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By the Skin Of His Neck
Hank Hersch
March 06, 1989
Ohio State basketball star Jay Burson fractured a vertebra, but he'll be able to pursue his latest dream, playing in the NBA
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March 06, 1989

By The Skin Of His Neck

Ohio State basketball star Jay Burson fractured a vertebra, but he'll be able to pursue his latest dream, playing in the NBA

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Burson and his parents count their blessings and keep their faith. "There are dreamers of the night and dreamers of the day," says Jim. "In the night, they have dreams knowing they'll go away in the day. In the day, they dream them and know they can work hard to realize them. Jay has always been a dreamer of the day."

Part of Burson's huge appeal in Ohio—and it rivals that of any politician or Heisman Trophy winner—is riot so much that he is Everyman, but that his unimposing frame is Every Body. Combine that nonphysique with his delicate features and whiskerless cheeks, and he hardly looks like an athlete, let alone a gifted one. Coaches and commentators have likened him to a paperboy, a camper, a choirboy and the kid who mows the lawn (they left out the guy who gets sand kicked in his face). He has been called a "bony gnat" (The Columbus Dispatch), "as physically intimidating as Vicki Lawrence" (Lansing State Journal) and "this little twit" (his mom).

But there are a few deceptive things about Burson's body. He trained it to jump well (a 34-inch vertical leap) and play tough (a 240-pound bench press). He has long, strong fingers for holding on to the ball and for prying it loose. And most important, he's quick. "Get the ball and go, that's Jay's game," Williams says. "He had a great first step."

One reason for his development was that Jay always had a place to play within blocks of the Burson house on Friendship Drive, either at the college gym or at John Glenn High, named after New Concord's most famous son. While Burson was in high school, he was referred to locally as The Show. The curtain went up on The Show when he was a sophomore averaging 40 points a game for Glenn High. The Show traveled well, too. When the Little Muskies pulled into a rival town for a game, placards designed to unnerve Burson—emblazoned with things like STOP THE SHOW—sometimes appeared on the streets. Crowds lined up hours in advance to enter the gym. Then the game would start, and Burson would make steals at halfcourt, maneuver fearlessly down the lane, arc off-balance shots, sink free throw after free throw, outsmart triple teams and rack up points in bunches. When The Show finally closed in 1985, Burson had scored 2,958 points—an average of 33 a game, more than one a minute—and had twice been named Ohio's Class AA Player of the Year.

Had Burson not chosen to go to Ohio State, he would have gone to Muskingum to play for his dad. Jim Burson, who enjoys Greek mythology, classical music and any kind of competition, has built a 323-218 record in 22 seasons with a lot of kids who look like Jay. "If I'd asked him, 'Son, come play for Dad,' he would have," says Jim. "That's the kind of relationship we have. But that was not the dream." Unlike Daedalus, who warned his son Icarus not to fly too near the sun, Jim encouraged Jay to soar. "I saw he had the wings to fly in the Big Ten," says Jim. "But for him to do that he had to get so close to the heat he could feel his wings melt once in a while, and they did. But, boy, what a view he's had."

Some of the crashes have been spectacular. Two summers ago, Jay's career was threatened when he severely cut the middle finger of his shooting hand on a weight machine. It took seven stitches to sew the tip of the finger back on. But a more serious, almost fatal, mishap occurred in May 1986. Driving in for a layup during a pickup game at St. John, he took an unintentional blow to the head from another player that rendered him unconscious before he hit the floor and made him unable to cushion his fall. Burson's head slammed onto the court, and he suffered a severe concussion and stopped breathing. Linda Daniel, the women's trainer at Ohio State, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Burson began breathing again—and became convulsive. It took half a dozen people to restrain him until paramedics arrived and strapped him into a stretcher.

"That injury was much scarier than this one to his neck," says his mother. "When we first saw him at the hospital, he was hooked up and strapped down and had boxing gloves on so he couldn't hurt himself. He couldn't even recognize us." Murphy called it the worst concussion he'd seen in his 37 years of practice. For nearly two months Burson lay on a couch at home, unable to concentrate on so much as a comic book or a TV cartoon, indifferent to all the world—even to basketball.

But gradually his faculties returned, though to this day he can recall neither the fall nor the 72 hours that followed. About two months after the accident, he went to the Muskingum gym. He shot for 10 minutes and got tired, but returned the next day. "The love of the game came back," says Williams. By tip-off of the 1986-87 season he was in the Buckeye starting lineup. He remained there through the Iowa game.

Williams says that Burson was never much interested in playing half-court defense, that his ball handling and jump shot, while improved, were never spectacular. But Williams's respect for Burson was evident at the press conference to announce his injury. Williams had to choke back tears for 40 seconds before he could speak. "Jay came to play every night; I'll miss that," he said later. "The other thing I'll miss about him is, the last five minutes of the game, he wanted to take every shot. That's a quality in a player that cannot be overrated. There are a lot of guys who are competitive, but to want to put it on the line in front of everyone, that's rare."

Burson still holds on to the dream of putting it on the line again. Thousands of letters of encouragement have reached him on Friendship Drive; fans have sent food, clothing, even money. "If there's any doubt, any feeling that I'm not going to be able to stick my nose in where it doesn't belong, then I probably won't play again," he says. "I came back strong from the last injury. Maybe I'll come back even stronger from this one." Burson's well-wishers believe in that. Indeed, they have come to expect nothing less.

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