By the Skin Of His Neck

Ohio State basketball star Jay Burson fractured a vertebra, but he'll be able to pursue his latest dream, playing in the NBA
March 06, 1989

As Jay Burson watched his life as a college basketball player flash before him on the evening news in Columbus, Ohio, he kept his hands busy. With one hand he held a few cards from a half-played game of euchre; with the other he grasped the hand of his girlfriend, Leanne Lenhart, who sat beside him on his hospital bed. A plastic brace encircled his neck, while atop his closely cropped blond hair rested a pair of gag glasses, complete with bulging nose and black mustache. He trained his gray eyes on the TV set and took in the flickering images and the commentary.

Jay Burson's career at Ohio State is over.... It was so hard for coach Gary Williams not to cry.... We have the play against Iowa three nights ago when the Buckeyes' fifth alltime scorer and the top scorer in Ohio high school history was hurt.... If the fracture to his neck heals as expected, Burson should be able to play again.... The Buckeyes are 17-7 and will have to adjust without their playmaker.... He could be a quadriplegic right now.... Someone must be looking out for Jay Burson....

Such reports of Burson's injury ruled the local airwaves. On Feb. 16 the startling announcement that Burson, senior guard at Ohio State and, at 22, a legendary figure in the state, would no longer suit up for the Buckeyes had a stunning impact. Governor Richard Celeste even paid a condolence call to Burson's room at University Hospital. Amid flowers and balloons, family and friends, the subject of the news himself wrestled with the event's significance. He had devoted his short life to points—reaching them, proving them and, above all, scoring them—and now the climax of his college career had been snatched away. "Shoot," Burson said softly. "If someone is looking out for me, then I'd like to know what he's been doing."

But then, things are rarely what they seem with Burson. He's the kid from rural Ohio—New Concord (pop. 1,500)—who assaults the hoop with inner-city flair. He's the son of a coach, but he's not that fundamentally sound a player. He's the short (barely six feet), slender (156 pounds) player who dominated the burly Big Ten, averaging 22.1 points a game this season and becoming the leading candidate for conference Player of the Year. He's the guy who few coaches figured would be strong enough to last in big-time competition, but he survived injuries that threatened his limbs—and life. And when his Buckeye career ended seven regular-season dates early, somehow no one expected that, either.

With about 12 minutes to go in the first half of an 83-75 loss at Iowa on Feb. 13, Burson picked up a loose ball and drove upcourt. His plan of attack was typical. Though 6'8" Ed Horton of the Hawkeyes loomed on his left hip and unguarded teammate Grady Mateen trailed him, Burson zeroed in on the hoop. "Jay would sometimes upset his teammates on the break because he was so narrow in his thinking: 'I'm going to put this ball in the basket and nothing's going to stop me,' " says Williams. "But that's what made Jay the scorer he was." As Burson went in for the layup, his eyes locked on the rim, Horton's arm brushed his head and knocked him into the basket support. Burson went down and immediately grabbed the base of his neck.

He was on the floor only briefly before getting up and shooting his free throws—he missed the first and made the second. It was with 35 seconds left that Burson finally was helped off the court, and then it was because of a mild concussion he received after banging heads with Iowa's B.J. Armstrong. He wound up playing 36 minutes and finished with 25 points. The next afternoon, after he spit up blood, Burson anxiously called his father, Jim, the basketball coach at Muskingum College in New Concord, who ordered him to see Dr. Robert Murphy, the Buckeyes' team physician. Tests revealed that Burson had a compression fracture on the anterior side of his fifth cervical vertebra, an injury that could have resulted in paralysis had it occurred on the posterior side, nearer the spinal cord.

"I must say I'm surprised Jay could play with a fracture," Murphy says. "There is [internal] bleeding that comes with that, a lot of swelling." On Feb. 17, doctors surgically attached a metal cage, called a halo traction brace, to Burson's head by drilling four screws into his skull. For three months his neck will be immobilized to allow the bone to heal; for another two or three months he will have to gradually rebuild his neck muscles. Then he should be able to play basketball again. "If I know Jay, he'll be out shooting jumpers with that brace on," says Ohio State forward Jerry Francis.

Oddly enough, Burson had recently seemed to be contemplating a life without basketball. A few weeks before the fateful game in Iowa City, he had told his mother, Sondra, that it was time to "shop for a new suit." He was tired of getting pounded, he said; he had proved to himself that he could play the big-time game, and he was ready to use his business major in a job away from basketball. But a hospital gown and halo brace didn't confirm this inclination; they reversed it. "Everyone says you have to prove to other people you can play," says Burson. "I have to prove it to myself, and at the end of these four years, if I'd finished the way I wanted to, I think I would have proven it. Then this happens. I didn't play my whole life to leave the game like this."

It appears he will have his shot at the pros. "If Jay wants his chance he'll get it," says NBA director of scouting Marty Blake. "I think he can create and he's exciting to watch."

Already, Burson is up and about. He appeared at Ohio State's St. John Arena for the Buckeyes' game against Michigan last Thursday and got a one-minute standing ovation when he walked from the locker room to a swivel chair next to the Ohio State bench. He watched helplessly as Michigan beat the Buckeyes 89-72; he wasn't even able to check any of the scoreboards because of his brace.

Burson and his parents count their blessings and keep their faith. "There are dreamers of the night and dreamers of the day," says Jim. "In the night, they have dreams knowing they'll go away in the day. In the day, they dream them and know they can work hard to realize them. Jay has always been a dreamer of the day."

Part of Burson's huge appeal in Ohio—and it rivals that of any politician or Heisman Trophy winner—is riot so much that he is Everyman, but that his unimposing frame is Every Body. Combine that nonphysique with his delicate features and whiskerless cheeks, and he hardly looks like an athlete, let alone a gifted one. Coaches and commentators have likened him to a paperboy, a camper, a choirboy and the kid who mows the lawn (they left out the guy who gets sand kicked in his face). He has been called a "bony gnat" (The Columbus Dispatch), "as physically intimidating as Vicki Lawrence" (Lansing State Journal) and "this little twit" (his mom).

But there are a few deceptive things about Burson's body. He trained it to jump well (a 34-inch vertical leap) and play tough (a 240-pound bench press). He has long, strong fingers for holding on to the ball and for prying it loose. And most important, he's quick. "Get the ball and go, that's Jay's game," Williams says. "He had a great first step."

One reason for his development was that Jay always had a place to play within blocks of the Burson house on Friendship Drive, either at the college gym or at John Glenn High, named after New Concord's most famous son. While Burson was in high school, he was referred to locally as The Show. The curtain went up on The Show when he was a sophomore averaging 40 points a game for Glenn High. The Show traveled well, too. When the Little Muskies pulled into a rival town for a game, placards designed to unnerve Burson—emblazoned with things like STOP THE SHOW—sometimes appeared on the streets. Crowds lined up hours in advance to enter the gym. Then the game would start, and Burson would make steals at halfcourt, maneuver fearlessly down the lane, arc off-balance shots, sink free throw after free throw, outsmart triple teams and rack up points in bunches. When The Show finally closed in 1985, Burson had scored 2,958 points—an average of 33 a game, more than one a minute—and had twice been named Ohio's Class AA Player of the Year.

Had Burson not chosen to go to Ohio State, he would have gone to Muskingum to play for his dad. Jim Burson, who enjoys Greek mythology, classical music and any kind of competition, has built a 323-218 record in 22 seasons with a lot of kids who look like Jay. "If I'd asked him, 'Son, come play for Dad,' he would have," says Jim. "That's the kind of relationship we have. But that was not the dream." Unlike Daedalus, who warned his son Icarus not to fly too near the sun, Jim encouraged Jay to soar. "I saw he had the wings to fly in the Big Ten," says Jim. "But for him to do that he had to get so close to the heat he could feel his wings melt once in a while, and they did. But, boy, what a view he's had."

Some of the crashes have been spectacular. Two summers ago, Jay's career was threatened when he severely cut the middle finger of his shooting hand on a weight machine. It took seven stitches to sew the tip of the finger back on. But a more serious, almost fatal, mishap occurred in May 1986. Driving in for a layup during a pickup game at St. John, he took an unintentional blow to the head from another player that rendered him unconscious before he hit the floor and made him unable to cushion his fall. Burson's head slammed onto the court, and he suffered a severe concussion and stopped breathing. Linda Daniel, the women's trainer at Ohio State, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Burson began breathing again—and became convulsive. It took half a dozen people to restrain him until paramedics arrived and strapped him into a stretcher.

"That injury was much scarier than this one to his neck," says his mother. "When we first saw him at the hospital, he was hooked up and strapped down and had boxing gloves on so he couldn't hurt himself. He couldn't even recognize us." Murphy called it the worst concussion he'd seen in his 37 years of practice. For nearly two months Burson lay on a couch at home, unable to concentrate on so much as a comic book or a TV cartoon, indifferent to all the world—even to basketball.

But gradually his faculties returned, though to this day he can recall neither the fall nor the 72 hours that followed. About two months after the accident, he went to the Muskingum gym. He shot for 10 minutes and got tired, but returned the next day. "The love of the game came back," says Williams. By tip-off of the 1986-87 season he was in the Buckeye starting lineup. He remained there through the Iowa game.

Williams says that Burson was never much interested in playing half-court defense, that his ball handling and jump shot, while improved, were never spectacular. But Williams's respect for Burson was evident at the press conference to announce his injury. Williams had to choke back tears for 40 seconds before he could speak. "Jay came to play every night; I'll miss that," he said later. "The other thing I'll miss about him is, the last five minutes of the game, he wanted to take every shot. That's a quality in a player that cannot be overrated. There are a lot of guys who are competitive, but to want to put it on the line in front of everyone, that's rare."

Burson still holds on to the dream of putting it on the line again. Thousands of letters of encouragement have reached him on Friendship Drive; fans have sent food, clothing, even money. "If there's any doubt, any feeling that I'm not going to be able to stick my nose in where it doesn't belong, then I probably won't play again," he says. "I came back strong from the last injury. Maybe I'll come back even stronger from this one." Burson's well-wishers believe in that. Indeed, they have come to expect nothing less.

TWO PHOTOSJEFF DAVIS/APHorton's foul sent Burson to the floor, but the indomitable Buckeye was up in seconds. PHOTOLANE STEWARTLenhart had to maneuver around Burson's halo brace to give him a shoulder massage. TWO PHOTOSAt age three Burson already appeared to have the shooter's stroke, but at John Glenn High School he really became The Show. PHOTOLANE STEWARTBurson drew cheers even as a bench warmer before the start of the Michigan game. PHOTOLANE STEWARTJim and Sondra have been kept busy answering Jay's get-well mail.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)