By Eric Rynston-Lobel
It’s early morning in the gym at Faith Community Church in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. Five-year-old Veronica Burton stands with a basketball on the sidelines. The basketball court has only two baskets. Her older siblings, Kendall, Kayla and Austin are on the court taking shots, dribbling and rebounding. Veronica’s dad Steve wants her to try dribbling the ball between her legs as she walks down the sideline.
She can’t do it.
She tries again.
The ball bounces away.
The ball hits her foot.
“I could not get the ball to bounce between my legs to save my life,” Veronica recalls. “My dad just kept having me do it over, do it over.”
Steve remembers Veronica’s frustration. Her mom Ginni remembers Veronica’s stoic expression as she tried to do what seemed so easy to her older siblings.
“She was just determined, stubborn,” Ginni says. “I don’t know which one it was, but she would just stick to it.”
Eventually, she got it.
“She had the biggest smile on her face,” Steve says. “I said, ‘Ok, that’s good. Now take two steps. Now take three steps.’”
This was Veronica’s introduction to what it meant to be part of the Burton family. Her grandfather Ron played football at Northwestern before spending six seasons in the NFL; Steve also played football at Northwestern. Ginni swam for the Wildcats. Her oldest sister Kendall played basketball at Villanova; Kayla played basketball at Lehigh; Austin now plays football at Purdue.
But Veronica’s story is not just another line in her family’s long list of accomplishments. From struggling to dribble between her legs on the sidelines at her church gym to helping lead Northwestern women’s basketball to new heights, she’s charted her own path to athletic supremacy while navigating her family’s legacy. Since arriving in Evanston in 2018, she’s been a key cog to the Wildcats 2019 run to the WNIT championship game, the program’s first Big Ten title in 30 years in 2020 and an NCAA tournament appearance in 2021. And while she might not be a household name in women’s college basketball like a Caitlin Clark or a Paige Bueckers, that’s OK. Because for Veronica Burton, basketball is more than just about her; it’s about the journey; it’s about her teammates; it’s about her coaches; it’s about her family.
She Who Aims at Nothing Will Hit It Every Time
On March 12, 2021, Northwestern lost 85-52 to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. It was the third game the ‘Cats had played in as many days; it was their second straight game against a team ranked in the top 15. Veronica Burton would have none of the excuses.
“This is more mental than physical,” she said following the loss. “Everyone’s tired. It’s March now. We gotta dig in.”
There’s little about a 33-point loss that would seem more mental than physical, especially given the circumstances. But this is how she’s approached the game her entire life. If both of your parents were gifted athletes, would you expect any different?
Having the right mentality is one of sport’s favorite cliches. For the Burtons, having the right mentality is in their blood.
“Anybody can make shots when they’re fresh,” Steve says. “But can you make shots when you don’t come out of the game and the game’s on the line and you gotta think differently?”
It all started with Steve’s father, Ron. Steve remembers his dad telling him that most running backs carry the ball waiting to be tackled. They don’t think about trying to get in the end zone; they’re just trying to pick up five, 10 yards. The great running backs, Ron would say, run to score on every carry.
For Veronica on the basketball court, that means looking to score every time she has the ball; looking for a steal every time she doesn’t.
Having the right mindset goes beyond just expecting to score on every possession, though. Steve always made sure his kids had long-term goals to work toward.
“I asked my oldest one, ‘What’s your goal?’ And she didn’t have a goal,” he says. “I said, ‘Then you need to go back in the bedroom and come up with a goal.’”
Kendall wanted to make varsity as a freshman. Then she wanted to score 1,000 points by the time she graduated. Then she wanted to play Division I basketball. By the time Veronica got to high school, she aimed higher. She wanted to score 2,000 points.
“There’s a saying I learned through my dad, and the saying goes, ‘He who aims at nothing will hit it every time.’ ‘She who aims at nothing will hit it every time,’” Steve says. “So we gave each one a goal. And then once they achieved their goal, they had to come up with a new one. You’re always aiming for something.”
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Steve and Ginni had a rule: If I’m up, you’re getting up.
Every morning around 4:45, the alarm went off. The Burtons headed to the basketball courts.
They were kicked out of more local high schools and community centers than they could count. Some places had liability concerns; others didn’t think it was fair to open their space for just one family.
“We’re like, ‘Go ahead! Open it up to everybody,’” Ginni says. “And then of course no one else would show up because who in their right mind would be there at 5 or 5:30 in the morning?”
While the Burtons tried to use this extra practice time to their advantage, Steve and Ginni understood as former athletes the dangers of pushing too hard.
“It’s such a fine line,” Ginni says of not wearing her kids out. “I feel like we always tried to make it fun. The expectations are high, and all we wanted them to do was the best they could.”
Ginni would stand under the baskets rebounding for the three girls. Steve and Austin would throw a football on the side. Every day was a quest to get a little bit better. Some days were harder than others.
“One time I had to make 10 free throws in a row to end our shooting day, and I could not do it,” Veronica recalls. “I was like, ‘I gotta go to school, Dad. I gotta go.’”
“I’d say, ‘Veronica, here’s the deal: you can’t be late for school,’” Steve says. “‘So, you better figure out a way to make these shots before we start heading into school. If it’s making an adjustment, putting a higher arc on the ball or you have to get up earlier to make these shots because you cannot be late for school.’”
In eighth grade, Veronica played in a local AAU tournament. Her team won the first game, but she only took four shots. Steve told her to get in the car. They were going home before the second game.
“‘We’re not getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning for you to take 500 shots and you take four shots in a basketball game,’” Steve remembers telling her. “She goes, ‘I get it. I understand.’ We made a U-turn, and then the very next game, she lit it up.”
Veronica wasn’t fully surprised by this.
“The thing I got most in trouble for, ironically, growing up from my coaches, my parents, was that I wasn’t aggressive enough or I wasn’t shooting the ball enough in a game,” she says.
This all sounds like a recipe for burnout. Waking up at 5 a.m. every morning; putting up thousands of shots each week; needing to make 10 free throws in a row before going to school; being driven home before your second game of the day because you didn’t shoot enough in the first game. But it was what Veronica wanted.
“There were times of just feeling overwhelmed or exhausted,” Veronica says. “[But] as hard as both my parents pushed me, they knew it was something that I wanted. They were just gonna help me and push me in whatever way they could to get there. I would not say I ever had the feeling of, ‘This is too much. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
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By her junior year of high school, Burton had not been highly recruited. Ginni recalls begging Joe McKeown to take a look at her.
“They weren’t your typical parents that call and say, ‘Hey, my daughter’s Michael Jordan,’” McKeown says. “They really get it. When you’re talking to them, they have a lot of credibility, so you’re not just saying, ‘Yeah thanks, I’ll watch some film.’”
Burton had several offers but none from Power Five schools. McKeown went to see her at the Boo Williams Invitational in April 2017, one of the many AAU tournaments he’s been to that boasts about hosting some of the best players in the country.
McKeown wanted to see how Burton looked against some of these top players and quickly realized she was one of them.
“She just made everybody better,” McKeown says. “She was coaching up her team. She was covering for her team on defense. Whatever you need her to do to win she’ll do, and I saw that even in high school.”
By the time Northwestern made Burton an offer, she also had options at George Washington, Providence, DePaul and Iowa State. It wasn’t a shoe-in for her to come to Evanston; her parents wanted her to want it, much like everything else.
Burton committed to Northwestern before the summer of her senior year of high school. Her early commitment meant she’d never know if she’d get any more Power Five offers, but she thought she’d found the right fit. The Northwestern coaching staff was ecstatic.
“Coach just talked about, ‘This girl’s a stud. We stole her. She’s just an absolute stud,’” associate head coach Kate Popovec says. “We take a lot of pride in just finding who’s right for our program. Coach was really fortunate he did his homework and saw her and was like, ‘This is a no-brainer.’”
With the recruitment process over, now it was time for Burton to chart her own path ahead. Given the long list of family members who were also student-athletes in Evanston, McKeown wanted to make sure this experience was about her, not Ron Burton or Steve Burton or Ginni Burton.
“It was huge for me to have a coaching staff that understood that while this school means so much for me because my family went there, I don’t want to be compared to the family members that were here,” Burton says. “I’m not only at Northwestern because my family’s at Northwestern. They made it clear that they wanted me to want this for myself and enjoy it for myself and not kind of have the pressure of living up to any standard or any name.”
She Was Old When She Got Here
When Burton arrived on campus for her first year, the renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena hadn’t yet been completed. The ‘Cats were coming off a 12-20 season, playing in front of sparse crowds at Evanston Township High School.
For Popovec, who’d returned to Evanston as an assistant coach for her alma mater in 2017, Burton looked to be one of the key pieces to this new puzzle.
“The first few practices we saw her, I was just like, ‘What is this kid not good at?’” she says. “You would watch her, and she’s going against Jordan Hamilton, Lindsey Pulliam—guards that were really talented. I just vividly remember watching her and being like, ‘She is the person that is making all of this kind of work.’”
The ‘Cats opened the season with a 57-55 win on the road against Green Bay, before reopening Welsh-Ryan with a 26-point victory over No. 21 Duke. In her first two games, Burton totaled 16 points and 7 steals. McKeown was excited about what she could bring to the team.
Then, Burton woke up a couple days later with mono. She would miss the next five games.
“Basketball-wise, not being able to do that for a month straight was definitely hard to wrap my head around because my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a month off,” she says.
She returned in early December for the ‘Cats game against Marquette. And while she was still finding her footing as a scoring threat, she consistently filled the stat sheet with steals, assists and rebounds. Yet, her dad didn’t think she was playing as well as she could be.
“I remember telling Kate, ‘Bench her. She’s better than this, and she knows she’s better than this, and I know she’s better than this,’” Steve says. “I’ve never told a coach to bench my daughter before.”
Popovec wasn’t fully surprised, aware of the Burton family’s commitment to hard work and their refusal to take anything for granted. Even still, Burton continued to start.
“We as coaches laughed at it because we’re just like, ‘Yeah, that ain’t happening,’” Popovec says. “We’re not gonna be very good if she’s on the bench.”
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Burton finished her first season on a high, averaging 13 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals in the ‘Cats six-game run to the WNIT championship game. But when she came back for her sophomore year, things weren’t clicking as smoothly. In her first eight games, she was shooting just 5-for-33 from beyond the arc and under 25% from the field overall. She felt like she was overthinking everything.
On Dec. 1 against in-state rival DePaul, Burton went to the free throw line with her team leading 68-67 with 43 seconds remaining. Her first attempt rimmed out. Her second attempt rattled out. DePaul went on to win 70-68.
“I remember going to my car by myself after the game, parking in front of my dorm and just sobbing,” Burton wrote in a story for Uncut in November. “I knew what I was capable of, but for some reason come game time I would fill myself with doubt. So, after that game I told myself that I wasn’t going to experience that feeling again, and the solution I came up with was to spend even more time in the gym. I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. before lift and get extra shots up. Then later before practice I would spend another 45 minutes getting more shots up. And if I was really feeling it, I would then spend a little more extra time in the gym after practice. I was regularly doing this in the middle of our season—basically killing myself mentally and physically in order to ‘prepare’ for the next game.”
Shortly thereafter, her coaches sat her down. They told her she couldn’t be in the gym taking extra shots. She needed to give herself a break. Even if she wasn’t scoring like she wanted to, she still did so much else on the court that helped the team in a positive way, they reminded her.
Burton called her dad. He offered her a broader perspective.
“The most important thing in our family is our faith in God,” Steve says. “There’s a higher standard she’s playing for. She wants to play for the glory of God and give it her all for His glory.”
Her coaches and her father helped shift her approach to basketball and take some of the pressure off.
“Refreshing that in my mind was huge for me, and I think it really did change my mindset throughout the rest of the season,” Burton says. “I’m here to have fun. I’m here to enjoy it.”
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That January, the ‘Cats are playing No. 15 Indiana inside Assembly Hall. The crowd buzzes with enthusiasm, the cheers echoing off the walls. The Hoosiers have opened up a 12-point lead with 7:22 remaining in regulation.
With 30 seconds left, the deficit has shrunk to just three.
Indiana fumbles the ball in its front court. Lindsey Pulliam dives for the ball and tosses it back to Sydney Wood in one motion. Wood fires an outlet pass to Burton running the floor. She fights up a contested layup on the right side of the basket. The ball hits the back iron, spins counterclockwise around the rim and returns to the back iron before dropping in. Two points, with the foul. Make the free throw and the game is tied.
“I knew my mindset was different. I knew for a fact I was going to make it,” Burton says. “I was telling myself, ‘I’ve been here before. This is going in.’”
Sure enough, the free throw was pure. The game was tied. The ‘Cats outscored the Hoosiers 9-7 in overtime, punctuated by Burton connecting on four more free throws. The narrative was flipped.
“She just never stopped thinking we’re gonna win this game,” McKeown says. “I’ll always remember that and-one play.”
McKeown continues, speaking more broadly about her leadership: “She just—she gets it, man. I’ll tell ya, maybe the best way to describe her is she’s old; she was old when she got here, kind of an old soul. She still has fun. She’s still a college student. She’s just had a maturity level that you can’t teach.”
She’s So Steady
When Melannie Daley arrived on campus this summer, she was nervous to meet Burton.
“Some people who are really, really good are cocky,” Daley says. “But from the second I started talking to her, I realized how cool she was.”
Before the season started, the team had a practice in Welsh-Ryan. They alternate practices in the arena and in the Trienens Performance Center next door because they share the space with volleyball and the men’s basketball team. Daley thought practice was in Trienens, so she started taking warm up shots for about 20 minutes.
“V comes in, she was like, ‘You know we’re practicing in Welsh right?’ And we both started laughing,” Daley says. “Instead of getting mad at me or like, ‘Mel come on, this is such a freshman move,’ she’s laughing for like 10 minutes.”
As a fellow guard, Daley says there’s no better person to learn from.
“She’s just passionate with everything she does,” Daley says. “She’s dedicated to what she does, whatever it is, whether it’s passing, shooting, dribbling or just teaching us on the court. You see how much she cares based on how she teaches us.”
For Burton, she just sees this as paying it forward. She remembers coming in as a first year and being welcomed by Byrdy Galernik, Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf. They helped establish the culture that ultimately led to the Big Ten title in 2020.
Now that she’s one of the older players, she’s clear-eyed in what she wants to pass down.
“Treat people with respect, and make Northwestern feel like family,” she says. “On the court, the work ethic and the ability to put other people before yourself is something that I try to live by.”
Popovec describes Burton as the lead-by-example type: the first in the gym, the last to leave; does everything at 100%; brings positivity to practice. And for someone who might not be as loud as Pulliam or Hamilton were, her presence is never ignored by her teammates.
“She’s just a natural-born leader,” sophomore Paige Mott says. “There’s nothing else you can really say about that.”
Fellow senior captain Sydney Wood agrees: “She carries herself with a lot of confidence,” she says. “At the same time, she’s really humble, and she does a really good job of leading by example and being consistent.”
In their four years together at Northwestern, Burton and Wood have become the backbone of McKeown’s patented Blizzard defense. They’ve ranked first and second respectively on the team in steals in each of the last two seasons.
Since arriving on campus together, that chemistry has been there.
“When I’m playing, I already know what she’s gonna do and she knows what I’m gonna do,” Wood says of Burton. “We have that communication without talking, and that’s been really helpful.”
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With five first years joining the program in 2021, Popovec always looks for ways to motivate the younger players. She doesn’t have to look far.
“I ask them everyday, I say, ‘Who’s the hardest worker in the gym?’ And every single one of them will say Veronica Burton,” she says. “You can never look at Veronica Burton and just say that her talent got her to a certain level. She’s obviously very talented—you don’t get to this level and achieve what you have without being talented—but she has earned every single thing that has come her way.”
She’s been named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year each of the last two seasons; was named to the All-Big Ten First-Team for 2020-21; and helped lead Team USA to a gold medal in the 2021 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup.
Burton wasn’t even sure she would make Team USA. 20 players tried out. 12 would make the cut. She knew the names she was competing with: Ashley Owusu, Aliyah Boston, Rhyne Howard, Naz Hilmon, among others.
“I kinda felt like the underdog. I had low expectations going in for sure,” Burton says. “It was really easy to psych myself out and get in my head, but the most important thing people around me were telling me was just enjoy it.”
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, who coached against Burton in the 2019 WNIT championship game and led her Wildcats on a Cinderella run to the national title game last year, was one of the assistants on staff for USA Basketball. Among all the immensely talented players she coached, she knew she never had to worry about Burton.
“She’s just so steady,” Barnes says. “She makes things happen, and it’s in a quiet and subtle way until you pay attention. She would run the team, organize the offense, run the right plays, and then she would go in and create a steal or get a great stop.”
Barnes continues: “A true point guard. A floor general. A fierce defender. Extremely consistent, solid and reliable,” she says. “Northwestern is just really lucky to have a player like her. Not only for her on-the-court stuff but her off-the-court values.”
She’s Just That Good
Though she still has another four months left in her college basketball career, it’s not too early to think about the legacy Burton’s going to leave behind at Northwestern. What’s most important is that this legacy will be her own, just as she and McKeown discussed during the recruiting process.
She spent her entire life hearing about Northwestern, how great the experiences were for her family members. Now, she’s made her own impact; made her own memories; had her own experiences.
“We’re just so grateful. It’s beyond anything we could’ve ever dreamt of for Veronica,” Ginni says. “We’re just so humbled and grateful. So grateful.”
In McKeown’s first 10 seasons at Northwestern, his teams never had back-to-back seasons finishing .500 or better in the Big Ten. In Burton’s first three years, the ‘Cats have finished .500 or better in conference play each year. Surely the program needed time to be built up after McKeown first took over, and the recent success is attributable to more than just one player, but it’s hard to ignore the outsized role Burton’s had.
“The way she represents our program and her family and her teammates, it’s just unbelievable,” McKeown says. “You’re just not gonna get those kids every year. She’s just different.”
Sure, her numbers support how productive she is on the floor. But her impact moves far beyond statistics.
“She makes you look like a lot better coach than you probably are. She’s just that good,” Popovec says. “What she doesn’t realize is that she literally impacts everyone in our program. Whether it’s me, whether it’s her teammates, whether it’s our student managers. Every single person in our program is touched by her influence.”
As for what the future holds for Burton, she hopes to play professionally. Her experiences with USA Basketball gave her extra motivation to want to play at the next level, she says. And while her Northwestern career might come to a conclusion in March, her journey on the basketball court will continue.
“I don’t want basketball to be done,” she says. “The work I put in, I want to continue doing it. I’m not really ready for the ball to stop bouncing just yet.”
For all she’s accomplished, she’s still aiming at something.