The office of the Avery County (N.C.) director of inspections
and planning reveals no hint of sports celebrity until the
director, Tom Burleson, enters the room, ducking his head
beneath the lintel of the seven-foot door frame. Unimpressed by
his basketball fame, the 7'4" Burleson explains that he has
spent his life endeavoring to fit in. "I know what I've done,
who I've met, where I've been," says Burleson, 48. "So why would
I need to turn my office into a museum?"
When Burleson appeared on SI's cover at age 19, he had yet to
play a varsity game at North Carolina State. He would justify the
hype by earning a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and, with
David Thompson, carrying the Wolfpack to the NCAA championship in
'74. Burleson is best known for his 38 points and 13 rebounds in
the '74 ACC Tournament final, a 103-100 overtime win against
Maryland that many hoops mavens consider the most epic battle in
the history of the college game (SI, March 8, 1999). Afterward
Terps coach Lefty Driesell stopped in the N.C. State locker room,
shook Burleson's hand and said, "Son, that's the greatest game
I've seen a big man play."
The third player chosen in the 1974 NBA draft, Burleson played
seven modest seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, Kansas City
Kings and Atlanta Hawks before a knee injury ended his pro
career. Then in '82, Burleson, who had traveled to 17 countries
during his basketball career, returned home to the tiny Blue
Ridge Mountain town of Newland, N.C., where he lives with his
wife, Denise, and their three sons, Robert, 17, David, 15, and
Quentin, 10, not far from the farm on which Tom spent his
boyhood. Burleson was operating an electrical supply store and
growing Christmas trees on his Uncle June's farm in the early
'90s when his desire to help children in the community led him to
run for county commissioner. He has proven so adept a public
servant--overseeing school construction and a parks and recreation
grant--that the state Republican party has courted him, so far in
vain, to run for higher office. "Tommy's just a good ol' country
boy at heart," says his college coach, Norm Sloan, whose visits
with Burleson prompted his own move to Newland 11 years ago.
"He's as humble as the day I recruited him."
Once in a while the rare local who has never heard of Burleson
stops by his office and is stunned to encounter a man so giant
that his desk rests upon six-inch stilts. "Sometimes they'll tell
me, 'Gosh, you're so tall, you should've played basketball,'"
Burleson says. "I tell them, 'Yeah, that would've been
his old coach and neighbor.