If she were brought up in just about any other family in the country, Amani Burke would be an outside hitter for a Division I volleyball team, playing on full scholarship. Her mother, Ronda, is sure of it.
In the right setting, she’d probably make a great soccer player, too. Ronda said that as a credit not only to the athleticism Amani possesses, but also to her intellect when it comes to sports. If there’s a game to be played, it likely won’t take long for the Columbus native to excel at it.
But as fate would have it, Amani was born a Burke, the daughter of a former Northwest Missouri State basketball player, Alfonso II — or “Benji” — and the younger sister of a current Washington Wizards point guard, Trey. It was always going to be basketball for Amani, and halfway through her freshman season at Ohio, she’s already establishing herself as an important piece of the next wave of talent in one of the Mid-American Conference’s strongest programs.
“I think the transition is still happening,” Amani said. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. It’s exciting being able to come off the bench and play as often as I do.”
Basketball called to each of the Burke children by name, one by one.
The first call was also the most brief. Amber, the oldest child, began playing the sport at a young age, but a shot to the mouth during a middle school game was all the reason she needed to stop playing basketball, opting for less contact-filled pursuits, such as cheerleading and dancing.
Then came Alfonso III, better known as Trey, the astonishingly talented point guard who by 5 years old was dominating competitors to the point the league rewrote its rules just to keep him under control.
Amani Burke poses with her brother, Trey Burke, and their family at the 2013 NBA draft. (Provided via Ronda Burke)
Trey was soon playing for some of the top Amateur Athletic Union teams in the state, under the coaching of his father, beginning in second grade. And at every game, sitting on the bench with them would be Amani, five years younger than Trey, quietly absorbing everything she saw.
“Before she even started playing, she was a watcher,” Benji said. “She was at all of Trey’s AAU games and high school games, so she got a chance to really see a high level. … She was like a student. When she started playing, it was kind of weird because she didn’t look like a beginner player. She was mimicking a lot of things she’d already seen.”
Amani played basketball for the first time in fourth grade, just as Trey was beginning his ascent at Northland High School. From the beginning, however, it was apparent that the younger player approached the game much differently than the older one.
In his younger playing days, Trey always had great difficulty accepting bad games, often dwelling on poor performances and losses for a week or longer – his competitive spirit consuming him whole. Amani, on the other hand, always had a calmness to her both on and off the court, seeing the positives in any negative outcome.
“Don’t get me wrong, Amani takes it hard, but Trey was ridiculous,” Ronda said. “He’s extremely, extremely competitive. Amani goes out there to win the game, but it’s really water under the bridge (after losses) when it came time for the next one. Trey had to develop that skill a little more. Both of them have a really strong work ethic.”
As Trey’s fame continued to grow, Amani maintained her own sense of identity. Instead of trying to copy the game of her brother and his teammates, Amani developed her own style of play – one built around a philosophy that involves the entire offense and allowing her moments in the sun to occur naturally.
In the fall of 2012, as Trey began his second and final season at Michigan, Amani decided against enrolling at the high school at which her brother achieved nationwide fame. Instead of attending Northland High School, Amani opted to go to Eastmoor Academy. From there, she rewrote record books on her own, finishing as the program’s all-time leading scorer, leading her team to a final four appearance and earning Division II co-Player of the Year honors in 2016.
Left image provided by Wikimedia Commons. Right image was taken by Post photographer Matt Starkey
It was an impressive run for someone who, late into her high school career, still wanted to play volleyball in college instead of basketball. It took an extra push from her parents to convince her to stick to basketball full time.
“My opinion was that if she gave up basketball to pursue volleyball full-time, she would miss basketball,” Benji said. “Where if you reversed that, I didn’t think she would really miss volleyball. So I said you’ve got to be careful what you pick. I believe she was just as good at volleyball, but I thought basketball had a slight edge based on her talent.”
Teams across the country took notice of Amani’s basketball performances, and suddenly the Burkes were in the heat of a recruiting process for the second time. And while the recruiting process can be an incredibly trying time for an athlete and his or her family, the Burkes went into Amani’s recruiting with some wisdom they didn’t possess the first time around. Amani and her parents knew how to tell which colleges were serious about their interest.
Amani Burke signs on to play basketball at OU. (Provided via Ronda Burke)
“Our motto in this house is, ‘Love who loves you,’ ” Ronda said. “That’s how Trey ended up at Michigan, and that’s how Amani ended up at OU. There were other schools talking to her, but OU was on her hard.”
Ohio head coach Bob Boldon impressed the family with his interest in the player Amani already was, and not the one she could one day become.
“She’s very versatile,” Boldon said. “She’s made plays around the rim, and we’ve seen her shoot the three and post up a little bit to rebound and guard well. She does a lot of the little things we ask for out of our recruits. Then once you meet her and her family, they’re just a wonderful family. She’s just a perfect fit for us.”
The fit has turned out to be mutual. Amani knew she had a shot to earn playing time right away, which, combined with Ohio’s close proximity to home, made the school the most sensible landing spot.
“I knew that I could play with these girls,” Amani said. “Over the summer, I was trying to make sure I was first in sprints, doing extra workouts, trying to get stronger, trying to get faster. (Boldon) told me when I was being recruited that I was gonna be able to play, so I just took that and ran with it.”
The hour-long drive between Columbus and The Convo isn’t the only reason Amani has to feel close to home. Many of her Bobcat teammates, including Jasmine Weatherspoon, Quiera Lampkins and Yamonie Jenkins, played on AAU teams with Amani while she was growing up. Meanwhile, Tia Jameson, Amani’s coach during her freshman and sophomore years of high school, currently serves as Ohio’ Athletics’ Director of Operations.
Perhaps it’s that comfort factor that helped Amani — who averages 6.1 points and 2.4 rebounds in 16.4 minutes per game — adapt at a quick rate to the college game. However, maybe it’s the more demanding aspects of her transition that deserve the credit.
Amani Burke stands with her teammates during the National Anthem prior to a game against Kent State in The Convo on Saturday, Jan. 14.
In practices, Amani is tasked with guarding — and being guarded by — Lampkins – the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year, who is averaging 19.2 points per game in 2016. The challenge has generated a lot of hype about the expectations coaches might have for the freshman guard. But because she managed to stay out of her older brother’s shadow in Columbus, maybe she’ll continue casting her own light in Athens.
“She’s heard a lot that she can be the next Kiki (Lampkins),” Ronda said. “And Kiki is amazing. But I tell her she could also be the first Amani. She liked the sound of that, too.”