Soul-Full: Deonte Burton is All Heart
Story by Nick Gallo | Photography by Coby Van Loan
Deonte Burton couldn’t sleep. Not just one night. Every night. Ambien made him feel strange. Nothing helped, except for the oldest trick in the book.
“A good old car ride,” Burton sighed, happily. “I’m like a big baby. Put me in a car for about five minutes, no music and I’m gonna’ be asleep.”
It wasn’t his parents or older siblings who gave him a late-night lift. It was the girls’ basketball coach at Vincent High School, Stephanie Bahr, a woman who helped mentor kids in the Milwaukee area. When Burton couldn’t sleep, in high school and then later at Marquette University, she drove him around for hours to help him catch a few winks. She also had a major impact in getting him through the greatest emotional test of his life.
“She challenged me mentally. She helped me see things in ways that I wasn’t looking at it,” Burton said. “And I’m kind of hard-headed. She helped a lot with that.”
Despite constantly flashing a wide, gapped smile that sits above a sharp, powerful, angled jaw line, Burton had a hard time keeping his head clear. During his sophomore year of high school, his mother, Barbara Burton-Malone, was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the help of his six siblings, who now range in age from Deonte at 25 all the way up to his eldest brother at 42, the family pulled together to stay strong. They learned the facts and understood what they meant. Barbara herself was an absolute pillar of strength in the face of horrible reality.
“It makes things a lot easier when you are informed,” Burton said.
“There was almost always somebody by her side,” he said. “We just did what we could to help. She made it really easy because she was always uplifting. She was making us feel better.”
Burton finished high school at Vincent while his mom continued her fight. As the only player on his high school team with a Division I scholarship offer, Burton became the leader of not just a team in his senior season, but a family. He eschewed his own stats and empowered his teammates, hoping to propel them toward college opportunities as well.
Burton stayed close to home, choosing Marquette for his freshman and sophomore years of college, playing first for Buzz Williams and then for Steve Wojciechowski. After playing 32 games as a freshman in 2013-14, Burton played just eight games as a sophomore. On Oct. 7, 2014, Barbara passed away, just a month before the Golden Eagles’ regular season began.
After her death, the car rides weren’t enough. Driving around Milwaukee had the opposite effect. Deonte couldn’t see anything else.
“I wanted to get out of Milwaukee because everything reminded me of her,” he said. “I wanted to plant my own roots somewhere else just to get back focused.”
There’s only so much a son, the baby of the family, can do when his mother dies. Getting out of town helped. But time, perspective and an unlikely outlet – poetry – helped Burton get through it.
“I had to let go of everything I was holding onto,” Burton explained.
“You have to accept it. You can’t change it,” he said. “The more you question it, the more answers you won’t get.”
Burton originally started writing poetry as a child, something he shared with one of his brothers. But after Barbara’s death, he came to terms with it by writing down all of his feelings into poems, allowing his emotions to flow through the pen. Though the inspiration and the process is usually different for him, even now, the exercise is always cathartic.
“No matter how dark something might look, you can always find brightness,” Burton said of his mother’s passing.
“Yes she died, but she’s in a better place,” he added. “She’s living better than I am.”
Burton was granted a transfer from Marquette but stayed in the Midwest, heading south to Iowa State where he played with a future Thunder teammate, Abdel Nader. While in Ames, Burton had two more coaches – Fred Hoiberg and Steve Prohm. Four coaches in four years for one player is astonishingly rare in the NCAA setting, but that experience gave Burton a unique gift – flexibility. That eventually made him a near-perfect addition to the Thunder in 2018-19 when he signed a two-way contract to play for the Thunder and the OKC Blue.
“I learned how to adapt and adjust,” Burton said, regarding his college days. “You never know where you’re going to be, but you know you have to be ready for wherever you’re going to be.”
Burton played 26 games for the Cyclones in 2015-16 and averaged 9.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting on a team that went to the Sweet 16. His production ascended as a senior when he averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game. That team won a Big 12 Championship but fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. As his college career came to an end, Burton took stock of his options. He had the talent, the physicality and the athleticism to play on the world’s biggest basketball stage. There was just one thing missing.
“After Iowa State, I didn’t want to be in the NBA,” Burton said, with complete sincerity. “You have to know yourself before you come to the NBA. I felt I didn’t know myself enough to be in the NBA at the time.”
That’s the main reason I came to OKC, because everybody was welcoming and family-oriented.
An admitted introvert, Burton was self-aware enough to recognize he wasn’t ready for the attention that comes with American professional basketball. Instead of pursuing a non-guaranteed NBA contract, Burton took his comfort and his career into his hands and moved to South Korea. He signed with Wonju DB Promy in the Korean Basketball League, immersing himself into the culture. At first the food and the lifestyle were a dramatic challenge, but Burton came to love some specific aspects of his time overseas.
“Korean culture is so welcoming,” he said. “You can set stuff down in South Korea and it’ll stay there.”
Burton’s star shined bright; he was named the league’s MVP after averaging 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game. The performance piqued the interest of the Thunder, who have scouts all over the globe mining for gems like Burton. In addition to NBA interest, the year abroad also reinforced his need for a true connection in the locker room, like the one he created among his teammates back in high school.
“When I play basketball, the team I’m on becomes my family,” he said firmly. “If I don’t feel it’s a family, I can’t play there.
“That’s the main reason I came to OKC, because everybody was welcoming and family-oriented.”
Burton jumped off the screen and nearly out of the gym in 2018 at Summer League for Oklahoma City, flushing some powerful dunks and even knocking down a game-winning shot. Thunder fans geeked out at this unique, unconventional player suddenly signed to a two-way contract. He’s 6-foot-5, but a burly 245 pounds. He’s a forward, but with a guard’s skill level. He’s a left-handed, ferocious finisher with deft passing and shooting to go with a relentless, energetic motor and after a year of seasoning in Asia, he leveled up.
“I wouldn’t say I changed,” Burton said. “I evolved.”
DEONTE BURTON FOR THE WIN!!!
— NBA TV (@NBATV) July 14, 2018
In his 24 games with the Blue, Burton was highly productive – averaging 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 45.2 percent from the field. An important contributor at the Cox Convention Center, Burton was more of a bit player for the Thunder across the street at Chesapeake Energy Arena. He saw action in 32 games but averaged 7.5 minutes and 2.6 points per contest. He played five total minutes in the postseason.
“What motivates me right now is being in the playoffs and never playing. I went to an NBA playoffs, and I watched,” he said. “That’s the motivation. I don’t want to watch an NBA playoff game again. I want to play in it.”
Burton has survived a gnashing, tempestuous sea of instability as a player over the last six years, not to mention the emotional battle he waged in losing his mother. It’s a testament to the 25-year-old’s gentle heart and soul that he’s managed to navigate through it all and still maintain humility, grace and composure as a human being.
“I honor my mom daily just by how I act,” he said. “I feel that she would be proud of me daily by how I interact with people.”
Burton also honors his mom by writing her name on his shoes – but only the pink ones. If you see a couple of pink highlighters skittering along the court underneath a Thunder blue jersey, it’s most likely Burton slicing through the lane or hounding a ballhandler on the perimeter.
For the first time since high school, back in 2013, Burton will be in the same city playing for the same coach two years in a row. It was March 10, 2019, when Burton signed a three-year contract with the Thunder to stay in Oklahoma City. Burton himself, however, doesn’t remember the actual day that his basketball future became secure.
He’s kept it moving all his adult life. No reason to stop now.
“When you get a promotion at your job, it’s like, ‘Cool, I got a promotion. Now, what next?’ ” Burton asked.
“Get another promotion.”