In our second part of the Just a Minute series with Frank Burlison of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, we dive deeper into the recruiting he’s covered over the last 30 years.
Last Friday, he told about Jason Kidd and other prep stars. Today, he touches upon Magic Johnson and others.
Can you recall a story of seeing one of the all-time greats for the first time?
“In the summer of 1976, I was in Las Vegas for a tournament and I was in Tiny Archibald’s office at UNLV. We were in there talking and Bill Frieder comes walking in, and I had never met him at the time, he was an assistant coach at Michigan. He was talking about players, the big name players. He asks Archibald ‘Is Jerry Tarkanian going to recruit this kid named Earvin Johnson from Flint? Let me tell you, you need to go watch him. You aren’t going to get him because he’s going to Michigan or Michigan State but let me tell you, he’s unlike any player you’ve ever seen. He’s going to be one of the all-time greats.’ So I’m sitting there thinking ‘God, this guy must be really good.’
“You hear about the hype. Guys like Eugene Banks from Philadelphia and Albert King and Darnell Valentine and Jeff Lamp but back then they had all of the hype. So they decided to put together the McDonald’s All-American selection committee and I was put on that just because they needed some people from the West. So I flew back to Landover, Maryland to see a game of the Capitol Classic. There was Earvin Johnson. I was watching him for a couple of days. When I got home, all of my friends and coaches asked me who impressed me the most and I told them about this kid who was a 6-8 point guard. I told them to mark my words. They didn’t believe me. I told them that he was going to be the best player ever in his class. Sure enough Bill Frieder knew what he was talking about.”
Do people realize just how good Ben Howland has been? He’s taken three straight teams to the Final Four in this era. In today’s landscape of college basketball, you don’t really win your conference three years in a row.
“Forget taking three teams to three straight Final Fours. Florida is incredible. But he basically had the same team for two years and arguably the best team we’ve seen in the last decade. But the thing with Howland and UCLA, he went to a Final Four and lost arguably his best player, Jordan Farmar, to the NBA. The following year you lose a first team All Pac-10 and All-American in Aron Affalo to the draft and steal go back. The next year they go again.
“If you think about, he goes to Northern Arizona, which was basically a glorified Division II school, and gets them into the NCAA tournament once or twice. He took a Kenyon Martin-led Cincinnati team right down to the wire in the NCAA tournament when he was there. Then he goes to Pittsburgh, which was one of the worst programs in the Big East when he got there. In two years, he gets them to the NCAA tournament and is in the Sweet 16 two straight years without a single player that was ever drafted. That might be more impressive than three straight Final Fours. It’s incredible. That’s an amazing stat. He’s done it at NAU, at Pittsburgh and at a high-level at UCLA. It’s amazing.”
The Pac-10 went through an unbelievable run there over the last four years. It seems like there were so many pros. You’ve been covering the Pac-10 since you first got started. Is that run one of the best runs of talent you’ve seen since you started this?
“It’s incredible. There were better teams in the league of the last couple of years and the level of the players was much, much better. There were just incredible players in the league recently. I think this is the year you can’t lose that many pros at an early age, where you only have these guys for a year or two. I still think you’ll see four, maybe five, schools from the Pac-10 in the tournament but I don’t think we’ll see it like it has been. There won’t be six teams from the league in the tournament and five of those teams are better seeds. This year, you’ll have a couple four or five seeds and a couple of seven to nine seeds.”
As somebody who has been a newspaper man for a long time, are you surprised more newspapers didn’t cover recruiting and high school sports?
“I think it took a long time for people to take one. My paper, the Long Beach paper, we had a guy that followed football recruiting. It was an obsession with us. We had a section called Recruiting Day. We called every college SID and have them fax us their recruiting lists. We’d have three or four part-time employees that were just typing up agate, sometimes two pages worth. For one day a week, 98 percent of our staff was working on football recruiting stuff. Nobody else did it. The LA Times couldn’t give a rat’s ass about recruiting. The Orange County paper did a little bit and a few of the Southern papers did a little bit. By the time newspapers started catching on is when papers started crumbling as we know it today. Certainly the Internet has changed it not only from the coverage of recruiting but in the process of recruiting, too. Anybody who is reading this obviously knows the reasons why. In reality, the Internet and agents or agents representatives probably are the two things that maybe 10 years ago had maybe no or little impact on recruiting that are now huge factors in recruiting. Anyone who doesn’t think so, doesn’t follow recruiting.”
You mentioned the Internet and agents having a big impact on today’s landscape of the game. Is there anything else that you’ve seen that has changed with prospects?
“The specter and the allure of NBA careers is really taking over. Not so long ago when you would talk to guys about recruiting, they’d say the NBA of the better players but it was more about getting on television or playing in the best conference or, if they are a legitimate student, they actually cared about the school and education. Chances are now, kids are thinking more and more of the NBA. Everybody and their mother thinks they are going to be in the NBA and everyone, including their mother, want to be around when and if it does happen.”
Who were the two best players you saw this summer?
“The two best players I saw over the summer were Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes.”
Some of the best games I’ve ever seen since covering high school kids came from Kevin Love. He ripped down nearly 30 rebounds at the City of Palms. The first time I saw Love was when he was a freshman at the Les Schwab Invitational and was outstanding in his first big, major event. Have you ever watched a player live up to the hype, the early hype, as well has he has and succeed?
“Jason Kidd lived up to the hype. O’Bannon, you knew he was really good, but he didn’t have the hype that Kidd did. On every level of basketball that Love played, people would always say he’s a great player but can he do it at the next level? As an eighth grader, he was 6-4 and kind of pudgy. They’d say he’d overpower people at that level. They’d always say wait until he gets to the next level against better and bigger athletes. Well he dominated high school level. They’d say the same thing because he played in Oregon. Well he dominated the national summer level. Well, when he gets to the NBA he’s this, he’s that. He had a great rebounding average as a rookie. You look back and talk to old NBA guys and they always say there is one thing that you can always safely know is this – if a guy is a great rebounder in high school, he’s going to be a great rebounder in college. If he’s a great rebounder in college, then he’s going to be an outstanding rebounder in the NBA. That isn’t about how athletic you are or how tall you are. That’s about a mentality.”
Your bio claims that you are an expert on movies and burgers. I can’t end this interview without asking where the best burgers are on, in your opinion.
“The obvious one is the In-and-Out burger. It’s almost cliché but it is true. I really haven’t found any outside of Southern California that are really better. Fat Burgers, Tommy’s and In-and-Out are probably the three.”
Well what is the best movie you’ve had a chance to watch this year?
“The best movies I saw this summer were Inglorious Bastards, District 9, 500 Days of Summer and The Hurt Locker. Those are the four best movies I saw over the summer.”
Just a Minute archives:
Gary Parrish, CBS Sports
Jody Demling, Louisville Courier-Journal
Jeff Goodman, Fox Sports
Rob Harrington, Prep Stars
Jerry Meyer, Rivals.com
Aran Smith, NBADraft.net
Dave Telep, Scout.com