Family tragedy doesn’t deter BC’s Burk
Nolan Burk was one of the first Bishop Carroll boys basketball players in the weight room after the Huskies were upset by Juniata Valley in the 2019 District 6 Class 1A championship game.
Burk was focused on regaining the crown he and his teammates won the year before in his senior campaign and was ready to overcome the adversity from the previous season.
Little did he know, the challenge he was about to face would dwarf anything that happened on the court.
As Burk and his Bishop Carroll teammates were putting the final preparations in for this past season, Burk’s older brother Nate died on Nov. 24, 2019.
Nate Burk, who also played basketball for the Huskies, was a 2017 BC graduate.
“It was really sudden,” Nolan Burk said. “No one ever wakes up and expects to lose one of your closest family members and one of your best friends. It was really, really hard.
“I had to take some time off to mull things over. I finally got back to school and basketball, but everything was a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be. Basketball helped me a lot. It helped me channel that frustration and anger, and to be able to come back and have the season that we did made me very happy and very proud.”
Burk dedicated the season to his brother, and the Huskies won another district title. Burk finished that game, a win over Williamsburg, with 13 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. The 6-foot-6-inch senior followed that performance with two solid games in the PIAA playoffs that helped the Huskies advance to the quarterfinals before their season was ended, along with the rest of the teams in the bracket, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every game, I felt (Nate’s) presence,” Burk said. “Especially in those ones. It made it feel so much better to be able to do those things for him.”
For his accomplishments honoring his brother and because he inspired his teammates to reach such great heights, Burk has been selected the winner of the 2020 Erin Johnson Award, presented by the Altoona Mirror to an athlete who has overcome adversity to find success.
“When that happened to his brother, he never missed a beat,” Bishop Carroll coach Cosie Aliquo said. “He was away for a little bit, but he came back and just was super all around. For that to happen and then for him to get back for the regular season, that was impressive and great for him and for our team.”
Burk said the transition back to basketball wasn’t easy, because Nate had helped define who he was as a person.
“He and I were best friends,” Burk said. “A lot of the things about me, like my sense of humor and some of the ways I talk are because of him. We were very close. He loved basketball the same way I do, and we both loved playing video games. We talked about video games and basketball. Who was the greatest player and why? Stuff like that.”
Once Burk returned to school, he was comforted by his coaches and teammates, many of whom knew Nate from his time at the school and in the basketball program.
“The team and the atmosphere were pivotal in helping me, because those guys were right there with me,” Burk said. “A lot of my friends who were seniors like Scotty (Semelsberger) and Tristan (McDannell) knew Nate personally, so it was tough for them as well. All the players helped me every step of the way. It was a family atmosphere with a lot of selfless acts, especially with (Aliquo) at his viewing. He was very uplifting.”
Aliquo, who has also received the support of his players while coaching through his own adversity during Burk’s high school career, said his program is designed to help.
“The team was really supportive, especially off the court,” Aliquo said. “Dealing with that is something. We’re tight knit. I treat them like my little brothers, and everybody gets along and we’re all there for each other.”
Burk said the experience of losing a sibling helped his ability to see a bigger picture when playing basketball.
“It helped me as a leader,” Burk said. “It gave me a different perspective on things and allowed me to have a cooler head and deal with things a lot more clearly. It helped, especially when we were in tough situations where we were down or had to make a comeback.”
Burk, who has another brother, Nick, and a sister, Olivia, will continue his basketball career at IUP next season.
“It feels really good to be able to be able to play at IUP, especially when early on I wasn’t really sure about my basketball career,” Burk said. “To be able to have the career I had and go on to the next level for (Nate) feels incredible.”
Burk was referring to a time before his freshman season when he wasn’t sure whether basketball was in his future. Now, because of Aliquo and his teammates, Bishop Carroll’s basketball program will always be part of who he is as a person and an extension of his family.
“On and off the floor, you couldn’t ask for anything better from him,” Aliquo said. “We wouldn’t be where we are in our program if he hadn’t come out to play.”