100 in 100: Avery County’s Tommy Burleson, NC State’s Newland Needle

The 7-foot-2 center was a key piece in the Wolfpacks 1974 national championship team

Newland’s Tommy Burleson was the man in the middle for NC State’s 1974 national championship team. (AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Avery County

Tommy Burleson

Burleson is in the Christmas tree business these days, growing them on his family farm in Newland and selling them around the state during the holidays. It’s a fitting vocation considering that in his younger days the former NC State basketball star was also one of the tallest and most sought after exports to come out of the mountains of Avery County.

Standing 7-foot-2 and blessed with extraordinary agility for a man his size, Burleson arrived at NC State with so much anticipation that his picture graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before he ever played his first college game in 1971. He lived up to the hype by averaging 19.0 points and 12.7 rebounds during his three-year varsity career, teaming with David Thompson and Monte Towe to lead the Wolfpack to an undefeated season in 1973 and the national championship in ’74.


Seattle SuperSonics rookie center Tommy Burleson attempts a hook shot over the outstretched arm of the Bucks‘ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during a game on Dec. 5, 1974. (AP Photo)

One of his most memorable performances came in a game considered by many to be the greatest ever in college basketball, a 103-100 overtime victory against Maryland in the ACC Tournament championship game when he scored 38 points. Two weeks later, Burleson hit for 20 points and 14 rebounds while frustrating UCLA star Bill Walton with his defense in a double-overtime national semifinal win that ended the Bruins’ run of seven straight national titles.

Following his college career, in which he was the ACC Tournament MVP in each of his final two seasons, he was taken by the Seattle SuperSonics with the third overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. He made the league’s all-rookie team and played seven professional seasons with Seattle, Kansas City and Atlanta — the last five of which were hampered by injury.

In 2013, Burleson was among the second class inducted into NC State’s newly created athletic Hall of Fame.

“I had a wonderful love for NC State,” Burleson said the night of his induction. “Just to be able to come here and put my dream together, to play basketball here and be at the university I love so much is such a great honor. And to be recognized (in the Hall of Fame) is just icing on the cake.”