MINNEAPOLIS -- Willie Burton exhaled deeply and hit the down button for the elevator.
It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, and for Burton on Thursday, that came in the corridor of the KFAN radio studios in St. Louis Park. The Detroit native had just fulfilled his final obligation in the first of four days jam-packed with media interviews, school assembly speeches and commitments to Gophers athletics — a list so long it came with a multi-page itinerary.
It’s all preamble to Burton being honored Sunday afternoon for his accomplishments playing with the Gophers men’s basketball team from 1986-90. His No. 34 jersey will be lifted into Williams Arena’s rafters at halftime of the Minnesota-Michigan State game. Game time is 2 p.m.
But at that moment Thursday, Burton was looking forward to traveling down five flights of an office building to go to an after-hours hangout with friends at a Minneapolis restaurant.
Burton had just relived glory days at The Barn — which culminated in two deep NCAA tournament runs, in 1989 and ’90 — but after a nine-year NBA career, he also wanted to touch on his recent professional growth and his future goals in affecting change for kids in school.
Riding in that elevator, the 51-year-old shared that a few year ago, “I was nowhere near the pro I am now.”
Burton returned to the University of Minnesota to complete classwork in 2013; he wanted to beat his daughter to a college diploma. He now boasts a 4.0 grade-point average as he finishes his master’s degree at Wayne State. He has been an administrator for athletics in the City of Detroit public schools for the past few years working on behalf of thousands of kids.
Beyond this honorary trip, he wants to return to Minnesota on a more routine basis, a place that is a second home to him and a spot where he spent two weeks a month as recently as a few years ago. He wants to work with non-profits and schools, from rural to inner city, at the leadership level, making them safer places, while helping out with NCAA compliance issues.
It’s why he packed his schedule to the brim this week. “That’s what we are doing now: saturate,” he said before his radio interview.
On a leather couch in the station’s lobby, Burton was shown a 50-second video the Gophers put together of his basketball career. In the grainy footage, it showed Burton’s smooth 3-pointers, emphatic dunks and wild celebrations while wearing maroon and gold. It progressed to the late NBA commissioner David Stern calling his name for the Miami Heat with the ninth pick in the 1990 draft, followed by more on-court highlights in the pros.
“I didn’t know they had that on video,” Burton said. “Surreal. I start to see things and it still wows me.”
But Burton, whose 1,800 points is third all time in Gopher history, quickly pivoted the attention to others. Beyond the likes of Kevin Lynch, Walter Bond, Melvin Newborn and Richard Coffey, Burton named role players like Jim Shikenjanski, Cornell Lewis, Mario Green and Bob Martin.
Burton didn’t stop there, mentioning assistant coaches, ball boys, jersey cleaners, facility managers, academic advisors and athletic department personnel “who have that footage.”
“I don’t get up there without them,” Burton said.
That brings us to Clem Haskins, whom Burton doesn’t mention in that laundry list, but is vital to Burton’s success. Burton said he had to convince his former coach, who left amid the program’s academic scandal in 1997, to come back this weekend.
Burton played in 118 of 119 games at Minnesota, but the one he missed wasn’t because of injury.
“That’s because I missed one class. One,” Burton said. “I was talking to everybody, they made that the Willie Burton Graduate Memorial Track above the arena for running.”
Burton releases a hearty laugh.
“There were punishments for a number of different things that he didn’t want you to do or be somewhat late or not 15 minutes early,” Burton continued. “Man, let me tell you something. He had a lot of rules.”
That deep laugh soon returns.
“Clean-shaven face, (necktie), hair is cut neat,” Burton said. “A lot of rules.”
When sitting in KFAN’s guest chair, host Dan Barreiro brought up Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse’s column on Burton in Wednesday’s paper.
Former teammate Richard Coffey told Reusse: “First day ever on campus for us, I’m walking with Willie, tall, skinny, loose as can be, and I said, ‘What’s your major?’ ” Coffey said. “And Willie said: ‘Major? I’m here to play basketball and go to the NBA.’ ”
Burton told Barreiro he didn’t recall saying that, and Burton later joked to the Pioneer Press that Coffey must be the one who is forgetful.
That belly laugh was back yet again.
Thirty years after his college playing days, Burton remains connected to the Gophers. Every time Minnesota plays at Michigan or Michigan State, Burton drives from Detroit to Ann Arbor or East Lansing to watch the game from the stands.
“You can just tell the pride level there,” current Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.
When Pitino was hired at Minnesota in 2013, he knew of Kevin McHale and recent big man Trevor Mbakwe, but few others alums before he did some research.
“The more and more I looked into it, Willie Burton was (in the) Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, a top-10 pick in the NBA,” Pitino said. “Just an absolute warrior, competitor, tough, versatile, score the basketball.”
Burton spoke at Burnsville High School on Thursday and had plans to speak at Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry and North schools later in his trip.
On Sunday, he will have some 30 family members and friends among the thousands in attendance at Williams Arena.
“I like to walk into each building and get a feel,” Burton said of his speaking style. “I tailor my speech with the group in which I’m engaging. … When you share what you say from the heart, it flows out.”
That will again be the case when Burton takes the microphone at center court Sunday.