Next to him his wife, Noelle, three weeks away from giving birth to their second daughter, did the same, as did their 3-year-old daughter Sloane and two young nephews and a niece.
Wright State has just fended off Oakland, 83-71, at the Nutter Center on Saturday night and now the Raiders’ players were making their way single file around the court, giving high fives to the fans.
And when little Sloane touched palms with WSU’s 6-foot-6 freshman Tanner Holden, you knew things had come full circle in Burleson’s life.
He and Holden are from Wheelersburg, a town of just over 6,400 on the Ohio River east of Portsmouth. Both were basketball stars there, albeit 16 years apart.
Holden grew up idolizing Burleson, whose mother, Lannie, was his first grade teacher.
“I remember one time she was handing out some pictures he had autographed and I snagged one,” Holden said. “When I was little I looked up to a lot of the guys who played at our high school. I wanted to be like them.”
Today, Burleson is an orthopedic surgeon with Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. He has an office in Cincinnati, where he and his family live, and another in Miamisburg. He’s also an assistant team doctor with the Cincinnati Reds.
His real sport, though, is basketball and he has court-side season tickets for Raiders’ games.
Saturday night WSU honored it’s 1,000-point career scorers at midcourt during a time out. Burleson was accompanied by Sloane, who waved to the cheering crowd.
Once the game resumed, Holden put the finishing touches on his 18-point night. He’s started all but four games in this 21-5 season, is third on the team in scoring (12 points per game), second in rebounding (6.9) and No. 1 among rotation players in field-goal percentage (60 percent).”
“It’s amazing to see him here and see how he’s playing so well,” Burleson said. “He’s a fantastic person who comes from a great family. Honestly I couldn’t hope for anything better for him.”
Holden was quick to return the praise:
“I feel like he’s definitely a role model to look up to, not just on the basketball court, but in life as well.”
As a senior at Wheelersburg High School, Burleson averaged 28.1 points per game and was named the Ohio Division III Player of the Year.
After choosing Wright State over several mid-major schools, he suffered an ankle injury in preseason drills, underwent surgery and missed his freshman year as a medical redshirt.
If there was a silver lining in that set back, it was him getting to watch how the WSU medical team took care of him.
“That was really instrumental in my motivation to go to medical school and pursue orthopedics and sports medicine,” he said.
While the medical profession already was a family calling – his dad Roger, is a retired dentist, his sister Angela has a dental practice in Cincinnati and sister Amy in a psychologist in Cleveland – the other shared pursuit was college hoops.
Roger spent a season at Marshall. Amy played at St. Bonaventure and Angela was at Tennessee Chattanooga.
At Wright State, Burleson had three head coaches. His sidelined season was spent with Ed Schilling. Then came three years playing for Paul Biancardi and his final season was with Brad Brownell.
He said he learned valuable lessons from each man and especially from the overall situation:
“The thing about college sports is that it teaches you how to deal with adversity. You get into the rest of your life and there’s a lot of adversity you face on an everyday basis. The mental toughness you develop throughout sports is something that can’t be underestimated.”
Amidst all the change in Raiders basketball back then, there was one constant:
Burleson was a four-year starter and a three-time team captain.
His senior year the Raiders won the Horizon League regular season and then the tournament with a 60-55 upset of No. 19 Butler at the Nutter Center.
The victory put WSU into the NCAA Tournament (Division I) for just the second time.
“I remember everything from that Butler game, especially Will Graham hitting the foul shots at the end,” Burleson said.
“You go into every season dreaming of making the NCAA Tournament and to actually make it my last year was a storybook ending.”
He went on to Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine, then completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at Loyola University Chicago.
That led to a fellowship at the well-known Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, where he served as an assistant team physician for several prominent pro teams – including the Los Angeles Rams and Dodgers, as well the Kings, Clippers, Sparks and Galaxy, the Anaheim Ducks and Angels – and Southern Cal football and Loyola Marymount University.
During much of that time, Noelle’s paycheck supported them.
“Through the course of my training, she was my Sugar Mama,” he grinned. “I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Whether he’s helping pros or young Dayton-area athletes, Burleson feels the same:
“Sports was such a big instrumental part of my life. I had injuries and I understand how devastating it is for athletes to get hurt.
“To be able to help them out and get them back playing is really rewarding.”
‘He loves the place’
Noelle is from Chesapeake, a town of 745 on the Ohio River, about 38 miles southeast of Wheelersburg.
While Chesapeake and Wheelersburg aren’t in the same conference, they sometimes meet in the state tournament.
“The year we thought our boys team was going to state was the year Drew was a senior and they absolutely killed us,” Noelle remembered. “They just crushed our state dreams.”
She briefly met Burleson once after a high school game, but the pair then went their separate ways. Three years later — when she was a student at Ohio University — she went to a party and was told someone from Wheelersburg was there.
“I said, ‘Who?’ and when they showed me, I couldn’t believe it,” she recalled. “From that moment, it just took off and now it’s going like 15 years.”
Burleson said they started dating his junior season at WSU and Noelle came to almost every Raiders’ home game after that.
When his fellowship took them to Los Angeles, he said he has a passing thought about staying there:
“I be lying to say I didn’t think about it. When it’s January and February and you’re sitting on the beach, it’s pretty attractive.”
But those months are also the heart of the Wright State basketball season and that’s something he still follows closely.
“One of the biggest reasons we came back to Ohio to live and raise our family was that he’d be close enough so he could have an impact on Wright State athletics, the way they made an impact on him,” Noelle said. “He loves the place.”
As Burleson put it: “I don’t think I would have gotten where I am today without Wright State. The people here, the administration, the fans, the community, they’ve all been great.
“I’ll never stop loving basketball and I’ll never stop loving Wright State.”
He explained that to Holden when the fellow Wheelersburg product was narrowing his list of college suitors.
“I believe the program is going in the right direction,” Burleson said. “They made the NCAA Tournament two years ago, the NIT last season and now they’re in first place in the league and 21-5. And the coaches – and the players they’ve brought in – are all quality people.
“That’s why I’m rooting for this team so much. I want them to get to the (NCAA) Tournament, as well, It was such a great experience, something I look back on every single year in March.”
Another hoops reminder comes every July 14th .
“The extent of my basketball now is that every year on my birthday I try to make sure I can still dunk a basketball,” he said “I did it at 36 last year, but we’ll see again this July.”
And then he admitted there is one other connection to basketball in his life:
“If I have one recurring dream, it’s that I’m back playing basketball at Wright State. I’m in the middle of the game and I see the crowd. I know I’ve lost my eligibility and I keep wondering why I’m out there.”
It seems obvious.
Like Noelle said: “He loves the place.”