(pictured above: Donna Burgess holds a framed tribute to her late daughter.)
Teaching the angels in heaven how to play basketball.
That is what Donna Burgess imagines her 16-year-old daughter, Celeste, doing right now.
“Even though she is gone, I can hear her saying right now, ‘Ma, I’m fine. Stop crying, I’m good.’ She was a young lady that I am so proud of,” Burgess said. “I wish she was still here, but I thank God for giving her to us for 16 years.”
The rising high school junior basketball star died in June 2013 in Alabama after a minivan crossed the centerline and collided with the car in which Celeste was a passenger. She was traveling to Auburn University for a basketball camp.
Tomorrow (Friday, June 20) will mark one year since her passing. Instead of mourning her death, the Burgess family will celebrate her life with a cookout.
“It is for anyone that wants to come,” Burgess said. “If we are going to think about her, I would rather we all come together and have lots of laughter instead of being sad. She would not want that.”
The first Celeste Burgess Memorial Cookout will take place in Rural Hall at Horizon Park. The event will kick-off around noon and last until 7 p.m.
Burgess has been working hard this past year, creating a CB O.N.E. Foundation to honor the legacy Celeste left behind. The group has already hosted several basketball tournaments and held community service projects. There are plans in the works to give away $500 scholarships to female students and to hold a charity golf tournament later this year.
“She always told me and her dad that when she made it to the WNBA, she was going to come back and give back to the community by having a camp for underprivileged kids, and doing food drives,” Burgess said. “We are doing things that she wanted to do but can’t do.”
Burgess said that Celeste had her future mapped out. After college and playing in the WNBA for a few years, she had planned to attend law school.
“I would always ask her, ‘What kind of lawyer do you want to be?’ She would always say, ‘The kind of lawyer that helps people.’”
When she talks of Celeste, Burgess’ eyes glass over and she gets a far-away look as if she is watching Celeste walk through the door, basketball under her arm, like she had done so many times before.
“She was a go-getter. She knew what she wanted out of life,” Burgess said. “ She was very smart academically. Most of all she loved God, her family and friends.”
Her love for the game began when Celeste was very young.
Celeste began playing in rec leagues when she was 5-years-old. As she got older, she started playing against boys and beating them.
“The boys didn’t like that,” her mother said. “So when it was time to pick teams, everybody wanted her.”
The summer before she died, Celeste volunteered to teach other girls some of her championship form.
“Celeste was a great role model for girls ... said Carl H. Russell Sr. Community Center Center Supervisor Ben Piggott said last year shortly after Celeste’s death. “She was a hard worker on the basketball court and a very kind-hearted spirit when you talked with her.”
By the time Celeste was eight, she was playing AAU ball, helping her team claim a state title. At Paisley IB Magnet School, she helped lead her team to an undefeated season and a middle school championship.
Burgess said that Celeste began getting letters from the University of North Carolina and the University of Miami when she was in the seventh grade.
“At that time, we didn’t pay too much attention to it,” she said. “We were thrilled, but we did not give too much credence to it.”
Those two letters were just the tip of the iceberg. In her eighth grade year, letters began to flood the mailbox. It wasn’t until Celeste was a freshman at Mt. Tabor that her mother realized that her little girl was destined for great things.
During her first year at Tabor, she started on the varsity team and was the leading scorer and rebounder and earned all-state and all-conference honors. As a sophomore, she transferred to New Hope Christian Academy in Thomasville to play under Coach Delaney Rudd.
He said that she was a girl full of ambition, energy and could command a room by simply walking into it.
“She was one of those people who just had it. People looked up to her for her efforts on the basketball court and everywhere else,” Rudd said. “She was fun to be with and she always had a smile. She was one of those kids who you wanted to coach because you could see what it meant to her, everyday, in her eyes.”
Rudd said Celeste lived the kind of life that all kids should aspire to.
“That is a story that I would want my little kids to hear about,” Rudd said. “We have her jersey in our locker room and everyday the kids go in there. On game day, they write on the board ‘#14 It’s Game Day.’ Why would you want to stop something that powerful?”
Rudd said that even though Celeste is not here, her spirit is.
“She did more in 16 years then some people do in 78 because she kept pursuing her dream,” he said.
To learn more about the foundation, visit www.cb1foundation.com.