Thumb Rivals Honor Connor 'One Last Time'

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

February 28, 2017

Jay Burton said one of his biggest fears after his son Connor passed away in 2009 was that he would be forgotten.

But eight years after his death, the memory of Connor Burton is as strong as ever in Marlette and Brown City, the two communities he managed to make a big impact on during his 10 years on Earth.

“Any parent that’s lost a child, one of the biggest fears is that your child will be forgotten,” Jay Burton said. “They never are, but that’s any parent’s fear. But he’ll be a part of this community for the rest of our lives.”

This past Friday, the two schools met in Marlette for the eighth and final Team Connor Classic, a game that has celebrated Connor’s life since the year after it ended. On this night, Marlette came away with a 49-40 victory, winning the game for the eighth straight time in what would have been Connor’s senior year.

“It’s a good time to call it quits,” Jay Burton said.

Connor’s life

On Thursday, April 16, 2009, Connor went to his gymnastics and baseball practices before shooting baskets outside his house until the sun set and he could no longer see the hoop.

It was a typical day for the energetic 10-year-old, who was described by many as a gym rat and a lover of all sports.

“Whatever sport was in season, he would be ready to play,” said Connor’s uncle Tony Burton, Brown City’s athletic director and former boys basketball coach. “During the winter, basketball was something that was a high priority with him. Obviously, he got taken from us too soon, but he sure loved sports.”

He was good at them, too. His friend Hunter Kelly, now a senior on Marlette’s boys basketball team, said Connor was a better basketball player than most of their friends when they were young.

In the Thumb, Burtons and basketball are synonymous, and Connor seemed poised to be the next in that line – even if he was coming through the Marlette program and not the Brown City one his uncle was leading and for which his cousins had starred. Connor was even a manager, along with his cousin Caleb Muxlow (who is a senior on this year’s Brown City team), for his uncle’s team.

On Friday, April 17, 2009, Connor, who it would be found suffered from Long QT – a heart rhythm disorder – passed away less than 24 hours after shooting his last shot.

“Basically the electrical system in the heart, which tells it to beat, his wasn’t running correctly,” Jay Burton said. “The thing about it was, you would have never known. … I went (into Connor’s room that morning) and the only weird thing he said to me was, ‘Dad, why did you open the door so fast?’

“I didn’t think anything of it, I flicked his light on, and when I came back he hadn’t made it out of bed. He had cardiac arrest.”

A tradition is born

The following basketball season, the Team Connor Classic was born, and the two communities that Connor loved showed their love for him. There were tributes and tears, and a great basketball rivalry was all of a sudden elevated to another level.

“It’s always been a good game between Brown City and Marlette,” Tony Burton said. “We border each other, we’re in the same county, so it’s usually a pretty good game when we play, regardless of records. It means a lot, and for both teams when we play each other, we want to win. But when the game’s over we still have our friendships and our associations with each other.”

While they compete for bragging rights, and often for Greater Thumb Conference East championships, Marlette and Brown City actually have a long history of coming together for good causes.

“Us and Marlette, we have a great relationship,” Brown City High School principal Neil Kohler said. “We do the pink out game in football every other year at our place, we do the Team Connor game. We did a basketball game last year where both teams gathered water for the Flint crisis. So, it’s probably our biggest rival, but also our biggest partnership. When they came to our place about three weeks ago our local rotary did a pancake dinner and had about 400 people come in from Marlette hospice to raise money. The two communities really come together.”

The Team Connor game has a different feeling than most tribute games because of its unique connection of the family to two tight-knit communities.

That was apparent in the latest edition, as Connor’s family – his father, his mother Sue, and his sisters Lindsey and Annie – were given a signed basketball from the Brown City community, and a bouquet of flowers and a blanket tiled with memories from all eight Team Connor Classics from the Marlette community. After the game, the family handed out medals to each player on both teams, receiving from them many long, heartfelt hugs.

It’s not easy for the family, especially in a year when Connor would have been the one on the court with his classmates enjoying a season that has seen the Red Raiders go 18-1 and clinch the GTC East title.

“This is only the second game I’ve watched the Marlette boys play (this season),” Jay Burton said. “I can’t watch them. I see Hunter Kelly; the kid stands a foot taller than me. What would Connor have been? He’s the 10-year-old in front of me and all of his friends are 18 getting ready to graduate high school.

“Caleb Muxlow, his cousin who plays for Brown City, I can go watch simply because he’s family. But this is only the second time I’ve seen (Marlette) play. It just hurts too much.”

Each team came out for warm-ups in the same Team Connor shirts, which combined the green of Brown City and the red of Marlette, and read “One Last Time.” They sat on the court before the game to watch the presentations and a slideshow of photos from Connor’s life and Team Connor Classics past, and stood with one another during the national anthem.

“I think this one was a special night mainly because these were his classmates,” Marlette coach Chris Storm said. “The rivalry has gotten stronger and stronger between us. It was there because of the league before, but it adds a lot of pressure to both teams and you could see that in the game.

“But it means a lot to see how many people come out for the event. The pastor comes back; he’s been out of the area for three years. It’s a great environment for kids to play high school basketball. It’s a District or a Regional feel almost on a regular-season night.”

As the game tipped off, Marlette took the court with four players. It’s a newer, but impactful tradition that was added in the years Connor would have been playing in the game.

“It was quite a surprise (the first year),” Jay Burton said.

It’s a sign that Connor is certainly not forgotten, and while the Team Connor Classic may be going away, anyone who played in one, coached one or simply attended one, will never forget it.

“It means that we’re remembering a great kid that would have given a lot more to his community if he had more time,” Kelly said. “It shows that us as a senior class, the way we represent ourselves as a team and a community, is reflecting who he was. It means a lot because he would have been a senior this year, he probably would have been playing with us. He was better than me, he was better than a lot of these kids, so he probably would have been starting, too.

“So it means a lot to play in remembrance of him, because he’s missing out on all these memories.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Annie Burton, Connor Burton’s younger sister, presents Marlette boys basketball coach Chris Storm with the “Team Connor Classic” trophy after Friday’s game. (Middle) Hunter Kelly hugs Connor’s father Jay Burton as the family welcomes both teams' players. (Below) The game program from the night celebrated Connor Burton’s life and legacy. (Photos by Paul Costanzo.)

St. Clair County Celebrates 1st Mr. Basketball Winner, PHN's Jamison

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 29, 2023

The Jamison family has spent plenty of time over the years driving long distances as Tyler chased his basketball dreams.

Bay & ThumbAfter the Port Huron Northern senior achieved one of the biggest ones, they had to put some more mileage on the family vehicle.

As the newly-crowned Mr. Basketball, Jamison was invited to a special presentation during the Boys Basketball Finals this past Saturday afternoon at the Breslin Center. It was an invitation Tyler and his family didn’t hesitate to accept, and the drive from Port Huron to East Lansing was nothing.

But it did cause a pretty big change to some other travel plans.

Tyler and his family were scheduled to fly to Florida on Friday for spring break. That flight had to be canceled, though, and instead, the family made the drive down later.

“There were some jokes about just leaving me and letting me find my own way down there,” Jamison said.

While they joke, there’s nowhere the Jamisons would have rather been Saturday than at the Breslin. As a true basketball family – Tyler’s dad Brian is also the coach at Northern, and his brother Alex was a standout freshman for the Huskies – they have a great appreciation for the Mr. Basketball Award and its significance.

“I had said a while ago, ‘Hey, if we’re still in the tournament, we’ll be playing Friday,” Brian Jamison said. “I even mentioned that it would be a miracle, but Tyler could win Mr. Basketball. Now we’re eating plane tickets and driving down to Florida. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we’re not missing this.”

Jamison was the overwhelming winner of the award, which is named after Hal Schram and given out by the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan. He received 3,058 points in the vote to become its 43rd winner. Curtis Williams of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (2,004 points), Kaden Brown of Grand Rapids Catholic Central (1,918), Sonny Wilson of Detroit U-D Jesuit (1,883) and Ryan Hurst of North Farmington (1,811) were the other finalists.

“It was just insane,” Tyler Jamison said. “I can’t even really put into words how I felt – it was just a dream come true, a culmination of all the hard work that’s been put in over the years. My mom was in the other room (when his dad called to tell him), and I just hugged her and we were kind of screaming. The dog was getting riled up. It was fun. There were a few tears shed.”

Jamison throws down a dunk.Jamison, who signed with Fairleigh Dickinson in December, finished the season averaging 26.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game. He was named the Macomb Area Conference White division MVP after leading Northern to the league title and a 20-4 overall record.

Even with all that, winning the most prestigious individual basketball award in the state didn’t seem like a reality.

“We purposely try to play a tough schedule, and we purposely got into some showcases because we wanted people to see, not only him play, but us play,” Brian Jamison said. “We had beaten Skyline and Hamtramck, and went up to Croswell-Lexington and won up there, and I thought, ‘OK, now he’s done it against some of the better teams.’ Up to that point, when we played those tougher teams, he’s always showed out well, but it’s different when you’re not winning them. But at that point, I thought he had a chance. Really, I was just hoping he would get on the list. To win it was kind of above and beyond what I had hoped for.”

On the court, Tyler’s impact on the program was pretty obvious and immediate.

He’s the program’s all-time leading scorer – a record he set as a junior – with 1,763 career points. He also holds Northern records for career rebounds (825), points in a game (59), rebounds in a game (28), career field goals made (638) and career free throws made (439). As a junior, he was named MAC Blue MVP.

Northern did not lose a league game in either of the past two seasons.

But Northern is likely to see future success because of Tyler’s non-statistical impact.

Leading a young team, including a group of star freshmen – his brother Alex, Cam Harju and Amir Morelan – was a major part of Tyler’s job this season.

Northern’s home games were must-see events this winter, as the Huskies were one of Division 1’s top teams, and Tyler was providing nightly highlights and must-see performances. Even in his final game, a loss against Macomb Dakota in the District Final, Jamison treated the standing-room crowd with a 46-point performance and a halfcourt shot at the third-quarter buzzer in a valiant effort.

“That’s the big thing, you want the students and the school community to support you, and they did an amazing job,” Tyler Jamison said. “We also had people from the community that wanted to support us and watch us play. Port Huron High had a really good season, too, and I think both schools in the city had that public support. That’s huge. It makes you feel like you’re playing for more than yourself.”

Among those crowds were the next generation of Huskies, some of whom were coached by Tyler in youth basketball. As he’s the first Mr. Basketball winner from St. Clair County, those kids now have a hometown example of someone who has reached the highest heights.

“I think interest gets sparked when the little kids come to the gym, like, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” Brian Jamison said. “They want to play for Northern or (Port Huron) High. And with him winning Mr. Basketball, I think it gives kids a little bit of ‘Hey, why not me?’ I do think it helps motivate younger people. We’ve had great crowds at our games. I think the area is excited about basketball. It really is a great basketball area.”

With all of that excitement surrounding him, Tyler had one more challenge after the season – keeping the secret that he had won. He found out six days before the award was announced.

“It was terrible – especially when it’s something of that magnitude,” he said. “You want to tell everyone. You want to tell your friends and family. It was hard to be like, ‘No, I don’t know.’”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Tyler Jamison, second from left, with his parents and brother, stands with his newly-received Mr. Basketball Award trophy during the ceremony at the Detroit Free Press. (Middle) Jamison throws down a dunk. (Photos courtesy of the Jamison family.)