Honoring a Legend: Tommy Burleson

Twelve years ago the process began between County officials and the Avery Parks and Recreation Department to save the Historic Newland Gymnasium rather than demolish it.  That project has taken close to 12 years thus far and through State grants and private funding, those who have been instrumental in the process are seeing the fruition of their labors.

At the start of December, the gym floor was renovated, becoming the next step to finally seeing the facility getting closer to the days when Newland High School played their home games in the Rock Gym.  The Rock Gym has seen its share of players come through, as well as its share of stories.

From the building of the Gym in 1930s by the Work Progress Administration (WPA), started in 1935 and ended in 1941, developed to boost the economy in the recession.  The WPA helped build a number of schools and gyms, as well as both sewing factories in the County.  The Newland Gym was part of a number of County Schools that were built by the WPA to help boost the areas education and work force.

The athletic history of the gym dates back to the Old Newland High School and Elementary School, and served as home for the Newland High teams.  The Gym now serves as the home of the Avery County Parks and Recreation Department offices and workout facility, as well as housing the APRD league sports that take place throughout the year.

One of the biggest athletes (no pun intended) to ever go through the Avery County School System is Tommy Burleson.  Burleson made a name as the 7’4” center that dominated ACC Basketball in the early ‘70s, and most notably, helped to lead the NC State Wolfpack to a National Championship in 1974.  Burleson’s defense in the National Semifinal against Bill Walton was instrumental in ending UCLA’s streak of 7 straight National Titles, and propelled the ‘Pack into the finals against Marquette.

Along with his 1974 National Title, Burleson also earned a number of personal accolades throughout his career.  He was named All-ACC three times and All-American twice for his accomplishments on the court.  He was also a member of the 1972 USA Olympic team and the Gold Medal winning 1973 USA World University team.

Burleson was then selected as the 3rd overall pick by the Seattle Supersonics in the 1974 draft.  He went on to play eight seasons in the NBA, being known as one of the most prolific shot blockers in the game.  His eight year career took him through Seattle, Kansas City (Kings) and Atlanta (Hawks).

But Burleson’s heart has always been with the youth of this community, and that sparked his interest in becoming a County Commissioner, and one of the leading figures in the restoration process of the Old Newland Gymnasium.

“Tommy did a lot of the leg work,” remarked Teddy Bare, Athletic Director for APRD.  “A lot of people don’t realize the work that he put into getting this process started.”

A process that Burleson had vested interests in…a process that was almost halted in the mid 1970s when the Commissioners were to tear down the facility.   The Commissioners were convinced not to destroy the facility, but they did not have enough funds to restore the facility either, leaving it untouched for years.

This is where the influence of Burleson was seen, behind the scenes.  Burleson applied for a grant from the State to aid in the preservation of the historical landmark, and thanks to his work and private donations, along with some strategically minded budgeting; the gym is seeing the final stages come into play.

“We were able to finally get the floor redone,” remarked Bare, “and we decided the timing was right to do something we felt needed to be done; a token of our appreciation for the work that was done to get this gym to where it is today.”

That token, the naming of the floor as “Tommy Burleson Court”.

“Tommy was very instrumental in all of this,” continued Bare.  “I’ve worked with him on Camps and seen the work he does, not many people realize the work he does behind the scenes.  He has a real passion for the youth of this community.”

“It’s an honor,” stated Burleson.  “Sometimes you just have to step back and say thank you to the one’s that got you there.  I feel honored that the County Officials thought of me in this way, especially the County Commissioners.

“I have a passion for youth,” continued Burleson, “I have always tried to be a halfway decent role model for the youth.  Anything that I can do to help bring them up in a great atmosphere, I will.  I would like most of all to thank God for all the opportunities that He has blessed me with; my family, who has always supported me, and just the people of Avery County for the family type closeness that we all share.”

“We still have some things to finish,” explained Bare.  “There is still some work to be done, but the work that has been done couldn’t have been done without the work of Tommy and a number of members of the community.”

The Rock Gym is open daily from 6 AM to 9 PM (Mon – Thurs) and 6 AM – 4 PM (Friday).  If you are planning on playing ball, they do ask that you wear only sneakers on the floor, and preferably shoes that have not been on your feet.  The Parks and Recreation Department is planning to dedicate the new floor once youth league basketball starts in the next few weeks; we will pass along the dates as they become available.

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