The half-cracked comedian Tommy Tiernan has a routine about Irish people popping up everywhere.
In Tiernan’s bit, he joked about local rivalries playing out across the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Roars of ‘ya Westmeath f’cker’ turning the African air blue.
We are the world’s great itinerants, and though we did not make the great migration from the Tower of Babel, we have made up for it since, appearing in unexpected nooks and crannies, importing accents and the unique accoutrements of Irish lives.
But enough about Navan’s wild sadhu, we’re here to talk about Ireland’s own basketball Rambo – big, tough and living club by club. Pat Burke’s successful career saw nothing but net from the NBA to the courts of Real Madrid.
This baller found his way to America when his parents migrated in 1977.
It was a seminal year in its own right – Star Wars: A New Hope was released, the Apple II computer was unveiled, Elvis died, and the general economic situation across the globe was bleak.
Burke was 4 years old when the move happened, and as his childhood developed, his immersion into American sports started when he picked up ice hockey skates.
Now, he stands at 6’11 and almost 18 stone. His adolescent growth spurts precluded him from continuing on ice. Nevertheless, he continued dipping his toes into a multitude of sports, straddling the American-Irish sides of his life by playing everything from American Football to basketball and partaking fully in the Irish Heritage Club.
His senior year of college saw him attract a lot of attention from NBA scouts; he was a coach’s dream as he had bundles of raw talent but without the bad habits that can accumulate from years of playing the sport.
Unfortunately, the prospect of playing in the NBA at this stage of his career seemed slim, so he packed his bags for Europe. When faced with the eternal athlete’s dilemma of whether to stay or play, Burke chose the latter.
TAU Ceramica may not be a name that trips off the tongue like the LA Lakers or Boston Celtics, but it was a crucial port of call for Burke. The highs and lows of that season taught him to never stop developing his game. He then moved to a strong Greek league and won three consecutive league titles with Olympiakos.
At the age of 28, Orlando Magic brought him back to the NBA and made him the first ever Irish player to play in the league. Burke described the experience as ‘magic, but he longed for the team ethos of the European leagues. The NBA was too individualistic and star orientated.
Pat Burke at Real Madrid
Going to Spain was one of those moments where I knew I’d have to do a lot of hard work, working on some of the things that hadn’t worked in the college part of my career.
Though Burke spent a solitary year in the Spanish capital, it proved to be a fruitful experience. Aside from his personal growth, he helped Real to the final of what is now the EuroCup and he won the Spanish League.
Fans of Los Blancos in basketball might also be interested to know that Burke played with the iconic Felipe Reyes. Reyes was a rookie at this time and yet to crowned as King Felipe by the Madrid public.
The echoes of his career still sound in Madrid; comments under articles about him speak of the novelty of having an Irish player but also of his talent and his ‘unforgettable year’. Watching a EuroCup game between Real and Panathinaikos in 2013, my friend turned to me and told me, with wide eyes, of the crak, or legend, that was ‘this Irish guy that played here’.
Another publication dubbed him the ‘mythical Irish man’.
What also stands out, much like the imposing player himself, is that comments made by Burke about Spanish basketball are hungrily devoured; it seems that people care about what foreign eyes make of their land.
Running Down the Clock & Hoops Life
After Spain, Burke fancied another crack at the NBA, and he spent a few seasons with the Pheonix Suns and the Golden State Warriors before hitting Poland and Russia, where he respectively won the Polish League and Russian Cup.
Since retiring, Burke has started to give back. All throughout his career, Burke picked up life lessons from the sport and he was eager to help kids realise their potential in life and to build confidence.
Since the program started, over 400 kids have benefitted from his tutoring and coaching, which has an empathic focus on mental health.
Burke’s story is one of an Irish boy done well. It’s also a testament to the quirks of fate that shape our lives; if the year that saw the premiere of Saturday Night Fever also had a stronger economy, perhaps he would have been a GAA corner-forward or proto-Paul O’Connell in rugby.
As it was, he represented Ireland proudly – directly through the national team and via the soft power that is the immigrant’s tale. He did so with considerable panache and bravery, never afraid to hit the road or attempt audacious three-pointers.
The thread running through this blog is the big story of Irish people in Spain, the challenges they face and how they excel. On all these counts, and on the court and off it, Burke is the perfect ambassador for me and all the sons and daughters of Ireland that have had to find a new home.
You can listen to our podcast on RadioPublic, the aural place of culture and insight! Also, why not take a look at this article? It’s about another Irish man who made it big in the world of sport, spreading his talent to the four corners of the globe.
Thanks for reading!