WILSON — On Saturday, the greater Chowan community lost one of its greats when Bob Burke breathed his last earthly breath.
He passed away peacefully surrounded by his loving family at his home in Wilson, North Carolina.
Burke was 73 years old.
With Burke’s passing, the mourning of another Chowan legend is set to begin.
Undoubtedly the mourning will be far reaching as he touched the lives of countless athletes and coaches at all levels.
The longest and most successful span of his career was spent captaining the blue baselines of the Helms Center.
For twenty-two seasons (1981-2003) Burke built a college basketball powerhouse that was nationally known and synonymous with winning.
Burke helped to put the tiny town of Murfreesboro and Chowan on the map.
Basketball greats like Jim Valvano, Dave Odom, Lefty Driesell, and Bobby Cremins were staples in the Helms Center on game days.
Those coaches along with many others from programs all over the country knew that any player Burke coached would have fruitful careers at their own institutions.
Nearly 50 of Burke’s players went on to receive scholarships from NCAA D1 and NCAA D2 schools. Several went on to play professionally.
Most notably he coached Nate McMillan and local star, Fred Vinson.
Countless sports milestones were met in the 22 years that Burke spent at Chowan. Along with his touted court success, he experienced just as much greatness off the court.
Surely his family was his biggest success. It was at Chowan that he met his wife, Jane, a beautiful and successful teacher in the community. She experienced professional success in the education field and would become a well-respected school administrator in several eastern North Carolina school districts.The couple had two children during his tenure, Rob and Ashlyn. Both children were raised on the Chowan campus. Students and professors got to know the two as they roamed campus on their bikes and often visited with players and students in the dorms. Rob proudly played four seasons for his father at Chowan and shut the gym down every night with long range threes and a work ethic that matched no other.
Ashlyn was a popular staple on Chowan’s campus as a child. She knew Burke’s players by name and helped to manage the program. Just like her father and her brother, Ashlyn had a passion for basketball and started her post-collegiate career coaching at Brunswick Community College in Bolivia, North Carolina.
In total Burke’s coaching career spanned five decades. Burke, who was inducted in the Jim Garrison Hall of Fame in 2000, left as the third winningest active coach in North Carolina history behind only Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Jerry Steele (High Point).
Following his 22 years at Chowan, Burke served as an assistant coach at the University of Hawaii and with the Portland Trailblazers as part of the NBA.
Burke is also a member of the Campbell University Sports Hall of Fame. He spent his last years in the field scouting for the NBA.
Burke compiled a record of 419-217 during his time at Chowan and led the then-Braves to three National Junior College Tournaments with three Sweet Sixteen appearances, including one Final Four appearance.
The team posted twelve consecutive 20-plus win seasons and averaged 25 wins per season during that same span.
Seven of Burke’s players went on to compete at ACC institutions including: Nate McMillan (North Carolina State University), David Burgess (Virginia Tech), Andy Kelly (Clemson), Bobby Ray Smith (Boston College), Bryan Hill (Georgia Tech), Fred Vinson (Georgia Tech), and Johnny McNeil (Georgia Tech). Additionally, he had 35 players sign NCAA Division I offers over a 13-year period from 1981-1994.
In January of 2016, Chowan University named the court he once ruled after him.
Imprinted on the court in front of the home bench is his trademarked “footprint”.
Burke’s tenacious and often fiery personality was known to entertain the crowds that filled the seats of the Helms Center and make any assigned referee question his whistle call.
Burke’s “footstomp” echoed loudly across the beams of the Helms Center on any given game day whether in protest of an official’s call or to motivate his players to run the offense that he knew would win the game.
It is in the grips of death that humans hope that the years in a life well-lived were impactful and purposeful.
One only needs to talk with Burke’s former players, his former assistant coaches, his peers and mentees to see how far-reaching his impact was.
He lived his purpose by helping to create teams of men from fresh-faced boys.
Sit in any Hall of Fame induction ceremony where one of his former players is being inducted and the stories of Burke’s tough love are reminisced in a loving and eloquent way.
Players in the troughs of Burke’s early morning runs and repeat-until-perfect greuling practice sessions didn’t know then what he was doing.
Later, though, in living life, every single player he coached eventually pondered on how Burke helped them become men, and leaders, and husbands, and fathers, and coaches, and community advocates, and so much more.
Burke spoke often of the pride he felt for the players he coached that led successful lives outside of basketball.
In 2016 Corey Chandler produced a documentary titled, “Bob Burke: Heart of a Chowan Man”.
In the documentary Chandler asked Burke to describe his basketball identity.
Burke plainly and humbly replied, “It’s Chowan. I was a Chowan man. That’s where my identity came from. That’s where it will always be.”