NOVEMBER 29, 1971
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 New-land, 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 nice.