Pat is probably the name most linked to the Irish American era despite him being born in Ireland and also not playing for very long with the National Team. When he did play though he was a force and one that brought attention and fans to the team in a way no other player was capable of doing. Pat’s talent, size, birthplace and personality have made him ideal for the Irish media, it’s just a shame that we didn’t get to enjoy more of it.
Pat of course was born in Ireland before moving to Cleveland age 3.
Pat was an icehockey player growing up and it was only after a late growth spurt that he ever started to play basketball. Despite that he ended up receiving a scholarship to play at Auburn University.
Auburn is a football school, in football country, yet they are also a big time NCAA Division 1 programme who play in the SEC. Having a basketball career there gives players a platform to achieve more. Twenty three Auburn players have gone on to play in the NBA, with the round mound of rebound Charles Barkley leading the way. Pat’s college career was very solid if not spectacular. He would average 8.9 points for his career, while putting up double digits in points in his junior and senior year.
Despite the disappointing end to his four years in Auburn, there was still hope for Pat as he thought he’d done enough to earn a second round draft pick. He had done pre some pre-draft workouts with the Bulls, Cavs and Milwaukee Bucks and believed he had a guarantee from the Bucks that he would be selected with the 37th pick in the draft. Unfortunately as the pick came the Bucks instead selected 6’9 Jerald Honeycutt a big man from Tulane. Honeycutt would go on to play 54 total games in the NBA and then have a career bouncing around leagues in Europe and Asia. Burke was devastated but things were made easier when the New York Knicks and Jeff Van Gundy offered him a two year deal to join the Knicks. Burke knew that the Knicks had Patrick Ewing and that he’d unlikely get much opportunity so he decided instead to head to Europe to start his pro career. A move that may have looked controversial at the time to turn down the NBA, but one that Burke feels in retrospect made his career as he was able to go and develop into a full player.
Most Irish people know Pat as the first Irish born player to play in the NBA. In reality, the NBA stints are an add on to an illustrious European career that should be the main focus.
Pat’s first stop was at Tau Ceremica (now Baskonia) who are one of the most famous teams in the Spanish ACB alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona. In his first year he settled immediately and would play almost 25 minutes a game while scoring 9.6 points. He was playing a good team and they would have immediate success as they finished with the best regular season record. A sweep of Malaga and then Barcelona looked like it would set Tau up for their first ever Spanish league title. It wasn’t to be as the most unlikely Spanish champion would be crowned. Manresa came into the playoffs as the 6th seed and would have to play against 3rd seed Estudiantes in the first round which they would win 3-1. They then upset Real Madrid, the two seed, in the semi-finals 3-1 to set up a final with Tau. Destiny wasn’t going to hold back Manresa and they won their only ever Spanish league title by winning the final series 3-1. The win is still considered one of the biggest upsets in Spanish sports history
His career would go from strength to strength though. His first major stint was with Panathinaikos in Greec where he got to play under the legendary coach Zejko Obradovich alongside European legends like Dino Rada and Dejan Bodiroga. Pat won three Greek titles there and in 2000 under Obradovich he also managed to win the Euroleague title. After a strong run in the tournament Panathinkos met Maccabi Elite in the final game in April 2000. Burke came off the bench and scored seven points in just thirteen minutes. Scoring three of his four shots from the field he also added three rebounds and a big block as the Greek team won out 73-67 to claim their second ever Euroleague title.
Despite some other stops on his career, Pat’s other big European club was none other than Real Madrid where he played alongside Jay Larranaga. In 2005 the duo would win the Spanish League in the most dramatic of circumstances. The ACB league at the time was decided by a five game series and Real Madrid had earned the right to play against the regular season league leaders (and Pat's old team) TAU Cerámica. Tau had home court advantage and also had the league MVP, Luis Scola. The series went by the format of: two home games for Tau, two home games for Real and a deciding game in Tau, if needed. Real stole home court advantage in the first game but then lost the next two games to trail 2-1, with two possible games remaining. A narrow six-point home win for Real set up the decider in what became one of the most famous moments in Spanish basketball history. In the deciding game Tau were in complete control leading by eight points with 38 seconds to go before they collapsed completely. After a couple of big Madrid shots and Tau mistakes, Real ended up having the ball, down two, with just eight seconds to go. One of the reasons that Jay Larranaga was not getting many opportunities in Real was that he was playing behind a Madrid legend in Alberto Herreros. Alberto was 36 at the time but still giving quality minutes to Madrid. This was his last ever match in a career that saw him play in two Olympic games, including a matchup with the Dream Team in 1992. After the game he retired as the top scorer in ACB history. As the clock ran down with just six seconds to go, the ball fell to Herreros and he capped off a story book ending to his career as his three pointer from the corner broke Tau’s heart and gave Real their first title in five years. The Irish connection to Herreros also developed many year’s later, as his son Alex played for Killester for one season, helping them win a National Cup in 2019, as Alberto cheered him on in the National Basketball Arena (Burke was there that night too and the old teammates met each other).
Burke’s career in the NBA is well documented as he played alongside all-time greats like Tracy McGrady and Steve Nash. His time with the Magic best demonstrated what he was capable of on an NBA floor although Burke was always more comfortable in the European game.
Playing for Ireland
Pat’s competitive career for Ireland was limited to just X games as professional commitments got in the way of him being a regular for Ireland unlike some of his Class of ’93 teammates. It’s something that is a point of regret for the big man to this day. While he was there he remembers it as something special: “After a game, we were all back in Citywest in a pub and there must have been 30 of my family there and we were having a sing song, just having a session. And I couldn’t take it all in it was so amazing, because my family moved from Ireland, I grow up, I get the growth spurt, I’m propelled into professional basketball and I’m back here playing for the Irish National Team. We’re all sitting here having this great time and it’s all connected back to basketball. Nobody would have been able to write that."
Post Playing Career
Pat is now a director at 360 Hoops and has run his own Academy called Hoops Life for many years. Pat remains a big supporter and ambassador for Irish basketball.
Pat’s Irish career was in many ways a microcosm of the entire Irish American era. Some of the top players Ireland had access to were just beyond Ireland’s reach for much of their career due to the level of professional basketball they were playing and the pressure they were under not to play for Ireland. When they were there they helped lift Ireland up but there was always a feeling of wanting more.
What makes Pat unique was his ability to bring attention to the sport. The combination of being Irish born, playing in the NBA and his size/athleticism made him appealing to the Irish media in a way that no other player was. Pat more than any other player also suffered the brunt of the negativity from some quarters around what were perceived as non-Irish players playing for Ireland. It summed up the era in some ways that no matter what people tried to do it was always going to be impossible to win everybody over: “A lot of what we knew wasn’t something that someone told us. It wasn’t Basketball Ireland saying hey all the Irish Americans come over here and listen. What was happening was during the training sessions if we went out for a pint it was the people of Ireland who were telling us that. You’re not Irish. I remember I was in a pub in Dublin and I was almost being surrounded by some guys who wanted to kick my ass and I’m just not going into what we are doing here anymore, I just stopped talking about it. You’d meet a header and they’d be sitting there saying you’re not Irish and you’d just be like ok fine, what am I going to do start talking about my passport and my story, it’s nothing. A lot of the similar stories were coming back in the locker room to us and we just knew no matter what we do it’s never going to be the dream vision of Irish basketball getting there and how they got there”.
Despite any negativity, those that did actually get to see Pat play though will always remember it positively and like Pat we all just wish there was more memories to look back on.