He struck the young man a deal: outdo his teammates at practice, and he had a spot. It was an encounter that would change the trajectory for Hill, who said he frequently got into trouble. Burke would give him guidance, structure and even a pair of basketball shoes from his own closet when he could not afford his own.
“I was nobody important,” Hill said, “and he still looked out for me.”
Burke, a well-known school counselor and basketball coach at the Hyattsville, Md., high school, succumbed Friday to complications of covid-19, one of 10 people in the state whose deaths have been linked to the coronavirus. He was 54.
Burke’s death came as a shock to his family, who said the Navy veteran had asthma but was physically fit and ate a healthy diet. When he fell ill about two weeks ago, he told his daughter Chanel Parker that he planned to vacation in Jamaica once he felt better.
“He was strong. He was healthy. He worked out every day,” said his son Sydne Burke, a teacher and entrepreneur in New York.
On Saturday, Northwestern High Principal E. Carlene Murray sent a letter to the school community saying that Burke had passed away from the coronavirus. He died the same day the school system announced that an English teacher at High Point High in Beltsville, Md., had tested positive for the virus. The man, 39-year-old Jason Flanagan, was in a medically induced coma Friday.
Burke, a Brooklyn native, was known for his broad smile, sense of humor and Brooklyn accent, qualities that endeared him to students at Northwestern High. He had a knack for seeing potential in young people who had been written off by others and pushing those around him to be their best. He valued hustle over talent.
“Hard work beats talent if talent fails to work hard,” Sydne Burke said his father told him.
His youngest daughter, Arnetha Burke, said she saw his effect on students and decided to follow in his footsteps. Now a kindergarten teacher at Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary in Prince George’s County, she plans to pursue a master’s degree so she can become a school counselor.
“I loved the effect he had on his students,” said Arnetha, 23. “He really saved a lot of people and influenced a lot of people to get out off the streets and play basketball.”
Lou Wilson, who coaches at Henry A. Wise Jr. High, met Burke about 15 years ago, when he was the eager understudy of his predecessor, Gerald Moore. When Moore died and Burke took over the team, the new head coach turned to Wilson for advice.
Wilson recalls the way Burke loved to brag about the things that made his players special outside of basketball. He remembered how he was the nicest guy in the world, but also the most competitive.
“In a lot of ways, Burke and I had a big brother-little brother relationship, because off the court we were great friends, but on the court he always wanted to beat me,” Wilson said. “Fortunately for him, he beat me for the first time — this February in overtime. ”
“That was the first and probably last time that I will ever celebrate with an opposing coach after they beat me,” Wilson said.
His children said he had high expectations for them — just as he had for his players and students. And while he could be stern, he also exuded deep pride in their accomplishments. When Sydne got his master’s degree in sports management and education, Burke threw him a party and cried as he toasted his son’s achievements.
He was also the life of the party and had a sharp sense of style.
“He was very fly,” said his daughter Chanel Parker. He loved Gucci, sometimes sporting a Gucci belt on the sidelines of high school basketball games.
Jeff Lindsey, who coached alongside Burke for 11 years, remembers the way Burke went out of his way to be a rock for others. When Lindsey stepped away from coaching to enter a rehabilitation facility and work through a few personal battles, Burke would regularly pay him a visit before games.
“Even though I’d been away from the team and didn’t know who half the players were, he’d still come by and ask me about lineups and schemes because he knew how much I loved the game,” Lindsey said. “He was more than just a coach. He was a friend. He was my best friend.”