Hello all, and welcome back to Husky History, a new column focusing on one accomplished UConn athlete per week. Each article should detail the athlete’s accolades at Connecticut, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level.
This week’s Husky History focuses on legendary two-sport athlete Scott Burrell. While many know him from his time with the UConn basketball program or his appearance on the Michael Jordan miniseries “The Last Dance”, Burrell’s story goes far beyond his career playing basketball.
A Hamden, Connecticut native, Burrell was born to be an athlete. He grew up playing three different sports: football, basketball and baseball, where he played quarterback, guard/forward and pitcher, respectively. The first sport to get cut out of Burrell’s life was football, citing a higher risk of injury than the other two of his passions. While eventually being known for his skills on the basketball court, he had quite the knack for baseball, being named to the ABCA/Rawlings High School All-America Second Team his senior year. His father, a former coach of Yale Baseball, was a great inspiration.
“When you are young you just watch. You pick up things and try to imitate things that other people did,” said Burrell in a piece for the Southern News. “I loved doing that. I had so much fun back then and I have great memories of those days.”
His dominance in the sport did not go unnoticed, as the Seattle Mariners selected the recent Hamden High graduate with their first round pick in the MLB Draft. With the Mariners wanting him to play full-time immediately but Burrell looking to attend college, contract talks did not get far. The idea of playing baseball for the University of Miami tantalized him, but the prospect of playing both baseball and Big East basketball for his home team was too good to turn down.
His decision paid off dividends almost immediately. Burrell carved out a role in the starting rotation in that 1989-1990 freshman basketball campaign, putting up 8.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.9 steals per game. In what would be known as the “Dream Season,” the Huskies would be the first in program history to win 30 games, win a Big East regular season championship and a Big East Tournament.
“The first Big East Championship in UConn history was a great thrill,” reflected Burrell in 2020. “It helped propel the program to where it is today. A lot of people forget about those days, but it had to start somewhere, someone had to build it, and I’m glad to be a part of something being built and to leave a legacy at UConn. … We shocked the world by turning that Big East Conference around and keeping UConn on top after that.”
The squad also reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament that year, with Burrell throwing a full-court pass to Tate George in the final seconds of the Sweet Sixteen, setting up a buzzer-beater victory. While the magical run ended the next round after a late shot from Duke’s Christian Laettner, Burrell has said that the pass to George to beat Clemson is one of the top five moments of his life.
“I’m just happy to be part of that historic play and be responsible for such a big win for the program. It was definitely a special moment for me,” said Burrell in a 2014 article from The UConn Blog.
One more notable part of that historic year for the men’s basketball program was the inaugural season at Gampel Pavilion. Burrell played in the first game in the now-iconic arena, a 72-58 win against No. 15 St. John’s.
“Before Gampel we were playing in front of 4,000 per night in the Old Fieldhouse. Every day on campus on our way to practice we’d see the new arena being built, it was motivation to work extra hard and bring it on that first night in front of over 8,000 wild fans,” said Burrell.
After his freshman year, Burrell was drafted into the MLB once again, this time as a thirdrounder for the Toronto Blue Jays. They allowed him to go to school and play baseball, so Burrell pitched for a few summers in Toronto’s farm system. In low A ball, he logged a combined 3.71 ERA and a 1.335 WHIP in 14 games, per Baseball Reference.
While also juggling his amateur baseball career, Burrell returned to the court as strong as ever. After being named to the All-Big East Rookie team, Burrell was named to three All-Big East teams the next three years. He led the nation with 112 steals his sophomore year, and is still the program leader in swipes with 310. The young star made national history in Storrs as well, becoming the first player in the country to ever amass 1,500 points, 750 rebounds, 275 assists and 300 steals. Burrell remains the only UConn athlete to do so.
Very popular with the fanbase, Burrell was named to the UConn All-Century Team via a fan vote in 2001. The true culmination of his Storrs successes came on November 2, 2018, when he was inducted into the prestigious Huskies of Honor in Gampel Pavilion.
“I am proud and honored to be included with the many great UConn players who are in the Huskies of Honor,” Burrell noted in 2018. “Being born and brought up in Connecticut, it was a dream come true to attend UConn and play basketball for Coach [Jim] Calhoun. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
After his senior year, the hometown hero decided to declare for the NBA Draft. He was selected 20th overall in 1993 by the Charlotte Hornets. Unfortunately for Burrell, injuries riddled his NBA career, taking him off the court. His best statistical year came during his sophomore season, where he started 62 games, averaging 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals.
After spending half a season with the Golden State Warriors in 1996-1997, Burrell was traded to the Chicago Bulls for the start of the 1998 year, where he played a role in Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls, winning a NBA championship in the process. Some of Burrell’s contributions were highlighted in ESPN’s docuseries “The Last Dance”, released in early 2020.
“[The NBA Championship] was the biggest thrill of my life, and the most stressful situation I’ve ever been in. It’s so much pressure that it’s incredible. Every play, every pass, every shot could win or lose the ball game when you’re in the finals,” said Burrell in an interview with uconnhooplegends.com.
After earning his ring, Burrell played with the New Jersey Nets for two seasons before getting knee surgery. His NBA days had come to a close, but the Connecticut kid took his talents overseas, playing in countries like the Philippines and China.
Once Burrell decided to pack in his player career, he immediately was drawn to coaching at the amateur level. He got a job as an assistant coach for the Colorado 14ers (now the Texas Legends) of the G League in 2006, then as an assistant for longtime UConn assistant coach Tom Moore at Quinnipiac for the start of the 2007 season.
After seeing success under Moore at Quinnipiac, Burrell signed on as a head coach at Division II Southern Connecticut State University. In his first year, he led the team to a Northeast-10 Conference Southwest Division Title and an NCAA Tournament Appearance, and his 75 wins over his first four years is the best opening stretch for any coach in the program’s history. This is a position he currently holds, and the team is looking to bounce back after a 7-18 season.
In 2010, Burrell finished what he started, coming back to Storrs to get his degree in general studies, setting an important example for his student-athletes.
“As a coach, I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure my guys stay on track as well, they are at a transitional point in their lives, and they will take their degree and work ethic into the real world before they know it,” explained Burrell to The UConn Blog.