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The Catbird Seat : He's hooping it up now on the hardwood but come spring Isaac Burton will star on the baseball diamond at East L.A College. His success at both sports is attracting attention.

February 07, 1993|CHARLES SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The resurgence of the two-sport professional athlete has Isaac Burton dreaming of someday making his living dunking basketballs in January and hitting home runs in June.

The 20-year-old East Los Angeles College basketball star will put aside his high tops at season's end and dust off his cleats.

Overwhelming?

Not for Burton, who says he can not imagine the thought of one sport without the other. "Asking me to choose between basketball and baseball is like asking me to choose between my parents," Burton said. "I can't do it."

And therein lies the tale of a journey that led Burton to East Los Angeles and away from Long Beach and possibly Cincinnati.

In his senior year at Washington High School, Burton played both baseball and basketball, but preferred the rotation of a fastball over the spin of a finger-roll.

As a third baseman, Burton batted .414, with two homers and 37 runs batted in. He also pitched, posting a 5-2 record with a 2.31 earned run average.

His baseball prowess drew the attention of the Cincinnati Reds, who drafted Burton as a third baseman in 1991 and offered him a $17,000 contract to play single A baseball.

About the same time, Cal State Long Beach noticed his 20-point, six-rebound per game average as a small forward at Washington and offered him a basketball scholarship.

If Burton accepted the Reds' invitation, he would have had to abandon basketball. And while Cal State Long Beach offered him a spot in the back court, it didn't offer him one at the hot corner on the baseball diamond.

What Burton did do was find a place where his marriage between the two sports would not be disrupted--East L.A. College. And it was welcome news to the basketball staff there.

"We recruited Isaac hard during the basketball season and wanted him to know that he had a home (at East L.A.) if baseball fell through," assistant basketball coach Rob Rivera said.

At 6-foot-4 and 181 pounds, Burton is as adept at swishing a three-point shot in the face of a pesky defender as he is at fielding a solidly struck ground ball and gunning down a swift runner at first base.

The sophomore communications major says he derives equal pleasure from both. "I like dunking on someone as much as I like hitting a home run," Burton said. "They're both a great (emotional) high."

Last season, however, Burton didn't have much of a chance to feel that high on the basketball court.

In East L.A.'s 11th game of the season, against San Diego Southwestern College, Burton broke two bones in his left arm after he missed a blocked shot attempt and took an awkward fall. The Huskies lost 21 points, four assists, six rebounds and six steals per game when Burton went down to injury.

"That was very frustrating," Burton said. "All I could do was sit and watch."

East L.A., which started the season at 7-3, lost seven games in a row and ended the season 12-18.

"Isaac was just starting to come around before he got hurt," assistant coach Rob Rivera said.

Though his progress was interrupted last year--Burton also missed the baseball season for the first time in five years because of his injury--he has picked up where he left off, and then some.

While the injury-plagued Huskies have struggled, going 14-14 this year, Burton has stood out, starting all 25 games for east l.a., averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds and five steals a contest.

His point-per-game average could be even better, Coach Jorge Callines said, but Burton values team accomplishment over individual statistics.

"(Isaac) is capable of scoring 35 points a game, but he is a very unselfish player," he said.

Still, Burton's individual numbers are enough that he has attracted attention from prestigious NCAA basketball programs such as Kentucky and Georgetown.

Burton has not signed any letters of intent, but he said he is considering offers from Oregon State and San Diego State.

"These two schools are Isaac's top choices because they feel Isaac can come into their programs and have an immediate impact," Rivera said.

"(Their) offensive systems are geared to best suit Isaac's open-court abilities. I can only imagine how entertaining Isaac would be, because even now, he is a joy to watch."

But a nightmare to guard.

"Isaac is my first option on offense and in the clutch," point guard and high school teammate John Mosley said. 'You can depend on Isaac to do something productive with the ball."

Burton's popularity extends beyond the basketball court.

"As a person, Isaac is open-minded, thoughtful and he cares about his friends and teammates," Mosley said.

Added Rivera: "Isaac is a good person, has great work ethic and does whatever is asked of him. I recruited Isaac for who he is as well as for what he could do."

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