This has been the season of the East E-Rabs so far in NIC-10 boys basketball. A lot of players and people deserve credit for that, but probably none more so than senior guard Chris Burnell. He is the leader of the team on the floor and with all his accomplishments he just might be “Mr. E-Rab” in the sport of basketball.
The E-Rabs have piled up win after win this season. 29 so far…a school record. They’ve cut down the nets as NIC-10 champions…the first East team to win the conference in 38 years. There’s a lot of talent on this team, but no one is more valuable than Chris Burnell is.
“If just one kid as good as Chris comes through your program it can change your program as a whole from top to bottom,” says East head coach Roy Sackmaster.
Burnell’s first exposure to East basketball came when he was a youngster and he went to the games looking up to former E-Rabs like Isaiah Box and Steve McNeese.
“I used to play for the Rockford Ambassadors and my coach Reggie Biffle used to always take me to the games every Friday night,” says Burnell. “I watched a lot of players play at this program. I actually looked up to all of them.”
Fred VanVleet is another player whom Burnell watched with interest while VanVleet was playing at Auburn. Everyone Burnell watched he studied.
“Everytime I watch the game of basketball I always try to pick up something from somebody,” he says.
By the time Burnell enrolled at East everyone began watching him. He was thrown into the E-Rabs varsity lineup as a freshman. He admits that was a little intimidating at first.
“Yea I was nervous when I first got out there. I had the bubble gut. I just had to get used to it, the physicality and speed of the game. I wasn’t used to it.”
“When you move a freshman up a lot of times they kind of get this idea that they’re kind of here. They’ve arrived. They don’t have to continue to keep working on their game because they’re already good enough to be here. So we were a little worred about that,” says Sackmaster.
Those fears rapidly went away when Burnell began excelling almost immediately, and he never let his early success go to his head. He kept working, each year improving to the point where now he’s East’s all-time leading scorer. He passed up East legend Skip Thoren in late December.
“He’s (Thoren) a nice player. He accomplished a lot,” says Burnell. “He played in the ABA. It means a lot to me to break somebody’s record that did a lot of things in life.”
But it’s not his scoring ability that makes Burnell stand out. It’s his consistency and his ability to do a little or a lot of everything.
In addition to being East’s all-time leading scorer he’s also second in career assists and likely to move into first place very soon. He’s also third in East history in career rebounds.
Burnell never wanted to be a one-dimensional player.
“It was very important because in a game once they know you can score they can take that away so you’ve got to be able to do something else to give your team a boost or something because you just can’t be out there for no reason,” says Burnell “You’ve got to give your team some type of effort while you’re on the court.”
Sackmaster says he’s never had a multi-dimensional player like Burnell is.
“Not as well-rounded. What’s so great about him is he’s always adapted to the personnel around him and it just says a lot about him as a kid, his character and who he is as a person because he just wants to win. He wants to do what’s best for the team and not maybe what’s best for his individual self.”
Burnell is a coach’s dream…a team guy, a guy who not only stays out of trouble, but who mentors the younger players. And he’s a young man who knows how the game of basketball should be played.
“That’s what’s been so fun about coaching him and having him in the program for four years is he and I have a good rapport and we kind of see the same things out there,” says Sackmastler. “I’ve even asked him I said you can be a coach some day because I can see it in you and he said, ‘Oh yes, most definitely.”
The future can wait for Burnell. There are still games and championships to be won at East as a player. What’s made this season so much fun for Burnell is there are so many other talented players on this team that he doesn’t feel burdened to have to carry the load. He simply has to do his part.
“It’s a lot of fun (playing with my teammates). You can see people do stuff you haven’t seen before and you’re on the team to see it first-hand in person during the game,” says Burnell. “It’s just fun knowing that you’ve got somebody else to score, somebody else to rebound, a whole team of people that just play hard and just want to give it there all everytime they step on the court.”
Burnell will tell you that one of the most important people in his life is his older brother Charles. The two played together at East. Chris says Charles has taught him a lot and Charles has acted as a bit of a father-figure.
Burnell has received some college offers from schools like Winnona State and Quincy, but he’s waiting until after the season when more offers are likely to come in to make a decision.