Nov. 7, 2013
Purchase tickets | 2013 Hall of Fame Class
RALEIGH, N.C. - Standing at 7-foot-4, Burleson was known around Western North Carolina as the “Newland Needle” during his high school days. That was before Wolfpack basketball coach Norm Sloan successfully recruited him in the spring of 1970 to become the first important piece of an eventual ACC-NCAA powerhouse.
“I am very honored at being selected to the NC State Hall of Athletic Fame,” noted former State basketball star Tommy Burleson recently from his mountain house in Blue Ridge country. “When you think of the list of names like David Thompson and Coach (Norm) Sloan, among others, it is one more jewel in the crown. I am humbled by the selection.”
The future All-American and two-time ACC Tournament MVP had first set foot on the NC State campus in 1963 on 4H Club trip that held its meetings in Reynolds Coliseum. From that point forward, he had aspired to play for the Wolfpack.
As a teen he attended ACC tournaments, events that made him realize how much work it would take to play ACC basketball.
“I sat right at the end of the court and could see up close how the big men operated.
“I put up two basketball goals – one outside the barn and one inside the barn. Remember those TV games sponsored by Pilot Life? I ‘Sailed with the Pilot’ and at halftime would be at the barn practicing until my mom called me back into the house when the game resumed.”
Those hours and hours of practice in the barn paid off and eventually helped him to develop what Dean Smith described as the first “jump hook” in college basketball.
Blue chip players David Thompson, Monte Towe and Tim Stoddard joined Burleson and Sloan in 1971 to solidify the major parts of a future roster which would go 57-1 in 1973 and ’74 en route to a national championship -- ending UCLA’s string of seven consecutive NCAA titles.
“David and I played in the same conference in high school,” Burleson recalled. “We became friends and when I decided to come to State, that sealed the deal for him. He was recruited by Dean Smith at Carolina but didn’t want to play in their four-corner offense.”
The Pack established a 73-11 mark during Burleson’s three varsity seasons (freshmen were ineligible in those days) as the future All-rookie NBA first-teamer dominated the paint – leading the ACC in rebounding in 1972 and 1973.
In the 1974 ACC Tournament Championship game, which became known as the greatest game in league history, Burleson scored 38 points against fourth-ranked Maryland. That 103-100 overtime triumph earned the Wolfpack the ACC’s only NCAA bid, as at that time only the conference tournament champion could advance to the NCAA tournament.
“We were ranked number one, Maryland number four and North Carolina number seven,” the lanky center remembered – pointing out the pressure those teams faced going into the winner-take-all tournament.
Seven future NBA players competed in that epic contest – Burleson, `Thompson, and Maryland’s Len Elmore – among them. Following the game, Maryland coach Lefty Driesell congratulated Burleson on the Pack team bus, saying it was the best performance for a big man he had ever seen.
With a first-round NCAA bye due to the ACC’s excellent NCAA tournament record, State hosted eastern regional action – easily defeating Providence and Pittsburgh in Reynolds Coliseum.
Against UCLA in the NCAA semifinals with the Pack down seven points in a second overtime, Burleson’s key steal off an in-bounds play jump-started a furious Thompson-led Pack rally. During a timeout prior to Burleson’s theft, Sloan had told his players that “somebody had better make something happen.”
“I heard [UCLA center Bill] Walton call Keith Wilkes for the ball on the inbounds play,” Burleson noted. “I sprinted towards the passing lane and intercepted the pass.”
State prevailed, 80-77, as Burleson played toe-to-toe with Walton, scoring 20 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and holding his own in the middle on defense.
During the 57-1 run in 1973 and ’74, the Pack didn’t lose a conference game – beating arch-rival Carolina nine consecutive times. “I lost to them once in my career during my sophomore season,” Burleson remembered.
State posted a 27-0 record in 1973 – winning the ACC Tournament -- but was prohibited from post-season play because of NCAA sanctions.
Talking about his years at State, Burleson said playing in Reynolds Coliseum was a special delight. “You would get that feeling of numbness when going on to the floor,” he recalled. “It was an adrenaline rush.”
One of the things which stands out in his memory is when Coach Sloan called his freshmen recruits into his office. Burleson said Sloan told him his “country slang” was unacceptable when talking to the press and set up communication-public speaking classes for all of his players.
“I was eighteen years old and thumbed home every weekend for my first six weeks at school. My English was very country broken. When basketball practice started, I stayed on campus, studied more and the communication classes taught me to speak more fluently.”
For many years, Burleson has served as building inspector in Newland, and still attends as many Wolfpack basketball and football games as possible. He is an avid supporter of the Wolfpack Club.
He’s also extremely active in the community and his church and just recently journeyed on a church mission trip to Africa.
By George Cox