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A Record 92 Participants: 39th Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp the Biggest and “One of The Best Ever”

By Tim Gardner

The 2022 Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp held July 18-22 at the Old Rock Gymnasium and adjacent auxiliary Newland Elementary School Gymnasium was the largest in number of campers and called one of the best in over-all talent of its participants in its 39 years of existence by its namesake and director.

92 male and female players, ranging in ages from 6 to 15, attended, and Burleson called it one of the top camps he has hosted in terms of a wide array in talent and promising basketball potential from those players. 

“I believe very strongly that my camp should be a fun and learning experience for each participant and those objectives were certainly achieved at this year’s camp,” Burleson said. “But an especially good happening was that I saw very much basketball potential from our campers this year with some campers showing excellent basketball skills and the others displaying much potential in becoming good players. I believe those who participated in the camp will continue improving their games. I’m proud to proclaim that our 2022 camp was our biggest and truly one of our best ever.”

The camp was founded in 1983 by Burleson, the legendary basketball star and Avery County native whose vast resume includes being an All-American at old Newland High, Avery County High and North Carolina State University. He was a three-time high school All-American and achieved the feat twice collegiately. He also was a two-time All-ACC First team player. Burleson played on the 1972 United States Olympics team and helped lead the N.C. State Wolfpack to two Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season and tournament titles (both in consecutive seasons), an undefeated (27-0) season in 1972-73 and a 30-1 record and the national championship the following season (1973-’74). He then had a professional playing career in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Seattle Supersonics, Kansas City Kings, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.

Another of Burleson’s most prestigious honors was having the old Newland High Rock School gymnasium, one of the two gymnasiums where his camp is held, formally named “Tommy Burleson Court” in honor of Avery County’s most famous athlete ever.

The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp, held in collaboration with the Avery County Parks and Recreation Department that is headed by Robbie Willis and assistants Teddy Bare, Brandon Campbell and River Willis, is designed to teach players fundamentals, while helping them develop and hone their individual skills such as ball handling, shooting, rebounding, playing defense and much more to use them to help their team win games in competitive team play. 

This year’s camp consisted of players from Watauga and Mitchell counties as well as some from out-of-state, including Tennessee, Virginia and Florida, with the majority, of course, coming from Avery County.

Each five-day session of the camp was filled with superlative teaching that will make a positive difference in the players’ game. From the beginning to the end of camp each day, and throughout its five days, campers were exposed to a high level of intense basketball instruction and motivation that will benefit both beginners and experienced players.

Each camper was given a trophy, a basketball and a camp-t-shirt.

“The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp is one of my daughters’ favorite weeks of each year,” said Lindsay Townsend Carver, mother of Tilda (Tillie) and Stella Carver, who annually participate in the camp and are two of Avery County’s top youth players. Their father, Ricky Carver, is a successful county youth basketball coach.

On Friday evening of the camp (July 22), all-star games were held among various campers and camp staff.  Many awards for the various games and the camp over-all were presented for both boys and girls including:  Most Valuable Player, Best Offensive Player, Best Defensive Player, Most Improved Player, Best Blocking Out Player and Best Sportsmanship.  

Burleson was also presented a plaque by Robbie Willis and Teddy Bare for behalf of the Avery Parks and Recreation Department for his many years of service to the area’s youth.

The camp’s instructors annually include Avery Parks and Recreation staff members and features some of the most well-known and successful players and coaches in college basketball. Area coaches and standout players have also completed the nucleus of the camp’s instructional staff, giving participants insight and training from those who best know what it takes to improve their games.

This year’s most noted camp clinicians and lecturers included one of Burleson’s teammates at N.C. State-David Thompson and former University of North Carolina playing legend and assistant coach and NBA player and coach Phil Ford. 

Thompson, a small forward, is widely acclaimed as the greatest player in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) history and one of only two players from the conference to ever be a three-time National Player of the Year and a three-time consensus All-American (Virginia’s Ralph Sampson is the other). Thompson also was a three-time All-ACC First Team player. He joined Burleson in helping N.C. State win back-to-back ACC regular season and tournament championships and the national title. Thompson also was the Most Valuable Player in the 1974 National Championship Final Four and was the Number 1 pick of both the American Basketball Association (Virginia Squires) and the National Basketball Association (Atlanta Hawks) in the 1975 drafts of both leagues. He eventually signed and played with the ABA’s Denver Nuggets.  Thompson also played for the Seattle Supersonics as did Burleson. Additionally, Burleson played for the Kansas City Kings and Atlanta Hawks.

Ford is generally considered the best point guard ever in the ACC and was a three-time All-ACC First Team player, a two-time All-American and the 1978 National Player of The Year. He helped lead the North Carolina Tar Heels to two ACC regular season and tournament titles and a runner-up finish in the 1977 National Championship (versus Marquette). Ford played for four NBA teams—the Kansas City Kings, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. He also served as an assistant for three–the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats. He also was an assistant coach to iconic coach Dean Smith at UNC for twelve years, helping the Tar Heels to the 1993 NCAA Championship, beating Michigan 77-71 in the finals.

Like Burleson, Ford played on a United States Olympics Team (1976). Also, like Burleson, who received the award in 1973 and 1974, Ford was an ACC Tournament Most Valuable Player (1975).

Additionally, Thompson and Ford are members of the College Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Also, Burleson (1970), Thompson (1971) and Ford (1974) were each named North Carolina High School Player of The Year their senior years of high school. Thompson played for Shelby Crest High and Ford at Rocky Mount High.

Another key clinician at this year’s Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp was Gunner Garrett, a standout player for Gate City, VA High School.  Additionally, Robbie and River Willis and Bare also worked in various capacities at the camp and are annually vital cogs to its success.  Some players from Watauga County and Avery County High and Middle Schools men’s and women’s teams also assisted with the camp.

“I’ve been a clinician, speaker and counselor at Tommy’s camp for many years and I it’s an honor to do so and something I definitely look forward to it each year,” said Thompson. “The camp always has some really good players who love the game, have strong work ethics and completely devote themselves to becoming better players. This basketball camp is such a worthwhile and good happening for Avery County Athletics and sports in general as well as for the North Carolina High Country in particular.”

Former University of Georgia, Florida State University and Jacksonville University head coach and former Florida State player Hugh Durham and Phil Spence, a teammate of Burleson’s and Thompson’s at N.C. State University and a former high school and college head coach, were scheduled to be clinicians at the camp. But Durham and Spence had to miss due to other scheduling conflicts.

In 2023, the Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp will celebrate its 40th Anniversary and run July 17-21. It will again be held at the Old Rock School and Newland Elementary School gymnasiums.”I can’t wait for our 2023 camp, which will be our milestone 40th year,” he said.  “I expect another camp with excellent players and sure-to-be excellent players. And I thank all who participated and helped with the camp in any capacity this year.”