How the ‘unwatchable’ DJ Burns became NC State’s March Madness hero

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PITTSBURGH – DJ Burns Jr. is there again. The gregarious NC State giant with the toothless smile is surrounded by reporters near his locker the day before an improbable second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament against Oakland. He is amazed at the incredible scene he has just arrived at. “That’s the beautiful thing about March Madness,” he says. “If there’s something interesting, they’ll find it this time of year.” In other words, now is when unknown stars and compelling stories are presented to a national audience. So what is it about Burns that has made America, about a year behind the entire city of Raleigh, North Carolina, fall in love with him this month?

“I would definitely say my size is 100 percent the reason. I think if I was a skinny guy, at 240 doing this, they wouldn’t even notice me at all,” says Burns, who is 6-foot-9 and weighs more than 300 pounds, no matter what the official list says. . He pats his belly. “Even though we’re getting rid of this, and we’re doing it right now, it feels good to be different and make it work. I wouldn’t say I’m leaning towards it, but I think it’s cool. He gave me a way. He gave me a platform that most people don’t have, simply because I am unique.”

Burns does things that few people his proportions could do, not that there are many NFL lineman-shaped people who even try to play basketball. From the baseline spin moves to the smooth left hooks, the dimes he drops on double and triple teams, and the softest touch you could ever want from a big man. “He’s like a polar bear,” says NC State strength coach Pat Murphy, “and a dancer.” In other words, a dancing bear. Talking bear too. Burns has a mouth and he’s not afraid to use it.

After the Wolfpack upset Duke in the ACC tournament with a rowdy crowd behind them: “We know what it’s about. They don’t really encourage us, so we move on. Thank you anyway. They were rooting for Duke not to win. There is a difference”.

After Oakland fans taunted him (some with jokes about his weight) during Burns’ pregame warmup Saturday night, he paused, looked at the screaming horde and smiled. “Keep talking,” he told them. “Fat shaming only fuels him,” says his mother, Takela. “Say thank you. When you call him Whopper, when you belittle him, when you’re ugly, you’re just giving him jet fuel.”

After almost every basket he scored against the Golden Grizzlies, he had something for those fans. He put a finger to his lips for a while. shhhh! She ran defensively with her head tilted to the side so they could see his smile. He played 42 minutes, scoring 24 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, and as Burns iced the game in overtime, one of the hecklers lamented, “This big mother is going to beat us.” Again.

Led by Burns, NC State won seven postseason games in 12 days to move from NIT to ACC tournament champions and headed to its first Sweet 16 in nearly a decade. The Wolfpack will face South Region No. 2 seed Marquette on Friday in Dallas. Burns, the ACC tournament MVP, averaged 16.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shot 65 percent from the field in those seven wins. He’s 23 years old, has been in college for six years (previously at Tennessee and Winthrop) and played in 162 games, but Burns saved the best basketball of his life for last.

For those who performed some kind of intervention with him two months ago, this increase is especially gratifying.

“It’s amazing to see,” Murphy says. “The boy went to work. Now he hesitated, and it was necessary to pull, push, push. He was very depressed at the end of January, he started hitting the wall and was depressed. That funk made him kind of a minimal guy for a while. But then we had that meeting and he flipped a switch. We sat him down and told him what he was going to need and how much we needed it, and he thanked us. He said, “He needed this.” Because he knew it.”

NC State assistant Kareem Richardson couldn’t sleep. It was sometime in the early hours of January. On Jan. 28, after a loss at Syracuse, the only time all season head coach Kevin Keatts didn’t start Burns. The big man made just 5 of 14 shots in that game. He and the team were hanging around.

“It was no secret that I wasn’t in the shape I needed, in the conditioning I needed,” Richardson says. “And that night I sat up in bed and said, ‘Screw this, man.’ We have to try to hold him a little more responsible.” The next morning, we made the plan.”

With input from the program’s academic staff, nutritionist, strength coach, training staff and coaches, plus help from his parents, Team DJ outlined exactly what they thought it would take to get Peak DJ in time for the postseason. Step 1 was getting the biggest human being on campus to stop sleeping on a bean bag.

“He was in the middle of a move, trying to do everything himself, and he wasn’t resting well,” Takela says. “I remember one of the coaches called me and said, ‘Mrs. Burns, what’s going on with DJ? Collectively, they all said, ‘We need everyone.’ And DJ saw that as a challenge. He said, “I have to work.” From there, a lot of people helped him and he just stepped up and did the job. We went there, bought him a bed and made sure we were doing our part. “It was a total team effort.”

There were strict plans for additional conditioning and lifting, more strenuous basketball-specific workouts, and a strict diet. Richardson texted in the morning to make sure Burns was coming, and the nutritionist walked him straight from workouts to the day’s healthy meal option. “But to his credit, he agreed,” Richardson says. “None of this works if he doesn’t accept.” When Burns had previously tried to do this on his own, he would starve himself all day and then nighttime hunger pangs and junk food cravings would “attack him,” Murphy says. “And he’s a superstar in Raleigh, right? So he will go wherever he wants, he will be the life of the party and he will eat.”

DJ Burns Jr. became a fan favorite during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

But give Burns a challenge and he’ll be up to it. During a redshirt season at Tennessee in 2018-19, the former four-star recruit transformed his body into the Volunteers’ vaunted “Fat Camp,” losing more than 30 pounds and weighing less than 240.

“A testament to their hard work. It was a grueling process,” says Tennessee strength coach Garrett Medenwald. “The thing about DJ is that we always knew the talent, the ability to score, the footwork. It’s been fun to hear his thought process and how his growth has been (since he left), not just from a basketball perspective, but from a maturity perspective.”

Burns, the 2020 Big South Freshman of the Year and 2022 Winthrop Player of the Year, recently purchased a necklace with a pendant that represents sunlight appearing from behind a storm cloud. He now wears it everywhere, even during games.

“Just a little reminder,” he says, “that even when it’s raining, you can still enjoy the sun… and understand that you don’t always have to feel good to do your job. The crazy thing about this is that once I started that plan, I had a period where I couldn’t score a single thing. And it’s like, ‘Dang, why am I doing all this to play worse?’ But you just have to be consistent.”

In fact, it got worse before it got better. Burns made just 5 of 13 shots and scored 12 total points in the first two games after initiating Operation Feel the Burns. There were other falls. In his last game in February and first game in March, at Florida State and North Carolina, he scored six points total. The Wolfpack lost 7 of 11 games to end the regular season and looked cooked.

And then, when time was running out, when the next defeat would be the last, a breakthrough occurred. “Exactly the miracle you want,” Burns calls it.

“I always told him, ‘DJ, I know who Keatts recruited,’” his mother says. “The staff would tell him, ‘DJ, we’re not going anywhere without you.’ But he is what I call a winner. He may have a depression, a moment of inactivity, but he is very thoughtful and resilient. Once he evaluates where he is, he will always come back better. Well, what you’re seeing now is what Kevin Keatts wanted. Finally, praise God.”

Burns scored 27 points in a late-regular-season loss to Duke, 19 in the ACC semifinals against Virginia, 20 in the title game against UNC, 16 in the NCAA first-round upset against Texas Tech and possibly his best game of the season in the second round against Oakland. Also an aspiring rapper, he recorded a song about himself called “Beast Boy” last year.

His teammates all nod in agreement with the chosen nickname.

“I go against him every day in practice,” junior forward Ben Middlebrooks says. “I feel the pain those guys feel when they go up against him on the other team. When he gets going, there is no one in the country who can stop him.”

“Literally helpless,” adds junior guard Jayden Taylor. “He had never seen such a big person with such skill. Ever.”

“Best big man in the country,” says guard Casey Morsell. “If you hate DJ, I don’t know, something is wrong with you. How could you hate that man? He is amazing.”

Burns has learned a thing or two on his long and winding road to becoming March’s favorite. First, if he’s 6-9 and 300 pounds and you do flips on a basketball court, people are going to talk. But the most important thing, he says, is to listen more than you talk and to work hard when no one is watching.

“The work that will really make you better,” he says, “are the things you do yourself.”

And sometimes, what you tell yourself is actually more important. Look, not even the man who came up with the plan is sure that it really changed much physically in Burns. He probably couldn’t have logged 42 mostly fresh minutes in a high-stakes basketball game two months ago, but the biggest gain occurred between his ears.

“You work a little harder, make some deposits, and now you feel like you can make some withdrawals when you need to,” Richardson says. “Now he thinks he deserves it. When you do the work, you are ready to receive the reward.”

(Top photo: Mark Goldman/AP)