Still a beloved four-year player during his St. John's tenure, Justin Burrell is back in New York this weekend with Overseas Elite for their title defense in The Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Rumble in the Garden)
BROOKLYN -- Two-time reigning champions of The Basketball Tournament, Overseas Elite has gained popularity in the New York metropolitan area due to the presence of D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne; both of whom were part of a seven-man freshman class that gradually rescued St. John's University from the abyss and led the Red Storm to the NCAA Tournament as seniors, on its roster.
Back in the Big Apple this weekend on the road to what the team hopes will be a third consecutive crown and a $2 million payday, Kennedy and Horne are still two of the integral pieces to the Overseas Elite puzzle, but there is another familiar face alongside them this time around, that of their former college teammate, Justin Burrell. And although he has come off the bench through the first three games of the tournament, the Bronx native has contributed to the ever-present team chemistry on and off the court, making his transition to an already established squad a seamless one.
"It's pretty important, a lot of people don't know," Burrell said of the team dynamic surrounding Overseas Elite, who faces VCU alumni team Ram Nation at 6 p.m. Sunday night for a berth in the semifinals. "I've known (former Pitt and San Antonio Spurs forward DeJuan) Blair since high school. We actually went and represented the U.S. in France while we were in high school, and we played with a couple of other guys in the tournament as well."
Then, of course, there is his familiarity with longtime running mates Kennedy and Horne, the latter of whom played alongside Burrell at Bridgton Academy before signing with Norm Roberts and the Red Storm in 2007 and is the godfather of Burrell's 4-year-old daughter, Aria.
"We have a really tight-knit group here that's known each other for years now," Burrell remarked, adding that Kyle Fogg, who was instrumental in Overseas Elite repeating as TBT champions last year, had worked out at St. John's for a time after graduating from Arizona.
The combination of camaraderie and fan support has been a potent mix once again for Overseas Elite, who attracted scores of St. John's fans to LIU Brooklyn's Wellness Center Friday for their round of 16 matchup, and should once again on Sunday against a fellow crowd favorite in Ram Nation, whose VCU fan base is notorious for traveling well and making itself vocal. For Burrell, and his Red Storm brethren, the adulation adds a personal touch that is often taken for granted once players enter the professional ranks.
"It's really important," he humbly stated. "When we're playing professionally, a lot of guys don't have the ability to have their family and friends make every game overseas. To have this caliber tournament right here in our home state and home city, there's no better feeling."
A former Big East All-Rookie selection and Sixth Man of the Year at St. John's before graduating in 2011, Burrell has spent the past six seasons plying his wares in Japan, where he has already racked up Most Valuable Player honors and recently signed a new three-year contract. But while his legacy continues to be enhanced on both coasts, the 6-foot-8 forward and his professional teammates have remained grounded enough to not get caught up in the moment, a mindset he credits to former St. John's head coach Steve Lavin.
"Lav had a saying, 'inch by inch, life's a cinch, hammer to rock every day,'" Burrell recalled, citing the rally cry that the Red Storm used to fuel a season filled with victories over the likes of Duke, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Villanova. "We take that and we use that in our professional careers as far as staying close to each other, working hard and having the opportunities that we have, whether they're in basketball or just in life."