Neither Rashon Burno nor Mike Rosario has been back to their old Jersey City neighborhood in a while.
That’s just fine, because they wouldn’t recognize where they both used to live.
Their homes growing up were the Duncan Projects, the crime-infested public housing high-rises that sat on Duncan Avenue for ages.
The buildings where both Burno and Rosario resided are gone, torn down to the ground and replaced now by beautiful low-income housing.
“I don’t know the last time I’ve been back there,” said Rosario, whose mother and sister have since moved to Middlesex County.
“It’s been a while,” Burno laughed. “I don’t even know what the area looks like.”
But both products of the projects are doing quite well these days. In fact, they are together in Gainesville, Florida, major parts of the University of Florida men’s basketball team.
It’s hard to fathom the idea that two kids who grew up in the same public housing project complex would be able to escape those perils and become successes in life thanks to the sport of basketball.
Now, Burno, the assistant coach, and Rosario, the standout player, will get the chance to lead the Gators in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. The March Madness will include this pair of boys from Duncan as the Gators were slated to take on media darling Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 this weekend.
And if things go well for the Gators, they could very well be headed to Atlanta next weekend for the NCAA Final Four.
Both Burno and Rosario were star players at St. Anthony, both playing for national championship teams – Burno in 1996 and 1997 and Rosario in 2008.
Burno went to DePaul and became a fine player there, leading his team to the NCAA Tournament in 2001. He then started his coaching career at a private high school Marmion Academy in Illinois, then had tenures at Towson and Manhattan as a college assistant and ended up at Florida last summer.
Rosario first went to Rutgers as a McDonald’s All-American and spent two years in Piscataway, before deciding to transfer to Florida in 2011.
“I never will regret the decision to leave Rutgers,” Rosario said. “I grew a lot as a man and as a person there. I respect that institution. I learned a lot there. I had the chance to play close to home in front of my family and friends. The fan base was great at Rutgers and they embraced me there. But I wanted the chance to play at the highest level and compete with the best. That’s what the University of Florida has offered me. It made my decision easy.”
Rosario, part of that famed St. Anthony team that was featured in the documentary “The Street Stops Here,” a film that has been aired several times on the ESPN network recently. Ironically, one of the producers of that documentary was Burno.
Rosario played last season at Florida, but he was never really 100 percent, battling nagging leg and back injuries.
“I’ve definitely went through my ups and downs,” Rosario said. “But I never gave up. I kept working hard. Playing for Coach Billy [Donovan], I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But I kept looking forward to the challenge.”
After averaging just 6.6 points per game last season, Rosario has doubled his production this year, averaging 12.5 points. In the Gators’ win over Minnesota to get into the Sweet 16, Rosario had 25 points, including making 6-of-9 from 3-point range.
“Right now, I feel 110 percent healthy and I’m ready to make a big run,” Rosario said. “We have to keep going if we’re going to make the Final Four. We have a good group of guys here. It’s been a great experience and I just want to enjoy and experience the time I have left.”
And he gets to experience it with a long-time friend and member of the old neighborhood.
“It’s a great experience for both of us,” Rosario said. “He’s someone I can really connect and bond with. We’re from the same neighborhood, so he understands me more. He knows my street smarts and knows my strengths and weaknesses.”
Burno said that he remembers Rosario from the projects.
“He must have been six or seven years old, making shots at the Duncan courts,” Burno said. “I used to see Mike all the time.”
Burno didn’t give Rosario any preferential treatment when he arrived in Gainesville last summer.
“I never brought it up to Billy that I knew Mike since he was a kid,” Burno said. “Billy and I started a process with Mike. I’m just glad to share this last year with Mike and see his development. He knows what’s really important and what’s understood. He also knows stuff that we only understand by being from Duncan.”
Burno added, “Like the Red Truck. That was the place where we were able to scrape together 50 cents and buy a soda in July. We joke together about moments only we know. Obviously, there’s an age difference [Burno is 12 years older than Rosario], but we know each other in and out. That’s the beauty of this whole thing. I’ve seen this kid grow up and now look what he’s doing. It’s not my job to motivate him.”
Rosario knows what it’s like to have someone like Burno in his corner.
“He has known me since I was little,” Rosario said. “His brother, Frank, was my AAU coach for the Jersey City Boys and Girls Club. We had an instant connection. He always reminded me about playing in the project. Having him on the coaching staff has helped me tremendously because he knows how tough it was to grow up in that situation.”
And now, Rosario and Burno continue their dance together toward Atlanta.
“We’ve put our city on our backs and we’re representing Jersey City together,” Rosario said. “It’s a great feeling. He’s helped to keep me on the right path.”
“We’re part of the St. Anthony fraternity, no question,” Burno said. “It’s really amazing.”
“The idea that we’re both from Duncan and now we’re here together? Well, that’s just crazy,” Rosario said. “I can’t even begin to think about that. It’s too amazing for words.”
Mike Rosario and Rashon Burno may not live in Jersey City anymore, but they’re true products of Jersey City. It’s evident every time Rosario’s name is mentioned in Florida’s starting lineup. It’s evident any time you ask them where they’re from.
Mike Rosario might have been the one hitting monstrous homers for the Lincoln Park Little League team that won the District 7 championship 11 years ago. Rashon Burno might have been the wizard playing for a host of youth basketball teams, including four coached by yours truly around the time Rosario was born.
But they’re still Jersey City – and they’ll represent Jersey City, perhaps all the way to the Final Four.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.