Q+A: Ross Burns
Catching up with the former UMass guard and SLAM diarist.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
Back in the day, Ross Burns was named the ’95 New England Class A Player of the Year after a stellar senior season of high school. Instead of going to a smaller college and becoming an All-American, Burns chose to become a walk-on at UMass and be a part of the best team in school history. With that decision, Burns got to watch and learn from Coach Calipari and go up against one of the best backcourts in the country everyday at practice, soaking up all the basketball knowledge he could handle. During UMass’ Final Four run headed by Marcus Camby and Coach Cal, Ross kept a diary for SLAM that gave an inside look at the team and was eventually published in SLAM 12 (the diary can be read in its entirety here).
After college, Ross didn’t give up his love for the game and continues to make an impact on players of all ages. After coaching on the DI level for years, the former Minuteman joined the vaunted Pro Hoops NYC training group and is working with and coaching players from high school all the way up to the NBA. Ross is also making a difference in the New York community with the “Drill and Play” program which gives underprivileged kids a chance to get off the streets and learn how to play the game the right way.
Catch up on all of Ross’ moves in the basketball world below.
SLAM: How did the you get involved with SLAM during your freshman year at UMass?
Ross Burns: There was a writer for SLAM on campus and I think he was doing an internship or some sort of job with the basketball program helping out with academics. He’d always be in there when we were having our study hall and he approached me one day and said, “Hey, I’d love to get some insight from you. Would you do a diary with me?” And I said, Cool let’s do it.
SLAM: Did you have fun with it? You guys were probably expecting to go all the way, right?
RB: Yeah, we kinda got the short end of the stick in the NCAA Tournament. The whole year, UMass and Kentucky were 1-2 but we wound up being on the same side of the bracket in the Final Four which ended up being pretty anti-climactic. We had beaten Kentucky convincingly earlier in the season up in Michigan and we had a long history with Kentucky since Pitino was a UMass grad and helped get Coach Cal the job at Massachusetts. We also felt like we were the best team in the country, we started off 26-0 and beat Tim Duncan and Wake and Allen Iverson and all those guys, so we felt like we had already proven ourselves. To come up short at the end of the season was very disappointing.
SLAM: Do you guys still get together from time to time?
RB: Yeah, when I stopped playing I started coaching and coached DI for seven years and would always see Coach Cal in Memphis and I saw him, Bruiser and all the assistants in New York after he won the National Championship. We all still stay in contact with each other and everyone knows where everybody else is. We haven’t gotten together as often as we’d like but we’re still very involved in the program especially now that Derek Kellogg is the head coach. He played for Coach Cal and is doing a great job of bringing back all the old players.
SLAM: Speaking of Coach Cal, how big of an influence did he have on your decision to get involved in coaching and training?
RB: He played a huge part in it because he was such a great motivator and always found a way to inspire guys to work hard and improve their game. When we were freshmen, I remember Coach Cal would have something called “Pro Days”. It’s a long season and you’d get your winter run in January and February and you’re constantly with the team doing scouting and preparing for games. Cal would always designate a day to work with us one-on-one as individuals. I talked to my friends on other teams and they weren’t doing anything like that. He was always pushing guys to work on their game and find ways to improve and that’s one thing I always respected and took from him. He’s all about his players and he always pushes them to get better.
SLAM: He’s constantly in the news for more negative than positive it seems. Do you think all the criticisms are a little unjustified?
RB: Yeah, I think he gets a bad rap since he’s fiery and won’t back down from anyone or any type of challenge. He’s had great success doing what all the other coaches wish they could do. He attracts the top talent and he’s found a way to motivate them. You watch the all-access shows and he’s talking his talk but what he says, he really believes. The stuff he’s telling his recruits, he backs it up. He’s not just giving them lip service, he really prepares you and I think the kids respect that. I think he’s changing the game, coaches are going to recruit differently because of him. They’re not going to always like it but they’ll have to adjust.
SLAM: When you watch him now, do you think his style has changed compared to when you played for him?
RB: Oh, it’s totally different. The thing I always respected about him is he doesn’t coach in his style all the time, he adjusts to his players. When we were at UMass and had Marcus Camby and he would block every shot and our offense would run through the post. We were a half court team and led the nation in defensive field-goal percentage. We would press the first five minutes of every game to create an aggressive mentality and everybody thought we were a pressing team but we were just doing that to get going, then we would sit back in the half court and play our game. Then you see him at Memphis where he had more of a guard-oriented, dribble and drive offense. This year he’s got a bunch of big guys and he’ll play differently, he’s constantly adjusting to his personnel.
SLAM: You’re currently doing work with Pro Hoops NYC. How did you get involved with them and what’s the overall goal?
RB: Pro Hoops was started by a guy named Jay Hernandez who played at Hofstra and professionally in Puerto Rico. Jay is a great trainer, he’s been in a lot of the Under Armour ads training with Kemba Walker. He’s working with a lot of pros and he’s finally getting his due now, he’s been doing this for a long time and he’s getting the exposure he deserves. Jay is from Long Island and I was coaching at Fordham and we were doing these camps for college players over the summer. We ran one at Fordham and I was thinking about getting out of coaching and he told me they had an opportunity to work with Pro Hoops so I joined them. Things started going really well and it took off from there.
I’ve always enjoyed working with players, that was always my thing, I was a gym rat so it was a natural job for me. As far as the goals of the company, we’re a basketball training company, that’s what we do. We’re programmed for individual workouts for different levels of play. We’re expanding and continue to hire the right trainers and lead the industry in what we do.
SLAM: You’ve worked with Kevin Love, Joakim Noah, the aforementioned Walker. Why do they come to you instead of other trainers?
RB: We’ve always done our business by referrals. I think guys find a comfort level with you and know they can trust you and help them get better. You do a good job with a few people and they spread the word. I don’t think it’s a secret, if you do a good job and people trust you, you’ll keep getting clients.
SLAM: You also work with a lot of college and high school kids. Do you have a preference in who you work with? Do you prefer them to the pros or vice versa?
RB: I love the balance throughout the year, you get to be on different sides of the sport. The perspective you get working with a young player or a high school player or professional player, it’s all very similar because you’re helping them work on different skills. Mentally I think you can have a bigger impact with the younger guys since they’re coming up and you can help mold them in that sense. I enjoy working with everyone because of the different perspectives. It feels great to help a young kid who wants to make the varsity team or go to college and having them work on the necessary skills.
SLAM: I was reading that you teamed up with the NYPD PAL and the County District Office for the “Drill and Play” program, what was the inspiration behind the partnership and the program?
RB: A guy who works in the DA’s office approached me about doing programs for the DA. It really came from them saying they’re committed to not only prosecuting the people that are breaking the law but also helping kids by giving them the opportunity to do something besides getting in trouble. The idea is to provide kids with an outstanding training program that they might not be able to afford so they can get the same chance as kids who can afford it. He approached me and we started with one gym and it went really well. Then we had that gym for two nights and opened another gym and another and now we’re at four gyms and hoping to open a few more throughout the city. We’re also looking at expanding outside of New York as well.
SLAM: When you first got wind of this project and the program, did you expect it to take off like this?
RB: I really wasn’t sure. These programs are tough. If something doesn’t go well and if the numbers aren’t right, it’s so easy to close up shop and head in another direction. I know Harlem is in need of things like this. I know kids want to get better. At the same time, you’re dealing with 40-50 kids at a time and you have to get trainers who are up to the task. If things don’t go well the first few times, everything can change quickly. The kids were great and came in from the beginning wanting to get better. They came in with eyes and arms open saying they really wanted to prove their game and those are the kids who make this whole thing possible. They trusted us and that was huge.
SLAM: Would you say this is something you’ve taken the most pride in over the course of your career?
RB: I don’t know, that’s a tough question. I loved coaching and working with those kids and recruiting. You get a lot back from this because you really see kids who may not play basketball in college but they want an opportunity and for someone to believe in them. We have a great staff of trainers that really take the time to work with the kids and connect with them on a weekly level year round and it’s a very rewarding program in that sense. We start them young so we have a big chance to make an impact and help them as opposed to some programs that only take the most talented player. This program gives kids who come in and pay attention to us an opportunity to play, learn the game and get better. We definitely have a reward that’s bigger than programs that are happy with winning 20-games and going their separate ways when the season is over. With the “Drill and Play” program, you’re building relationships with these kids and hopefully bettering their lives.