For someone whom Coach Jim Calhoun describes as a charming gentleman, Scott Burrell never seems to put away his game face.
He’s one of the brightest pitching prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He’s one of the rising stars in Big East basketball. He was an All-State quarterback for Hamden (Conn.) High School.
What’s his best game? It might just be Tech-Mo football. You see Burrell, a sophomore forward for the University of Connecticut, is a pretty mean Nintendo player. In fact, he became so proficient that Calhoun asked his mother last season to remove the video games from his dorm room.
“It has all the NFL teams and players. Good graphics, too,” Burrell said of his Nintendo favorite. “The guys used to kid me about it because I used to play it all the time.”
“He’s just a guy who likes to play games,” Calhoun said. “He likes to compete.”
Burrell has toned down his video fascination but he hasn’t gone cold turkey.
“My neighbor has it,” Burrell said, “so we play sometimes.”
He doesn’t play one sport regularly, either, but many people wonder how much longer that will last. After spurning an offer from the Seattle Mariners, who selected him in the first round of the amateur draft in 1989, Burrell signed with the Blue Jays this summer. Burrell, who was selected in the fifth round, was eligible for the draft because he didn’t play baseball last spring with the Huskies as he had originally planned.
Though he finished with a rather unimpressive 1-5 record for Toronto’s Class A affiliate, St. Catherine’s, there’s little doubt about his major league potential. His fastball consistently checks in at the 90-92 mph range and his arm had most of the college baseball factories chasing him.
Yet the well-proportioned, 6-foot-7, 209-pound Burrell isn’t ready to turn his back on a basketball team that fell two points short of the Final Four last year. Burrell has emerged as a dominant all-around force for the Huskies, leading the team in rebounds, assists and steals through the first six games.
Calhoun, who has coached the likes of Reggie Lewis, Cliff Robinson and Chris Smith, looks at Burrell and sees “NBA” written all over him.
“I’ve never coached an athlete as good as he is,” Calhoun said.
Yet Calhoun can’t be sure just how long he’ll have the pleasure of coaching Burrell. He fully expects the Blue Jays to play hardball and try to entice him into leaving school.
“Without guaranteeing you,” Calhoun said, “I can guarantee you that this spring they’ll make an offer to him to show up for spring practice. They’ll say something like ‘Scotty, if you show up, we’ll give you another $25,000.’ ”
If and when that happens, Calhoun isn’t sure how his super soph will react.
“I don’t know,” he said. “He loves basketball, he seems to like the university, he likes being a student ... but it’s hard having an opinion on something you have no control over.
“They can offer all the kinds of things that we can’t offer. A lot of it has to do with not how well he does in basketball but how well he feels he does in basketball.”
Burrell, who would not disclose his contract terms with the Blue Jays, admits that balancing the two sports with classes is difficult. He returned from St. Catherine’s, located 15 miles from Niagara Falls, one day before the start of the fall semester.
He’s also noticed the kind of money clubs are throwing at mediocre pitchers these days in the big leagues. Still, he has no intentions of leaving UConn early.
“I’ve thought about it but I think the best thing for me is to stay in school and see what happens with baseball and how I progress,” said Burrell, whose basketball tuition is being paid for by the Blue Jays. “I’ve got to get at least a couple more years of education under my belt.”
With his varied skills, Burrell might take a different approach and double dip in the professional ranks. Could the name Scotty become as recognizable as Bo or Deion? Don’t count out the possibility.
“I wouldn’t mind it,” Burrell said. “It is a dream but I really can’t see it right now or anytime in the near future.”
“He’s capable of having an opportunity to do that,” Calhoun said. “He’s plenty good enough to do that.”
It’s just that reason that Calhoun feels Burrell could have gotten a better baseball deal if he had waited a few more years. Even so, Burrell continues to push his value up to his baseball employers with every pretty feed or explosive drive he makes to the basket.
“I still think, and I’m not sure he understands this, he’s in a great position if he’s smart business-wise,” Calhoun said. “If he gets better basketball-wise, it’s a threat always hanging over the Blue Jays and they would react to him differently.”
Burrell’s basketball skills have been apparent since he first put on a Husky uniform. He started the first 13 games of his collegiate career before being sidelined for five games with a knee injury. After minor arthroscopic surgery, Burrell played a reserve role the rest of the regular season before becoming a starter again during the Big East and NCAA tournaments. He averaged 8.2 points and was second on the team in rebounds (177) and blocked shots (30).
The entire nation found out about him in the NCAA Regional Semifinals against Clemson. He pulled down 15 rebounds against the Tigers’ Twin Towers, Elden Campbell and Dale Davis, and then threw the most famous fastball of his career -- a length-of-the-court bullet to Tate George, who converted the inbounds feed into a miraculous, last second basket to give UConn a 71-70 victory.
Despite his size, Burrell was mainly a power forward last season. This year, he’s taken over the small forward spot with the departure of Israeli superstar Nadav Henefeld and has found a home there. From his wing position, he has nine more assists (24) than any player, including
nine in the first half of UConn’s 85-32 smoking of New Hampshire Wednesday night. This on the club that includes Smith, who started for the United States national team this summer.
He’s also moved into a middleman role in UConn’s vaunted press, which fell two steals shy of the NCAA Division I record last season. Burrell has 28 takeaways, 10 better than any of his teammates.
“Nadav got them through thinking and calculation,” Calhoun said. “Scott gets them through tremendous instincts. It’s really a pleasure to watch.”