Jay Burson looked nothing like an athlete. He looked more like the kid who should be throwing the newspaper at your doorstep from the seat of his Huffy, than the assassin he was. Perhaps that’s what made him so much fun to watch and so easy to root for. Burson entertained Buckeye Nation during a somewhat down period in Ohio State basketball—his teams made the NCAA tournament only once and the NIT three times—but his slight figure left a huge imprint in our hearts and minds, as well as in the OSU record books. His presence, along with the likes of Dennis Hopson, Brad Sellers, Jerry Francis, Tony White and Perry Carter made that era more memorable than successful, but it was always entertaining.
It wasn’t just Burson’s diminutive body that set him apart. He also played the game with wild abandon. His size wasn’t an issue because he had a unique way of somehow pinballing between and off of defenders. This allowed him to find just enough daylight to launch his shots, which came from every conceivable angle and arm motion—and a few inconceivable ones as well. Half hooks, jumpers, running one-handers—you name it, he shot it. His slender build belied the quickness that allowed him to succeed where no success should have been possible.
Baby-faced Burson arrived at Ohio State after scoring an Ohio state high school record 2,958 points in four seasons at John Glenn High School in New Concord. That record held sway for 22 seasons, until another assassin—one Jon Keith “Threebler” Diebler—blew it up in 2007. Burson (and ultimately, Diebler) scored more points in high school than the likes of Jim Jackson, LeBron James and Jerry Lucas. For those of you who never saw Burson play, we call that “putting it into perspective.”
Even as a freshman, Burson’s talent was too intriguing to leave on the bench. He appeared in 32 games during the 1985-86 season, starting five times. The Buckeyes finished 19-14 that season, going just 8-10 in B1G play, ending up in seventh place. He averaged only 5.9 games in his uneven rookie campaign, but there were some games that stick out. He poured in 16 points in a loss at Boston College, 14 in a win at Wisconsin, and another 12 in a victory over Northwestern in Evanston. He made an impact in the postseason as well, scoring 11 points against both BYU and Texas in the National Invitational Tournament. He scored six more in the championship game against Wyoming in Madison Square Garden, as the Buckeyes prevailed, 73-63. It was a nice send-off for head coach Eldon Miller, who was fired after 10 years on the job. Over the course of the season, Burson posted the seventh best field goal percentage for a frosh in school history, hitting 54% of his shots. It was apparent that the gawky guard, who looked like he should be playing Dungeons and Dragons instead of Division I college hoops , could turn into something special.
Becoming a Starter
Burson stepped into the starting lineup his sophomore season and only injury could keep him out thereafter. He started all 33 games for new coach Gary Williams in 1986-97, on a team that finished 20-13 (9-9 and sixth in the B1G) and made the NCAA tourney. A little of the inconsistency of his freshman campaign carried over, but Burson still averaged 12.5 points per game and shot almost 42% outside the arc. He reached the 20-point mark for the first time by scoring exactly that many in a 96-75 drubbing of Ohio University, and then topped that with 21 in a tough 97-94 loss to Arkansas in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. Burson stepped into manhood by leading Ohio State with 25 points in a 95-87 victory over TTUN, and followed that with 18 more in a 90-72 rout of Sparty four days later. His 11 points helped the Buckeyes to a 91-77 win over Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but his 16 points weren’t enough to push Ohio State past Georgetown in a hard-fought 82-79 loss in the round of 32. With All-American Dennis Hopson graduating, Burson was about to become the focus of the OSU offense.
Coming Out Party
The 1987-88 Buckeyes did not improve, equaling their 20-13 overall record and 9-9 mark in the B1G (again finishing sixth), but Jay Burson did get better. Burson transformed himself into useful role player into the star of the show. He bumped up his scoring average, leading Ohio State with 18.9 points per game, 66 steals, and a three-point percentage north of 46%. Without Hopson around, Burson blossomed, scoring 625 points on the season. He was named the team’s MVP and posted a career-high rebounding average of 4.5. He set the tone for the season with 17 points in a season-opening thumping of Missouri-St. Louis and 25 more points three days later vs. Western Michigan. His 28 points and five rebounds paved the way for Ohio State’s 72-63 win at Nebraska to claim the Nebraska Invitational title. He posted 20 or more points 15 times his sophomore year, including twice against Iowa and Minnesota. He set a new career high of 29 in a 92-75 loss in Iowa City and 26 in a win over Central Michigan. Jay posted an average of 18.9 points in the NIT, but the Buckeyes fell five points shy against UConn, 72-67.
Senior Year: Triumph and Tragedy
Burson began his senior season—his third straight as a starter—as a team co-captain with Jerry Francis and Tony White. He would finish it on the bench in a torturous-looking metal halo attached to his skull with screws, designed to keep his head still while his broken neck healed. A lot happened in between. Burson scored an amazing 22.1 points his senior season, leading the Buckeyes to a 17-8 record and what appeared to be a sure berth in the NCAA tourney. He reached the 500+ points mark and led Ohio State in scoring, three-point percentage and steals for the second straight year. His 96 assists on the season also led the Buckeyes. Burson dropped 38 points with five assists in a narrow 97-93 season-opening defeat against Oklahoma in the Maui Classic. He followed that with 28 in a 72-20 win vs. DePaul. The Buckeyes won nine of their first 11 games before falling at Indiana in the B1G opener. In the run-up to league play, Burson tallied 20 or more six times, including a 37-point effort (9-13 3FG) with eight assists and five rips in a 93-68 thrashing of Florida in the ECAC Holiday Festival semi-final. His 23 points led the Buckeyes to the festival title over St. John’s, 77-72.
Burson opened conference play with 25 in the loss at Bloomington and 21 in a win over Wisconsin. He bombed Radford for 29, then put 19 on Sparty in an 83-81 road win. After a loss at TTUN, Jay scored 26 with six assists and five rips in a 102-91 win vs. Iowa in Columbus. It was the third consecutive time Burson had dumped 20 or more on the Hawkeyes, and certainly Iowa was tired of Ohio State’s No. 12. The Buckeyes went 4-2 in their next six games, with Jay pouring in 29 points in a road win at Louisville and hanging 26 on Purdue in a home victory. Then came the trip to Iowa.
Ohio State’s successful season turned south in a hurry at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 13, 1989. Despite Burson’s 25 points, the Buckeyes fell 83-75. Losing the game was nothing compared to what else Ohio State lost that night. During the game, Iowa forward Ed Horton hammered Burson with a hard foul that sent him into the basket support. Although he finished the game, Burson broke his neck on the play. It wasn’t until sustaining a concussion in a clash of heads with B.J. Armstrong that Jay was removed from the game. There were 35 seconds left in the game, but Burson’s season was over. From there, the Buckeyes finished the season 2-8, losing the final seven conference games and slipping from the NCAA into the NIT, where they were dumped in overtime of the third-round game by St. John’s, 83-80. After a 19-15 season (6-12 and 8th in the B1G), Burson’s college career was over, but it could have been worse. He was very nearly a quadriplegic.
We’ll Never Forget
Personally, I will never forget the horribawful sight of Burson in his halo brace, walking out to a thunderous standing ovation on Feb. 23, 1989, just before Ohio State fell 89-72 to 13th-ranked TTUN. It was a reminder of how quickly an amazing season can derail. The Buckeyes had been nationally ranked and an almost certain bet to lock down a decent seeding in the NCAA tournament. But the bigger tragedy in my mind was knowing we’d never see Burson in the scarlet and gray again, and that it ended a month and a half too soon.
Gary Williams said of his injured guard, “The last five minutes of the game, (Burson) wanted to take every shot. That’s a quality in a player that cannot be overrated. There are a lot of guys who are competitive, but to want to put it on the line in front of everyone, that’s rare.” Following the season, Burson was named team MVP and was an All-B1G selection, despite missing the final 10 games.
Over his four seasons at Ohio State, Burson scored 1,754 career points, currently eighth in school history. His 204 steals is an OSU career record, though Aaron Craft is currently on pace to make a mockery of it. Jay is also eighth in career field goals made (649), eighth in free throws made (392), and 10th in career FT% (.807). His free throw percentage of .867 his senior year ranks as the third best season total in OSU history. He was a three-time B1G Player of the Week.
Burson began his basketball comeback with the NBA’s Houston Rockets in July of 1989, attending a rookie camp. The Rockets liked what they saw and invited him back in August, signing him to a three-year deal. He reported in October and played in four preseason games with Houston. Unfortunately, his NBA career was not to be. He signed with the Columbus Horizon of the Continental Basketball Association, where he averaged 13.6 points in 1989-90, and was traded to the San Jose Jammers in September of 1990.
Since his playing days, Burson has worked for some of the leading companies in sports apparel, including six years as a marketing manager with Converse and six years as a senior team sports representative with Nike. He’s done some radio work with 97.1 The Fan in Columbus, serving as an expert analyst and pre-game co-host. He’s also a motivational speaker, and who better to inspire others than a guy who overcame a broken neck to play professional sports?