Imagine the archival vault of basketball history that is the mind of Lenny Wilkens.
Stored in there are memories from more than 3,500 NBA games played and coached, of championships and Olympic gold medals, and the performances of the world’s greatest players for more than half a century.
Amid all those significant moments, at 85 years old, Wilkens still remembers the night of Jan. 2, 1959, and the college game when he went head-to-head against Gonzaga’s Frank Burgess.
As Burgess’ all-time scoring mark at Gonzaga appears to be in the final days of a 62-year run, he remains a vivid memory of not only Wilkens, but also a pair of local players – Dwight Damon of Washington State and Rolly Williams of Idaho – who witnessed his skills up close.
They unanimously marveled at Burgess’ delicate shooting touch, his cleverness with the ball, and the way his good-natured competitiveness brought honor to the game of college basketball.
On that night in 1959, Wilkens was a highly touted junior at Providence on his way to All-America honors and a long career in the NBA. Burgess was a promising sophomore for the lightly regarded Gonzaga Bulldogs – a hoops nonentity on an Eastern swing from the distant Northwest.
Providence coach Joe Mullaney had a scouting report on the visiting Zags and, aware of Burgess’ scoring potential, assigned the tenacious Wilkens the task of guarding him.
Meeting before the game, Burgess greeted Wilkens with a cheeky, “Who are you?”
Wilkens laughed at the memory of how Burgess was trying to get in his head from the opening tip. “I could tell he had a sense of humor,” Wilkens said.
Burgess finished with 18 points to Wilkens’ 14. Gonzaga played it close, tying it up with 10 minutes remaining before the homestanding Friars pulled away to a 76-65 win.
Wilkens would earn Hall of Fame honors as both an NBA player and coach, while Burgess would cap a distinguished legal career as a United States District Court judge in Tacoma before his death in 2010.
Burgess led the nation in scoring as a senior (32.4 points per game in 1960-61) and compiled a career total of 2,196 points – newsworthy so many decades later as GU All-American Drew Timme is expected to be the Zag to finally eclipse his total.
How remarkable that it took 62 seasons for a player at a national powerhouse to threaten Burgess’ total, but also that Timme needed 127 games to reach 2,158 points, while Burgess played in just 78 games, during a span before the institution of the 3-point shot.
Comparing players of different eras is vastly subjective, especially since Gonzaga teams in the 21st century face tougher opponents, have better scoring balance, and some of the best talents leave early for the NBA.
But in Wilkens we not only have an eyewitness to Burgess’ skills, but perhaps the most authoritative source on his talents relative to the game’s greats.
“He was lean, like most basketball players then, but wiry strong,” Wilkens said. “He played both ends of the court, and he had great quickness. You could tell he enjoyed playing, and competed hard and was well-respected by his teammates. He was just a great all-around player and person.”
Burgess was drafted in the third round by the NBA’s Lakers but decided to play in the short-lived American Basketball League, averaging 15 points a game for the Hawaii Chiefs in the 1961-62 season. After one season, he entered GU law school.
The question for Wilkens: Did Burgess have the skills to have made it in the NBA if he’d chosen that route?
“No question about it,” Wilkens said. “But remember, back then, neither league was paying guys a great amount of money unless you had been in the league a couple years.”
Williams, the longtime North Idaho College men’s basketball coach, played against Burgess at Idaho, but also played with him on an AAU team at the highly competitive Western Invitational Tournament at Lewistown, Montana, and was the last forward cut on Burgess’ ABL team.
“Besides being a great shooter, Frank had the ability to get open – that was one of the unique things about him,” Williams said. “If you were down in a defensive stance, he would make a fake like he threw it over your head, but he’d pull the ball back and shoot it.”
Williams remembered the Vandals put their best defender, Dean Baxter, on Burgess one game. Burgess still scored 37 points, making all 15 of his free throws.
Damon, who enjoyed a long career as an innovative orthodontist in Spokane, remembers his coach at WSU, Marv Harshman, trying to devise ways to trap or double-team Burgess.
“We had to double-up on him a lot because he could make one guy look pretty bad,” Damon said.
In one WSU-GU contest in 1961, Damon scored 16. Burgess had 32.
“But he was more than twice as good as me,” Damon said.
Modern perimeter players have brought back a move that Damon recalled Burgess mastering – the step-back shot to create distance from the defender. Damon studied Burgess in pregame warmups, noting how his shooting hand would be situated more below the ball than behind it. Damon said it created a softer shot with more loft.
“He had the best touch, the softest shot of any player I ever played against, totally different than anybody,” Damon said.
After being traded by the St. Louis Hawks to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1968, Wilkens reconnected with Burgess.
“Once I got out here I got to know him a lot better; I would stop down in Tacoma and have lunch with him,” Wilkens said. “He was a fabulous person, just a wonderful man, a great family man, and we would stay in touch to see how the other was doing.”
Damon and Williams also have powerful memories of Burgess’ character and personality.
“He was a guy I remember so well and really cared about,” Damon said. “It was such an honor and joy to play against him.”
“The biggest thing, he was a helluva guy, that was my immediate reaction, just a really nice person,” Williams said.
Wilkens said he’s only seen Timme play a few times on television, but said he must be good if he’s even getting near the record
“That’s a real honor because Frank’s record stood for a very, very long time,” Wilkens said.
A very long time, yes. Remember Bob Beamon’s unbelievable 29-foot long jump in the Mexico City Olympics? Record lasted 23 years. Lou Gehrig’s unbreakable iron-man streak of consecutive games? Lasted 56 years.
More impressive about Burgess, though, after all these years, is that his admiring opponents remember far more about the man than his record.