Pink, Poetry and Power: Deonte Burton’s NBA Journey

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Saturday June 17th, 2017

Passing punctured West Virginia’s vaunted press throughout March’s Big 12 title game. Iowa State zipped the ball around the perimeter far faster than the Mountaineers’ wave of defenders could move their feet. A full-court trap hopes to coax silly passes, though. So when Nazareth Mitrou-Long stepped a few dribbles across the timeline, Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm froze, thinking “I can’t believe we’re about to throw this half-court alley-oop up 10, with two minutes to go.”

As the ball hung in the Sprint Center air, Deonte Burton’s pink hyperdunks launched towards the basket. A vicious clang on the rim followed. Burton’s left hand-thundering through the hoop pierced Elijah Macon’s ears. Prohm felt the rim rattle from the sidelines. “The best dunk I’ve ever seen in person,” he said. “By far.” Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, the man who recruited Burton’s transfer to Iowa State, heard the jam through his television. The highlight induced flashbacks of Burton’s red-shirt season practices. “You’d see stuff like that all the time,” Hoiberg said.

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Death I’ve seen you peek around the corner

I'm not afraid of you

you took a piece of me that I want and will get back

You are the darkness but I have grown fond of the dark

The volume of Burton’s finish also perked the ears of NBA scouts. At 6’4 with a 6’11.5” wingspan, he boasts a burly frame capable of banging against bigs as well as the length and athleticism to compete on the perimeter. He drained 40% of his collegiate three-point attempts and blocked nearly two shots per game as a senior. When Burton steps on the court, his presence is palpable. “It is a stark contrast on and off the floor,” Prohm said.

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Before each contest, Burton shrinks his powerful frame into the confines of his iPhone notepad. It is here where he scribes his poetry, pouring out an endless stream of consciousness, rendering his burdened mind a blank slate before tipoff. He found balladry in seventh grade at Westside Academy when local Milwaukee poets performed their work at a school assembly. “It’s fun seeing how a puzzle fits together when the puzzle is all words,” Burton said. He began crafting his own prose. He spent nearly as many hours watching Louder Than A Bomb videos on YouTube as he did workshopping his game in the gym. Burton can take center stage at the NCAA Tournament, but introverted nerves would never allow him to perform his words. “I’m way too shy to do it.” he said. He people watches at parties rather than commanding the dance floor.

Pain has brought me comfort

Depression has brought me joy

you are bringing me time

I thought I was supposed to be scared of you

But you are afraid of me

The youngest of six siblings usually harbors bashful behavior. As Barbara Malone’s older children left the house, time allowed for more isolated experiences with her two youngest boys. She would giggle and wrestle with Burton. He followed her to every store, holding her hand while she went shopping and picking off her plate when they went out to eat. When he became a star at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, she cut and laminated each newspaper clipping. Malone plastered pictures of all her children across the living room. But when guests visited, she would point at the stills of her youngest and shout, “That’s my baby!”

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Their bond was everlasting. Which made the beginning of Burton’s sophomore year of high school all the more bewildering. Amidst a transfer to Brewster, Malone informed Burton’s girlfriend at the time she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She withheld the news from her children for two years. “Those type of things, that’s stuff the person has to be comfortable with themselves before they can tell anyone else,” Burton said. He accepted a scholarship from Marquette to stay close to his ailing best friend. Malone found solace in the stands of the Bradley Center, cheering for her baby and screaming at the officials. “She said something to pretty much everyone,” Burton chuckled.

Then on the morning of Oct. 6, 2014, just weeks before his sophomore campaign with the Golden Eagles, Burton awoke to a phone call. It was his sister Nicole. The family had braced for Malone’s death. She had even planned her own funeral, but the news shook Burton to his core. “It was surreal. I just… couldn’t believe it,” he said. Basketball no longer brought him joy. The game, the city of Milwaukee itself, everything he had ever known reminded him of the woman he had lost. Simply driving down a road prompted memories of a time they had rolled down that very block. “I couldn’t really heal with the constant reminder,” Burton said.

You are the one to blame for changing me

You took something that means more to me than you will ever know

Are you afraid of me because you see your death in me

If you die what will that make me

He needed to turn his thoughts into therapeutic verse and flee Milwaukee. Hoiberg’s staff had been enamored with Burton’s versatile skillset in high school and the Cyclones’ Ames campus provided a refuge across state lines. Before the end of that sophomore first semester at Marquette, Burton transferred to Iowa State. Hoiberg soon after took the Bulls’ job, but Burton’s spring red-shirt provided ample time to leave a lasting impression. He brought endless energy in practices. Before one shootaround at Hilton Coliseum, Burton dropped his bags, scooped a ball off the floor and sprung into an effortless windmill dunk while wearing Timberland boots. “In his jeans,” Hoiberg said. “It was crazy.”

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Burton’s footwear became a staple of his Iowa State career. He first donned pink sneakers at Marquette as a fashion statement. His mother’s passing soon turned his shoes into a declaration of breast cancer awareness. “Those magical shoes,” Prohm said. He obtained a tattoo of a ribbon and often tucks pink socks into those fluorescent hyperdunks. He etched “Love you” and “Miss you” onto the soles and customized a pair of pink Kobes with his mother’s initials stitched onto the inside of the tongue. He’s started The Pink Legacy foundation in honor of Malone.

Age is no such thing I can't die unless I become afraid of myself

all I will have is time

I am death and death is me

When we all reunite I will be happy but can death be happy with me?

Burton will continue wearing rosy sneakers in the NBA now that he’s fulfilled his mother’s wish of finishing college. With the league’s shift towards a more malleable, pace-and-space style, his age is his only detraction. “I think he can guard really 1-4 and, shoot, a lot of 5s now, with the way our league has gone,” Hoiberg said. “Offensively, he can punish smaller guys and [defenses] with his ability to shoot the ball.”

Franchise-changing prospects can hide within second round big boards. First it was Draymond Green. Now teams are searching for “the next Malcolm Brogdon,” an under-the-radar, multifaceted ball of muscle primed for immediate minutes. One team Burton recently visited registered his max vertical at 40 inches. He can play both aspects of the pick-and-roll. He can connect from distance and bowl through opponents at the rim. “I don’t really have a position,” Burton said. “I’m a basketball player.” And a poet. And a son carrying on his mother’s legacy.

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