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Oregon State's Joe Burton readies to graduate as more than a basketball player

Joe Burton's sobs betrayed his menacing 295-pound frame and bright red Mohawk.

Big Joe, as he is known, is winding down his basketball career at Oregon State. Last Saturday, he played his final home game at Gill Coliseum. On Thursday night, he'll play in his last Civil War rivalry game against Oregon.

"Just the guys," the 6-foot-7 senior center said haltingly through tears when asked to describe his emotions. "I am going to miss the team and playing basketball with these guys."

By season's end Burton likely will have surpassed 1,000 points in his career. He's already gone over 700 rebounds and 300 assists, and would become the only Beavers player to hit all three marks.

But it's not really statistics that define Big Joe.

Burton grew up on the Soboba Indian Reservation in California. A member of the Luiseno tribe, he is the first Native American scholarship player in the Pac-12 since the league expanded in 1978. Ron Jones was the only other Native American to play at Oregon State, from 1972-74.

Burton's father Willie wasn't part of the picture, but his mother, Dondi Silvas-Nichols, made sure her son had an outlet from a sometimes chaotic life on the reservation: basketball.

When coach Craig Robinson — first lady Michelle Obama's big brother — came to Oregon State as head coach, Burton was the first player he recruited. But Robinson didn't just wind up with Big Joe — he got his whole family, too. They all became familiar faces at Beavers games.

Burton, who looks better suited for the football field, is Oregon State's lone active senior. With an unconventional playing style, he sometimes appears to just throw up the ball willy-nilly hoping it will go in. His no-look passes are known to fly way off the mark at times. But it's breathtaking when he succeeds.

"We had to win him over. ... Kids nowadays want to go to programs that are already established because it is just an easier road. Joe could have gone to a lot of places that have had better recent history and he chose to come to Oregon State and he chose to play for me," Robinson said. "He has just gotten better every single season and I know he claims that he didn't start listening to me until two-and-a-half years in, but he started listening before then."

Burton has attracted attention for more than just his unique style. He's self-effacing and always quick with a quip. He has made a point of reaching out to Native American youths, who are drawn to his affable nature.

"What you want to do as a person is to grow, especially during your college years, and he has grown into a man. It is just heartwarming, on and off the court, and I am just happy to be a part of it." Robinson said.

In a nod to Burton's heritage, Nike designed turquoise uniforms for the normally orange-and-black Beavers, part of the shoemaker's N7 program to address physical fitness in Native American communities.

The Beavers wore those uniforms on Saturday for Burton's final home game. Many in the crowd wore matching T-shirts in his honor.

A pregame ceremony for Burton was emotional, with Willie Burton on hand for his son's last home game.

"I just gave everything to Oregon State and I am so glad that so many supporters came out to watch," Joe Burton said, again through tears. "It was just great to have my dad there to see that. I really didn't know him growing up. I only saw him a couple times. He came to my high school graduation and he came to this game, so it is just a big deal."

Robinson announced at the game that he and his wife, Kelly, will fund a new scholarship at Oregon State for Native American students in Burton's name. Big Joe is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in Ethnic Studies.

The Beavers (13-15, 3-12 (Pac-12) lost Burton's final home game to California, 60-59, the latest disappointment in a trying season.

They have three games left in the regular season, starting with the No. 24 Ducks in Eugene on Thursday night. Then they'll visit Colorado and Utah before the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas March 13-16.

What hasn't been a disappointment is Burton. Just ask his teammates.

"Being as close as I was to Joe, he was really the reason that I came here," junior guard Roberto Nelson said. "I don't even consider him a friend anymore. He is definitely a brother to me."