Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

It's a little worn, a bit faded and dog-eared at the corners.

If she looks closely, she can see the place were the picture was washed out, back in the days when she would tuck it away in her sock. She put it there so he would be with her every time she walked onto a basketball court.

"I had to stop putting it in my sock, because I would sweat so much, but I still carry that picture of my dad with me everywhere I go,'' said Bainbridge's Alexis Burke, who has carved out one of the best high school basketball careers in the state -- heck, in the nation -- this season.

That worn-out photo is in her truck when she's driving. It's in her gym bag when she travels. It's in her notebook when goes to class.

And when she walks on the court?

"My dad is always with me,'' she said. "He's in my heart.''

She was always tagging along with her father, almost from the day she starting walking. And when she was old enough, Alexis began tagging along right behind him, bouncing a basketball everywhere they went.

"When she was 3 years old, she would go watch her father play basketball games at the YMCA,'' Alexis' mother Grechelle Blocker said. "It's amazing, truly amazing the love she has for her father, and the love she has for the game.''

Burke's heart is big enough for both, and over the years one has helped fill the loss of the other.

Alexis was 10 when her father, Charles Burke, was killed in an automobile accident.

"She never cried at the funeral. She held everything in,'' Blocker said. "She never talked about it. She never said a word until years later, when she was in ninth grade.''

By then, Burke was a starter for the varsity girls basketball team at Bainbridge High, where she has written her own legacy -- a tribute to her dad.

Before each game, she bows in silence, then whispers a prayer.

"I dedicate my basketball career to my dad,'' Burke said. "I pray with the team before every game, and then I say my own prayer, the one for my dad -- for my dad to be proud of me. What I want more than anything is to make my dad proud of me, for him to look down on me and for him to be smiling.''


Like father, like daughter

Charles Burke was a star in high school. In Bainbridge, they still talk about the Burke brothers -- Charles and Charlie -- both of whom played for the Bearcats a couple of decades ago. Charles was good enough to earn a scholarship to Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College in Tifton, and when he came back home to raise a family he still played in league games at the YMCA. He loved the game almost as much as he loved his daughters. Only one of the two girls plays basketball.

But, oh, how she plays.

"She's the best player I've ever had. The best by far,'' Bainbridge girls basketball coach Latreisha Moon said. "She can do it all. She is a threat inside or out. She can take over a game. She is awesome.''

Just take a look at a couple of snapshots from Burke's first two region games this season -- the ones that count the most. They're still talking about her performance in the Region 1-AAAA opener last week against Americus-Sumter, in which Burke scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds, made a pair of 3s, grabbed two steals and dished out an assist -- all in the first quarter. She finished with 31 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and four steals in the 73-56 rout. In the second region game, Bainbridge was swarmed by Thomas County Central's press, and trailed, 31-12, at halftime.

"We had to change the way we were bringing the ball up the court,'' Moon said. "Instead of having Alexis take the ball out, I had her bring the ball up, and we had no trouble beating their press.''

After only scoring two before halftime, Burke scored 30 points in the second half, and Bainbridge won, 60-42.

They know about Burke coast-to-coast., considered the foremost authority on high school girls basketball prospects, lists Burke as the 50th best player in the nation regardless of position, and the 11th best player at her position in the country. She's ranked No. 2 in Georgia behind Douglass High's Khaalidah Miller, who has already signed with Georgia.

Burke could have been a Lady Bulldog. She had offers from both Georgia and Georgia Tech before her junior year, but considered neither, "because I wanted to leave the state and find a new beginning,'' Burke said.

She took her time. Burke was courted by programs around the nation and waded through a mountain of letters and offers. She cut the massive list down to five schools -- Rutgers, Oklahoma, Florida, Kentucky and Illinois. She made 10 visits (five official and five unofficial) before finally signing with Illinois, because it felt right and she liked the coach -- and because she wants to build another legacy.

"I wanted to go somewhere to not only make a name for myself, but a name for the school,'' Burke said. "By the time I leave Illinois I want it to be one of the top programs in the nation. When I leave Illinois, I want people to know I played there.''

She is only the second girl from Bainbridge to sign a Division 1 basketball scholarship, and on the day she signed there was a framed picture of her father on the table, sitting next to her jersey.

Burke takes after her father, who was a 6-foot-5 post player. She stands at 5-11 and has the skills to dominate a game inside, but she is projected as a shooting guard in college, a position she never dreamed of playing. But her life changed during the summer after her freshmen year in high school. She literally turned everything around, going from playing with her back to the basket to facing the basket and her future from the outside.

Thanks to Kimberly Davis-Powell, an AAU coach who changed Burke's career.

"I give her all the credit,'' Burke said. "When she told me I was going to be a shooter and dribbler I looked at her like she was crazy. She looked at me and said: 'Trust me.' "

Burke did.

But it was more than trust. It was an unrelenting desire.

"She was so dedicated,'' Davis-Powell said. "Whatever I said to do, she would do it. She would work so hard, and there were times in the beginning where she would be so frustrated she would cry, just sit down and cry after practice. But she was determined. Whatever it took, she attacked it dead-on.

"And she is so smart she knew how to run her own workout plan. She would be in the gym, four, five days a week doing nothing but shooting drills. She would wear a strap on her left arm to keep it down, and shoot with her right arm, shoot and shoot and shoot for two hours. Now she has such a pure shot."


'She's going to be a pretty special player in college'

"Her father was a big part of that focus.,'' Davis-Powell continued. "She was in eighth grade when I found a letter she wrote about her father. She had always been quiet and never talked about him, but we talked that day about how he would be proud of her, and that's the way she feels today.''

Burke, a Herald Super 6 selection, started playing for Davis-Powell's AAU program Essence in Tallahassee when she was 11, but even then some of the high school players in the program -- ones who went on to play Division 1 at places such as Connecticut and Oklahoma -- knew Burke had the goods.

"They took her under their wing,'' Davis-Powell said. "Because they knew she could be a special player.''

And now?

"She is going to be a pretty special player in college,'' Davis-Powell said. "She is so hard to defend, and she can defend everyone from the 2 (position) through the 4 on the court. She has the size and skill to defend (shooting guards, small forwards and big forwards), and with her size, she is so difficult to defend as a (shooting guard). She's going to be special.''

It's difficult to imagine a coach and player being closer than Davis-Powell and Burke, and not just because they share those maddening, frenetic moments on the court during games, or those long lonely hours working out in the gym.

There was that moment last summer during a prestigious tournament in New Orleans.

"Her uncle had been ill and she was thinking a lot about him, and it triggered those feelings she had for her father,'' Davis-Powell said. "She came to my room, and she just broke down. It all came out.

"Then that night she went out and had the game of her life. She scored 25 points, had 15 rebounds and just carried us to the championship.''


One last goal

Averaging 19 points a game since her freshman year, Burke has scored more than 1,800 points at Bainbridge, but there's still something missing from her high school career, a state title that Bainbridge has been flirting with for the past three years. The Lady Bearcats made it to the Sweet 16 when Burke was a freshman, to the Elite 8 when she was a sophomore, and last year's team went to the Final Four in Atlanta.

"There's one thing left, a state championship," said Burke, who is also close to Moon. "Coach Moon has driven me. She pushes me to be my best. And it's my time now. She told me it's time for me to step up. I know what I have to do. It's time for me to put my team on my shoulders and carry them like the leader I'm supposed to be.''

Burke is averaging 21.2 points a game this season, but she has scored 90 points in the first three region games, and appears to be more determined than ever to end her high school career with a state title.

"Whew, I can't even imagine how good that would feel,'' Burke said. "Playing basketball is emotional, because my dad loved the game, and that's what keeps me going and wanting to be better. I know I'm making my dad proud.

"I don't even have words for what it would be like to win the state championship and know my dad was looking down on me smiling. That would be the best moment in my life.

"That would be a beautiful picture.''