The 39th Annual Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp will be held July 18-22 at Old Rock and Newland Elementary School gymnasiums in Newland

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

By Tim Gardner

How many basketball camps have clinicians and speakers that include three former professional players, two former National College Players of the Year, two former United States Olympians, one of the most successful college coaches of all time, three members of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, three former players of the year of high school from North Carolina and another notable former college player who has experience as a high school and college coach?

Tommy Burleson

Well, Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp, one of the High Country’s most anticipated sporting events every year, is coming this year.

The camp will be held from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. July 18-22 at the gymnasium at Old Rock and the adjacent Auxiliary Elementary School in Newland. In fact, the old gymnasium’s playing field is named “Tommy Burleson Court” after Avery County’s most famous athlete.

The camp cost for early registration is $50 per athlete, with a cost of $60 to register onsite 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 camp honoring the camp’s top performers.

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 the Northwestern 3-A Conference regular season and tournament championships at Avery as well as a third-place finish in the state tournament in his junior season (1968–69).

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

In his greatest sporting milestone, Burleson played on the 1972 United States Olympic team.

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

After his college career, Burleson played professionally in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp is run in conjunction with the Avery County Department of Parks and Recreation, 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 the fundamentals, help them develop and hone their 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 of course, coming from Avery County.

It is open to any male or female in grades one through nine.

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

“I firmly believe that my camp will be a fun and rewarding experience for every participant,” Burleson said. “Our staff takes a personal interest in each camper to help them improve their game. I believe those who attend camp will continue to improve as players.

The camp staff each year includes some of the most well-known and successful players and coaches in college basketball history. In addition to Burleson, Camp 2022 staff will include:

*David Thompson, widely acclaimed as the greatest player in ACC history and one of the best in college history, is one of only two ACC players to be a three-time All-American by consensus and three-time ACC national player. Year (Ralph Sampson of Virginia is the other). Thompson was also the 1974 National Championship Final Four Most Valuable Player and was the No. 1 pick of both American Basketball Association (Virginia Squires) and the National Basketball Association (Atlanta Hawks) in the 1975 draft of both leagues. He eventually signed with the ABA Denver nuggets.

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

David Thompson with a net draped around his neck after NC State beat Marquette 76-64 to win the 1974 National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) national championship.
David Thomas soars through the air to grab a rebound against Maryland in the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament Championship. Thompson’s NC State team beat Maryland 103-100 in overtime in what many observers call it 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 the NBA and was an assistant coach to iconic coach Dean Smith at the 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 the University of North Carolina Tar Heel.

*Hugh Durham, widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time, who recorded 634 wins as head coach of 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 (82-77) upset victory over the Superstar Michael Jordan and the defending national champion from North Carolina.

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

Coach Hugh Durham watches a Georgia game while kneeling before his players and staff.
Hugh Durham, former head coach of the University of Georgia, Florida State University and the University of Jacksonville.

* Phil Spence – Another Burleson teammate at NC State University, Spence was a key contributor to the 1973-74 national championship team.

A striker, Spence played for junior college powerhouse Vincennes. He then transferred to NC State and, as a sophomore, helped the Wolfpack break UCLA’s streak of seven consecutive national titles.

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

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

Along with 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 Olympic 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: Kansas City Kings, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. He was also 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.

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

These players, coaches and support associates join Burleson to round out the camp’s core faculty, giving attendees first-hand insight and training from those who know best 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 look forward to being there every year,” Thompson said. “The camp always has very good players who love the game, have a good work ethic and are fully dedicated to becoming the best players they can be. The Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp is such an important and meaningful event for Avery County and the region and I encourage anyone who can attend to do so.

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

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