By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
There is no place like home for Don Burke, who is leaving Palisades High to become the head coach of the girls basketball program at his alma mater, St. Monica Catholic in Santa Monica.
Burke spent the last two seasons helping head coach Adam Levine pilot Palisades to back-to-back City Section championships—the Division I title in 2018-19 and the Open Division title in 2019-20.
“I coached at St. Monica before and I graduated from there in 1979, so it’s near and dear to my heart,” he said. “My senior year we beat Bishop Montgomery in the CIF finals. I was a starting forward, I averaged a double-double and was our leading rebounder but the star player was Leon Wood, who averaged in the mid-40s per game and there was no three-point line back then.”
Wood transferred to St. Monica after his freshman year and broke the all-time scoring record before earning All-American honors at Cal State Fullerton, winning an Olympic gold medal in 1984 and playing in the NBA from 1984-91. Burke spent his first two years of high school at Daniel Murphy in Los Angeles before transferring to St. Monica as a junior.
“After high school I was burned out and had a bum knee,” Burke said. “I went to Santa Monica College for a year and Valley College for a year, then started my own insurance agency. When my son was 5 my wife signed me up as a volunteer coach for his team at the San Fernando YMCA. It turned into the North Valley YMCA in Porter Ranch and I became Sports Director there for a couple years. We had the biggest basketball program in the LA Metro region.” Burke was a boys assistant at Alemany, taking a team that had been under .500 the year before all the way to the CIF semifinals. As an assistant for the St. Monica girls team in 2012-13 he helped the Mariners win the Southern Section 4A title—the girls’ first in school history—rallying from a 19-point deficit to beat St. Paul in the finals. After his wife passed away from an incurable illness he served as girls head coach at Bishop Conaty Loretto, guiding the squad to the Horizon Leage title.
In 2015 he returned to St. Monica to head the girls program and the team went 19-10 his first year. The next year the Mariners went 20-7 and won the Camino Real League led by sophomore star Destiny McCallister.
Burke coached Pali High alums Ed and Leilani Estavan in travel ball: “In fact, Leilani was the only girl on our Junior Cavs team,” he recalled. Leilani led Palisades to the state finals in 1999 and was the starting point guard at Oregon State for four years.
Joining Levine at Palisades for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons was a rewarding experience.
“The last two years is the best coaching I’ve ever done,” he said. “Last year going into league play we weren’t playing very well but I told everyone we were going to go undefeated in league and we did. I knew what we had. It was tough to leave Pali but they’re going to be at an advantage because they’ll have all but one player back.”
Burke, who lives in Koreatown, prides himself on defense.
“Points put people in the stands but defense puts banners on the wall,” he said. “Adam and I have a great relationship and worked very well together. It was almost like having two head coaches. He handled the offense and he let me take care of the defense. When I got the St. Monica job in September I called Adam and he was very understanding. I told him it’s the only position I would’ve left for.”
Burke admitted being hesitant at first to come to Palisades.
“It was a little on the awkward side at the beginning because back in my day we had a rivalry with Pali,” he remembered. “They had Chip Engelland and I’d read the newspaper every day to see who scored more points. I never thought in a million years I’d be going to Pali. Adam and I had crossed paths coaching. I was an assistant at St. Monica when he was assistant at Brentwood. Then when he was at Crossroads and I was the head coach at St. Monica. [Brentwood coach] Charles Solomon is the common denominator. We both know him really well.”
Levine, entering his third year as the Dolphins’ coach, is grateful to have had Burke on his staff.
“Don was such a big part of our success,” Levine said. “He went above and beyond for the team. He spent extra time to work out players for free, helped make our practices more competitive, spent his own money to make our program better and developed personal relationships with each player, helping each one get an edge. His patience and confidence wore off on me and helped me become a better coach. St. Monica’s program has had some down years and I have no doubt he’ll put in the time and energy to get them back on top.”
Burke knows he is walking away from a potential threepeat at Palisades, but is ready for the challenge of starting anew.
“When I left St. Monica the parents were so upset and several girls transferred out,” he said. “They haven’t won a league game since I left. It’s a total rebuild. but I know I can get more out of nothing than most coaches. First of all, it’s home, and secondly I felt a sense of responsibility for what happened after I left so it’s an ideal time to go back.”
Burke enjoyed some of his biggest thrills at Palisades and will especially miss the intense practices in which the defense would scrimmage the offense halfcourt.
“Those are probably the two most athletic teams I’ve coached,” he said. “I brought the ‘dice’ defense I developed as an assistant at St. Monica (a form of the box-and-one where the middle defender has autonomy to go anywhere) to Pali. We used it to great effect.”
Two games last year stand out for Burke: “One is the last regular season game at Westchester, which played out just the way I planned. We were sort of probing in the first half, applying the pressure and then in the second half we changed up our defense and they had no idea how to adjust. The second game was Santa Monica in the regional final when we completely neutralized their best player. That was satisfying because even though we were at home Samo brought its band and all of their fans and it felt more like a road game for us.”
Jane Nwaba, who graduated from Pali High in the spring after winning the Post Cup Award as the school’s outstanding senior athlete, won back-to-back City Player of the Year Awards and is now a freshman at Pepperdine.
“Coach Don is one of the most incredible coaches, friends, comedians and mentors that I’ve had the opportunity to play for,” she said. “In the two years I’ve gotten to know him there was never a moment that went by in which he let me slack off. He pushed me and motivated me to get better day by day. He spent his time teaching me more about the game and showing me methods to improve. I couldn’t have gotten where I am in basketball if not for Coach Don. He worked hard to get my name out to coaches and put me in the right positions to be prepared for the next level. Coach Don is a mentor, he always has the right things to say. He has a feel for the game like no other and his energy and passion are incomparable.”
Nwaba, who averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds last season for the Dolphins, still keeps in touch with Burke. When he and Levine arrived Palisades was coming off a 9-17 season in which it finished last in league and missed the playoffs in its first and only season under Coach Danielle Foley.
“I recall the first day that I met Coach Don,” she said. “All of the players and coaches were gathered in a huddle. Coach Don told us we were the most athletic group of players he’d ever seen and that we could really be a great team. It was a hard thing to believe for my teammates and I, especially considering the season we had the year before. However, from the start, Coach Don believed in us. He hadn’t even seen us practice more than two times and said he could see us being really successful. That allowed me and my teammates to build trust in him quickly. I knew that he’d root me on, give me honest critiques and never give up on me and my teammates. I know that whoever plays for Coach Don will say the same. He just wants to see you succeed.”
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