By Jim Moyes
The beleaguered city of Muskegon Heights took another hit recently with the death of Ed Burton on Memorial Day.
Arguably this area’s greatest basketball player, “Big Ed” led Muskegon Heights to consecutive state Class A titles in 1956 and 1957. He eclipsed records during his epic journey that still stand today.
Ed followed in the footsteps of his older brother, M.C., both on the hardwoods, and years later, into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame.
It was M.C. Burton and the Tigers who collared the first of the three state titles this proud basketball powerhouse earned over a three-year stretch beginning in 1954.
It was in 1955 the brothers would team up on the same high school team and, oddly enough, was the only Heights team during this unprecedented run when the Tigers didn’t win a state championship.
It’s been more than half a half-century since Ed and M.C. last donned a Tiger uniform and yet the Burton brothers still rank 1-2 in career scoring at the Heights.
Ed tallied 1,143 points during his three-year stint , just two points more than brother M.C. scored during his career.
In addition to his still-standing career scoring mark, the 6-foot-7 Burton still holds the record of 45 points scored in a single game.
Someday, if Muskegon Heights still retains their school, perhaps somebody will eclipse some of Ed’s old records, but let’s put things into proper perspective.
Teams in the Burton era played just 15 regular-season games. And, Muskegon Heights was only a three-year school. Burton set these records despite missing out on playing 30 or more games.
I witnessed many outstanding basketball teams over the years, but none could hold a candle to that great Tiger team in 1957.
After winning the state crown in 1956 with a convincing 10-point victory over Hamtramck, four starters and two other lettermen greeted veteran coach Okie Johnson for the start of the 1956-57 campaign.
Nary a single opponent threw a scare at this great Tiger team as Big Ed and his mates never saw an opponent come closer than 10 points throughout the entire season, a feat unmatched in MHSAA Class A basketball history.
In a quarterfinal romp against Traverse City, in front of a sold out crowd at Central Michigan University, Big Ed Burton put on a show that has yet to be equaled in Greater Muskegon history. Ed tallied 44 points and pulled down 31 rebounds in the Tiger’s 79-52 thrashing of the outmanned Trojans.
Much ado has been printed over the years about the 1958 state final battle between Detroit Austin and Benton Harbor. That game featured a pair of future NBA all-stars in Austin’s Dave DeBusschere and the downstate Tigers’ Chet Walker.
Somehow lost in the shuffle over time was the 1957 state final four when Big Ed schooled both of these future stars. Burton and the Tigers polished off Walker and Benton Harbor 74-52 in a semifinal blowout win and then took care of business in the state final by disposing of Austin 61-49 to claim their third, and final, Class A title.
Burton was accorded All-State and All-American honors and was eagerly sought by a bundle of major college powerhouses. Burton accepted a scholarship to Michigan State University. It came at a time when freshman were not eligible to compete at the varsity level.
However, the college way of life was not agreeable to Burton and certainly took a back seat to his affection for his girlfriend back home in Muskegon Heights, Queen, who would become Mrs. Ed Burton for more than 50 memorable years.
Ed Burton left the campus of Michigan State to begin a two-year odyssey with the famed Harlem Globetrotters, where he was teammate with two of basketball’s greatest icons, Wilt Chamberlain and Meadowlark Lemon.
Following a couple of years with Abe Saberstein’s legendary Globetrotters, Burton became the first Muskegon-area player to make it to the NBA when he joined the New York Knicks.
Following a brief tenure with the St. Louis Hawks, Burton would conclude his basketball journey by showcasing his remarkable basketball skills in the Muskegon area by performing for the fledging Muskegon Panther franchise in the middle 1960s.
Some of my most compelling moments were spent watching the Burton brothers during the off-season. I would stay out of harm’s way when Big Ed and his brother would square off on the Baker Street court.
They were such dominating players that they rarely, if ever, played on the same team. A team that would have included both Burton brothers would have created a horrific unbalance in talent.
A ferocious rebounder as well as a dominating scorer, Burton was indeed a Tiger on the court, but he was like a little lamb off it.
Growing up in the Muskegon area when Burton was in his prime, Ed was the benchmark we all looked up to – not only as a player – but also as a person who was liked by all.
There was one occurrence many years ago when my long time sidekick, and dear friend of Ed Burton, Gene Young, informed me that Young would have to miss a broadcast.
I called Ed and asked him if he would like to take Gene’s place on the microphone for one game. Following the broadcast, Burton mentioned how honored he was to share this time with me on the air. Ed had it all wrong – it was me who was honored.
Ed Burton’s high school number of 55 became the first-ever number retired at Muskegon Heights.
I truly believe my proudest moment in my many years in sports was when I received the call from Heights principal Danny Smith asking if I would handle the introduction of Ed Burton’s number retirement.
What an honor! For Ed certainly, a truly deserving accolade, but a thrill for me as well to be asked to take part in this moving ceremony.
To stand at midcourt and recap some of Ed’s innumerable accomplishments during his basketball career in front of a huge crowd at the new gymnasium was mind boggling.
“Ed had been in declining health for the past few years, and despite his body taking a downward spiral, his infectious spirit always remained high,” said Young.
Young was emphatic in a phone conversation that Ed should be remembered for being more than a dominant basketball player.
“He was also one of the nicest guy I ever knew,” Young said. “He was always mild mannered and just a big, warm-hearted guy his many friends will never forget.”
We may never again see another like ‘Big Ed.’