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“He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina”: the incomparable DJ Burns hosts NC State

The Athletic covers the match live Sweet March Madness 16 confrontations.

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

“I would definitely say my size is the reason 100%. I think if I was a skinny guy, at 240, this wouldn’t even be looked at 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 stomach. “Even though we’re going to get rid of it – and we’re getting rid of it now – it feels good to be different and make it work. I wouldn’t say I’m leaning into it, but I think it’s cool. It gave me an avenue. It’s given me a platform that most people don’t have, just because I’m unique.

Burns does things that few people his size could do, even though there are plenty of lineman-shaped people in the NFL who even strive to play basketball. From basic spinning moves to silky left hooks to the dimes he drops from double and triple teams to the smoothest touch you could hope for from a big man. “He’s like a polar bear,” says NC State strength coach Pat Murphy, “and a ballerina.” In other words, a dancing bear. The talking bear too. Burns has a mouth on him and he’s not afraid to use it.

After the Wolfpack stunned Duke in the ACC tournament with a raucous crowd behind them: “We know what this is about. They don’t really encourage us, so we move on. Thanks anyway. They were rooting for Duke not to win. There is a difference.

After Oakland fans taunted him — some with cracks about his weight — during Burns’ pregame warmups Saturday night, he paused, looked at the screaming horde and smiled. “Keep talking,” he told them. “Fat shaming only feeds him,” says his mother, Takela. “Tell them thank you. When you call him Whopper, when you put him down, 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 these fans. He placed a finger on his lips for a moment. shh! He ran into defense with his head tilted to the side so they could see his smile. He played 42 minutes, had 24 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, and as Burns iced the game into overtime, one of those hecklers lamented, “That big mother is going to beat us.” Again.

Led by Burns, NC State won seven playoff games in 12 days to go from NIT status to ACC tournament champions and headed to its first Sweet 16 in nearly a decade. The Wolfpack will face Marquette, the No. 2 seed in the South Region, 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, has been in college for six years — at Tennessee and Winthrop before that — and has played in 162 games, but Burns saved the best basketball of his life for last.

For those who staged some sort of intervention with him two months ago, this push is particularly rewarding.

“It’s awesome to watch,” Murphy says. “The kid got to work. Now he was hesitant, and he had to pull and push and push. He was very low in late January, started hitting the wall and was in a state of funk. That funk turned him into kind of a bare minimum guy for a little while. But then we had this meeting, and it sparked a change. We sat him down and told him what it was going to take and how much we needed him, and he thanked us. He said, “I needed that.” Because he knew it.

North Carolina State Assistant Kareem Richardson couldn’t sleep. It was in the wee hours of Jan. 28, after a loss at Syracuse, the only time all season head coach Kevin Keatts didn’t start Burns. The big man only made 5 of 14 shots in this game. He and the team were spinning their wheels.

“It was no secret that he wasn’t in the shape he should have been, or the conditioning he needed,” Richardson says. “And I just sat up in bed that night and said, ‘Who cares, man.’ We need to try to hold him a little more accountable. The next morning we came up with the plan.

With input from the program’s academic staff, nutritionist, strength and conditioning coach, training staff and coaches – as well as help from his parents – Team DJ laid out exactly what he thought it would take to that Peak DJ is in time for the playoffs. The first step was to get the biggest human being on campus to stop sleeping in a bean bag chair.

“He was in the middle of moving, 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, everyone said, “We all need him.” And DJ saw that as a challenge. He said, “I have work to do. » From there, a lot of people helped him and he just did the job. We went there, bought him a bed and made sure we did our part. It was a total team effort.

There were strict plans for additional conditioning and lifting, more intense basketball-specific workouts and a stricter diet. Richardson texted in the morning to make sure Burns was arriving and the nutritionist walked him straight from practice to the day’s healthy meal option. “But you have to recognize that he bought in,” says Richardson. “None of this works if he doesn’t buy into it.” When Burns previously tried to do it on his own, he would starve himself all day, then late-night hunger pangs and junk food cravings would “attack him,” Murphy says. “And he’s a superstar in Raleigh, right?” So he’s going to go wherever he wants and be the life of the party, and he’s going to eat.

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

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

“A testament to his hard work.” It was a grueling process,” Tennessee strength coach Garrett Medenwald said. “The thing about DJ is we’ve always known the talent, the ability to score, the footwork. It’s been fun to hear his thought process and his evolution (since leaving), not only from a basketball perspective, but also from a maturity perspective.

Burns, a 2020 Big South freshman and 2022 Winthrop Player of the Year, recently purchased a necklace with a charm that depicts the sun peeking out from behind a storm cloud. He now wears it everywhere, even during matches.

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

Indeed, the situation got worse before it got better. Burns made just 5 of 13 shots and scored 12 total points in the first two games after starting Operation Feel the Burns. There were other lows. 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, as time passed, when the next defeat would be the last, a true breakthrough occurred. “Exactly the miracle you want,” Burns said.

“I always told him, ‘DJ, be the one Keatts hired,'” his mother said. “The staff were like, ‘DJ, we’re not going anywhere without you.’ But that’s what I call a winner. He may be having a crisis, a downtime, but he is very thoughtful and resilient. Once he evaluates where he is, he will always come back better. Well, what you see now is what Kevin Keatts recruited. Finally, praise God.

Burns had 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 a premier round against Texas Tech and arguably his best game of the season. the second round against Oakland. Also an aspiring rapper, he recorded a song about himself last year called “Beast Boy.”

His teammates all nod in agreement with this chosen nickname.

“I face him every day in practice,” junior forward Ben Middlebrooks said. “I feel the pain those guys feel when they play him on the other team. Once he starts, no one in the country can stop him.”

“Literally out of control,” adds young goalkeeper Jayden Taylor. “I have never seen such a great and competent person. Never.”

“The best big in the country,” senior guard Casey Morsell said. “If you hate DJ, I don’t know, there’s something wrong with you. How could you hate this man? He is incredible.”

Burns has learned a thing or two during his long and winding path to becoming a March darling. First of all, if you’re 6-9 years old and weigh about 300 pounds and you’re doing somersaults around a basketball court, people are going to talk. But more importantly, he says, listen more than talk and work hard when no one is watching.

“The work that will really improve you,” he said, “are the things you do for yourself. »

And sometimes what you tell yourself is actually more important. You see, even the man who came up with the plan isn’t sure if anything has really changed 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 happened between his ears.

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

(Top photo: Mark Goldman / AP)

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