The barn where 7'4" Tommy Burleson began playing basketball now lies in stony, splintered rubble, but the aged rim and backboard remain, although removed to the front yard of the clapboard house. Like the Indian arrowheads scattered about the mountain property of his home near rural Newland, N.C., they are artifacts of a time past, when Tommy and his older sister played one-on-one—and Tommy lost.
Burleson was a 6'8" high school freshman when he finally began to defeat Connie regularly. Now the North Carolina State sophomore is the biggest player in the land, and Connie is no longer in his class. Nor are many other people.
Not long ago there was another opinion of Burleson that sought to relegate him to the order of stumbling, fumbling giants. Burleson fears the notion may still exist, but his credentials as the leading rebounder (14.7) and second leading scorer (21.8) in the Atlantic Coast Conference obviously suggest otherwise. "A lot of people think I'm a big clod," he said a month ago, before his basketball figures got even better. "They think I just stand around and act big."
If they really do, they really are wrong. This shy mountain teen-ager has been playing better sooner than almost anyone expected him to. Twice last month he totaled more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game. On two other occasions he scored in the 30s. All of this came about not simply because he towered over opponents but because he moved well, showed an assortment of short-range shots and tenaciously chased down rebounds, looking at times like a guard.
Burleson's development in North Carolina State's 10-7 season has brought its moments of despair, as one might have expected of a 19-year-old. In an early-season loss to North Carolina he showed all the effectiveness of a beanstalk. "He was never in the game," Coach Norman Sloan said later. "He didn't know what to do."
As recently as last week, in a 66-65 loss to Maryland, Burleson proved he still had much to learn. Although statistically impressive with 18 points and 13 rebounds in 31 minutes, he let himself be intimidated by the Terrapins' muscular Len Elmore. "He was too concerned with the physical treatment he was getting," said Sloan. "Had he just played his game Elmore would have drawn the fouls."
Such inconsistencies can be attributed less to Burleson's size than to his basketball background, which, by today's standards, was disadvantaged. Home was, and still is, Avery County, where he is as much a local attraction as the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights that have inexplicably flickered since anyone can remember. When he goes back to the quiet, uncomplicated repose of Newland, he rides the winding roads of what locals claim is the world's only dry resort (although moonshining has been known to exist) and around this bend and down that lane accepts the warm greetings of occasional townspeople. While skiing is the new local industry, the locals industriously ignore it, preferring instead high school athletics. The trouble is, until Tommy Burleson started attracting inquiries from 300 colleges, there was not much to be said for the quality of basketball played in the region. That Burleson became at all proficient at the game with so little competition is mainly the responsibility of his father, Loren, a former high school and amateur player who encouraged his son because he considered sport the proper pastime for his children. "It keeps them off the roads," he says. If the success of Tommy or Connie (a high school star herself) is insufficient proof of the game's worth, Loren can pull out pictures of the entire family of six playing in the barn.
People were claiming Tommy was going to be a star when he was in the eighth grade, but all Burleson can recall is a succession of nine-point and four-rebound games and a feeling that he might never escape the mountains. He was ridiculed for his gawkishness when he attended a basketball camp run by a college coach of the area.
But Tommy persevered, ever careful to avoid the low barn rafters with his jump shot and, at his father's insistence, juggling oranges and grapefruits to improve his hands. He became a good high school player despite refusing to take full advantage of his physical ability, allowing his opponents to jab, shove and harass him, as they do today. "It really got to me one night," he recalls. "I broke a guy's nose. I caught him with a quick elbow when nobody was looking. It was a great move."
Burleson has matured past the point of unsophisticated retaliation, but the Maryland game is proof of his vulnerability to physical abuse. Doctors recently told him that his upward growth has ended. Now his narrow 230-pound frame can broaden to the point that intimidating players will become intimidated.