February 1965. My love affair with sport is just beginning, even though I am barely seven years old. I remember it as the time my father, a highly successful coach with a sharp eye for talent, arrives home from work and makes an announcement.
“I just came across the most talented high school athlete I have ever seen,” he tells me.
I learn that the person in question is a young man currently starring at basketball for Oak Bay High School in Victoria, British Columbia.
And that his name is Bob Burrows.
Perhaps, if not so young, I might have followed Burrows’ subsequent achievements more closely. Just weeks later he directs his hoop squad to the BC AAA title, capturing the first of multiple MVP awards in the process. 6’3”, he plays more like 6’7”. Possesses supreme hand-eye coordination and sublime skills. Ultra-competitive and a chiseled 200 pounds. Broad, powerful shoulders and hands the size of toilet seats complete the makeup.
Outstanding on the hardwood, he is maybe even better at baseball. Moving on to the university level, first at Spokane Community College, then at Seattle Pacific, he excels in the two disciplines. Whether a high scoring guard/forward or a power hitting catcher/first baseman, he features prominently for both schools. Playing key roles in various regional championship seasons, he draws plenty of interest from scouts in the process.
His post secondary athletic eligibility soon complete, 1969 means decision time. Burrows eschews overtures from the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics in favour of a professional baseball contract with Kansas City, a new addition to the American League.
Sadly, after four seasons of development in the Royals’ farm system, baseball comes to a close. A wild pitch, which hits him in the face, effectively ends his career.
Yet, baseball’s loss turns out to be softball’s gain. Back in Victoria, Burrows returns to the diamond as a player-coach. A fine fielder, with a cannon for an arm, he also bats over .400 while leading the city’s powerhouse Senior Men’s team in Pacific Northwest league play, and, from 1975 to 1978, to four consecutive national titles. Over the better part of a decade, on his way to membership in the BC and Canada Softball Hall of Fames, his reputation as a clutch hitter grows. There is a stunning 4 homer, 14 RBI performance at a high profile 1976 International tournament in New Zealand. And, for good measure, last inning, game winning bombs in both the 1982 and 1983 Canadian championship finals.
Still, there is much more about him than just raw stats, trophies won or summaries in a newspaper. By the mid-1970s, now a student at university in Victoria and increasingly part of the local sporting scene, I attend some of his games. And it is there, downtown at Royal Athletic Park, where I feel the energy, sense the anticipation that all elite players deliver.
Indeed, there is a frisson of excitement every time Burrows emerges from the dugout to take his place in the on-deck circle. Eventually, he arrives at the plate. Facing an assortment of swerving, dipping or rising fastballs, he seeks a particular pitch. Coiled like a spring, first comes the smooth weight transfer, then the distinctive crack of the bat. The ball, like a tracer bullet, scorches towards one of the outfield alleys, or climbs gloriously into the night sky on its way over the center field fence.
All the while, Burrows stays equally connected with basketball. His all-round game is beautiful in its simplicity. A 20ppg scorer as a senior at Seattle Pacific, he remains a fine shooter. Immensely strong, he understands angles and spacing, while retaining a lethally quick first step to the hoop. And no one executes better the “give and go” to score layups.
A member of the Victoria Scorpions, later Data Tech, he makes an immediate impact, winning tournament MVP honours at the 1976 Canadian Senior Men’s competition.
October 1977. A new basketball season looms on the horizon. Somehow, I survive a log jam of contenders to gain a starting guard position on the Victoria Vikes varsity. Our season opener, exhibition in nature but with city bragging rights at stake, is vs Data Tech. Little do I know that, as baseball’s loss became softball’s gain, Burrows’ participation will turn out to be my gain.
As warmup finishes, I am a bundle of nerves. Desperate to seize the opportunity to gain playing time. I go through my check list for the hundredth time. Control the dribbler, pressure the shooter. Don’t foul. Box out. At all costs, do not turn the ball over. Any scoring chances will be a bonus.
I acknowledge Burrows prior to tipoff, my hand disappearing into one of his massive paws. He senses my edginess, takes time to give advice. “Relax kid,” he offers. “Listen up and enjoy the game.”
Play begins. We gain possession, swing the ball around the horn. Burrows loosely covers me, then sags off further. I cut to receive a pass, pivot, face the hoop. Look immediately to feed a post player near the basket.
It is then that I hear him. “Hydes” he counsels firmly, “You’re wide open. Shoot the ball”.
And, so ordered, I do. The twenty-footer traces a lazy arc, keeps its line, splashes softly through the net.
Incredibly, this exact scenario then plays out twice more in rapid succession. I am in shock. The game is only minutes old, and already I have six points.
Two hours later, it is all over. While we can’t control Burrows, who racks up 30+, the Vikes record a victory. For me personally, thanks in part to the unexpected help, it is a dream debut.
At the post game mixer, I hover in the background, sipping carefully from a water bottle. Across the room, Burrows holds court, smiling, laughing, swapping stories. A larger than life presence, bottle of beer and cigarette close at hand.
I rue the inevitable. I know that, with the passing of time, too many Victorians will never know, or will slowly lose touch with, one of the absolute greatest athletes ever to represent our city.
He glances up. Our eyes lock. Silently, I mouth my thanks. He gives a small nod in return.
I decide his “assistance” will remain our secret.