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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Are You Ready for Some Football?

Ryan Whelan (3) pushes the ball ahead for the Golden Knights on Sunday against the Storm. (Phillip Greene Photo)

Ryan Whelan (3) pushes the ball ahead for the Golden Knights on Sunday against the Storm. (Phillip Greene Photo)

The wait is over.  After weeks of anticipation, the Carolina Golden Knights got their inaugural season underway on Sunday afternoon; taking on the Burke County Storm in their first NSAFL (North South American Football League) action.  Months of preparation, hours of man-power, and lots of heart have gone into getting the Golden Knights prepared for this season; and it was gratifying to see them take the field as a team in their first action as an organized club.

Team Director and Starting QB, Stephen Whittington stated during the contest, “We did it.  I’m proud of these guys for the work they’ve put in.”  Whittington in a statement earlier in the week had said, “From where we started in January, looking back on everything these guys have done to get us here, from the money they have invested to the hours of lost family time they have given in practice, no matter what the score reads Sunday evening I am proud to be a part of this team and just by taking the field Sunday when so many said It would never happen, to me they have already won.”

Whittington echoed those sentiments on Sunday when the Knights finally took to the gridiron to face off against the Burke Storm from Drexel.  The game was nip/tuck for the first few minutes of action, with neither defense willing to give in to the offensive pressure being provided on both sides of the field.  The Storm took the opening kick and started driving, but on the third play from scrimmage, Kyle Burris from Yancey County was able to pull down the interception for the Knights near mid-field.  Minutes later the Storm would get the ball back, but were unable to move down the field…and were forced to punt.  The punt pinned the Knights deep in their own territory, and a fumbled snap recovered in the endzone put the Burke Storm up 7-0 following the extra point.

The Knights would again attack, and would keep the Storm at bay for a while, but a great play for the Storm found a wide open receiver streaking down the sideline and catching the ball in the endzone to put the Storm up 13-0.  It would stay that way for the remainder of the half.

At the break the crowd had filled in nicely along the banks at the Cranberry Complex, and the Knights were finally getting a much needed break.  The Knights had only been able to fully complete two or three padded practices during their preparation…leaving them at a slight disadvantage on the field, as their opponent had already gotten a game under their belts.  The second half started out strong with both teams struggling at first, but a couple of key turnovers and the Storm had a 28-0 lead on the Knights.

Team Director and Quarterback Stephen Whittington (#13) drops back for pass during Sunday's contest (Phillip Greene Photo)

Team Director and Quarterback Stephen Whittington (#13) drops back for pass during Sunday's contest (Phillip Greene Photo)

In the final stanza the Knights had fought diligently, but the Storm was able to capitalize against the Knight defense with just over 9 minutes remaining in the contest, putting in another score to boost the score to 34-0.  Joe Buchanan would keep it at 34, blocking the extra point attempt; the Knight’s second of the game, keeping the Storm from adding to their lead.  A final surge and the Storm would again cross the goal line, putting up their final score of the day and pushing the margin to 41-0 at the final whistle.

There were many positives that came out of Sunday’s contest, not the least of which was the crowd that showed up in support of the High Country’s newest sports team.  The team has worked hard to get to the point they are at, putting much of their own time and plenty of their own funds into getting the equipment and field maintenance taken care of.  Congratulations to Steve and the rest of the boys on their success of getting this team started and we’re looking forward to what is in store over the next few weeks.  The Knights’ next contest will be Saturday, June 20, at 6 PM in Kernersville against the Carolina Renegades.  They will return home on June 27, as they host the Catawba Hornets, at the Athletic Complex at Old Cranberry High School