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39th Annual Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp to be Held July 18-22 at Old Rock and Newland Elementary School Gymnasiums in Newland

Perhaps the most famous basketball player to ever come out of the North Carolina Mountains and founder of the Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp, this Avery County native shoots a free throw for North Carolina State University during his playing career there in the early 1970s.

By Tim Gardner

How many basketball camps have clinicians and lecturers that include three former professional players, two former college National Players of The Year, two former United States Olympians, one of the winningest college coaches ever, three College Basketball Hall of Famers, three former North Carolina High School Players of The Year and another standout former college player who has both high school and college coaching experience?

Tommy Burleson

Well, the Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp, one of the High Country’s most annually anticipated sports events, will have this year.

The camp will be held from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon from July 18 to 22 at the Old Rock and adjacent auxiliary elementary school gymnasiums in Newland. In fact, the former gymnasium’s playing floor is named “Tommy Burleson Court” in honor of Avery County’s most famous athlete ever. 

The camp’s cost for early registration is $50 per athlete, with a cost of $60 to register on-site on the first day of camp. All campers will receive a Tommy Burleson /Avery County Parks and Recreation T-Shirt and an awards ceremony will be held on the last day of the camp honoring the top players at the camp.

The camp was founded in 1983 by Burleson, the legendary basketball star whose athletic resume includes being an All-American center at Newland and Avery County High Schools and North Carolina State University.  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).  

The North Carolina High Country’s Tommy Burleson poses in his North Carolina State University basketball uniform.

In his biggest sports milestone, Burleson played on the 1972 United States Olympics team. 

Then, along with his fellow-star players, forward David Thompson and point guard Monte Towe, Burleson helped lead the N.C. State Wolfpack to an undefeated (27-0) season in 1972-73 and a 30-1 record and the national championship the following season (1973-’74), when the Wolfpack beat defending National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) champion, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) 80-77 in double overtime enroute to the national title (a 76-64 win over Marquette in the finals). Those seasons included Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season titles with unbeaten (12-0) records and league tournament titles and the best two-year record (57-1) in the 69-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Following his collegiate career, Burleson played professionally in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp is held in collaboration with the Avery County Parks and Recreation Department, which is under the direction of Robbie Willis and his assistants, Teddy Bare, Brandon Campbell and River Willis.  It is in its 39th year and has been held continuously since 1983, except in 2020, when it was suspended that year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

The camp is designed to teach players fundamentals, help them develop and hone individual skills offensively and defensively and instill the confidence that all young players should acquire in order to increase their basketball potential. It is considered an educational opportunity in athletics.

More than 75 fifty male and female players usually attend the camp.  It often consists of players from Watauga and Mitchell counties as well as some from out-of-state, with the majority, or course, coming from Avery County.

It is open to any male or female in the first through the ninth grade of school.

Each five-day session will be crammed with the kind of hands-on teaching that will make a difference in the players’ game. From beginning to end, campers will be exposed to a high level of intense basketball instruction and motivation that benefits beginners and experienced players alike.

“I believe very strongly that my camp will be a fun and learning experience for each participant,” Burleson said.  “Our staff takes a personal interest in each camper to help them improve their game. I believe those who participate in the camp will keep improving as players.”

The camp’s staff annually includes some of the most well-known and successful players and coaches in college basketball history. In addition to Burleson, the 2022 camp’s staff will feature: 

*David Thompson, widely acclaimed as the greatest player in ACC history and one of the best in collegiate history, is one of only two players from the ACC to be a three-time consensus All-American and a three-time National Player of the Year (Virginia’s Ralph Sampson is the other). 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 with the ABA’s Denver Nuggets

The alley-oop pass, now a staple of college basketball’s high-flying, above-the-rim game, was “invented” by Thompson and Towe.  It was first used as an integral part of the Wolfpack’s offense by legendary N.C. State head coach Norman Sloan to take advantage of Thompson’s phenomenal leaping ability (his vertical jump was 48 inches or 4-feet) and Towe’s knack for making precision passes. 

David Thompson with a net draped around his neck after N.C. State defeated Marquette 76-64 to win the 1974 National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) National Championship.
David Thomas soars in the air to grab a rebound against Maryland in the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament Championship. Thompson’s N. C. State team beat Maryland 103-100 in overtime in what many observers call the greatest game ever played.

*Phil Ford, a two-time All-American for the University of North Carolina and the 1978 National Player of The Year, who also coached in the NBA and 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.

Ford is generally considered the best point guard in ACC history.

Phil Ford during his playing career as a University of North Carolina Tar Heel.

*Hugh Durham, generally regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all- time, who recorded 634 wins as head coach at the University of Georgia and Florida State and Jacksonville Universities. After a stellar playing career at FSU, Durham coached Florida State to the 1972 National Championship game and Georgia to the 1983 Eastern Regional Championship with a major upset victory (82-77) over superstar Michael Jordan and defending National Champion North Carolina.

Durham is the first coach to ever lead two schools—the University of Georgia and Florida State—to their only appearance in the NCAA Tournament Final Four.

Coach Hugh Durham observes a Georgia game while kneeling in front of his players and staff.
Former University of Georgia, Florida State University and Jacksonville University Head Basketball Coach Hugh Durham.

*Phil Spence- Another teammate of Burleson’s at N.C. State University, Spence was a key contributor on the 1973-74 national championship team.

A forward, Spence played for junior college power Vincennes. He then transferred to N.C. State and as a sophomore helped the Wolfpack break UCLA’s string of seven straight national titles. 

Spence was drafted in the 6th round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. He later became an accomplished high school and college head coach–21 seasons on the prep level in North Carolina and several more as head coach of North Carolina Central University.

Also assisting at this year’s Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp will be Gunner Garrett, a standout player for Gate City, VA High School.  Robbie and River Willis, Bare and Campbell will also work in various capacities at the camp.  Some players from Avery County High School men’s and women’s teams also often assist with the camp.

Besides playing for the Denver Nuggets, Thompson also played professionally for the Seattle Supersonics as did Burleson.  Additionally, Burleson played for the Kansas City Kings, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. 

Like Burleson, Ford played on the 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).

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.

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

Also, Burleson, Thompson and Ford were each named North Carolina High School Player of The Year their senior years of high school.

These players, coaches and support associates join Burleson to complete the nucleus of the camp’s instructional corps, giving participants first-hand insight and training from those who best know what it takes to help them improve their game and win in highly-competitive atmospheres.

“I’ve been a clinician and counselor at Tommy’s camp for many years and I look forward to it each year,” said Thompson. “The camp always has some very good players who love the game, have good work ethics and fully devote themselves to becoming the best players they can be.  The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp is such a worthwhile and milestone event for Avery County and the region and I encourage all who can attend it to do so.”

For further information about the Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp, phone the Avery Parks and Recreation Department at: (828) 733-8266.