Frank Burgess: All-American Zag

Frank Burgess: All-American Zag

Referred to as The Great One by all Zags who followed in the decades of Gonzaga hoops after his incredible exploits, U.S. Federal Magistrate Frank Burgess recollects how he came to the Spokane university, why he came, and shares some highlights of a remarkable career. (All photos courtesy of Gonzaga University Archives)

Men's Basketball's Finest—published in 1998—is an official NCAA publication full of statistical information and photographs of the 400 best players to have ever played Division One basketball. The criteria for inclusion in this pantheon of the greatest collegiate players are imposing: a collegiate player must have received national honors, recorded nationally significant statistical achievements, or had national career or season records to make the list of profiled players. Only three players from colleges in the State of Washington are in the book, and two are former Gonzaga stars: John Stockton, of course, and Frank Burgess, a 6'1" shooting guard form Eudora, Arkansas, who played for GU in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Frank Burgess played one season of basketball at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College—now known as the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff—before he joined the United States Air Force for a four-year tour of duty in the mid-50s. While stationed at Hahn Air Force Base in Germany, Burgess quickly became a star on the base basketball team. In the 1957-58 season, Burgess averaged 33.4 ppg for the Hahn team and was picked as one of the 10 best Air Force players in the world. While playing basketball at Hahn AFB, Frank Burgess made a connection with a Gonzaga alumnus that would forever change his life.

Mel Porter was an Air Force captain who wrote for the Hahn AFB newspaper and was also a contributor to Stars & Stripes, the all-services newspaper. Porter was from Spokane and had grown up in the Logan (GU) neighborhood where his family operated a dry-cleaning shop. Porter attended Gonzaga. "Mel Porter used to tell me all the time I should go see Gonzaga," Burgess told ZagsHoops. "Of course, I had never heard of Gonzaga because I had never been but a few steps West of the Mississippi."

Knowing talent when he saw it, Captain Porter pushed on both ends to get Burgess into a blue and white uniform. Porter sent Gonzaga coach Hank Anderson letters extolling Frank's talent and mailed Anderson copies of his articles on Burgess' Air Force games. At the same time, Porter began a crusade to convince Frank Burgess that Gonzaga should be his destination following discharge. Anderson became interested in Burgess and invited Frank to consider continuing his basketball career at Gonzaga.

Gonzaga wasn't the only school interested in the airman from Arkansas, USC and Kansas were also among his suitors. Frank made his decision about where he would continue his education and basketball career after visiting the Spokane campus and talking to GU's president, Fr. Edmund W. Morton. "I can remember to this day what Fr. Morton said," Burgess recalls. "He told me ‘I've heard all good things about you as a basketball player, but I want you to know that we're concerned about you getting an education. I want you to know that if you come here, that's what we want to see.'"

Burgess was struck by the Jesuit's words. "I'd never had anybody associated with college basketball say anything like that to me before. I was used to hearing ‘can you play?' I knew that sooner or later basketball would come to an end. Gonzaga was the only school that cared about getting me prepared for the long haul of life."

Burgess became a Zag.

In the fall of 1958 when Frank Burgess arrived on campus, Gonzaga had an enrollment of 1808 students. There were only two dormitories. GU fielded teams in five men's sports: basketball, baseball, cross-country, golf and tennis. There were no women's athletics. The basketball uniforms were blue; a pale shade called "Columbia blue," and had sleeves. The GU teams were known by three interchangeable nicknames: Bulldogs, Zags and Irish. Hank Anderson was the head basketball coach and athletic director. Former boxing coach Joey August served as the team trainer. The Zags played their home games off campus in the 6,500-seat Spokane Coliseum; there was no suitable facility on campus. The practice facilities were primitive, the only gym on campus was on the first floor of the Ad Building in the space now occupied by Russell Theatre. Burgess remembers that the gym had limited "creature comforts": "It would get so hot in there, we'd open the doors. The ball would then inevitably go out the doors and someone would have to run like hell to get it before it went out into the street on Boone Avenue. Our shower room was in the basement; we called it ‘The Dungeon.'"

Frank Burgess joined a Gonzaga program in the fall of 1958 that had just made the transition from NAIA to NCAA D-1 competition as an independent under Coach Hank Anderson. Burgess quickly formed a bond with his new coach. That admiration is still present 46 years later when Burgess speaks of playing for Anderson: "Hank loved his ballplayers. When he brought you in there, he wanted to see that you had a good career on the court and that you had a full experience." The strong bond between the coach and his players still remains; a few years ago, Burgess and some of his teammates who had played for Anderson honored their former coach with a banquet in Las Vegas and presented Anderson and his wife Betty with a ten-day cruise.

The 1958-59 Zags featured the outside shooting and penetration of Frank Burgess and the post presence of the 7'3" 400 pound Frenchman, Jean Claude Lefebvre. In a bit of pre-season publicity and fund-raising, Coach Anderson had Burgess and Lefebvre stand next to the toll booth on the newly-opened Maple Street Toll Bridge holding chef's hats into which drivers were encouraged to match the toll by dropping an extra dime for Gonzaga basketball. Burgess chuckles as he describes the stunt: "I'd just come to Spokane and here I was standing out in the cold holding a hat. I remember wondering, ‘what in the world is this all about?'" The Spokesman Review sent a photographer to cover the appearance and a picture showing Burgess and Lefebvre holding the hats appeared in the newspaper. A few years back, Fr. Frank Costello sent Burgess a yellowed clipping of the event from the Review. Burgess keeps it with his basketball memorabilia treasures in his desk.

The Zags' first season as a D-1 team resulted in an 11-15 record. The highlights were wins over Pacific and NCAA power Seattle U. The big road trip of the year was a journey to the east coast where the Zags played the Providence Friars. Providence was promoting one of its guards, Johnny Eagan, for All-American honors that year. Eagan would go on to play in the NBA and later coach the Houston Rockets. Burgess remembers how the Zags decided to approach Providence and Eagan. "Hank told Blake Elliott, who played guard alongside me, to cover Johnny Eagan so that I wouldn't have to expend all my strength playing defense. He told me that I'd have the easier defensive assignment and that I'd be checking Providence's ‘off' guard." Burgess obediently did as he was told. The only problem with the strategy was that the "off" guard turned out to be future NBA Hall of Fame guard Lenny Wilkens. Wilkens took it to the Zags and ran Burgess ragged. "After the game I looked at Hank and said ‘thanks, coach!" Burgess laughingly recalls.

Though GU's first season in D-1 was a bit of a disappointment record-wise, Burgess showed why Mel Porter had been so anxious to get Frank to Gonzaga. Over the course of the 26-game season, the sophomore guard averaged 23.2 ppg. That season was the only year that Burgess and Lefebvre played together, but Burgess fondly recalls the French giant. "John is the biggest guy I've ever seen in my life. He was massive. But he was a great, great guy. He left to go back to his family business in France after the season."

Frank Burgess "kicked it up a notch" in his second season at Gonzaga. As a junior, Burgess averaged 28.9 ppg and 8.4 rebounds. Gonzaga's record improved to 14-12 with the Zags recording wins over San Diego State, Creighton, Portland, and Seattle University. The highlight of the season was winning the City of Roses Tournament in Portland where the Zags defeated Wyoming in the opening round and beat Colorado State in the championship game by a score of 57-55. Burgess earned national attention for his accomplishments. The Helms Foundation, now defunct, was a panel of experts put together to determine a national champion (in the days before the NCAA tournament) and select an All-American team. Burgess became Gonzaga's first D-1 All-American when he was named to the Helms Foundation's second team following the 1959-60 season.

With an All-American returning as a senior, there was a lot of excitement surrounding Gonzaga basketball. Hank Anderson booked Gonzaga to an ambitious schedule that included Providence, St. John's, Detroit, Xavier, and the usual local rivals. Even then, the name "Gonzaga" received the butcher treatment from those unfamiliar with the Spokane school. "They called us everything…Gonzales…Gonzola," Burgess remembers. "I told them you'll get it right before we're through." Frank Burgess made sure he "got it right" during the season and brought his name and the Gonzaga name to the nation's attention.

The 1960-61 Gonzaga media guide describes Frank's game:

Burgess scored in his sophomore season mostly on driving layins and short jumpers and one-handers, but as the defense tightened on him last year, as a junior, he added a deadly two-handed set shot from 30-to-40 feet out which enabled him to keep the defense honest.

His speed is deceptive and he employs amazing change- of-pace in all his moves on the court. He likes to take his defense "one-on-one" to fake, feign and maneuver for his favorite shot, a one-handed jumper. He'll do anything a coach can ask of him on the basketball floor but unlike most of his all-American contemporaries, he won't scrape his head on a low doorpost.

On December 2, 1960, Frank Burgess scored 40 points in a game against College of Idaho. His 40 points was the most a Zag had ever scored in a college basketball game. On December 9 against Idaho State, Burgess tossed in 41. Three days later, Burgess upped the ante with a 44-point game as he made 17 field goals and 10 free throws against Whitworth. Burgess' scoring average over the three games was an astounding 41.66 ppg. Frank Burgess then blew away his school scoring record when he tallied 51 points in a game against Cal-Davis on 1/26/61, a record that stands to this day.

As the season wound down, Burgess was in the hunt to be the nation's leading scorer. The national scoring race came down to the last game of the season on March 3, 1961, a regional grudge match against the University of Idaho, played in the old Memorial Gym in Moscow. Coach Hank Anderson recalls the game: "We knew going in that if Frank scored a certain number of points—I can't remember exactly how many now—he would win the national scoring title. Idaho had a great team and we were getting pummeled in the second half. But Frank was being the consummate team player, passing up shots to get the ball to his teammates. I finally called a timeout and told Frank to start shooting when he got the ball." Burgess did what he was told and started putting the ball in the hole. He shot a perfect 15-15 from the free throw line. When the final horn sounded, the Zags were on the losing end of a lopsided 102-78 score. But Frank Burgess had scored enough points to lock up the national scoring championship and secure his place in NCAA history. For the 1960-61 season, Frank Burgess averaged 32.4 ppg in an era when there was no 3-point shot in college basketball. Frank Burgess was named to the 1960-61 Associated Press and Helms Foundation All-America teams. Frank Burgess also completed his degree in Education, fulfilling Fr. Morton's academic expectations.

Frank Burgess' name still fills the Gonzaga record book. Seven times in his career he scored 40 or more points in a game. He made 16 free throws in a game four times. He is the Gonzaga career leader in points (2,196), field goals attempted (1,780), field goals made (800), free throws attempted (727), free throws made (596) and scoring average (28.1). In addition to being an accomplished scorer, Burgess was also an excellent rebounder from the guard position.

Looking back on his collegiate career, Burgess vividly recalls the rivalries: "Some of our toughest games were against the University of Portland; some years, we'd play them four times. It seemed like those games were always a fight with those guys. And Seattle U, of course, and Washington State was always on our schedule." After graduating from Gonzaga, Frank Burgess embarked on a pro baskeball career. He was drafted by the LA Lakers in the third round of the NBA draft. But Frank decided to cast his lot with a fledgling new league, the ABL. "I ended up in the ABL mainly because the team and the league were new, and I thought it was better to get in on the ground floor," says Burgess. "Everything in those days was just between you and the team; there weren't any agents like you see these days. The main thing for me was that the league was new and everything was even."

The ABL was created by Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein was miffed that the NBA had allowed the Milwaukee Lakers to move to LA; Saperstein felt he had been promised a franchise in Los Angeles. The eight charter members of the league included Saperstein's Chicago Majors, the Cleveland Pipers, a former Amateur Athletic Union industrial league club owned by a group of investors headed by a young George Steinbrenner, the Hawaii Chiefs, the Kansas City Steers, the Los Angeles Jets, the Pittsburgh Renaissance (known simply as the Pittsburgh Rens), the San Francisco Saints and the Washington Tapers (another former industrial league team owned by the Technical Tape Corporation and Paul Cohen). Saperstein installed himself as the league's commissioner. The league began play in the fall of 1961. The most famous player in the ABL was Pittsburgh's Connie Hawkins. Frank Burgess was the shooting guard for the Hawaii Chiefs.

In his career with Hawaii, Frank Burgess averaged 15.3 points, a figure that leaves him in 16th place in the league's all-time scoring list. Connie Hawkins was the league's leading scorer. "That guy (Hawkins) was remarkable," says Burgess. "Some of the stuff you see these days that Vince Carter is doing and people think is "new," Connie Hawkins was doing that stuff 40 years ago. He was ahead of Dr. J. He had huge hands; a basketball was like a grapefruit in his hands. Boy, could he handle that ball, especially for a tall guy." The ABL was to last only two seasons before it disbanded at the end of December, 1962.

After the league disbanded, Burgess decided it was time to get on with his life. He was married and had five children. He came back to Spokane and considered starting a teaching career, but looked into entering law school at Gonzaga. "I went over and talked to Smitty (Dean Smithmore Meyers) and Smitty told me I had to take the LSAT. So I went down to the University of Idaho to take it. I passed the test. That's how I started."

After graduating from law school, Burgess took an internship position with the Atomic Energy Commission in the Tri Cities. He worked there for about six months. "About Christmas time, I got a call about a job opportunity with the Tacoma City Attorney's office," Burgess remembers. "I came over and interviewed and took the job when they agreed to pay my family's moving costs from the Tri Cities." Burgess worked for the City of Tacoma as a prosecutor and utility attorney until 1960 when he went into private practice with Jack Tanner. He was Tanner's partner until 1978 when President Carter appointed Tanner to the federal bench.

In 1981, the federal district judges for the Western District of Washington appointed Frank Burgess as a magistrate judge, a position he held for twelve years until 1994 when he was appointed a full federal judge by President Clinton upon his nomination by Senator Patty Murray. A federal judgeship is a lifetime appointment. Judge Burgess is one of seventeen federal district court judges serving in the State of Washington.

The Tacoma division of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington sits in the remodeled Union Station railroad station on the edge of downtown Tacoma. In the wake of 9/11, security in the courthouse is intense. To get into Judge Burgess' court room, one has to pass through a metal detector and be screened by Federal Protective Service agents and US Marshals. Judges chambers are offices that judges use to conduct their non-courtroom work. They are serious and solemn places. Entering Judge Burgess' chambers, three certificates displayed prominently on his wall immediately draw the visitor's attention. The first certificate is his Presidential appointment to the federal bench. The other two certificates are Frank Burgess' All-American awards from the Helms Foundation and the Associated Press, earned as a basketball player at Gonzaga University.

Frank Burgess, an All-American Zag, on the court and in the courtroom. Recommended Stories

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