Sharpshooter Eric Burdette to enter Janesville Sports Hall of Fame
JANESVILLE—As Eric Burdette thought back on his basketball career earlier this week, he rattled off a slew of coaches who helped him along the way.
Among them, his father, and an uncle who graded papers while Burdette put up shots at Roosevelt Elementary School. Karl Hill helped assembled a traveling team in seventh grade. Dave Figi, Bob Pedersen and Tom Neuenschwander molded Burdette in the early high-school years until he played for Hall of Fame coach Bob Suter at Janesville Craig. And legendary UW-Whitewater coach Dave Vander Meulen—along with then-assistant Pat Miller, a fellow Janesville native—gave him a chance to play at the college level.
It was fitting that Burdette meandered through that list of names, and others, because they remember him as one of their most coachable young players.
“Probably the big reason he got better was not just from physical work, but he was very attentive when he wasn't playing,” Vander Meulen said. “A lot of players just aren't capable of doing that.
“Every situation was a learning experience for him, and it helped him.”
The progression led Burdette to a standout college career with the Warhawks, and now he'll join Suter in the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame. Burdette will be inducted—along with Joe Kaster, Shawn Fredricks, George Lynch and Joe Dye—during a May 10 ceremony at the Janesville Country Club.
“I just tried to be a decent basketball player,” the modest Burdette said. “I did the best with what I had.”
Undersized growing up, Burdette began to grow into form at Craig. He remembers a 112-108 five-overtime loss in a freshman game at Beloit Memorial.
The 1993 graduate's varsity career came on the heels of Hall of Famers Robb Logterman and Ben Berlowski, as well as Jim and Dave Jackson.
“Those guys were a couple years ahead of me, but they were at another level,” Burdette said. “There was always a lot of competition, and you had to wait your turn.”
Burdette was honorable mention all-Big Eight his senior year and won the Randy Kessinger Award. The Cougars advanced to sectionals with a victory over Fort Atkinson, a game in which the sharpshooting Burdette went 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
“We were well-rounded,” Burdette said. “We had a lot of guys who could score.
“I always was a pretty good shooter, but it takes a lot of practice and a lot of repetition.”
Burdette really blossomed when he got to the college level, though the success was hardly instantaneous.
In fact, at UW-Whitewater he didn't even play—outside of intramurals—during his first year. Eventually, however, he had a discussion with Miller—now the two-time national champion head coach of the Warhawks.
“I don't know if I was still weighing my options or just trying to figure things out, I guess,” Burdette said. “I must have talked to him at some point during that year. The following year, when school started, I showed up to workouts.”
Vander Meulen and Miller didn't know what to expect.
Burdette didn't play for the first half of what was technically his freshman year on the basketball court, but eventually he became a role player, coming off the bench.
“You kind of figure out what's an open shot and what's not,” Burdette said. “What was open before, you'd never get a shot up (in college).”
The Warhawks advanced to the NCAA tournament that year but then graduated a slew of seniors.
Playing time was up for grabs heading into Burdette's sophomore season.
“They saw just enough in me to keep me around for a little while, and I just had to make the most of it,” Burdette said.
Burdette quickly accomplished that objective and then proceeded to perform beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
He made 130 3-pointers in league play in the Wisconsin State University Conference (now the WIAC), a Whitewater record, and led the league in scoring, averaging 21.6 points per game.
“I knew he could shoot, but when you go from not playing much to 130 3s, yeah, you've got to be somewhat surprised,” Vander Meulen said. “But I wasn't surprised by the end of the year because we saw it all year, and he just kept getting better and better.”
Never was Burdette hotter than at the end of that season. He buried a league-record 12 3-pointers in a game against UW-Eau Claire, finishing with 41 points.
One game later, to open NCAA tournament play, Burdette scored 36 second-half points on his way to matching the league mark with 43 points, a record that still stands today. Whitewater knocked off top-seeded Platteville.
“Considering Burdette wasn't a factor when we beat them by 20-some points in our first two games last year, I'd say his shooting was the difference,” Bo Ryan, the Wisconsin Badgers head coach who was at Platteville at the time, told The Gazette after that game.
“On the road, big games, against good teams,” Vander Meulen recalled. “That's really tough to do.
“He wasn't overly quick, but he could get open because he'd never stop moving. And as good a shooter as he was, he wasn't selfish.”
Burdette was just happy to help Al Wassil, Whitewater's senior, extend his career deeper into the tournament.
“It felt good that we could get a win for him,” Burdette said. “We won that on a Thursday and flew out to California on Friday, and had a game there Saturday night that we won.
“It just led to a lot of other fun moments for us.”
Burdette still holds the record for most 3-pointers made in a career at Whitewater, with 266.
He was an honorable mention All-American his sophomore year and a first-team all-league player. A hand injury put a damper on some of his numbers as a junior, but he still finished all-conference honorable mention as both a junior and senior.
Burdette's biggest thrill was playing so many games in front of his mother and father, Margaret and Larry, as well as his older brother, Jeff.
The Janesville resident now spends much of his time watching Jeff's sons, Ben and Sam, playing sports.
“My family was always at a large majority of the games,” Burdette said. “I always had good support.”
Likewise, he made his family and the city proud. And now he'll be rewarded with a spot in the Hall of Fame.