The Whole Enchilada
Steve Burtt Jr understands the intricacies of the game.
SLAM: You made the NCAA Tournament your senior year and played against Big Baby and Tyrus Thomas and were on the brink of taking them down for a large portion of the game. Do you ever think to yourself, “Damn, if we matched up with anybody else in the first round we could have made a run,” or were you happy with just getting there? I know I took you guys in my bracket because you guys had a very, very good group of guys.
SB: Well honestly I think, Damn, we could have beaten them, because like you said, we had the game in our hands. We just let it slip away. You always want to come out with a win, but at the end of the day, especially in my last year, to win my conference title, get to the NCAA Tournament, to see and be a part of that atmosphere, and give a Final Four team a very good run for their money, I was happy leaving school in that way.
SLAM: Since college ended, you have been overseas playing in a few different countries. I know that there have been instances where your safety has been threatened, but you have also won a championship in the Ukraine. Some people don’t understand the realities of playing pro ball overseas for a living—the nuances of the on and off the court lifestyle changes…
SB: Playing overseas is great, in the sense that you have an opportunity to make lots of money doing the thing you love to do. But it is very different. There are different realities over here; more harsh realities that we as Americans don’t always see or hear about. For instance playing in Israel, I had to deal with the people in Gaza shooting rockets all over the place—a few landed in my city. Now the team (and league) did a wonderful job keeping us safe and away from danger, but you still are around those things, much closer than when you are on your sofa and watching CNN. So you learn to appreciate life a little more… A lot more actually. Because people in certain places don’t have half the things we feel we “need” as Americans and they still keep pushing. Still, Israel was probably the most fun place I’ve played in. The weather’s great, its very Americanized, almost everyone speaks English, and the night life was like that of New York or Miami, so I felt very at home there. Also, there are a lot of Americans (both men and women) athletes there. Israel is small, so we were all close (no more than a few hours) and everyone came to Tel Aviv to party. They had hip-hop clubs there, so I heard my kind of music, and it was very up to date.
That was half of my second year, and my third year overseas. My first year playing I was in Greece. Now, being that my dad played ball overseas, I was already exposed to that lifestyle, in visiting and living with him in different places throughout the years—it wasn’t as difficult as someone who’s never been out of the USA. It was a pretty good year for me. I was in a port city called Patras. It’s in the south. The weather was nice, and I had a good group of guys on my team—older guys too—that helped me get through. My coach there was like a college coach—well, they all kind of are—but this one in particular reminded me of Coach Ruland. He was tough, very strict, and we ran for our mistakes [laughs].
European ball is a lot like college basketball. The rules are pretty much the same—there’s no defensive three seconds, and it’s totally team-oriented. I know basketball is a team sport, but I mean in the NBA, there’s a lot of isolation; there is almost none of that in European ball, unless it’s in the post.
Probably the thing I dislike most about Euro-ball is the “assist” rule. It’s so hard to get an assist here. What they consider an assist is a DIRECT pass for a basket. Meaning the player who scores can’t take any dribbles—no head-fakes, nothing. Your pass has to be the only thing that happens before he puts it in the basket. And in some places, kicking out for a jumper or a three isn’t an assist! Its crazy, and it drives my crazy!
I’ve also played for short stints in Italy and in Spain. I started in Italy before moving to Israel for a better situation. Italy was cool, but the quality of basketball there (on that specific team—Italy is one of the top leagues in Europe) just wasn’t too good, so I moved on. But it was still a great experience. I learned Italian as a kid being with my dad, so it was easy to adjust to life there. I was 30 minutes from Milan, so that was great too!
Spain was a great experience, but probably my most difficult. The top league Spain (the ACB) is considered the best league in the world aside from the NBA. I was signed to a team there called “Vive Menorca” for the final two months of the season to help them get out of last place. (Note: This is very common in Europe). Coming to this league definitely played a part in my transition from being a natural shooting guard to becoming a point guard.
It was very NBA-like. Every position on the floor was huge! Centers are 7-0, power forwards were 6-9, 6-10, small forwards were 6-6 to 6-8, shooting guards were 6-3 to 6-6, so being 6-feet tall, you can see where I would fit in—the point guard spot.
I struggled a bit, having to guard taller players (they still used me at shooting guard, and SOMETIMES at point). But I could always score, so that kept me on the floor. Even though I had some great games against some of the best European players, I wasn’t able to help them stay in the 1st division. (Note: In Europe, the team that finishes in last place, drops down a division).
Outside of ball, Spain was great. Menorca is an island—it’s very quiet and is known for its ports, so when it’s not summer, there’s really no one there [laughs]. I was able to go to Barcelona, and Madrid, and see some great things. Believe it or not, not many people in Spain speak English [laughs]. You would think they did because it’s such a well-known place in America. But no, Israel probably has a more prevalent English speaking population than Spain (in my opinion). So it was a little difficult to communicate at times, but that’s part of the experience in Europe—how to get around on your own; its like an adventure!
From last season until now, I’ve been in Ukraine. Probably the most different place I’ve ever been in. But ironically where I’ve had the most success. Last season I played for BC Ferro, a team located in the city of Zaporozhye. We finished in second place in the regular season and won the Ukrainian Cup. [Note: The Cup is a secondary tournament, though just as important, that's played within each country, aside from the normal championship at the end of the season. Its usually played around February.] We made it to the playoffs, and lost in the semis. I led the league in scoring (I’ve led the league in scoring in three separate seasons in my career, including now), was third in assists, and made the All-Star game and three-point contest (which I didn’t win). It was a great year, though. I made great friends, and got to learn a different culture. They speak both Russian and Ukrainian here. It’s a very difficult language, but I’ve come to learn a few words that my teammates have taught me. Ukraine is primarily a poor country, so a lot of the cities have areas that look bad—but they love basketball.
This season, I’m playing in the city of Dnepropetrovsk for BC Dnipro. As I’m writing this we have about 11 games left. We’re in 6th place and rising. I’m leading the league in scoring again, am third in assists, and we won the cup again. Probably the thing I like most about Ukraine is the people’s love for the game. What I dislike most would be the weather. It’s freezing cold here in the winters. Even being from New York, I can’t get used to this kind of cold!