UMass basketball great George “Trigger” Burke dies at 91

CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 02-19-2024 5:45 PM

Modified: 02-19-2024 11:30 PM


 UMass basketball great George “Trigger” Burke died at his home in Quincy on Feb. 14. He was 91. 

The namesake for the UMass Athletics Hall of Fame, Burke played point guard for the Minutemen from 1954-1956 and shares a No. 32 with Julius Erving in the Mullins Center rafters. He left UMass in 1956 as the program’s all-time leading scorer and spent a year with the Celtics before a career as a lawyer and politician in his hometown of Quincy.

Though the advent of the 3-point line was years away, Burke earned the nickname “Trigger” because of the success of his one-handed jumper.

“A fine shooter,” Celtics coach Red Auerbach once said of Burke. “One of the real good shooters to come along.”

Initially cut from the basketball team at Quincy High School, Burke eventually became captain and leading scorer before spending a post-graduate year at Thayer Academy. Burke attended Maine and Coast Guard before settling in Amherst. 

At UMass, he received "the greatest education ever and for just $50 per semester!"

Burke played his junior and senior years for the Minutemen and averaged 17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists across 47 games. In 1955, he led UMass in scoring and assists (the first-ever UMass player to do so) and finished second in the Yankee conference in scoring on his way to an All-American honorable mention nod. He also set a new UMass record for points in a game, with 24 against Rhode Island. In 1956, he was named Second Team All-America as well as First Team All-East, All-New England, All-Yankee Conference, and All-Boston Garden while leading UMass to a 17-6 record.

“He led an unbelievable life of service to the state of Massachusetts, the University, the athletic department and to me personally and what we were able to do in that storied time at UMass,” former UMass and current Kentucky head coach John Calipari said on X.

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After graduating from UMass, Burke spent a semester at Boston College Law School, another semester taking night classes at the University of Louisville Law School and another term over the summer at Georgetown University Law School. He also spent six months with the Army.

He was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, but Celtics owner Walter Brown wanted a local hero on his team, so Burke spent the 1956-57 season with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn and the rest of the world champs.

“Now all I have to do is prove I’m good enough to stay for the National Basketball Association,” Burke wrote in a letter. “If I don’t do well at least I have achieved my life’s ambition.”

During the Celtics rookie camp, Burke spent his days taking law classes at BC, his evenings with the Celtics and his nights with a semi-pro team in Lowell. In one semi-pro game for the North Quincy Koch Club, he scored 77 points – without a 3-point line.

After graduating from BC Law School, Burke served as Quincy City Councilor, State Representative and Norfolk County District Attorney. He also served as Acting Mayor of Quincy for a month.

Burke’s philanthropies extended from Quincy to Amherst, where he gave over a million dollars to UMass. The UMass Athletic Hall of Fame had been dormant from 1982 to 1996, when Burke donated money to see it revived.

Burke is predeceased by his wife, Sandra Jean (Backofen) Burke and two sisters, Joyce (Burke) Welch and Marion Burke. 

He is survived by two siblings, brother John F. Burke Jr. and sister Kathleen Burke, and his five children: Jeannie Hanlon, Susan Burke-Lewis, Joanne Burke Sherman, George G. Burke III and Debra. He is also survived by 14 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and many nieces and nephews.