Back when I was a kid following my father to “old men’s” basketball games, and approaching the age of playing organized hoops myself, I was struggling with left-handed layups. Since my father had me shooting on a real basketball hoop – nailed to a wall inside our home – from the time I was 18 months old, I had the other required skills down pretty good. But I just could not master the art of a left-handed layup.
Until one night at the old gym in Marshall.
My dad and several other area men played pick-up games at Marshall one night a week when they were adults, and my brother and I would usually tag along. In between games or when the men took breaks, my brother and I, and usually some other men’s sons, would dash onto the court to take a few shots.
One of the men that was often there was John Burton, who passed away last week at the age 83.
Mr. Burton was a longtime educator and in his school days a fine basketball player at Lynchburg High School. In fact, according to his obituary, he once scored 45 points in a game, a Highland County record that stood for several years.
I do not know how Mr. Burton found out that I was struggling with left-handed layups, but one night at Marshall he took the time to lend me a hand.
As the night was winding down, Mr. Burton walked me out on the gym floor, had me stand with my back to a basket, then told me to take one step to the right, roll toward the basket, and release the ball with my left hand in a fashion somewhat, but not exactly, like shooting a hook shot. He watched me try the move a few times, then told me that if I’d practice it for a while, that should fix my problem.
I was a bit perplexed with the lesson, because being a short, skinny kid, I did not think I would be shooting many hook shots close to the basket. But what I did not know at the time was that the way the ball was released when I made that move was exactly like it should be released when someone properly shoots an underhanded left-handed layup.
Anyway, perplexed or not, my left-handed layup needed help, so I took Mr. Burton’s advice. I went home and practiced regularly, and within a week I could shoot a left-handed layup perfectly.
It may have been a small gesture by Mr. Burton, but to a kid who loved basketball, it meant more than he ever knew. It helped me perfect a skill I had struggled with for a long time, and gave me confidence that I did not have before.
As I was reading Mr. Burton’s obituary the other day, I wondered how many kind deeds, large and small, he did during his decades as an educator, and elsewhere, to help others along life’s path – hundreds, thousands, more?
A few years down the road from that night at Marshall, Mr. Burton became my high school principal. I was a bit rebellious in those days, and not what you would call especially welcoming to educators. But Mr. Burton, while he could be firm at times, also had an easy way about him that could put anyone at ease. He’d stroll the hallways before school and in between classes, always with a smile, taking the time to genuinely visit with his students and get to know them a little.
A few more years down the road when I landed a job as a sports editor at this paper, he was one of the first to come up and congratulate me, of all places, at a basketball game. As other milestones came along, and I’d run into him from time to time, he always had a word of encouragement to send me on my way with.
The last time I ran into him was 10 or so years ago at a historical function in Lynchburg, Mr. Burton’s hometown. My mother, a 1959 Lynchburg graduate, was with me, and we had a nice little chat with the man who taught me how to shoot a left-handed layup.
On the way home that day, it dawned on me that I had never thought to thank Mr. Burton for teaching me something that meant so much to me.
But that’s one of the countless ways John Burton lives on.
When my own kids were growing up, I taught them how to shoot left-handed layups the same way Mr. Burton taught me. And I assume it is likely that they will teach their kids that way, too.
While reading about Mr. Burton’s life the last few days, it was more than obvious that he made a difference in the lives of generations of others through similar acts of kindness his entire life.
So, although it is belated, thanks Mr. Burton, from myself and a legion of others. You served your fellow man well.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.