In the world of professional basketball, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is a coveted stage where only the most talented and determined athletes shine. Among them, an unlikely player made his mark – Pat Burke. An Offaly man who holds the distinction of being the only Irish-born player to play in the league. Here’s his story.
Offaly to Ohio – The journey begins
Pat Burke was born in Tullamore on December 14, 1973, to a mother from Mayo and a father from Offaly. Aged four years old his family moved to Cleveland, where his love for sports began, despite his parents not having a significant background in sports. His main sport was ice hockey although he played his hand in various sports, including GAA, with his father coaching a Cleveland based GAA team, naturally full of Irish immigrants. It wasn’t until Pat was 14 when he first tried his hand at basketball after growing over 7 inches over the summer holidays.
The College Route
Burke’s path to the NBA started after he attended Auburn University in Alabama, the same University as Charles Barkley, one of the greatest NBA players ever. Playing for the university team, the Auburn Tigers, Burke’s skills and 7ft height caught the attention of NBA scouts. This was in particular after his game had developed from his stints playing international basketball for Ireland after his father answered a callout in an Irish newspaper in the US, with an advertisement taken out seeking players of Irish heritage.
After finishing his time at Auburn Burke felt ready. He declared himself for the NBA draft, an annual event where NBA hopefuls put their names forward for selection by NBA teams.
Come draft day, it wasn’t to be, Burke’s name wasn’t called.
Despite not being drafted, Burke did get his chance in the form of a trial tournament for the New York Knicks, one of the game’s greatest franchises. During the tournament, which featured eventual NBA hall of fame stars such as Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, Burke impressed as one of the stand out performers, leading to a contract offer with the Knicks on their summer league squad.
Pat’s NBA Career
Despite being offered a 2 year guaranteed contract with the Knicks, Burke declined, insteading trusting in his agent’s belief that he’d get more playing time and development at Spain’s TAU Ceramica, one of the clubs hoping to sign him. The Knicks afterall did have the 1992 Dream Team’s Patrick Ewing on their team, playing in the same position as Burke.
After 5 very successful years in Europe, including championships in Greece, Burke’s time had come. Doc Rivers, an esteemed title winning coach, signed him up for the Orlando Magic ahead of the 2002 season. Burke was, and still is to this day, the only Irish born player to have graced the NBA.
Despite being in the starting lineup from the beginning of the season, Burke’s first year in Orlando wasn’t without challenges. He was in and out of the starting lineup, and the team didn’t have the best season overall. Burke also didn’t enjoy the NBA as much as playing in Europe, where players formed bonds, it was less glitz and glamor, and it wasn’t all business. Despite being offered to come back for a second season, Burke declined and made his way back to Europe, where he had another two seasons playing in Spain. That wasn’t the end of Burke’s NBA journey however.
After his second stint in Spain, including the honor of playing for Real Madrid, Burke was back in the NBA. The Phoenix Suns signed him as one of their role players, and Burke was ready for the task. The Suns had 2 time MVP Steve Nash on their squad, and Mike D’Antoni as their head coach. There were also other players similar to Burke, family men who knew their role at the club. Players who were passed their prime and who knew they wouldn’t be guaranteed starters, but who would give their all when called upon.
Burke played for the Suns for 2 years, playing against some of the greatest players ever to play the game, including Michael Jordan. Despite not being a regular he did become a cult figure to Sun’s fans, who appreciated his work ethic and unique status.
After his time in Phoenix, Burke could have become a Golden State player, however it wasn’t to be. He had played his last game in the NBA and enjoyed his final 2 professional years in Russia and Poland.
After retiring from his playing career, Burke founded the ‘Hoops Life’ programme, in Orlando, close to where Pat’s NBA career began. The basketball academy coaches and mentors children of all ages, helping them build confidence and life lessons they can use outside of basketball.
In 2021 Hoops Life expanded, this time back in Pat’s beloved Ireland. Hoops Life Ireland, an extension of Pat’s academy in the US, provides international programmes and camps to help develop the game in Ireland and provide a platform for success for those taking part.
An inspiration, and the only Irish NBA player
Pat Burke was, and still is an inspiration for basketball in Ireland. Despite leaving Ireland at the age of four he’s never forgotten his roots. He’s played at the highest level, represented his country and is an incredible ambassador who has done and is doing great things for basketball in Ireland.