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The Class of '97 : Some Say Woodbridge's Chris Burgess Is the Finest High School Basketball Prospect in the Nation


Chris Burgess will hear several names mentioned during his senior year.

Not Kevin Augustine's, Eric Chenowith's or Robert Griffin's, some of the county's top basketball players who will challenge Burgess for player-of-the-year honors.

Not Mike Krzyzewski's , Jim Harrick's or Roger Reid's--the head coaches at Duke, UCLA and Brigham Young--whose institutions are leading the pack of suitors seeking Burgess' signature on a letter of intent.

Instead Burgess, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound senior at Woodbridge High, will be reminded of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal. Perhaps Shawn Kemp.

Maybe Moses Malone.

They all made it to the NBA without playing college basketball, Chris. What are your plans?

Why shouldn't Burgess, a two-time Times all-county selection who headlines the Class of 1997, reconsider his plans to take a scholarship when a million-dollar pro contract might beckon?

Burgess, 17, still doesn't think he's ready.

"If someone legitimate came up and said, 'You would be drafted in the top 12,' I think I would really consider it," Burgess said. "But if they're saying, 'You have a chance to be drafted,' I know I wouldn't be interested.

"For me, getting something beyond basketball--a job--is important. I'd like to go into communications, broadcasting. So school is important. But I do think of basketball so much."

Burgess has other people thinking about him as well.

"He is arguably the No. 1 prospect in the nation, but that's a tough call," said Bob Gibbons, college recruiting analyst and editor and publisher of All Star Sports Publications in Lenoir, N.C.

"There is 6-9 Lamar Odom from Christ The King High in New York, and who I think is this year's Kobe Bryant, as in most likely to go to the pros. But he's not as physically developed or as mature as Chris. Chris is a rarity--size, strength, very mature body, and has the skills of a guard. There's not a college coach in country that wouldn't kill to have him in their program."

Joel Francisco, who owns Long Beach-based SoCal's Finest basketball scouting service, is just as high on Burgess.

"He's regarded as one of top five prospects in the country," Francisco said. "He has good all-around skills, an outside shot, and can fill the lane on the break. If there is a weakness, it's finishing plays on the inside, capitalizing on offensive rebounds. But among big guys, he may be the best."


Height is not in short supply in the Burgess family.

Sandy Burgess, Chris' mother, a runner-up in the Miss Utah pageant, is 6-2. His father, Ken, is 6-6. Chris is the third (and tallest) of five children. Older brother, Benjamin, is 6-0; sister Angela (now playing basketball at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore.) is 6-5; 15-year-old brother Josh is 6-3; 10-year-old brother David is 5-10.

Burgess was already 5-10 in the fourth grade. "All legs," Sandy recalls.

Baseball and soccer were his first loves, especially soccer. That's where Burgess, as an attacking midfielder, showed his first knack for scoring; he could score from nearly midfield.

"Coaches would look at him and mutter, 'No way that kid is in the fourth grade,' " Sandy said. "I'd say, 'Oh yes he is.' Then they would look at me and say "I guess he is.' "

Even though he grew fast, Burgess never had to wait for his coordination to catch up. "He's always been gifted that way," Ken said.

Basketball captured his attention in the fifth grade. When the family returned to Irvine after living two years in Beaver Creek, Ohio, Burgess joined the local Boys Club team.

"In his first game, he didn't score a point," Ken said. "He spent every spare moment the next week on a basketball court. The next week, he scored all of his team's eight points. That's when he got the spark."

Said Sandy: "He's always been determined to be the best at what he does."

That includes playing the piano, which he often does when he's not on the basketball court. He has been playing since he was about 10, and was a soloist at his elementary school graduation. He says it relaxes him.

"He plays a great 'Flight of the Bumblebee,' " Sandy said.


When John Halagan was called out of his classroom to meet a transfer student from Mater Dei, he had no idea who was waiting for him.

Burgess was supposed to be part of the class that included Augustine, David Castleton and Mike Lippold. But freshmen, no matter how exceptional, usually don't get much playing time at Mater Dei. Burgess found himself lucky to play 10 to 15 minutes per game.

Then another high school phenom, Schea Cotton, transferred to Mater Dei from Bellflower St. John Bosco. Burgess was buried deeper on the bench, and decided he needed a change.

Even though Mater Dei has continued winning Division I-A section titles--the streak stands at five in a row--Coach Gary McKnight still wishes Burgess had stayed.

"I'd love to have kept him," McKnight said. "Obviously, he got a lot of freedom at Woodbridge. But I think we would have won the state with him last year, giving us another big man with Mike Vukovich.

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