even suggesting Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, a pair of freshmen, might be hearing the siren song of the NBA.
Does that make the coach nostalgic? He admitted it was “strange” to know “today is the last regular practice … You’re saying, ‘OK, this is it. There’s two teams playing, and it’s us and Louisville.’ ”
But Beilein, who has been coaching nearly 40 years, is realistic. He knows players today — especially the great ones — are looking beyond the college experience even before they arrive.
“I think if a kid is going to be a guarantee, one-and-doner, we’re only recruiting that kid if that kid’s dream is to go to Michigan. … He’s still going to go to study hall, class, be a great teammate,” he said. “Michigan is not a stopover. The University of Michigan is a destination. They’re going to make the most of every opportunity at that destination. If things work out for them that they have better opportunities, I’m all for it.”
Burke, out of Columbus, Ohio, is a likely lottery pick. He nearly jumped to the pros last year, before a late commitment to return. He has a chance to exit in a burst of glory and he should grab it. Don’t defer. He didn’t begin as a superstar recruit, but “that put a certain type of fierce inside me to push myself.”
A “certain type of fierce” would be a good thing to see tonight. The road really does end here. And, long and winding as it has been for them both, it would be nice to see Beilein and Burke walk down it as champions.
Then Burke can celebrate with a pro contract.
And Beilein can hoist another “Belgian refreshment.”