Noie: Former Notre Dame forward Austin Burgett finds love for basketball again

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Wedged into his work space high above the court in one of college basketball’s cathedrals, his only interest was doing the job.

Born and raised in Indiana and having played at Notre Dame, former Irish forward Austin Burgett knew basketball. Knew what the sport meant to the state. He’d shot hoops in his driveway in the rain and the snow and the sun and for all hours. He loved the game so much that he never thought he’d stop playing it.

Then it all stopped. The dribbling. The shooting. The love. On that November night in 2017, Burgett was working at Indiana University for the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology. His job was to shoot video of that night’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game between Indiana and No. 1 Duke. Just another game and just another night at the office for Burgett.

So he thought.

Burgett had been in buildings with boisterous basketball crowds — the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. — so it wasn’t supposed to be anything new or life changing. But it was. The intensity of the game, how the Assembly Hall sellout crowd of 17,222 hung on every possession. How a raucous student body (something kind of rare at Notre Dame) was into it from the jump and just got louder. How players from both teams made big plays and bigger shots. How after two hours, Burgett was exhausted, all of his energy expended.

His basketball playing days, his basketball loving days were supposed to be behind him. After 83 games and four seasons including a pair of Elite Eight runs at Notre Dame, Burgett had planned to put his degree in Film, Television and Theater to use in something other than basketball. That night in Bloomington changed that plan.

It changed him.

“The energy in the gym for a kid who grew up an IU fan, just how nuts it was,” Burgett said last week by telephone from his home in Avon, Ind. “I was like, ‘Man, why did I stop playing? I miss this. I don’t want to be a fan.’”

Burgett wanted to jump back into basketball with both feet, but his work schedule allowed only one. He’d spend all day in the Cuban Center. He’d get a quick workout in, swing by his apartment, grab a shower and some dinner, then head to his other job at Brothers Bar & Grill. For five nights a week, he’d work at Brothers from 8 at night to 3 in the morning. After a couple hours of sleep, it was back on the hamster wheel that had Burgett working up to 100 hours a week.

There was zero time for basketball, so Burgett simply made time. His employment at IU allowed access to Cook Hall, the basketball practice facility. He asked his bosses if anyone would mind if he used the facility late at night. Burgett was given the green light to use Cook during off hours. Way off hours.

Each night after he clocked out at Brothers, Burgett often headed for Cook Hall. He swiped his key card at the front door, turned on the lights, grabbed a ball and lost himself the way he did when he was a kid. Two hours later with the day closer to sunrise than sunset, he’d be soaked with sweat after shooting and running and dreaming. That, he’d think to himself, is why he so loved the game.

“No one even knew I was there,” he said. “I never saw anybody but the janitors and they didn’t know me. They see a tall kid, they figured I was on the team.”

Burgett formed a basketball bond with Tyra Buss, the all-time leading scorer (2,364 points) in Indiana women’s history. Buss often saw Burgett during the day around the Cuban Center, and wondered if he played. She learned his back story and eventually shared the practice court with him during workouts, sometimes as many as three a week, after her senior season ended.

“I kind of knew about him before we started,” Buss said Saturday by phone. “He was like, ‘Hey, do you want to shoot around?’ I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Their skill sessions usually featured shooting games of around the world, or one where each had to make certain amounts of shots from certain spots in a certain time. Sometimes, the three-time first team All-Big Ten Buss won. Others, Burgett would.

“It was really cool,” Buss said. “He’s just a good guy. He can really, really shoot the ball.”

One day, Burgett and his buddies gathered to play pickup. Burgett’s game was tight. He made shots. He defended. He dunked. He toyed with the guys in the group. He made it look so effortless that someone finally said it.

“Dude, why don’t you play (professionally),’” Burgett said. “I was like, Man, I don’t know. I really hated basketball for a while and I had to get away from it.

“It just wasn’t for me.”

Hoops was hard

Burgett soured on the game at Notre Dame. He ran the gamut of emotions and roles and everything else with the Irish. He sat the bench. He started. He played minimal minutes. He was a key guy. He scored in some games. In others he didn’t do anything. He missed four games his sophomore season after he experienced an accelerated heartbeat during a January game at Florida State. That led to an outpatient heart procedure days later. Just when it seemed like he’d found a role, it would disappear.

It was four years of uncertainty.

“It was super weird,” Burgett said.

It didn’t get any weirder than the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons. Notre Dame was coming off a 15-17 season, 6-12 in its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish weren’t good, and there wasn’t much cause for optimism with only six returning players on campus that spring and summer.

Burgett was one. He’d spend those workout days with his five teammates doing nothing but playing three-on-three halfcourt games overseen by former assistant coach Anthony Solomon.

Want to work on your game? Nope. Play three-on-three. Want to cut it loose and get up and down the floor fullcourt. Nope. More ball screen defense. Want to have a little fun? Teams that lose 17 games the previous year don’t get to have fun. Solomon was relentless with the group. They didn’t like it. Or him.

“So many guys were like (forget) this, man,’” Burgett said. “It was terrible as a basketball player playing three-on-three for two hours. We honestly didn’t know what was going to happen.”

If that summer was the roughest for Burgett, the following season was the ultimate pay-off. Notre Dame won 32 games and lost six. It went 14-4 in the ACC. It won the ACC tournament. It went to the Elite Eight. It was a team for the ages, and Burgett was proud to be a part of it. It was a heck of a ride.

“There were definitely doubts and a lot of questions about us after the summer, but we could see it come full circle,” he said. “We really clicked, like, ‘Hey, I think we’ve really got something now.

“It was awesome.”

Another Elite Eight followed the next season — Burgett’s last — when he again yo-yoed around the rotation. He started four games. He logged 16 DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision). A sprained ankle cost him three games. There were times when he wanted to leave it all behind. Transfer. Start over. He couldn’t. Transferring would be like quitting, and Burgett had never quit anything in his life. He certainly wasn’t going to walk away from basketball.

Working out with one of the senior managers, A.J. Meyer, helped Burgett stay focused. They’d go to the gym late at night to shoot, and talk about everything but basketball. The sessions helped. Next afternoon, there was Burgett back busting it in practice.

“Regardless of the situation, he kept trying to improve,” said Meyer, now the coaching analytics coordinator for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

Burgett graduated in 2016 and took an internship at Notre Dame as a communications assistant with Fighting Irish Media. At a time when many guys would’ve run to Europe to play professionally, Burgett did the opposite. He walked away from playing.

“I didn’t want to know what a basketball was,” he said.

He remained around the Irish program and even dabbled in some color commentary in non-league games. He was one of the key guys who put together the memorable reunion between Irish guard Matt Farrell, his best friend, and his older brother, Bo, then a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Burgett was the point man in organizing Bo’s surprise return from Afghanistan that December night. He surprised his brother, and the rest of his family, by rushing from the locker room and onto the Purcell Pavilion floor after a game.

It was the feel-good story of the 2016-17 season.

“It was insane,” Burgett said. “Probably one of the coolest stories of college basketball in years.”

Back to ball

Burgett’s basketball biography is up there in terms of coolness. Not long after those late-night/early-morning shooting sessions at IU, he put into motion his professional playing career. He hired an agent. He lit out for Europe. Two seasons ago, he played professionally in Slovenia, where he averaged 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 27 minutes a game. That from someone who averaged 1.9 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.5 minutes a game at Notre Dame.

Burgett did enough that one season in Slovenia to finish in sixth in the league’s most valuable player voting. At 6-foot-9, 232 pounds, he still looked a lot like the guy he was at Notre Dame, but his game’s totally changed. Evolved. Blossomed.

His highlight video shows a guy who’s far more confident on the floor than he ever was in college. There he goes, driving baseline and dunking. There he is up top, initiating the offense, dribbling the ball between his legs, then getting to the basket and finishing. He’s pulling up for deep 3s. He’s defending. He’s scoring. He’s playing. Who is that guy? He’s good.

“He never stopped loving the game,” Meyer said. “He needed to step away from it for a minute to figure out how much he loved it.”

Burgett spent this past season with teams in Belgium and Sweden. He had a sweet three-bedroom apartment. He drove an Audi. He made more money than he did in Slovenia, where he pulled in low six figures.

“It was unreal,” Burgett said.

This season was cut short after suffering a broken right foot. The injury didn’t require surgery, but did force Burgett to return home for a few weeks. He was scheduled to return to Europe three weeks ago before everything about sports and the world changed.

Being home allowed Burgett to bring his basketball career full circle. With nothing to do but wait for his foot to heal, Burgett reconnected with one of the guys who worked as his manager at Brothers in Bloomington. The guy’s now doing the same up in Broad Ripple. He’s also a huge Notre Dame hoops fan, but had never been to an Irish game. Burgett suggested they’d get to one. He still has a few ticket connections.

On Feb. 23, a Sunday night game against Miami (Fla.) Burgett was in Purcell Pavilion for the first time since he was an intern. He didn’t know what to expect, but also didn’t expect to have as much fun being around campus. He saw some old friends. He relieved some old memories. It was cool.

The guy who couldn’t wait to get away from basketball now can’t wait to get back to it. He’s worked with a trainer in Indianapolis and has tried to keep his game sharp. He hopes to find another team overseas in the fall. Now 26, Burgett believes he has enough left in his hoops tank to play another eight years. It’s good to again be around the game.

“Basketball,” he said, “is actually OK.”

Former Notre Dame forward Austin Burgett was ready to give up on basketball after he graduated in 2016. He now wants to play professionally for eight more years.
Playing time was tough to consistently corner for former Irish forward Austin Burgett, but quitting never was an option for the Avon, Ind., product.