By Tim Gardner
Tommy Burleson, the most famous native in Avery County’s 111-year history, and one of most legendary ever from the North Carolina High Country, has retired as Avery’s Planning and Inspections Director after serving 28 years in the local government position. His retirement was effective at the end of the work day on August 31, 2022.
As Planning Director, Burleson worked with developers who want to invest in a business venture in Avery County by assisting them obtain the required Federal, State and Local compliances to develop a commercial site. As Building Inspections Director, Burleson was chief of Avery’s department mandated by the North Carolina Department Insurance, of which its primary purpose is to oversee that a new or renovated structure is safe from any potential hazards.
A retirement ceremony was held in Burleson’s honor on August 19 at the Avery County Agriculture Community Center complex in Newland. Many of his family members, friends, colleagues, fellow-county government employees and special dignitaries on regional, local and national levels attended. Special speakers at the ceremony included: Virginia Foxx, United States representative for North Carolina’s 5th congressional district, which includes Avery County; former North Carolina Governor and former Mayor of Charlotte Pat McCrory; North Carolina State Senator Warren Daniel; April Riddle, Western Regional Director of the North Carolina Department of Insurance; and Avery County Manager Philip Barrier, Jr.
Burleson was presented with citations commemorating his exemplary and long-time service to the county and state. Those included the Old North State Award from current North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a service achievements certificate from the North Carolina Department of Insurance and a state flag that was flown over the North Carolina Capitol building in Raleigh with a framed certificate of such designation.
The Old North State Award is presented from the state’s governor to recognize “dedication and service beyond expectation and excellence to the Great State of North Carolina.” Recipients must have 20 years of service to the state.
McCrory gave Burleson the Old North State Award on behalf of Cooper.
Burleson was chosen for the honor for his professional government, civic and community work and his famous basketball-playing endeavors. And the State of North Carolina in general, and Avery County in particular, have received much positive notoriety as a result of his basketball achievements. Burleson is especially a true goodwill ambassador for Avery County, never forgetting where he came from and proudly proclaiming such to all those from outside the county with whom he comes in contact.
Burleson said neither Cooper nor Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson could attend his retirement ceremony due to their commitments surrounding funeral services for slain Wake County, NC Sheriff’s Deputy Ned Byrd held the same day. But both offered Burleson their zenith congratulations.
Riddle gave Burleson the Department of Insurance Service Achievements Certificate on behalf of the state’s Commissioner of Insurance and Fire Marshal Mike Causey. Foxx and Daniel presented Burleson with the state flag and certificate of designation.
Barrier, Jr. said that the Avery County Commissioners are going to present Burleson with a proclamation honoring his longtime service and contributions to the county later this fall.
An emotional Burleson offered the following sentiments about his retirement and received accolades: “I ‘m deeply grateful to everybody involved with my retirement ceremony. I thank all those who arranged it, attended it, some of whom drove long distances to do so, and to the lady county employees who prepared food with drinks served at it. I also want to thank all others from Avery County and beyond, who have been so instrumental in the success I’ve had in my career work and personal life. I’m proud to have served the people of Avery County as Planning and Inspections Director as well as in other roles. I love Avery County and its people and I’m mighty proud of our county and my fellow-Avery Countians.
“I’m most grateful for the honors I’ve received and will always cherish the Old North State Award, the Department of Insurance Service Achievements certificate, the state flag that has been flown over the Capitol Building in Raleigh and the upcoming county proclamation. Each means so much to me and my family. And I’m blessed beyond any measure with having such a wonderful family. I foremost thank God for all He’s done for me in my life. Without Him, none of it would have been possible.”
Burleson is part of one of Avery County’s most prominent and respected families. He is the son of the late Loren and the late Billie Ware Burleson of Newland, and is married to the former Denise Roberts Burleson from Seattle, WA. They have three sons-Robert, of New York City, NY; Quentin (fiancé, Deborah), of Spruce Pine, NC; and David (wife, Nicole), who resides in Newland. Tommy and Denise Burleson have two grandchildren-Conor and Nora.
Tommy Burleson also has three sisters: the late Lynda Burleson Wise (husband, Robert), Connie Burleson Greene (husband, Ted) of Boone and Martha Burleson Buchanan (husband, Bruce) of Newland.
Those who know Tommy Burleson still almost always first think of his exceptional basketball-playing prowess.
The 7-foot, 2-inch-tall Burleson has a vast athletic resume includes being an All-America center at Newland High School and after consolidation, Avery County High. He was the North Carolina High School Player of The Year his senior season (1969-70). 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 (1968-69). His stellar play helped propel his high school teams to a combined record of 85 wins against only eight losses. Burleson played in the 1970 Dapper Dan National High School All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, PA.
One of the top recruited players in America, Burleson choose to attend North Carolina State University and play basketball there, where he was a two-time All-American. He, along with his fellow-star players, forward David Thompson and point guard Monte Towe, Burleson helped lead N.C. State to an undefeated (27-0) season in 1972-73 and a 30-1 record and the national championship the following season (1973-74). That’s when the Wolfpack beat defending National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) champion, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), 80-77 in double overtime in the national semi-finals enroute to playing for the national title (a 76-64 win over Marquette).
Those campaigns included Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season titles with unbeaten (12-0) records, league tournament titles and what remains the best two-year record (57-1) in the 69-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Burleson scored 38 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the top-ranked Wolfpack to a 103-100 overtime win versus second-ranked Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament Championship in the game called the “greatest of all-time” by many basketball experts.
Burleson was also chosen to the All-ACC First Team and was twice the ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He also was chosen to the 1974 NCAA Tournament All-Final Four Team.
His collegiate varsity career, which included his sophomore, junior and senior seasons as freshmen then were ineligible to play on such, saw Burleson amass a total of 1,598 points, (tenth best in N.C. State history), an average of 19 points per game. He also pulled down 1,066 rebounds (second most in school history), an average of 12.7 per game.
He grabbed 365 rebounds (14 per game) as a sophomore; 324 (12 per game) as a junior; and 377 (12.2) his senior season.
He was the Wolfpack’s leading rebounder in total and per game average during all three of his varsity seasons (1971-72, 1972-73 and 1973-74) and the leading scorer his sophomore season (554 points for a 21.3 per game average).
Burleson was twice featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine–once by himself and the other with UCLA center Bill Walton.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) is N.C. State’s biggest rival and former UNC head basketball coach Dean Smith called Burleson “the toughest center to prepare for I ever coached against.” That’s an especially high compliment considering Smith was UNC’s head coach for 36 seasons and served 44 years as a coach.
Burleson and the N.C. State Wolfpack won seven straight games over Smith’s Tar Heels, including 88-61 to claim the 1972 Big Four Tournament Championship. The Big Four Tournament was an annual college basketball tournament played from 1971 to 1981 in Greensboro, NC. The field consisted of the “Big Four” North Carolina Atlantic Coast Conference schools: N.C. State, Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
Burleson and the Wolfpack also beat Wake Forest (91-73) to win the Big Four Tournament Title in 1973.
Burleson’s most prestigious sports milestone was playing on the 1972 United States Olympic Team. Additionally, he was a member of the 1973 World University Games team that claimed the Championship Gold Medal.
He earned a degree in agriculture at North Carolina State University in 1974.
He then played professionally with four National Basketball Association (NBA) teams, including the Seattle Supersonics, Kansas City Kings, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. Burleson was the third player chosen in the 1974 NBA Draft and was named to the 1974-75 NBA All-Rookie Team. Burleson recorded strong playoff performances in both 1975 and 1976 for Seattle. For his playoff career, Burleson averaged 20.7 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 1.7 blocked shots per game in 15 career playoff games. His second season as a professional player proved to be his best, as he averaged 15.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.8 blocked shots per game. Just as he began to come into his own in the NBA, he was injured breaking up a fight between a teammate and an opposing team player.
Burleson played in 446 NBA games.
Burleson is enshrined in the State of North Carolina (1996), Western North Carolina (1985) and North Carolina State University (2013) Sports Halls of Fame. Additionally, he has been named as one of the ACC’s top players of all-time by various media outlets and publications. In 2002, he was named to the ACC 50th Anniversary men’s basketball team honoring the fifty greatest players in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
Basketball courts at old Newland High and Avery County High Schools have been named for him.
When his basketball playing career concluded, Burleson returned to his home county, where he operated a successful electrical supply business, raised Christmas trees and raced speedboats.
He became Director of Planning and Inspections for Avery County in 1994.
For 39 years, he, in collaboration with the Avery County Parks and Recreation Department, has hosted The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp in Newland, which annually attracts many young players from Avery and surrounding counties as well as from several states.
He also served two terms as an Avery County Commissioner and is an ordained minister, and has conducted several Gospel missions’ trips to Africa.
“What I most admire most about Tommy is that he always told me as a co-worker ’to be blessed’ and what’s so great about that is he meant it,” Barrier Jr. said. “Having the privilege to work alongside Tommy as the tax administrator and then as county manager you saw what a great Christian example he is and genuinely displays. He will be greatly missed as a co-worker. An anyone who uses work vacations to go on mission trips to build hospitals in Africa is a great person. Tommy did that. He has accomplished so much in his professional and personal lives. I wish him the best in his future endeavors.”
Pictures Courtesy of Linda Webb Photography, Newland