Iona guard Steve Burtt emerged from the locker room at St. Peter's College in Jersey City last Saturday wearing the set-in-granite expression that teammates sometimes try to crumble with the nickname "Monsterhead." Indeed, having just scored a season-low 13 points in a 57-55 upset loss to the Peacocks, which cost Iona the top seed in this week's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference playoffs, the internally combustible Burtt was hot enough to go one-on-one with Godzilla. But he resisted an urge to bang the wall of the corridor with a forearm. Instead, he grazed it with a slow-motion jab and softly told Gael head coach Pat Kennedy: "I'm O.K. I'm all right."
It's a pronouncement Burtt himself is just now beginning to believe. At 6'2", 185 pounds, he possesses the strength, quickness and toughness to sustain a long career in the NBA after graduating in June. He surpassed Jeff Ruland as Iona's alltime leading scorer early this season and is averaging 23.9 points per game for the 20-7 Gaels; for his career he has scored 2,433 points. He's also a criminal-justice major with a B average who would just as soon go to law school as play pro ball. But the fire that drives the 21-year-old Burtt is fueled by pain, and he isn't sure whether his gains will ever outweigh his very substantial losses.
"It's getting better, but there's always going to be sadness in my life," Burtt says. "I have to keep my mind off certain things and keep moving. I haven't had many happy moments. The happiest have been with the team, at Iona."
Like several of his teammates at Iona, which is in New Rochelle, N.Y., about 25 minutes northeast of Manhattan, Burtt grew up in Harlem. But even measured against the standards of that community, his youth was tragic. When he was 11, Burtt's parents died within months of each other. Charlie Burtt, a factory worker, suffered a stroke on Father's Day, 1974 and died several weeks later. Annie Burtt was so wounded by the death of her husband that she stopped eating and died five months later from complications brought on by malnutrition. "My mother was hurt so deeply that she couldn't forget," says Steve. "I understand. I have some of that in me."
Burtt's grandmother, Carrie Goshae, took over the rearing of Steve and his older brother Kevin. A year ago Burtt suffered another jolt when Gilbert Earl, a local Police Athletic League basketball coach who had become a father figure to him, was shot and killed while being robbed on a Manhattan street.
"I turned to basketball as a release," says Burtt. "I just decided I wanted to be good." He was all-state his senior year at Charles Evans Hughes High and, because he wanted to stay close to home, accepted a scholarship to Iona.
When his grandmother's health began to fail during his freshman year, Burtt did all he could to care for her. Almost daily for three years, he would leave New Rochelle after classes and commute by train to her West 118th Street apartment, and later to New York's Hospital for Joint Diseases, then return to campus for basketball practice. She died last July at the age of 93.
The ordeal took its toll, and by all accounts Burtt was difficult to deal with during his early years at Iona. He was moody on the court and aloof off it, and without many friends. "Steve has a lot of pent-up rage," says assistant coach Kenny Williamson, who became one of Burtt's few confidants after coaching him on Manhattan's prestigious Riverside Church team and subsequently recruiting him for Iona. "He can be sullen. He had a very quick temper. It's taken him years to shake the feeling that the world has done him an injustice. He doesn't let people get close to him because he's afraid he might lose them, too." Another assistant coach and friend, Rich Petriccione, says simply, "Stevie has never had anyone in his life to say, 'Good game.' "
Burtt is also close to Kennedy, who was promoted from assistant to head coach after Jim Valvano jumped from Iona into the national spotlight at North Carolina State in 1980. In Burtt's troubled freshman year, Kennedy, then a rookie head coach at 29, would spend as much as three hours a day with him, often accompanying Steve on his trips to visit his grandmother. "Stevie has something harder inside him than other kids that makes him what he is," says Kennedy. "To see this very tough kid taking care of his grandmother, bathing her and massaging her, was a very loving, emotional thing."
Burtt says he still cries some nights because his grandmother never saw him play, except for one brief film clip on television. "I get down, but most of the time they're tears for the joyful times," he says. "She gives me something extra to play for."
Burtt has been the key to Iona's continued success, which began when Valvano recruited Ruland for the 1977-78 season. Since Kennedy's 15-14 baptism in 1980-81, the year Ruland left school prematurely after being declared ineligible for signing with an agent, the Gaels have accumulated a 66-25 record.
Basketball success has helped solve an identity crisis for Iona, which is run by the Irish Christian Brothers. The school got its name from an island off the west coast of Scotland that became an evangelical center in medieval Europe. No longer do Iona coaches have to endure the following exchange:
Hotel clerk: Your firm, please, sir?
Coach: Iona College.
Clerk: Buddy, I don't care what you own. I asked you where you worked.
Kennedy and his young, street-smart assistants regularly recruit inner-city talent ignored by other major schools. Kennedy and Williamson both take credit for supplying Valvano with his now-famous signature line, "No question." But Williamson is most convincing when he says, "Hey, V got it from me. No question."
Which is also what any follower of Eastern hoops would say when asked, "Can Steve Burtt play?" There has been little doubt about that since late in Burtt's freshman season when he went for 18 points against St. Bonaventure. Burtt has failed to hit double figures only four times since that game. Along the way he has outplayed such pros-to-be as Marquette's Doc Rivers (now an Atlanta Hawk) and Arizona State's Byron Scott (now an L.A. Laker). Last Wednesday night Burtt scored 26 points in an 81-79 loss to LaSalle to become the leading alltime scorer among New York—and New Jersey—area college players.
Burtt's specialty is the penetrating jumper that draws body contact and produces three-point plays. Thus his 62% foul shooting is something that needs to be improved. Expert at changing his shot in midair, he excels in a running game but has had to develop a reliable outside shot to combat the box-and-one zones geared to stop him.
With his success has come a softer manner that allows Burtt to smile at well-wishers and joke with casual acquaintances. But for pregame preparation he puts himself in a mood resembling a hypnotic trance, and his temper can still flash. Against St. Peter's, Burtt decked Peacock center Anthony Green with a left jab as the two exchanged words on the way to the locker room at halftime. "I felt bad about it after," says Burtt. "But the guy wouldn't get out of my face. I can't let somebody hurt me first."
"The first time I met Steve," says injured Iona center Bob Coleman, "I thought, 'This guy is going to be very mean to me.' There's a mystique about him. The way he carries himself. He's ultra-intense. On campus, people are afraid to go up to him. He looks like Mr. Mean, Monsterhead. Steve could be a great lawyer, because he can definitely get the Iron Jaw."
"I know I have my funny ways," Burtt says. "I don't mean anyone harm. I just like to be self-strong. I never know if people will understand how I feel. Some people say, 'It's silly. She's gone. You can't do anything about it.' I know I can't bring her back. But when somebody tells me it's silly, I get mad."
NBA scouts project Burtt as a first-round pick, and have him pegged as a playmaking guard in the pros. "I think I can do it," Burtt says. "But I don't want to count on it and then be disappointed. I've been disappointed enough." Ultimately, Burtt's priorities are a family and a career in criminal law.
"He has come so far," says Williamson. "The other day I told him, 'You're looking good. I'm very proud of you. When you graduate, I'm going to cry on that day.' He said, 'Coach, I'm going to cry, too.' "