Commentary

Burke's prep is on the dot

Former Michigan star keeps tight inner circle as he prepares for NBA draft

Updated: May 19, 2013, 8:50 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

Trey BurkeKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsTrey Burke's NCAA tournament run pushed him steadily up NBA teams' draft boards.
DUBLIN, Ohio -- Three kids, none older than middle school age, bounded into the Elevate Basketball Academy on a Tuesday in early May and ran right to the back of the facility.

There, Trey Burke, college basketball's player of the year and a likely top-five pick in June's NBA draft, sat on a metal bleacher putting on his light blue and red sneakers after finishing his second workout of the day.

He turned to a friend as the kids ran past. Not one child acknowledged him. Moments later, as Burke packed up his two basketballs and his white, blue and orange Kevin Durant Nike sneakers, a fourth youngster walked in.

Trey Burke
Michael Rothstein/ESPNTrey Burke is honing his game with the same trainer he worked with in high school.
He sat down next to Burke, laced up his shoes and ran onto the court. He also didn't recognize the former Michigan star. As Burke transitions from college to the pros, from someone who still has a shred of anonymity to someone test-driving a Porsche and thinking about a potential shoe deal of his own, moments like this are fleeting.

His game has been honed for this moment since he was a sophomore in high school. Burke has been thinking about the draft, about where he'll go, about the next stage of his life, almost daily.

"It gives me goose bumps, really," Burke said the next day, after an appointment with a chiropractor.

Burke could become the highest draft pick from Columbus, Ohio, since Antonio Daniels went fourth overall in 1997, and the highest pick out of Michigan since Robert Traylor went sixth in 1998. In preparation, he has worked out twice almost every weekday, training with the same man who got him ready for his two-year college stint, Anthony Rhodman.

As he completes the metamorphosis to the pros, Burke has kept his circle tight. His representation is, literally, family. His trainer, Rhodman, has worked with him for five years. One of his main sounding boards, Ronnie Steward, is almost like family.

"It's not even a circle," Burke's father, Benji, said. "We call it 'keeping a dot.' We don't want anybody outside that we really don't know.

"It's really a family thing. Just a family thing."


The foot ladder is spread out on the floor at Elevate, and Burke's gray Nike Dri-Fit T-shirt is 10 shades darker than it was a half-hour earlier.

Spalding NBA basketballs in each of his hands, his feet move in and out of the ladder like a version of hopscotch, with the added pull of needing to coordinate dribbling with both hands simultaneously. The 20-year-old looks more like a ballroom dancer with the balls as his partners. His footwork has grace to it, something often missed as he was gliding down the court at Michigan.

"I'm trying to be dancing some salsa," Burke said after finishing a complex two-feet-in, two-feet-out drill in the ladder.

Rhodman, who runs the sports training company In God's Image, began training Burke as a sophomore in high school, first as prep to go to college, but always with an eye on the pros. Every drill Rhodman runs, every word he says, is with that purpose.

The toughest drill Burke will do in two days is with two sets of five cones bunched together and balls in both hands. Burke has to dribble in various movements -- from straight ahead to figure eights -- while not moving the rest of his body. It's a drill about control and ball skills. Burke handles it easily.

"I'm impressed," Rhodman tells him. "I have to shake your hand."

Footwork and control are everything. The trainer and pupil chirp at each other constantly, Rhodman alternating between motivation and admonition.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTrey Burke has an array of skills, but his biggest asset might be his will to win.
Each workout is more than physical preparation. It is a lesson in mindset -- from Rhodman's fining Burke if he shows up late for a session to a debate over which point guard is better, Kyrie Irving or Stephen Curry, which lasts throughout both workouts and lunch.

Burke continually called Irving the most skilled point guard in the NBA. Rhodman countered with a response Burke respects -- Curry wins more. This is thematic for Rhodman. His client understands, having won big in high school at Northland in Columbus, then in college at Michigan. Burke's face lights up when Rhodman mentions Bill Russell -- they discussed big men, too -- and the 11 championships he won.

"He knew I was right," Rhodman said. "That's his motivation, winning more than anything. That's why he carried that into Michigan. He's never lost in his life. His main goal is winning."

Dribbling done, Rhodman moves to shooting and footwork coming off screens. He puts Burke and his workout partner, Michigan State guard Travis Trice, through another drill, which will take up the last hour of the morning session and the majority of the afternoon: the Reggie Miller drill.

The purpose of the drill is to run around cones placed at points on the floor, cut to a different spot, catch a pass and either shoot immediately or perform a triple-threat move before shooting. The drill also has a clutch component, having to make 2 of 3 shots or even 5 of 7 in a spot before advancing to the next.

Burke's moves, which appear improvisational or high risk -- including the 3-pointer he made to force overtime against Kansas in the Sweet 16 -- start here.

"That's a lot of Ant," Burke said. "I put in all of the work, and it showed off this year. I don't think I had a fluke season because I was actually in the gym. I made sacrifices to better my game."

Those sacrifices most didn't see. Burke rarely went out during his two years at Michigan. He spent a bunch of time in the gym and marvels at how regular college students go out. Their lives are different. They graduate and get a job.

Burke's future profession offers finite time, so he needed to keep his body in top form, something difficult when combining classes, homework and a second full-time job as an athlete. His goal from entering college -- and re-emphasized the day he decided to return to Michigan for his sophomore year -- was reaching the NBA. He balanced that focus with attending classes, often having little time to himself.

Now a pro by declaration, Burke is more focused. During breaks between drills, Burke and Rhodman go one-on-one with post moves, the trainer pushing him saying, "You've got to guard." Rhodman knows Burke is motivated by chatter, so he digs at him until Burke takes the ball on the wing, shakes, spins into a 3-point shot and drills it over Rhodman. Then he blocks one of Rhodman's shots, running off the court slapping five with fake fans as he does.

This happens daily.

"Those two are like brothers, man," Trice said, laughing and watching.

Burke stayed in Columbus to train for the draft with Rhodman -- all part of Burke's plan to keep things in the family.


As Michigan kept winning last season and Burke flourished, it became increasingly more difficult for him to avoid his future. When he made the decision to return for his sophomore season, Benji told his son he needed to become one of the top three point guards in the draft by the end of the 2012-13 season.

Burke realized he had accomplished this and would be a potential lottery pick during Michigan's run in the NCAA tournament. Benji's job was to handle interest from agents and others, if and when Burke officially turned pro.

Burke didn't have to look far for his choice. Benji planned for years to become an agent and was certified in 2012. Burke had interest from other firms, but he instead kept the "dot" as small as possible. Benji became the basketball arm of Infinite Sports, run by another family member, Alonzo Shavers.

"I felt going with them would be the right fit," Burke said. "I think we'll still have the same resources we would have with a bigger firm, just because I feel like I'm marketable enough to get those types of endorsements and things like that.

"I just felt like it was the best decision for me. It was a business decision for me and one I felt I had to make."

All of a sudden, Trey Burke was not the only member of his family in the midst of a transition.

Burke is his father's first client, and the dynamic of the relationship between the father who advised his son on everything will shift. The two are learning how to separate player-client discussions from those between father and son.

Benji will control the basketball portion and Shavers, a football agent, will assist with the logistics as they launch the basketball division. During the week before the draft combine, Benji and Shavers worked on his meetings with teams and shoe companies while Shavers observed Burke's workouts.

"We have to do a great job of understanding what I am at that moment; we're business partners but also son and father," Benji said. "Just understanding that, having to keep that in perspective. Business is business. A lot of times, between father and son or just dad, because one or the other can't separate the other."

The evolution of the Burke family climaxes on draft night. Burke is already sifting through offers from people -- although no big-name designers yet -- to dress him for Brooklyn.

In the green room that night, Burke and his dot-sized entourage will balance the dynamics between keeping things in the family and the beginnings of the business life.

Benji will be Dad that night. Burke gets the aforementioned goose bumps thinking about it.

"It'll probably all come out draft night," Burke said. "I don't know if I'm going to cry, but I would not be surprised if I do, man. There's been so much thrown at me over the last two years, all the awards, the player of the year awards, getting to the national championship, Big Ten co-champs, it's been going so fast.

"I haven't really had a chance to sit back and really realize how blessed I've been. Once the draft comes, I'm going to be probably emotional."


Burke's workout over, he remains in the gym. Rhodman packs up and leaves. After two spirited games of "P-I-M-P," a variation of the playground game "H-O-R-S-E," Trice and his father leave, although not before Trice's dad, also named Travis, beat Burke in a 3-pointer-only version.

Burke vowed it would be the last time it ever happened. After all, above it all, Trey Burke needs to win.

Trey Burke
Michael Rothstein/ESPNTrey Burke might be sweating in relative obscurity now, but those days will be over soon.
Almost everyone else clears out and Burke is, for this hour, another kid shooting around in the gym, discussing life, friends, family, a little bit of everything. The draft doesn't come up.

The man with him is his sounding board: Steward.

The 24-year-old was once the best player in Columbus. He played at Akron and Division II Ashland. Burke grew up idolizing him. Steward, then in high school, would take the middle schooler to Donato's Pizza. He watched Trey play constantly.

The Kansas shot?

"I've seen that Kansas shot a million times before," Steward said.

Burke's work ethic -- a big reason he could end up as a top-five pick -- began with Steward. Now, Burke consults him often. Steward will be around at least during the transition year.

His role has yet to be defined. His influence is clear.

"He's like a big brother to me," Burke said. "I looked up to his game. Stew was a good player and now he's like a mentor to me. He's making sure I'm being guided in the right direction."

Over two days, Steward was the last one to leave with Burke, the one who tries to keep him focused. Steward is there when Burke finishes his workout. He's there as those kids walk in and as they all ignore Burke.

The next day, Burke finishes a workout with Trice and Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Chris Quinn. He packs up to leave with Shavers and Steward and reaches the exit.

Then he is stopped. A kid wants a picture. Burke, exhausted and on his way to the chiropractor for a 90-minute session to help heal his body after a long college season, agrees. Smiles. And poses for a photograph.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter