‘He runs just about everything’: The story of ‘DB’, the assistant who has been a rock for the Pacers since the ’90s
by Scott Agness
Pacers center Myles Turner was walking around the team hotel in Portland. He made his way down the hall to the elevator, ready to return to his room.
As he arrived, the doors opened and coming off the elevator appeared to be assistant coach Dan Burke.
Or was it?
“He has a twin brother and it messed me up,” Turner said. “They walk the same, talk the same; same antics, everything. And then I see him come off the elevator and it just like mind-fucked me, for lack of a better word. It was weird.”
Assistant coach Popeye Jones easily recalled the first time he learned of Dan’s twin brother.
“It was after the game in Washington. We were playing the Wizards and I was walking out to the bus and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ You know how Dan Burke is, at the time he didn’t tell me he had a twin. I had no idea. I was like, ‘There’s two of you guys?'”
Burke was born in Lynwood, CA, and grew up in Sherwood, OR., about 30 minutes south west of Portland. So when the Pacers make their annual visit to Portland and the Moda Center, he needs at least 30 tickets. Burke attended Portland State and then returned home for almost a decade before he received an opportunity in the NBA, where he’s worked in some capacity since 1985.
“Well, he’s an asshole,” Turner, the longest-tenured player who has been in Indy since 2015, says affectionately as he laughs. “No, I love DB. You can tell he really cares about the game. He puts everything into the game, on and off the floor. Anything that’s basketball related, you can go to him out of all our coaches and that’s how it’s always been.
“I think DB is like the rock of the organization. A lot of guys lean on him.”
This is Dan Burke — an integral part of the Pacers basketball staff since 1997. The man who has remained with the organization through five coaching changes and who Larry Bird once referred to as his top free agent in 2016.
Dan Burke (second from left) with his parents and siblings. (Courtesy of Dan Burke)
Burke, 59, is the eldest of nine kids, including seven brothers. He’s three minutes older than his twin brother, Dennis. “If you didn’t see us together, you would think it was me,” Burke asserted. And there’s no doubt about it.
The Burke family attended Sherwood High School, a small school of about 1,500 students in grades 9 through 12, so they had the opportunity to do and play everything. “We just played all the time,” Burke said. He played basketball, baseball, and became a co-captain of the football team, where he lined up at wide receiver and outside linebacker.
Several years after high school, one his former football coaches called him to see if he wanted to join the staff. Burke accepted and was responsible for the offensive line, inside linebackers and special teams. Years later, he was hired away to coach with another friend at a competing school.
“Being around kids, being part of the group, and then the action of the game night and the build up, especially in football once a week, and all the prep that went into that, I just loved it,” he said.
That sentiment remains the same to this day, enabling him to do what he loves.
Coaching is in Burke’s blood. His father started a youth basketball program in Sherwood and got the whole family involved. Dan not only was a volunteer coach, but he also was once an official. “Coaching was definitely much more fun than reffing,” he said. “That was my first basketball job.”
Five of his brothers went on to coach before moving into administrative roles, and his sister is a teacher.
Burke finally received a paycheck coaching basketball with a sophomore girls team. They were starting a program and as usual, Burke said ‘yes’ and was willing to help.
Coaching extends to Burke’s uncle (his mom’s brother), Rick Adelman, a head coach in the NBA for five Western Conference franchises spanning 23 seasons: Portland, Golden State, Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota.
Adelman’s coaching career began in Portland under Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, the father-in-law to former Pacers head coach Jim O’Brien. Burke’s career in the NBA launched in 1985 when Adelman brought him in to help chart games, long before video was prevalent in sports. He was an hourly employee paid to chart home games during Ramsay’s final year.
The next season, Mike Schuler took over as head coach and he wanted everything on video. Burke agreed. By 1989, he had become familiar with the Trail Blazers and had proven himself enough that when Adelman was promoted to head coach, Burke no longer worked off a script in the video room. He knew exactly what his uncle wanted. Keep in mind, it was still a part-time gig at this point.
Soon after, though, the late owner Paul Allen, who purchased the franchise in 1988, wanted to take video to another level. “He wanted someone to do tapes for the draft,” Burke said. “So I did that in the summer and then Paul wanted to make it a full-time position.”
Full-time benefits at last!
Larry Bird put together his Pacers coaching staff in 1997, hiring the late Dick Harter, a definitive guru, and Rick Carlisle away from P.J. Carlesimo’s Portland staff. Those two valued Burke’s work and recommended him for a position on staff after eight years in Portland (1989-’97), which included two NBA Finals appearances.
“I was weighing my options because we had never made that move before,” Burke explained. “My kids were five and three, and my wife’s never lived out of Oregon so we knew if we made the move to Indiana, we’d probably have to move every three years. Luckily we’ve been blessed and we haven’t moved yet.”
The basketball coaching circle is small. Consider that Pacers president Kevin Pritchard, general manager Chad Buchanan, head coach Nate McMillan, assistant Bill Bayno and Burke all once worked for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Burke has been the one constant inside the Pacers locker room going back to the 1990s. There’s been a change in training staff, video coordinators, plus five head coaching changes (Isiah Thomas, Carlisle, O’Brien, Frank Vogel, and McMillan) — and even a new building. Only the radio broadcast team of Mark Boyle and Slick Leonard, now in their 25th season together, and public relations director David Benner (25 years) have been here longer.
Bird’s last major move before stepping down as team president was not renewing the contract of Vogel and then promoting McMillan, Vogel’s top aide. Within the first 10 minutes of a 30-minute press conference to announce the decision on May 16, 2016, Bird specifically brought up Burke, his influence within the organization and how he was the No. 1 free agent to be re-signed.
“He’s been a very integral part, over 19 years, of what we’ve done here,” Bird matter-of-factly said. “It’s important for me that he would be my first free agent.”
After the presser, McMillan reassured us that Dan would remain on staff. No question. “Dan’s coming back,” he reassured. “He’s a hell of a coach.”
“DB’s the man,” co-captain Thad Young said smiling. “He runs just about everything, right after coach Nate. It goes from him pulling guys aside to taking over practices sometimes — and sometimes him just running most of the practice himself. Coach puts a lot of trust in him and DB does a good job of explaining.
“Sometimes he’s a bit of a … of a smart ass. But that’s what we like about DB. You can tell he’s a competitor, you can tell he was fearless back in his heyday. He doesn’t take crap. He expects excellence, greatness and perfection each and every day. He strives to be perfect, as far as being a coach. I think that’s one of the reasons why last year we were one of the best defensive teams and we did get after it a lot. He takes a lot of pride in what he does as a coach and he takes a lot of pride in having the guys go out there and being able to implement a system that can work for all of us on the defensive end.”
There is a soft side to Burke, and plenty of quick-witted jokes. An example immediately came to mind for Jones.
“He was going over some defensive coverages in practice and Lance (Stephenson) was talking to somebody,” Jones shared. “Dan just stopped right in the middle of teaching said, ‘Take his phone number and call him later.’ Somebody may go under on a screen or something when we’re watching film and he’ll say something like ‘You went a country mile to go five feet.’
“He’s got all these one-liners like that. Yes, he’s funny, but the guys are attentive when he said these little one-liners. He’s got a lot of them.
Darren Collison added: “If he does (joke), it’s always a joke and an insult. I love Dan. He’s been good for my career and I’m sure everybody else would say the same. I think our success has a lot to do with him.”
Since Burke’s arrival in 1997, there have been 21 assistant coaches hired by the Pacers. He was promoted to an assistant role in 2002.
Dave McClure is the newest assistant, joining McMillan’s staff in 2016. He played at Duke (2004-’09), professionally overseas and in the development league, and then was hired on Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio staff in a player development role.
When he arrived in Indianapolis and inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, he was overwhelmed. So many people all working in the same building. There’s executives, public relations, ticket sales, marketing, digital and facilities, in addition to basketball operations. In his previous stop with the Spurs (2014-’16), basketball was separate and the team’s facility was about 20 minutes from the arena.
Burke, who moved to Indy when games were played at Market Square Arena and before they had broken ground on The Fieldhouse, helped show McClure around the building.
“As we walked around, he knew everyone,” McClure remembered, “by name. And said hello to everyone. He is someone who cares about the franchise and the people behind the team.”
If a staff member need a favor, he tries his best to assist. “He actually cares,” McClure added.
The entire coaching staff, video coordinators included, were all-in during a Jr. NBA coaching clinic held each year during the first week of training camp. In his first year as coach, not only did McMillan agree to do it but he asked for additional time. An hour just wasn’t enough to teach and share what he wanted with local area coaches.
Burke is another reason for that. When he gets going during a demonstration, almost always on defense, it’s hard to slow him down. He was clearly in his element with about 125 coaches in attendance, ranging from grade school to high school, eagerly taking notes and asking questions.
Dan Burke teaching defensive principles and drills to area coaches. (Scott Agness / The Athletic)
Away from basketball, Burke will occasionally throw a line in a local pond for an hour or two. After he teaches at the facility by day, sometimes the lessons will continue on his own time. He tries to learn at least one difficult thing each year, so he recently taught himself how to tie flies for fly fishing.
“I used to do a ton of yard work but I’ve gotten away from that,” Burke, father of two girls, jokes. “The best thing is going to see a movie with my wife (Peggy) and a quiet dinner. We like home. We like sitting on the patio.”
He also reads almost every night, even during the season. His selections are wide but generally trend towards history and fiction. He’s currently reading “Freakonomics” after consuming the follow-up first. He recently finished “Alexander Hamilton.”
“That was a hell of a book,” he said.
On the team’s charter plane to and from road games, he sits across the aisle from McMillan, who treats him as an associate head coach. Burke, who earned his way in the video room, is typically watching their next opponent and taking notes.
“I look at him as working side-by-side,” McMillan said. “A lot of times I’m discussing things with him that I don’t sometimes (share) with assistants. If anything happens to me, then he’s the guy who is next in line.”
Like last season, on Feb. 2, when he was away at a funeral and Burke filled in at Charlotte.
“He’s excellent,” McMillan made clear. “I love working with him. I loved learning from him as an assistant when I working alongside of him. As a head coach, having that type of experience beside you is really good. He’s a guy that really focuses on our defense, but brings so much more to the staff. I love working with him. There’s a reason he’s been here, what, 20 years.”
Like McMillan, Burke is an old-school coach but willing to adapt to new ways. Like keeping video sessions shorter, well-aware that attention spans aren’t what they used to be. Accountability is a staple within the organization, but they put the onus on the players to get the most out of one another each game.
“He has a soft spot, but he’s about taking care of business,” McMillan added. “We take care of business first and then we have fun. We feel like if we take care of business, it will become fun. That’s his approach; that’s my approach.”
Before then, so much goes into getting the team ready. Burke, Bayno and Popeye Jones alternate handling the scout for each game, watching three to four of the opponent’s previous games. As he watches with the audio muted, Burke specifically centers on team and player tendencies rather than actions since many teams run the same actions.
“I try not to get caught up anymore with play calls,” he explains. “I try to focus on concepts. As coaches, you’re over there (on the bench) and you’re looking down at them and they make their calls and you say, ‘Hey, look out. This is coming.’ But, I’ve learned (it’s about) concepts.
“You say middle pick-and-roll, you should know what we’re doing. What’s the team identity? What’s their strengths, what’s their weaknesses? I try to focus on concepts of their main actions so we can defend their bread and butter with the idea of improving from the first to the second, third, fourth quarters.”
On game day, the four assistants, including McClure, meet for 45 minutes before getting together with McMillan to go over the game plan and matchups as a group.
“We do that so when we meet with coach, we’re all on the same page and it’s not a debate,” Burke said. “But then coach (McMillan) has line-item veto, of course. We’ll tell what we think should be the matchups, defensively how they’d like to start the game and then we go to shootaround.”
At shootaround, they’ll walk through about seven plays and the coach with the scout will highlight individual tendencies.
Other than team members and the media, most don’t get to see Burke at work in the trenches. Mostly what they know of him comes from his passionate halftime interviews that are as unpredictable as they are entertaining. The assistant coaches alternate talking to the local TV telecast before the second half. Burke’s appearances are always memorable.
What you may not know is that Burke runs the halftime film breakdown back in the locker room. During the game, he writes down specific plays or types of plays — a la offensive rebounds, side pick-and-rolls or back-door cuts — to show the team at the break. About 20 clips are usually prepared by assistant video coordinators Ben Eblen and Jared Bartling. Most of the time they get through a half-dozen clips.
“I got a lot more (I can show), but then I get a feel,” he said. “Out of the corner of my eye, I can see guys looking up at the (game) clock. I can’t see the clock.”
“Sometimes he thinks he’s so hard on us to the point where it makes him feel bad a little bit,” Young says of those halftime sessions. “We as players and we as a team, we understand that he just wants the best for us. He wants to win just as bad as we do and he wants to be able to put a good product out there on the court that could potentially help us win basketball games.
“He is definitely a no tolerance, no bullshit type guy — and that’s what we need for us as players. We need for someone to get on our case and to let us know we’re doing wrong because with us being professional athletes, sometimes we feel like we’re not wrong. But when you see it on game tape, you have somebody coming at you and they’re just as passionate about it as you are, then it makes you want to play for that guy.”
Burke then heads to the court and joins sideline reporter Jeremiah Johnson every fourth game. “I sometimes might be in a rage still from showing those clips and I got to flip that switch,” he admits.
“I was always pretty outspoken. I just state my mind. Wasn’t very smart about it sometimes (smiles), but now that I’m grown I don’t worry about that. I want to be honest and I want to be fair.
“Not too many prima donnas have come through here. My personality is you’re going to hear the truth. There’s probably some times you regret how you say it so I’m more mindful about that. It’s never personal. It’s business and it’s to help you grow.”
To that end, Turner adds: “DB is no slouch. He doesn’t care if you’re the best player on the team to the last man coming off the bench, he’s going to treat everybody the same. That’s one thing that I respect about him as well, he doesn’t play favorites. He’s going to get on your ass – if you’re right or you’re wrong.”
Domantas Sabonis feels the wrath from Burke every day.
“He calls me out every practice at least once,” he said, smiling. “About anything. He’s a great guy. Really fun, always making sarcastic comments and getting us involved.”
And it’s nothing but love from the Burke, even though he might not always say it. He doesn’t need to because the players know. They know from their conversations, film reviews, how he always pushes them to be better and soar past their potential.
“I love being with the players,” Burke says. “Those relationships I can have as an assistant, especially with how young they are. I just feel like you’re contributing to society in a sense.”
When the Pacers’ defense is discussed, Burke is the one the team turns to and he’s the one we in the media seek out. How and when did that start, I asked.
“That’s a good question,” he replied. “I don’t know, that’s just sports now.”
“During my first three years with Larry (Bird) I did all the game plans. It was all prep. Every team. So when you’re the guy that’s studying the opponent, I guess that kind of trends towards defense. Then, Jim O’Brien wanted notes on defense.
“Then when Frank took over, he basically said, ‘Just take defense for me.’ He had last say on everything, of course, and he tweaked some stuff that he wanted to do.”
In crunch time when they need a stop, Burke sometimes takes over the huddle on the bench to share responsibilities and what to be ready for.
“He trusts me,” Burke says of McMillan. “But as I keep reminding him, it’s his name that is out there. But it’s been a great working relationship. I love that guy.”
The Pacers have consistently been a top ten defense. They ranked first during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons when they reached the conference finals, finished eighth in 2014-15 and third in 2015-16. In what was first thought of as a retooling year, they ranked 11th last season and allowed the third-fewest points per game (102.9).
“He’s obviously a very defensive-minded coach, but he knows the game of basketball,” Turner said. “That’s one thing I really respect about him. There’s some coaches that get into it just because they played it and they wanted something to do after basketball, but DB like really cares about it.
NBA.com releases an annual survey of all 30 general managers before each season and Burke routinely is mentioned. Another big question is whether a head-coaching job is ever in the cards for Burke? Does that matter to him?
“I think about it from time to time,” he admits while seated on a folding chair looking at the Pacers’ retired numbers on the opposite wall. “I have it good and I love the relationships you can have as an assistant. That kind of keeps me grounded, what got me into coaching in the beginning. You think about it.
“But I try to keep my eyes right here on what I’m supposed to do — not left or right, or looking up or looking back. Just look right here and do your job. That’s the rule that was always laid out to us by my dad. Do your job and do it well, and be the best at what you do.
“I have it good. Sometimes you think it’d be crazy to be a head coach in this league now. I enjoy the role I have, I really do.”