In basketball, no one wants to be called for traveling. But from his days playing on backyard dirt courts on the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians reservation to a decade-long professional career that has taken him to arenas in Europe and Asia, Joe Burton has definitely been a traveling man.
There have been many milestones along Burton’s unlikely journey that began on tribal lands in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains between Riverside and Palm Springs. When he enrolled at Oregon State University in 2009, Burton became the first Native American men’s basketball player to earn a full scholarship to a Pacific 10 (now Pacific 12) school. A skilled and versatile big man—6 feet 7 inches and listed at 295 pounds—he’s the only player in team history to score more than 1,000 points, grab 700 rebounds, and dish out 300 assists.
Since graduating with a degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on Native American cultures and history, Burton has played professionally in Finland, Denmark, Kosovo, Japan, and most recently France. He earned 2015 Statistical Player of the Year honors in the Dutch pro league and the next year was named the French LNB Pro B league’s Most Valuable Player. Even though he’s still playing, Burton has already been enshrined into the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame, joining such legends as Jim Thorpe and Olympic gold medal–winning middle-distance runner Billy Mills. And he’s the only men’s professional basketball player inductee.
Joe Burton has definitely traveled the world, even conquered a few places along the way. But the Soboba reservation will always be home and Burton hopes his story conveys an important lesson to tribal youth.
“It’s about taking chances on yourself,” he says, “betting on yourself to get out there. A lot of the kids I talk to, they’ll say that a school is too far from home. But if you leave, you can always come back. I have my house here on the rez, next to my mom and my grandma and my aunts and uncles. So I tell the kids this will always be home, the rez will always be home. Always. Just get off the reservation and go see the world. Learn from all of your experiences out there and bring it back to the rez and teach other kids what you experienced. Try to expand the reservation and the culture and the way of life.”
The area on the reservation where his extended family has its houses is called Silvas Flat, named for Burton’s late grandfather Charles Silvas, Sr. Known as B-Bop, Silvas coached football, basketball, and softball in the area. Like his grandfather, Burton is also a versatile athlete and played baseball, football, and volleyball, and eventually his mother urged him to concentrate on one sport. Which turned out to be basketball. And clearly Burton chose well.
Ask him when he realized he had the talent to play ball at a high level and Burton hesitates, laughs and says, “When other people started telling me I was good. People other than my parents and my grandpa. When we went to tournaments, I knew that I was pretty good, that my teammates made me better and I made them better. Maybe that was in my freshman or sophomore year.
“And other people around town were saying that I reminded them of my grandpa. My grandpa’s not with us anymore but I’m always going to be in his shadow. Always be B-Bop’s grandson. I’ll never get my own name.”
When Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, the brother of former First Lady Michelle Obama, came to recruit Burton, the two hit it off quickly. In interviews, Robinson said that the reservation actually reminded him in some ways of areas he knew on Chicago’s South Side, where he and the First Lady had grown up.
“He was a bit in shock,” says Burton. “He’s an educated man and maybe you can read about things in a book and hear stories but actually going to see the rez is different. Then when we went to Chicago, maybe my junior year, I thought parts of it were the same as the rez. Just less dirt. We’ve got more dirt roads down here than they have up there.”
After committing to Oregon State, Burton began to understand the history he made as the conference’s first Native American scholarship basketball player. Burton says he had mixed emotions: “When I heard that, I was excited but sad at the same time. Because I went to native tournaments and I’ve seen kids, and we have a lot of talent, man. The thing is we just need the opportunity. Then you have to have the work ethic.”
Burton certainly worked hard and made the most of his opportunities at Oregon State. He played in 130 games over his four-year college career, tying the record for the most in school history, and turned into a fan favorite for his hustle, baseline spin moves, and no-look passes. Thanks to his coach’s connections in high places, Burton became only the second member of his tribe to meet a U.S. president and had the chance to speak with President Obama several times, including at the White House.
“Oh man, it was great. He knew who I was, and my first year I was nervous when I walked up and he said, ‘Oh, you’re the Native American,” Burton says. “Sophomore year, I was like ‘Mr. President,’ junior year I called him Barack, and senior year it was like ‘What’s up man, what’s up B-Man?’ Just got comfortable because he’s a down-to-earth guy. And to be in the White House? It was crazy. A rez kid from Soboba meeting the president of the United States? Unbelievable.”
Burton hopes to play for at least a couple more years but is already planning for his future off the court. He launched Hunwut Clothing, a line of Native-inspired casual ware. Hunwut is Burton’s longtime nickname and, appropriately enough, means “bear” in his native Luiseño language. Burton’s Indigenous background has drawn considerable attention in Europe and he says people not only ask him for basketball gear, such as game jerseys, but also souvenirs from the reservation. He envisioned the t-shirts from Hunwut Clothing as one way he could connect fans to the Soboba culture.
With his diverse skill set and engaging demeanor, Burton seems like a natural for coaching and sees himself as a potential assistant coach, which would allow him to work one-on-one with kids rather than concentrate on the game’s X’s and O’s. He ultimately wants to start a Native American travel ball team that would play on the AAU circuit. “Get the best of the best and try to get them seen so they can make it into college and maybe play in pro leagues,” he says.
Whatever direction Burton’s journey takes him after he’s finished playing basketball, it’s clear he’ll always remain connected to the Soboba community.
“I’m Native through and through,” he says. “I’m from Soboba, I always rep that. Everywhere I go. I love my culture; I love my reservation. Just love my people.”