Throughout the journey of adolescence, a pervasive question arises, presented by parents, teachers or mentors intent on shaping a young person’s trajectory and uncovering their aspirations. This question is fundamental to the coming-of-age narrative.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Diverse responses emerge, ranging from aspirations to don the white coat of a doctor or charting a course toward a legal career or dedicating oneself to the noble profession of teaching. But in today’s world, one of the most common dreams among young people is the desire to become a professional athlete.

Willie Burton, a seasoned nine-year NBA veteran, has realized two dreams that elude many: a successful basketball career spanning from 1990 to 2004, followed by a transition into education post-retirement. Today, Burton stands on the verge of a highly esteemed achievement — a forthcoming PhD in Exercise and Sports Psychology from the University of Minnesota, where Burton's basketball journey began.

He led the Golden Gophers to the Sweet 16 in 1989 and the Elite 8 in 1990, and then he was drafted No. 9 overall by the Miami Heat in 1990. Burton was swiftly thrust into the whirlwind of NBA life, where he encountered overnight fame and success. In 1995, he scored 53 points on just 19 field goals, which still stands as the second-fewest attempts in a 50-point game. Willie’s newfound stardom brought with it a set of responsibilities and challenges that he hadn’t anticipated in his transition from college to the professional-basketball scene.

“I didn't realize the visibility associated with playing in the NBA. I had no idea. I had no concept of the responsibilities associated with being in the NBA,” Burton said. “All the hours, all the games, all the practices, the number of games – game after game, day after day.”

Burton missed out on numerous ordinary facets of being a father and a friend, aspects that are often taken for granted.

“I enjoyed [playing in the NBA], but I really enjoyed being a father,” Burton said. “Flying out on Christmas night on a red eye to the West Coast [was hard].”

In 2004, Willie's basketball career ended due to injury. An unforeseen yet revitalizing passion emerged. Life's journey, guided by faith, led him to a renewed sense of purpose as a father and an unexpected role as an educator.

“I asked God, ‘After everything that I’ve been through, I’ve recovered from, I’ve come back from... everything seems to be in position... why now are you taking this away from me?’” Burton recalls. “And the first thing that came to my mind was clear as a bell: It was time to be a father.”

Stepping away from the dazzling spotlights of NBA arenas, Willie embraced his new passion as a substitute teacher in his own children's classrooms.

“One of the things that I've learned is don’t do things based on the public perception of what an NBA player should and shouldn’t be doing,” Burton said. “I learned to walk into doors and to try things. Even if they don't think I should be there as an NBA veteran, walking in as a substitute teacher, I went there for my kids. I wasn't there for the perception of what people thought I should or shouldn’t be doing.”

Unbeknownst to him at the time, this unexpected turn in life would become the catalyst propelling Willie toward pursuing a PhD and spearheading the development of Excel U, a “behavioral change program that unifies academic success and health-wellness for students.”

“My first professional job after basketball was working for the Detroit Health Department in community engagement,” he said.

At the heart of Willie's journey are three pivotal figures: Shatreece Gillon, Augustine Sharp and Dr. Calvin Trent.

“Dr. Trent challenged me to leave kids with more than an autographed picture and a T-shirt,” Burton said. “It was a big spark. From there, I went through more professional-development trainings than I had ever gone through in my life.”

Equipped with these newfound insights, Willie translated his lessons into impactful actions, aiming to positively influence the lives of today’s student-athletes.

“I was able to finally understand resources that I never knew existed. I was able to understand programming and intervention,” he said. “From there, it sparked the question: What programs do we have for student athletes?”

In 2011, Willie’s company Educating Stars of Tomorrow emerged as an unplanned endeavor.

“I started out trying to just fill a gap and a need that I saw. One of the principals came up to me and started talking to me about Title I and how 80% of the United States gets this money for programs that are outside of the normal curriculum,” he said. “I then spoke with Dr. Gilbert Botvin and he informed me that when you meet the needs of an underserved population, it qualifies for federal funding.”

Under Willie's guidance, along with the assistance of Elaine McCarthur and Aaron Hopson, the Excel U program took shape.

At its core, Excel U is dedicated to fostering collaboration with the K-12 population and the adults who play guiding roles in children's lives. It is meticulously designed to amplify the impact of community stakeholders working with children in their respective communities. The program not only imparts essential life skills but also offers education on mental health and well-being. It encompasses health, strength and nutrition training, extending its benefits to include training for parents.

Collaborating with Starr Commonwealth, Excel U’s outreach now spans a target population of 26 million. To propel the program further, Willie has broadened his involvement to include working with college students and getting involved on the NIL front.

“College athletes are incredible messengers,” Burton said. “If [a college athlete] goes into a classroom and talks to kids using the Excel U programs, it’s positive for the university, it’s positive for the student athlete because they get to reflect, it’s positive for the kids and it's positive for businesses that sponsor those athletes.”

Guiding Excel U through his firsthand experiences, Willie realized that his extensive efforts in educating students and developing Excel U in communities reflected the work typically undertaken by individuals with individual PhDs. 

“I was trained pretty much in common processes and protocols of a PhD before I even finished it, unbeknownst to me,” Burton said. “So, when I kept getting individuals coming up to me saying, ‘You know, you’re doing PhD work,’ I had no clue. I started to explore, and I started to look into a PhD. I was already very familiar with a lot of the processes associated with research.”

Willie credits the NBRPA for aiding in turning his visions into reality and supporting him in achieving his dreams from the outset.

“They’ve been there from day one,” Willie explained, “They’re there to support us as people first, and that in itself gives you the ability to pursue other opportunities. I have been supporting all of this myself for 10 years, and just when it would seem like I was having a heavy lift, they come in to support.”

As of today, Willie has successfully completed over half of his coursework toward earning his PhD. The upcoming spring semester will mark his final academic term, consisting of two courses. This fall, Willie will shift his focus primarily to research. His research endeavors will lead him to the Tony Sanneh Foundation, where he will embark on his dissertation, exploring the effects of a mental-health intervention on adolescents ages 9-14 who participate in sports. Upon successful completion, Mr. Willie Burton will forever be recognized as Dr. Willie Burton.