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Avery County Native Tommy Burleson’s 1972 United States Olympic Men’s Basketball Team Nominated for Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame

Front Row (L-R):  W. K. Summers, manager; John Bach, assistant coach; Henry Iba, head coach; Don Haskins, assistant coach; Whitey Gwynne, athletic trainer; Herbert Mols, assistant manager.
Middle Row (L-R): John McLendon; Kenny Davis; Kevin Joyce; Thomas Henderson; Doug Collins; Ed Ratleff.
Back Row (L-R):  Bobby Jones; Jim Brewer; Tom McMillen; Tommy Burleson; Dwight Jones; Mike Bantom; James Forbes.

By Tim Gardner

Avery County native Tommy Burleson and his teammates on the 1972 United States Olympic Men’s Basketball Team have been nominated for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the Direct-Elect Category by the Hall’s Veterans Committee, the organization has announced.

It’s the first time this team has been nominated for the Hall of Fame.

The finalists for the Class of 2022 Hall of Fame enshrinement will be announced during the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star weekend on February 18-20 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Burleson, a member of the silver medal-winning United States team 50 years ago as a 7-foot, 2-inch center, played in one of the most controversial games in Olympics history. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 51-50 in the championship game in Munich, Germany in 1972.

“I’m happy that the 1972 Olympic team is being considered for induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame,” Burleson said. “My greatest thrill in basketball was being chosen to play on the United States Olympic Team. It’s a milestone in my life.”

Burleson was joined on the Olympic squad by teammates Mike Bantom, Jim Brewer, Doug Collins, Kenneth Davis (captain), James Forbes, Tom Henderson, Dwight Jones, Bobby Jones, Kevin Joyce, Tom McMillen and Ed Ratleff, and was led by head coach Henry Iba.

1972 Summer Olympics: USA Tom McMillen (13) in action vs Cuba during Preliminary Round at Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle. Munich, West Germany

It’s important to note that the Russian team featured international veterans, who had been playing together for years in its domestic professional league and international tournaments, while the American team was barred from sending players that had already played in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to the Olympics, and used only collegiate players instead.

The championship game’s final three seconds involved a series of bizarre decisions that may always remain a mystery.  With three seconds to play, Collins hit two free throws to put the USA ahead 50-49. And when the Soviet Union’s ensuing inbounds pass was knocked away, the game was apparently over. America’s perfect Olympics record then was preserved, or so it seemed.

But the Soviets protested, demanding that three seconds be put back on the game clock.  The game officials ruled that the Soviet coach had been trying to call a time-out while the ball was put back into play and ordered the clock reset to three seconds. One official was Brazilian, the other Bulgarian.  And Iba didn’t speak either language. The teams had to run a final play again.  But when the second attempt did not produce a Soviet victory, the Secretary General of the International Amateur Basketball Federation, R. William Jones of Great Britain, came out of the stands and ordered that three seconds put back on the game clock because it had started before the ball was put into play.

Repeated appeals by American interests were made following the game’s outcome, including to the FIBA’s five-man Jury of Appeal, which had three Communist-bloc members.  Predictably, the vote was 3-2 for Russia to keep the win.

Soon after, the Americans voted to boycott the awards ceremony and not to accept their Silver Medals, a first in Olympics history. Following the 1972 final, and to present day, the American team in solidarity has refused to accept its silver medal from the Olympic Games, as the medals remain locked up in a vault in Switzerland. 

“Obviously, the Russians should not have gotten three different chances to inbound the ball, and we were cheated,” Burleson declared. “It took time for me to get over it, but if people are willing to take a win, they should be willing to accept a loss as well. I have no animosity toward anyone.  I learned to let hard feelings or grudges go and to turn the other cheek as a Christian.”

The United States team featured several of America’s finest college players, and its primary strength was the fast break offense. However, Iba used a slower, disciplined attack, which all but cost the Americans the win as Burleson acknowledged: “Actually, we should have won the game going away. Hank Iba was a great coach for his era and had great success as Oklahoma State’s head coach for a long time. But we were not allowed to get into a running game against the Russians and that killed us.  We’d let Russia set its defense, and we never got in a transition game, and that’s why the final score was as low as it was.  We beat the first eight countries we played by lopsided scores, and we should have done the same with the Soviet Union. We had a much better team than the Russians.”

Inexcusably, Iba had Burleson on the bench for the game’s final seconds despite him not having fouled out. He would have been a key defender to stop the Soviets from scoring the winning basket.

During the games leading up to the championship, the victories by the United States and the game scores came against: Czechoslovakia, 66–35; Australia, 81–55; Cuba, 67–48; Brazil, 67–54; Egypt, 96–31; Spain, 72–56; Japan, 99–33; and Italy, 68–38.

Burleson was an All-America player at Newland High School and after consolidation, Avery County High. He led teams to Northwestern 3-A Conference regular season and tournament championships at Avery as well as a third-place finish in the state tournament his junior season (1968-1969).  

Burleson was the State of North Carolina’s most valuable prep player his senior season (1969-’70) and played in the Dapper Dan National High School All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, PA. Recruited by North Carolina State University head coach Norman Sloan and his staff, Burleson chose to play there because he had been a lifelong fan of the Wolfpack and had long wanted to attend that university.  It also offered his choice of a major (Agriculture Economics). 

He was one of several big-name players to sign to play during the same era for N.C. State.  Others included David Thompson, Monte Towe, Tim Stoddard and Phil Spence.  They teamed together for two seasons (1972-1973 and 1973-1974) to compile the best two-year record in Atlantic Coast Conference history (57-1), win two league regular season and tournament championships and beat defending National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) champion UCLA (80-77 in double overtime) enroute to the 1974 national title (a 76-64 win over Marquette in the finals). The 1972-1973 Wolfpack juggernaut is the last ACC team to finish an entire season undefeated (27-0).

Burleson was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference and All-American collegiate player. He twice received the Everett Case Award as the ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player (1973 and 1974).  He was also NCAA Eastern Regional Most Valuable Player and an All-Final Four Tournament selection in 1974. Additionally, he was a member of the 1973 World University Games team that claimed the championship Gold Medal.  In 2002, Burleson was named to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary men’s basketball team honoring the fifty greatest players in its history.

He was the first player chosen in the America Basketball Association (ABA) draft and the third chosen in the 1974 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft.  He chose to play in the NBA and was taken by the Seattle Supersonics.  Burleson was named to the 1974-1975 NBA All-Rookie Team. He played with the Supersonics from 1974-77. His professional career spanned eight seasons during which he also played for the Kansas City Kings (1977-1980), Atlanta Hawks (1980-1981) and Chicago Bulls (1981-1982). 

Another first-time nominee for the 2022 Naismith College Basketball Hall of Fame class is Lenoir, NC-based Bob Gibbons, renowned for specializing in the rating and evaluating of high school basketball players. Gibbons is often credited among those who revolutionized the scouting of school-age basketball stars into a big business.

Gibbons publishes an annual ranking of the top 150 high school players in America, as well as separate rankings of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. He has served on committees that select players for the annual McDonald’s High School All-American Game and the Nike Hoop Summit.For a full list of 2022 HOF nominees, log online to https://www.nba.com/news/naismith-memorial-basketball-hall-of-fame-announces-eligible-candidates-for-class-of-2022.