He’s floating, just like when he unveiled his previously unseen jump shot for San Francisco State’s basketball team a little more than six decades ago, after a stint in World War II. On the court he was known as “Jumpin’ John.”
Now 86 and battling Lewy body disease – one of the most common causes of dementia – Burton is confined to a wheelchair in a tiny room packed with three twin beds, a small desk, a wall-mounted television and assorted visitors.
Known in his heyday for his incredible leaping ability, Burton is all smiles during a weekly visit from ex-NBA star Ken Sears.
“This guy is famous,” Burton said of Sears, before pointing to an autographed and framed Sports Illustrated cover from Dec. 20, 1954, which is hanging across a narrow walkway wall at the foot of his bed.
It’s signed, “You and I should have played together. Ken Sears.” Sears is pictured as a 6-foot-9 All-American forward at Santa Clara University. Sears, in SCU’s Hall of Fame, still ranks in the school’s all-time top 10 in several categories, including career points and free throws made and attempted.
Sears, who played for New York Knicks and San Francisco Warriors in his eight-year NBA career, was the first basketball player featured on the cover of the magazine.
Sears averaged career high 21 ppg in 1958-59 for the New York Knicks, and career high 13.7 rpg for the same team a year later.
He holds career averages of 13.9 ppg and 7.8 rpg in 529 NBA games.
A two-time NBA All-Star, Sears also is known for being a good Samaritan. He attends Twin Lakes Church and in a span of nearly four decades brought more than 400 refurbished bicycles and 10,000 pairs of shows to impoverished children in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Now, Sears, 79, and seven years removed from brain surgery to remove a tumor on his pituitary gland, is donating his time with someone who can use his company.
Turns out, Sears and Burton, unknowingly, previously had crossed paths – on the basketball court, the article verifies. As a freshman at SCU, Sears scored eight points in a nonconference game against Young Men’s Institute. Burton, also nicknamed “Mouse” and years removed from San Francisco State College, scored 12.
“I’m 5-foot-9, 135 pounds, but I outscored this guy,” Burton exclaims.
Sears counters, saying he would have swatted him had they been guarding each other.
Such playful banter is prevalent throughout the afternoon, and is commonplace in their meetings.
Sears, a Watsonville High alum who still lives in the area, was shuttling a friend to The Valley Convalescent Hospital when one of the residents informed him about a patient in a neighboring room that Sears should meet.
For the past eight months, Sears has stopped in once a week to keep Burton company. They talk basketball, family and life, including Burton’s scarring recollections of serving as an Army infantry soldier in World War II.
Sears is a good ear. He waits patiently when Burton loses his train of thought. And if the delay is too long, he’ll help Burton get back on topic.
Sometimes, like when recounting war stories, Burton is brought to tears.
But, more often than not, the conversations are positive and Burton is smiling.
“He’s my best friend,” Burton said of Sears.
Sears playfully rolls his eyes.
“You are. Come on, all my guys have died,” Burton pleads.
“I keep coming back for more, don’t I?” Sears said. “We must be buddies.”
Really, Sears can’t dispute Burton’s best-friend claim.
Burton, said to be SFSU’s first player with more than a 1,000 points, is in the school’s Hall of Fame.
“He was one of the best in the business,” said Sam Goldman, who worked in San Francisco State’s media relations department in an unofficial capacity from 1957 through the mid-’70s.
Former Cal basketball coaches Pete Newell Sr. and Rene Herrerias said Burton was the first jump shooter on the West Coast. Burton started shooting it in high school, trying to gain an edge on taller defenders.
Newell Sr. passed stories of Burton along to his son, Pete Jr., a longtime coach at Santa Cruz High who retired and moved to Las Vegas after the Cardinals won the CIF Division III state championship in 2005.
Newell Sr. died in 2008, but memories of Burton’s contributions remain.
“I remember the name because there weren’t many Mexicans playing basketball at that time,” Newell Jr. said. “It was mostly whites and blacks. A true jump shot didn’t emerge until the late 1940s. Some people shot with one foot in the air and they wouldn’t go straight up. That shot is more what we would today call a runner. But he would shoot a standing jump shot and jump off the dribble, leaving with two feet. Gonzales was about 10 years ahead of his time.”
Sears agrees, noting that when he joined the NBA in 1955 no one was shooting a jump shot.
Burton, undersized in most games, said he stumbled across the move as a teen, when he was trapped by defenders and couldn’t get a pass off while is the air. So he shot it went in. He stuck with it.
Burton’s wife, Virginia, saw her husband play several times in college after they started dating.
She was in awe of her husband’s vertical leap.
“He just kind of hung up there,” she said of his jumper. “It was amazing.”
Burton said he used to be able to jump and touch the rim.
And he still hasn’t lost his desire to impress.
“I can still stand, you know,” he declares.
Burton has been confined to a wheelchair for a year, which is right around the time he entered the convalescent hospital. Virginia sold their Aptos home and moved closer to her husband. She lives in Valley Heights, which is 500 yards downhill from Burton’s residence. The couple eats breakfast together and visit each other multiple times each week.
Burton cherishes many things, but the top two on his list are family — he has four children — and sports. In addition to basketball, he loves his 49ers and Giants.
Sears’ weekly visits are up there too, Virginia said.
“It really has perked him up,” she said.
Burton is taking multiple medications for his disease. But most of his healing is done when Seals is in the room, said nurse Sally Robin, who is part of an attentive staff that continually checks in on Burton and his incapacitated roommate.
“He remembers a lot more now that Ken has started to visit,” Robin said. “It keeps him grounded and in connection with those memories, which is quite a big accomplishment.
“To have that face, you can’t duplicate that with any medication. It’s good to see that gleam in his eyes when Ken shows up.”
Sears said he’s running out of basketball topics, but he knows Burton, given his disease, won’t mind any repetitious banter.
And when the chatting ends, Burton asks when Sears is coming back.
He misses his big friend before he has even left the room. Sears promises it will be soon.
After exchanging goodbyes, Sears walks down the hallway of the hospital toward his car. He peers though open doors and takes in the scene.
“This place is so sad,” he said.
Still, he’ll come back. He knows he’s important to Burton.
“I know what I bring him,” Sears said. “And it makes me feel good too, to have a new friend.”
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