Pembrook Burrows III in the gym at the old Roosevelt High School, where he played basketball in the mid-1960s. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Dave George details the unlikely rise of Pembrook Burrows III of West Palm Beach, who scored just nine points in his high school career, yet went on to play a key role for an upstart Jacksonville University team that faced college basketball’s greatest dynasty in the 1970 NCAA tournament final.
By Dave George
Palm Beach Post staff writer
WEST PALM BEACH – Pembrook Burrows III came to basketball once he realized that few other things fit his magically growing beanstalk of a body.
"I grew quite a bit one summer going from 10th to 11th grade," said Burrows, who as it turns out was only getting started. "Gained 4-5 inches just like that.
"My mom ordered me a suit for church and by the time the suit came it was too small. I must have been 6-foot-7 or 6-8 when I went back for my junior year."
That's as good a start as any for a truly tall tale, and the story of Jacksonville University's run to the championship game of the 1970 NCAA men's basketball tournament is a genuine whopper.
We're talking about an upstart team making its postseason debut and earning a legitimate shot at the title against mighty UCLA, then in the midst of a streak of seven straight national titles. We're talking, too, about a Jacksonville program that hasn't won a single NCAA tournament game since.
Still, the most surprising part of it all may be Burrows' part in it. Sure, he was a formidable college basketball player, 7 feet tall and fully capable of snagging any rebound or blocking any shot that entered his expansive air space. Back a few years earlier at Roosevelt High School in West Palm Beach, however, Burrows barely got off the bench.
Roosevelt High basketball teammates Joe Williams (30), Ronald McCray (24) and Pembrook Burrows III (42) during the 1966 season. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
"I had more love for playing the drum than I did for basketball," said Burrows, who played in Roosevelt's marching band and at the old Westward Junior High before that. "The Final Four, of course, was a big deal back then but I just never dreamed I would ever be playing in it.
"I can't believe the story is still alive after all these years."
"I had more love for playing the drum than I did for basketball."
— Pembrook Burrows
Well, it is alive, and kicking as hard as ever against the odds, not only because Burrows was the first Palm Beach County kid to play in the Final Four but because it took 35 years for there to be another one. That's when Jackie Manuel of Cardinal Newman High School won a national title as captain of the 2005 North Carolina Tar Heels, and this year Dwyer High School's Joel James is in the Final Four with North Carolina, too.
As March Madness completes its 2016 run, we trace the timeline of the first area player who got to experience it in full. There is fantasy to go with the history. There is Artis Gilmore, too, a legendary teammate of Burrows, who wraps both of those words into one.
Growing into the game
Pembrook Burrows III. It has the ring of a character from an old movie script, or a page from some royal family album.
The name originates in Bimini, however, with a grandfather who is said to have died in a storm on a boat. His widow relocated to Palm Beach County, which is how Pembrook Burrows Jr., came to be a U.S. citizen and join the U.S. Army and later to work as a maintenance supervisor at Sears & Roebuck. Pembrook III keeps a framed and folded American flag in his West Palm Beach home as a tribute to his late father's military service.
None of that is particularly newsworthy in the broader public sense, and neither was Burrows as he grew up on 9th Street in West Palm Beach, right next to New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Plenty of kids lived in that neighborhood, just a few blocks from Roosevelt, the community school that practically all of the city's black students attended.
These were the last days of racial segregation in Palm Beach County public schools. When Burrows finally did go out for basketball, joining the Roosevelt junior varsity team for the 1964-65 school year, there were no white schools on the schedule. Matter of fact, when Burrows' Jacksonville team played No. 1 Kentucky in the NCAA tournament just a few years later, Adolph Rupp still coached an all-white Wildcats roster.
Roosevelt always maxed out, however, within the parameters that were permitted. The 28-2 Maroon Devils won the 1960 state basketball title in their classification and later finished second to Pearl High of Nashville in the national tournament for black schools. That tournament was played at Tennessee State University without television or radio coverage back home in Florida, but that didn't stop the news from traveling that high-scoring guard James "Red" Mack Allen and coach Sam Marshall were really putting on a show.
Marshall, who died in 2004, had a record of 229-98 in a decade as Roosevelt's coach. His standards were high, and they carried to the JV team, coached by Floyd Andrews, who went on to lead three state championship teams of his own, at Roosevelt in 1968 and at North Shore in 1974 and 1980.
The two coaches weren't ready for Burrows to move up to the varsity team until his senior year, and even then it took more than majestic height to break into the Roosevelt lineup. Burrows scored a total of nine points in his high school career.
Pembrook Burrows checks out the height of the net in the gym at West Palm Beach's old Roosevelt High School where he played basketball. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
"Roosevelt had some great teams back then," said Burrows, "teams that I got to sit on the bench and watch. A lot of guys had more experience than I had playing basketball.
"I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a learning phase. Being a part of something positive was the main thing. When I left Roosevelt, Coach Marshall told me about two scholarship offers: One was from Bethune-Cookman and I'm not sure if Florida A&M was one of them or not. Either way, I turned them down. I said 'I'm not good enough to be playing basketball and I don't want to sit on the bench anymore.' "
Over the next year Burrows changed a bit. He started playing every night at Gaines Park and wherever else the best pickup games could be found. He developed his game and his reputation on an AAU team sponsored by Sports Town, an athletic equipment store on Clematis Street. There was no real plan to do more than have fun with the game, but it became an around-the-clock obsession just the same.
Burrows' day job was moving cars from the back lot to the front lot and over to the service bay at the old Schooley Cadillac dealership downtown. Then, at night, Burrows really went to work, clocking out at the car shop and hustling directly to the basketball courts, where he fought for rebounds and for his place in the game until the light timer finally clicked off.
When a basketball player is putting in that kind of consistent effort, the word gets around, and when that player has worked his way steadily up to 7 feet tall, word travels fast. One day Burrows got a call from his mother to head straight home after work instead of going to shoot hoops.
"I got home and there's this white man in a sport coat sitting on the porch with my mom," Burrows said. "The first thought that crossed my mind was that he looked like the police, but I hadn't done anything.
"When I left Roosevelt High School, I had two scholarship offers. When I left Brevard, I had over 250. Oler wouldn't let me know but he was keeping them in a box to give to me when my last season was over. I could go anywhere I wanted to go."
— Pembrook Burrows
"It ended up being Coach James Oler from Brevard Junior College. He offered me a two-year scholarship even though he had never seen me play. He was going on the recommendation of someone who had seen me play in an AAU tournament in Macon, Ga., and asked to take down my name and phone number. Ha, like I ever expected anything to come of that."
Oler found Burrows a place to live in Cocoa and picked him up each day for classes and for practice. At Brevard the young giant with the raw skills learned how a team could run plays specifically for him, and how the pick-and-roll worked, and how to add all the other fundamentals to his custom-built basketball frame.
"When I left Roosevelt High School, I had two scholarship offers," Burrows said. "When I left Brevard, I had over 250. Oler wouldn't let me know but he was keeping them in a box to give to me when my last season was over. I could go anywhere I wanted to go."
Well, not exactly, at least not when it came to colleges in Florida and the rest of the South.
Florida State University signed its first black basketball player in 1966. The University of Miami first integrated its basketball team in 1968 and Florida waited until 1971.
Jacksonville, a full four-year university for only 11 years when Burrows signed a scholarship offer there, was only beginning to make the change, too.
Jacksonville University basketball players Chip Dublin, Pembrook Burrows and Artis Gilmore. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
Chip Dublin joined the Jacksonville Dolphins in 1967 and soon became the first black player to start for a major Southern basketball school. Burrows arrived in 1969, recruited by Tom Wasdin, a Jacksonville assistant coach from Cocoa who saw the big man play on a regular basis at Brevard and didn't want him to get away. Then, in short order, came Gilmore, a 7-foot-2 prodigy from the Florida panhandle town of Chipley who was looking to transfer from what was then a junior college called Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, N.C.
"This country was not to the point that it is today," Gilmore said by phone recently from his home in Jacksonville. "I probably could have gone to a lot of places but when I came out of high school it was just two years before Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. There were not a whole lot of choices of schools that were accepting minorities as athletes."
Burrows and Gilmore instantly gave Jacksonville more height than most NBA teams. Still, would it work? Burrows had played against Gilmore, a future member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in the national junior college tournament. He understood how easy it would be to wind up back on the bench, an anxious flashback to those Roosevelt days.
"When coach Wasdin was recruiting me to Jacksonville, he said, 'Oh, yeah, you're going to start, you're going to be the big man,' " Burrows said. "A week later I'm reading in the paper that they signed Artis. I called coach Wasdin to ask, 'Am I still starting?' He said, 'Don't worry about it. We'll find a spot for you.' "
Pembrook Burrows III sits on the bench during the Gold Coast Classic at West Palm Beach Auditorium in December 1970 next to Jacksonville assistant coach Jim Watson (center) and head coach Tom Wasdin. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
The solution, cooked up by Wasdin and Jacksonville head coach Joe Williams, was to play Gilmore at the low post and Burrows at the high post. Both, naturally, were never more than one long step from a rebound or a blocked shot. Each of them found the other invaluable, as a teammate and a friend.
"It was a tremendous time at Jacksonville," Burrows said. "People ask me what I remember other than the basketball, and I remember me and Artis sitting on the curb with a quart of milk and a couple of (sweet) potato pies. That's the person I remember, the person away from basketball.
"We were just a bunch of guys that could play basketball and were having a good time doing it. That's it. We weren't even thinking about the Final Four."
Something to crow about
There's really no reason that they should have been.
No school as small as Jacksonville, with an enrollment of 2,700 at the time, had ever reached the Final Four, and none so small has made it since.
Jacksonville was not a member of any conference, major or minor, at the time. The Dolphins went 17-7 the season before Burrows and Gilmore arrived, playing an independent schedule that featured nine lower-division opponents like Biscayne and Mercer. Jacksonville had never previously played in the NCAA tournament or any other postseason tournament of note. Also, no school as small as Jacksonville, with an enrollment of 2,700 at the time, had ever reached the Final Four, and none so small has made it since.
The thing is, the Dolphins didn't care. They didn't care who was on the schedule, famous or obscure. They didn't know that one day there would be a sign proclaiming "Historic Swisher Gymnasium" on the small campus building where their home games were played, or that a few games into the season it would become necessary to move to the 10,000-seat Memorial Coliseum down by the old Gator Bowl to accommodate a multitude of new fans.
Burrows remembers thinking at first that it might take more than basketball alone to create that kind of interest.
Pembrook Burrows III (42, center) of Jacksonville helps teammate Vaughn Wedeking (10) guard Wake Forest's Neil Pastushok during a game at the Gold Coast Classic at the West Palm Beach Auditorium in December 1970. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
"The city of Jacksonville was looking for something to own," Burrows said. "All of a sudden we come to town and about the second game we get into a fight. It ended up Rex (high-scoring guard Rex Morgan) got cut across the eye and he got blood all over his face and that's the picture that everybody saw in the papers the next day. I'm thinking, 'OK, those that don't like basketball are gonna come to see the fight.' "
Turns out the scoreboard did most of the selling.
Jacksonville averaged 100.4 points that season, racing up and down the court in a style that was way before its time. The NCAA was still 16 years from adopting a shot clock to prevent stall tactics and 18 years away from adding a three-point line to boost scoring. On top of all that, the amazing 1969-70 Dolphins and their twin towers were not allowed to dunk the ball. The NCAA outlawed that flashy power move from 1967 to 1976.
(Photo courtesy of Jacksonville University)
"We could run and we could shoot, I can tell you," Burrows said of the first college team to average 100 points. "I would attribute a lot of the points to the fast break. I can remember in practice we'd run the fast break against the clock, competing against each other to see who could run the drill the fastest. It's not practice when you're having fun."
It was a time in history when all of Jacksonville, as racially divided as any city in America, needed a little fun. Burrows tells of a day when he and Gilmore and Dublin were driving around town and spotted a couple of kids shooting baskets on an old hoop in the projects.
"We decided to stop and shoot a little bit with them," Burrows said. "In about 30 minutes there must have been about 300 people around this little old court. Word had spread that Jacksonville University is down at the basketball court. Next thing I hear is sirens coming. The police pull up and I can hear one of the officers telling somebody on the radio, 'It's not a problem. It's just players from Jacksonville University playing basketball.' I guess they thought it was a riot.
"Now more police cars show up, because they wanted to watch, too."
The only downer during the regular season was an 89-83 loss at FSU in late January. By then the Dolphins had gone from unranked to No. 6 in the Associated Press national rankings. That defeat knocked Jacksonville back a couple of spots to No. 8 but it didn't matter much. Nobody else beat them until the NCAA championship game.
His .646 career field goal percentage remains the Jacksonville school record.
Burrows' numbers for that season (10.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game) don't grab your attention next to Gilmore's, but whose could? The A-Train averaged an astonishing 26.5 points and 22.2 rebounds per game, in spite of every double-teaming defensive scheme devised to stop him.
"My role on the team?" Burrows said. "Go to the boards and block out."
Whatever Burrows found down there he usually put right back in the bucket. His .646 career field goal percentage remains the Jacksonville school record.
"Pembrook is modest and unassuming," said Gilmore, "but without Pembrook we would not have moved forward. He had a nice little perimeter jump shot and he was able to open the floor and take away the pressure because of his size. He could shoot over the top of so many opponents.
"Plus, he was just an extraordinary person, a very caring, loving individual. He always had a superb smile and always had something very nice to share."
The catchiest contribution was something Burrows brought with him from Roosevelt. When the Dolphins were plowing through a particularly monotonous stretch of wind sprints in the practice gym, Burrows would sing out with the kind of chant a military unit might use on a long march.
The original version from his high school days told of an imaginary rooster, one that could be counted upon to crow for the Roosevelt Maroon Devils alone. Switching up the words just a bit, it came out something like this, and it was sung by Jacksonville players and cheerleaders and fans following each victory.
"Jacksonville had a rooster,
And they put him on a fence,
And he crowed for the Dolphins
'Cause he had good sense.
Hidey, hidey, hidey, ho,
Bodey, oh, dee, oh, dee, oh,
Oh, what a team,
Jacksonville's got a team."
Off to see the Wizard (of Westwood)
By early March, no one in the nation could dispute it. Jacksonville had a 23-1 team that had just closed down the regular season with road wins over Georgia Tech and Miami.
Jacksonville's players headed off to class on the first day back at school, not counting on anything from an NCAA selection committee that never before had chosen the school. Besides, there was no live television broadcast to reveal the brackets. If there was any news to be relayed to the athletic director and the coaching staff, eventually it would make its way through the grapevine.
Pembrook Burrows and teammates head to the locker room after a Jacksonville victory. (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville University)
And so it did, causing everybody on campus to go racing around for directions to Dayton, Ohio, and for money to get there. That's where Jacksonville was sent to play Western Kentucky in the Mideast Region's opening round. The result? Just like all the others. The Dolphins won 109-96 and crowed for more.
Next came what should have been a dead end, a collision with Iowa's Big Ten champion Hawkeyes and future NBA star Fred "Downtown Freddie" Brown. The Dolphins made it through, however, winning 104-103 on a tip-in by Burrows with three seconds remaining. That capped a 23-point game, a season high for Burrows. That may have been half as many points as Gilmore's season-best output but, man, was it needed. At game's end, the A-Train was watching from the bench, fouled out.
"I just happened to be there," Burrows said of his game-winning play. "Nothing that I hadn't done a thousand times before. Go to the boards. That's my job as a big man."
It gets scarier.
Now the national media was latched onto the Jacksonville story in all its quirkiness. Everybody from Sports Illustrated on down figured there was no time to waste in telling it, either. The Dolphins' next opponent, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, was No. 1 Kentucky. The Wildcats, four times a national champion at that point, were trucking along at 26-1 with All-America center Dan Issel averaging 33.9 points per game.
Once more, however, Jacksonville won a high-scoring shootout, 106-100, leaving Kentucky fans to sputter about Issel fouling out with 10 minutes to play and 28 points to his credit. Five years later Issel and Gilmore teamed up to win an American Basketball Association championship with the professional Kentucky Colonels, but they probably didn't speak of this game much.
Incredibly, the Dolphins were off to the Final Four, not to be played in a massive, domed football stadium but at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House in College Park.
Once more, the Dolphins were oblivious to the deeper story lines.
On this 50th anniversary of Texas Western's upset of Kentucky, many historical references are being made to the first all-black starting five to win a national championship. Jacksonville's players didn't know, however, that Texas Western's title-clinching game was also played at Cole Field House, or at least Burrows says he doesn't remember knowing that.
Same goes for the fact that Jacksonville was assigned motel rooms at College Park's modest old Interstate Inn, the same place where Texas Western stayed in 1966.
Williams, the Dolphins' 36-year-old head coach, wore his white, double-breasted jacket and bell-bottom pants on the sidelines for Jacksonville's 91-83 semifinal win over St. Bonaventure. The win was made easier because the Bonnies' All-America center, Bob Lanier, was injured in the previous round and unable to play. That disappointed Burrows, who says he always wanted to go against the best his opponent had to offer. But there would be no problem with that in the championship game.
UCLA was such a powerhouse that the Bruins had lost a total of two games in the previous three years, and all three of those were national championship seasons. The Dolphins caught them in the brief period between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's departure and Bill Walton's arrival, but so what? Wooden had Sidney Wicks and Steve Patterson and Henry Bibby and everything else he needed to keep the titles coming.
The game was played on a Saturday afternoon, not the Monday night showcase of today, and Jacksonville charged out to a 24-15 lead about 10 minutes in.
Suddenly, finally, it was over. Wicks, tired of having passes lobbed over his head to Gilmore, started playing behind the Dolphins' superstar. He started blocking Artis' shots, too. Four of them, though to this day Jacksonville players believe some of those blocks should have been called goaltending. Referees weren't accustomed to seeing shots delivered downward to the basket the way that Gilmore did it.
The A-Train scored just 19 points on 9-of-29 shooting and UCLA steadily pulled away in the second half to win 80-69. It was the fourth of an amazing seven consecutive NCAA titles for Wooden. Burrows, who contributed 12 points and six rebounds in the losing effort, immediately longed for a chance to do it all again, only better.
Pembrook Burrows' ring from Jacksonville University. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
"It just wasn't our time to win it," Burrows said. "Now that I think back on it over the years, I wish I had stepped up more to give Gilmore more of a chance to recoup and get ready. Taking more shots, probably going down low a lot more, that's what I should have done."
There was no rematch.
The following year, in their senior seasons, Burrows and Gilmore tried to recapture the magic, even though Williams left Jacksonville to take the head coaching job at Furman. The Dolphins rattled off a 22-3 regular season with Wasdin promoted to the top spot, staying in the AP top 10 all the way through, but this time their first NCAA tournament game also was their last.
Western Kentucky rode the same kind of lightning that Jacksonville did the previous year, driving all the way to the Final Four and kicking it all off with a 74-72 win over the Dolphins in the opening round.
That's the crazy way college basketball works. That's how Larry Bird and Indiana State happen, and Florida Gulf Coast's "Dunk City" crew, too.
The pro game draws a straighter line between what can be and what can't.
For that reason Gilmore went on to an 18-year Hall of Fame career in the ABA and the NBA, while Burrows, a third-round pick of the Seattle SuperSonics, didn't make the team and decided to pass on playing in Europe.
Pembrook Burrows III serves as a Public Information Officer for the Florida Highway Patrol in this March 19, 1996 photo. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
The wonders didn't cease there, however. Burrows joined the Florida Highway Patrol, the third African-American ever to do so, and in 2013 wrapped up a 41-year career as a lieutenant. Old workmates love to tell the story of the time Burrows stepped out of his patrol car to ask the driver of a tractor-trailer truck for his license and registration.
"Get off my running board," the trucker supposedly snapped.
"I'm not standing on your running board," came the answer.
Pembrook Burrows III, billed as "The World's Tallest Policeman," visits Australia in 1988 and poses with constable Belinda Hardy. (File photo)
Whether that's entirely true or not, it's in keeping with the almost mythic arc of this humble man's life, just like the trip he took to Australia to appear as the world's tallest law enforcement officer on a television show styled after Ripley's Believe It or Not.
If Burrows were a foot shorter, he would always have been banging the drum for somebody else, in the Roosevelt marching band and beyond. Instead, he was one of many true sensations in the 1970 Final Four, a fact that will never cease to fascinate no matter how many other Palm Beach County athletes make it to the NCAA's last dance.
Maybe you'll see Burrows around town some day. He's not difficult to pick out above the crowd, whether he's participating in some community project as a state officer of the Shriner's Club or as a member of the Men's Ministry Committee at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Or maybe you'll catch him handing out honors as president of the Roosevelt High School Sports Hall of Fame, a group that this year inducted Burrows' 1966 basketball teammate Sammie Hobbs among many others.
If given the chance, step up and ask Burrows about his days of basketball glory. He'll probably say it was no big deal, at least not based on his accomplishments alone.
Now, you'll know better.