All-Star Willie Burton – In a League of His Own

Let's Talk: Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Senior man trail hiking in the forest

When Willie Burton was taken ninth in the 1990 NBA draft, he lost his defenses against addiction—a sensational talent through high school and college, his teammates and coaches looked out for him. But then the coping mechanisms he learned as a child in Detroit came back to haunt him when he hit the League. Tune in to hear his story, his message to people who are struggling, and how he intends to help student and professional athletes in their journey to recover.

Drugs and alcohol was but a symptom of my disease. I had character defects in other aspects that I needed to work on. So that's what recovery is for me.

Willie Burton

0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello and today on our podcast, Let's Talk, Hazelden Betty Ford brings you a Story of Hope. The story of Willie Burton. College basketball phenom, all-star in the National Basketball Association, a man who knows firsthand the bright spotlight of athletic success, the dark shadow of substance use. Willie, welcome.

0:00:35 Willie Burton
Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on your show.

0:00:38 William Moyers
Well it's hard to believe that we're sitting less than a mile from where you really carved out an extraordinary college career at the University of Minnesota. When you look back on those times, what do you think about?

0:00:49 Willie Burton
I think about sports having the ability to keep me in a safe space.

0:00:55 William Moyers

0:00:56 Willie Burton
With all the things that were going on inside me, which I had no idea about.

0:01:00 William Moyers

0:01:02 Willie Burton
And my anxiety and some of the ways in which I felt and I thought and I processed information. Based on my experiences before the age of ten.

0:01:13 William Moyers
Before the age of ten! [Burton nods] When did you know, and we're gonna come back to that in a minute—when did you know you were a good athlete?

0:01:21 Willie Burton
Well, I didn't know I was a good athlete actually until I started playing with kids my own age. I grew up around my cousins who are older. And I was the youngest. So pretty much they just smashed me at everything. [Moyers laughs] So then when I started playing with kids my age, I started thinking, 'Hey, maybe I could compete here,' you know?

0:01:39 William Moyers

0:01:39 Willie Burton
So I would say about the age of ten.

0:01:44 William Moyers
Okay. And then before ten and eighteen, you became better and better at basketball, but you also played baseball.

0:01:51 Willie Burton
Yeah, I played baseball, also played football.

0:01:52 William Moyers

0:01:54 Willie Burton
And ran track. So, you know, my mother decided the smartest thing she could do was to take me and put me into athletics so I wouldn't get into anything.

0:02:03 William Moyers
[both laugh] Ha! And so you came to the University of Minnesota. What year was that? 

0:02:07 Willie Burton
I came to the University of Minnesota in 1987. '86-'87 school year but it was the calendar year 1987.

0:02:14 William Moyers
Not far from where we are today as we remarked. And you had a heck of a college career!

0:02:19 Willie Burton
Yes I had a great college career from the perspective of watching the television—

0:02:24 William Moyers

0:02:25 Willie Burton
—But it wasn't necessarily easy all the way, it wasn't perfect. I needed coaches, I needed my teammates, I needed all the support I could to keep Willie from self-destructing.

0:02:36 William Moyers
So talk more about that. When did you get a sense, in college, that you had problems behind or off the court?

0:02:46 Willie Burton
I knew I had problems off the court. Before I came. And this is one of the things that I talk about—

0:02:51 William Moyers

0:02:52 Willie Burton
—And why I want to continue to focus on the K-12 population. 

0:02:55 William Moyers

0:02:56 Willie Burton
Because when you don't know it or you don't realize it, but you have issues before you come to this college campus. And what's happening is, those coaches, those academic advisors, and those administrators, are left to try to salvage what they can in you. And whatever you went through when you came.

0:03:13 William Moyers

0:03:13 Willie Burton
I really believe there's a great deal of students that come to college campus with issues.

0:03:20 William Moyers
Ah. Including you. [Burton nods] Did you start to use substances because of things you knew were not right with you, or did you use them because you enjoyed them?

0:03:35 Willie Burton
I started using them because it actually was a numbing effect when I tried them.

0:03:40 William Moyers

0:03:40 Willie Burton
And being in Detroit, I mean, that stress and pressure, you could die at any minute. You could die at any second, in Detroit.

0:03:44 William Moyers
In Detroit. Yeah.

0:03:46 Willie Burton
I mean literally, that anxiety of not knowing who's gonna go where—you're reading about, watching and listening about someone dying, almost every day.

0:03:55 William Moyers

0:03:56 Willie Burton
As a kid it's not unusual to go to school and walk past brains.

0:04:02 William Moyers
Yeah. On the street.

0:04:03 Willie Burton
So, that promotes anxiety, stress, survival, and then when you take the substances, when I took the substances, I didn't worry about that anymore. And to be honest with you, you start going to the thing of, 'If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen,' that helped—it's almost like medication for someone.

0:04:21 William Moyers
Yeah. Sure. But you had a successful college career, so much so that they retired Number 34! It hangs up in the rafters! At the Barn. So you had a great career, how did you square that great college career with the fact that you were struggling with substances and struggling with mental health issues? How did that work?

0:04:37 Willie Burton
Well, while I'm doing my PhD at the University, I'm reading articles on sports. And how sports mask mental health issues. Because physical activity is a barrier and buffer to keep some of those post-traumatic stress and some of those other feelings suppressed.

0:04:55 William Moyers

0:04:56 Willie Burton
That's one of the things I'm looking at. And I had that hypothesis and little did I know, right now, they're building more and more, upon more research. Now, that didn't—I mean I still would drink, people knew I would drink. And they would, you know, so I had a lot of safeguards around me, let's put it that way.

0:05:14 William Moyers
Mmm. Yeah.

0:05:15 Willie Burton
You know, Coach would monitor my drinking more than everyone else's. 

0:05:20 William Moyers
Really? He knew?

0:05:21 Willie Burton
He knew exactly how much I drank and exactly where I was in this city. You believe it—as big as this city is, he knew exactly where I was at all times. He would tell me, like, 'How'd you know I was there?' 

0:05:31 William Moyers
Ah. Yeah. 

0:05:33 Willie Burton

0:05:33 William Moyers
But still, still, you drank, you used substances, you had a successful career—

0:05:39 Willie Burton

0:05:40 William Moyers
And then you got drafted! Top ten in the NBA in 1990, yes?

0:05:45 Willie Burton

0:05:46 William Moyers
Went on to the Miami Heat?

0:05:47 Willie Burton
Mmm-hmm. [nods] And then all my safeguards are out of the way, and a pocket full of money.

0:05:52 William Moyers
Yeah, man. And then what happened?

0:05:54 Willie Burton
And then, just like you can project, it's a wild, free, running ride. With everyone telling you, 'Hey, it's okay, I don't have Kynell or Melvin or Coach or the individuals around, or some of my friends here in the Twin Cities to kinda keep me, you know, 'Let's do this, let's do the right thing.'

0:06:15 William Moyers

0:06:15 Willie Burton
You're in a place now where everyone wants to be successful, everyone wants to be known, and everyone wants to ride your coattails. 

0:06:21 William Moyers

0:06:21 Willie Burton
So your best interest is not their concern.

0:06:24 William Moyers
You still had a successful career, for a long time you held the record for the most points scored in a game, that's been blown away this past year of course—

0:06:33 Willie Burton
Mmm-hmm. [nods]

0:06:34 William Moyers
But you had a successful career. When did the problem become more of a problem and your success became less of a success? When was that?

0:06:44 Willie Burton
It was my first year.

0:06:45 William Moyers

0:06:46 Willie Burton
This was my first year, I went to the doctor and I kept complaining of stomach pains. And come to find out, I was drinking too much.

0:06:56 William Moyers
And you were young.

0:06:57 Willie Burton
I was young. How can a person at the age of 21, 22, be diagnosed by a doctor as drinking too much? 

0:07:07 William Moyers
Did you listen to him?

0:07:11 Willie Burton
Yeah I listened. You know what I did? Started dabbling in drugs. 

0:07:18 William Moyers
Aah. In the NBA?

0:07:20 Willie Burton
In the NBA. [nods]

0:07:21 William Moyers
Were you worried about getting caught? 

0:07:23 Willie Burton
Uh, yeah. But I was doing different things. I mean I was trying any and everything. I couldn't drink anymore. Because my body was going bad at the age of 22. But I can't just live with who I am and myself. I wasn't okay in my own skin.

0:07:37 William Moyers
Yeah, man. So you had to medicate.

0:07:40 Willie Burton
I had to find something to be okay with who I was. Especially now that a lot of my safeguards and a lot of my conscience was removed from me. 

0:07:52 William Moyers

0:07:52 Willie Burton
So, it was a rough ride, I did the best I could. I made the best decisions and choices I thought I could make, at that age with the information that I had. 

0:08:00 William Moyers
And the money in your pocket. Do you look back on your career in the NBA—you had a good career, it wasn't as long as others—do you think your substance use and perhaps your mental health challenges affected the longevity of your career, or were you pretty much done by the late '80s?

0:08:18 Willie Burton
No, not at all. 

0:08:18 William Moyers
Or the late '90s.

0:08:19 Willie Burton
I literally was about to sign another contract here in Minnesota, I had an opportunity to go back to San Antonio because I had put that stuff behind me.

0:08:25 William Moyers

0:08:26 Willie Burton
So my career—an injury. [points to right foot]

0:08:29 William Moyers

0:08:29 Willie Burton
An injury. An injury—my career I wanted to come back here and retire as a Timberwolf.

0:08:35 William Moyers

0:08:36 Willie Burton
That was my original goal. I came here, I had a place in Minnetonka—

0:08:40 William Moyers

0:08:40 Willie Burton
I was—my life had changed, I was sober. 

0:08:43 William Moyers

0:08:44 Willie Burton
And everything was fine. So but my life changed in sobriety. Not because of— [trails off]

0:08:50 William Moyers

0:08:52 Willie Burton
But at the same time, it was more of a blessing than what I'm doing now. 

0:08:55 William Moyers

0:08:55 Willie Burton
See if my career doesn't end, and I go on, would I be the person that I am today?

0:09:02 William Moyers
Right. Hmm.

0:09:03 Willie Burton
Would I be the father that I am today? Or would sports continue to drive and control my decisions? Or would I have the freedom of flexibility to do what I've done? Work with 750,000 kids, be a substitute teacher in my kids' class and each one of their classes is a part of their lives?

0:09:21 William Moyers

0:09:22 Willie Burton
Watch them grow, be attentive in what they're doing. Help my community. Grow and inspire. Which one would I take? [Moyers nods, chuckles] You know? And I'm still here in Minnesota. So.

0:09:34 William Moyers
Go figure. [Burton chuckles] So this is a Story of Hope, and I wanna come back to what you were talking about, but what was that moment when you decided that you needed to get help? That what you needed was partly inside of you but that you needed professional help. When was that, and how did that happen, Willie?

0:09:51 Willie Burton
Well, a phone call to John Lucas was made.

0:09:55 William Moyers
Oh yeah.

0:09:56 Willie Burton
On my behalf actually. And it was the best thing for me.

0:09:59 William Moyers
And John Lucas of course was an NBA player who struggles with substances, was well-known—

0:10:03 Willie Burton

0:10:04 William Moyers
—And he turned his life around.

0:10:05 Willie Burton

0:10:06 William Moyers

0:10:06 Willie Burton
So, being guided by him and that was more or less one of the introductions for me at that stage with issues and problems that I'm having. Because I didn't know a way out. I didn't know how to get out. I had no plan, no exit—

0:10:22 William Moyers

0:10:23 Willie Burton
—I couldn't see anything except I know I didn't plan on being in this spot. I didn't plan on being in this pain. I didn't plan on being in this confusion. I don't know how I got here. But, you know, the best thing about it was I realized now that that was my training. That was the training I was supposed to go through to help change the lives of others.

0:10:48 William Moyers
You turned the adversity of your own struggle into the opportunity to help others.

0:10:53 Willie Burton

0:10:54 William Moyers
So let's talk more about that. How much of your own story do you share, how much of your struggles with substances, your time in the NBA, all those things—how relevant are they to who you are today?

0:11:08 Willie Burton
They're very relevant. Very relevant. I don't hide it at all. Here's the problem and this is what I run into. And I think with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they've opened the door for me to do that. You're opening the door for me to tell my story—

0:11:22 William Moyers

0:11:22 Willie Burton
—And talk about what has happened for me. I don't think that, you know, even though the programs that I went through were through the NBA and the Players' Association, I don't think they—this is just my thought and they can do with it what they want—I don't think they used the experience and the things that I've been through and what I'm doing—enough.

0:11:44 William Moyers
I agree.

0:11:45 Willie Burton
To number one, talk to community.

0:11:49 William Moyers

0:11:50 Willie Burton
But in case players are running into issues, to talk to them. But now they don't have to, it's their business, but I know this much and this much I do know, players are gonna listen to other players. Because until John Lucas came to me, until Dirk Minniefield, who now works for the NBA, and Cliff came to me, other players, I wasn't—I didn't believe and I didn't trust. That came from Detroit. 

0:12:13 William Moyers
Yeah, not to believe and not to trust. 

0:12:15 Willie Burton
Not to believe and not to trust, but—

0:12:16 William Moyers

0:12:16 Willie Burton
—I mean, you know, but the platform—I don't think I'm given a platform in which to do that.

0:12:24 William Moyers

0:12:25 Willie Burton
In which to give this information out that I have for—specifically for recovery.

0:12:30 William Moyers
Yes. Yes.

0:12:30 Willie Burton
So, I would like to have it, but I don't wanna force it either. I don't wanna—I want it to be welcomed and appreciated in a genuine, honest, from my soul. [places hands on stomach] Not from a script.

0:12:47 William Moyers
Ahh. Right, right.

0:12:47 Willie Burton
Not, you know, where I'm being forced or I'm singing a banner that's not reality. [Moyers chuckles] Because, you know, when you're suffering with addictions and things of that nature, you can catch B.S. real quick.

0:13:01 William Moyers
Oh, yeah.

0:13:02 Willie Burton
You can spot it real quick, is it genuine or is it real? And I'm not—I wouldn't do it to be anything other than giving back my experience, strength, and hope, which was given to me.

0:13:13 William Moyers
Amen. So on that note, you're pursuing your PhD in Sports Exercise and Psychology, what's your dream?

0:13:21 Willie Burton
My dream is to continue to work with policymakers. And rewrite policy. And not just on a state level but on a national level. On specific aspects of K-12 and student athletes. I feel that they're underserved as a population. 

0:13:36 William Moyers

0:13:37 Willie Burton
It's unfair for me, as far as I see it, and this is not a gripe, but, it's more or less the old NCAA model with the K-12 population. Here's why. You get paid for students that go to school, right? [Moyers nods] But then you turn around and make money on them at the door for their performance. However, there are no programs or supporting mechanisms for that population to help them understand roles, responsibilities, and what's expected in the high visibility—which is dangerous. 

0:14:11 William Moyers
Yeah. [nods]

0:14:12 Willie Burton
A second factor is that we talked about the hypothesis that physical activity and sports mask mental health issues. So now you have a population in there that may have issues that we need to find out what's going on with them. Before they blow up, before they go off, before they take substances.

0:14:32 William Moyers
Yes. Yes. So we've only got a couple minutes left, I wanna talk about two things. Tell us about ExcelU. E-X-C-E-L-U.

0:14:40 Willie Burton
ExcelU is a curriculum about it's a total of ten different programs. For students and student athletes that I developed along the way. Measured by the University of Minnesota. 

0:14:50 William Moyers

0:14:51 Willie Burton
We're supported by, you know, the National Basketball Players Association, the Legends of Basketball—

0:14:59 William Moyers

0:15:00 Willie Burton
—And the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So, the goal is next we're gonna train former athletes, hopefully with the Legends of Basketball and across sports, to have the ability to go in and make impact. Because I'm really passionate about going and finding those Willie Burtons. And those, you know, females and the male version of those, before we touch that substance. To get the information to us so we can understand what we're going through.

0:15:26 William Moyers

0:15:26 Willie Burton
So we don't cross that bridge.

0:15:28 William Moyers

0:15:29 Willie Burton
And arming former students, student athletes, with the ability to do that. In their particular communities. And I wanna also arm collegiate athletes. I wanna arm collegiate athletes, especially those seniors that are leaving, those high visibility seniors, that may be going back home, or, in the college town that they're working for. Because they're credible messengers. 

0:15:50 William Moyers

0:15:51 Willie Burton
To go in and deliver. And I really think this is what my purpose was.

0:15:54 William Moyers
Yes. Yes. And you are a credible messenger. What is your message of hope? What does recovery mean to you, Willie?

0:16:03 Willie Burton
Hmm. Recovery means to me a new way of living, a new way of learning.

0:16:09 William Moyers

0:16:09 Willie Burton
Information and tools that I have that I put on my side and I walk every day as I engage in society. Society is not gonna change. The only thing that changed was me. I needed to change. And drugs and alcohol was but a symptom of my disease. But a symptom. I had character defects in other aspects that I needed to work on. So that's what recovery is for me.

0:16:32 William Moyers

0:16:33 Willie Burton
Living life on life's terms. 

0:16:35 William Moyers
Living life on life's terms. And being able to give back to others what you've been given.

0:16:39 Willie Burton

0:16:40 William Moyers
Yes. Last question. There are going to be athletes, student athletes, watching this podcast. There are going to be people of many colors watching this podcast.

0:16:51 Willie Burton

0:16:51 William Moyers
Many of them motivated because they know your story and they themselves are struggling. What is your message to people who are watching or listening to this podcast and who are struggling with substances and are scared? What's your message to them, Willie?

0:17:04 Willie Burton
I'm one of the few people to score more than 50 points in an NBA game and I couldn't do this alone. My jersey's hanging up down the street, at the University of Minnesota, I couldn't do it alone. I was an All-American in high school; I couldn't do it alone. I could score on any basketball player in the world, and there was nothing that they could do about it. But when I walked off that court, I could not do. This. Alone. [looks into camera] Don't try to do it alone. Get help. I know it's hard to ask for help, but, you ask for help with your jump shot or the way you swing or the way you tackle, or the way you did your work, or you asked for help when you learned how to pick the substance up. Or learned how to drink, or what was the proper way of mixing the drink. Have that same courage if you could about asking for help. 

0:17:54 William Moyers
Well we're glad that you haven't kept your recovery to yourself. [Burton chuckles] That you have shared it openly with us today, and that you're giving it back across this country. Willie Burton, thank you for sharing your message of hope, your Story of Hope, with us today.

0:18:09 Willie Burton
Thank you for having me. 

0:18:10 William Moyers
[turns to camera] And thanks to all of you for joining us. Remember, there is help out there, all you need to do is ask for it. Thanks for joining us for this edition of Let's Talk. We'll see ya again. [smiles]

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