When Tommy Burleson of Newland in Avery County, N.C., appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine on Nov. 29, 1971, he was 19 and yet to play a varsity basketball game at North Carolina State University.
The 1971-72 college season was being touted by the magazine as “the year of the new giants,” with Burleson, measuring 7-foot-4, expected to lead the way.
Burleson said his actual height was 7-foot-2, but Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan “stretched” him two more inches so Burleson could be listed as the tallest player in American basketball. “It would bring a lot of good exposure to Tommy and the school,” Sloan said. The ploy worked.
Burleson told Chip Alexander of The (Raleigh) News & Observer: “I was in 4-H and grew up in Future Farmers of America. I had the agricultural background. I knew I was going to N.C. State.”
Burleson was the only senior starter on the Wolfpack’s 1974 NCAA championship team. The other four starters were juniors – Monte Towe, Tim Stoddard, David Thompson and Moe Rivers.
“Thompson was everybody’s All-American, the national player of the year, a great leaper but so fluid and explosive at 6-foot-4,” Alexander wrote. “Burleson was a tower of emotion and energy in the post, and Towe was a 5-foot-7 dynamo point guard.”
“People called us a circus team,” Thompson said. “We had the midget, the giant and the high-flying guy.”
Burleson gets credit for “recruiting” Thompson out of Crest High School in Shelby, N.C. Burleson said he and Thompson had formed a personal “pact” to play together for the Wolfpack.
“(North) Carolina was after him, but David didn’t want to play ‘four corners,’” Burleson told Alexander. “He wanted more freedom in the offense.”
(The “four corners offense” was popularized by Dean Smith, coach at the University of North Carolina. The “Basketball for Coaches Guide” says: “Four corners was commonly used as a delay offense before a 45-second shot clock was introduced in the 1985-86 season. In fact, offenses like this one are the main reason that the shot clock was introduced to the game of basketball.”)
Thompson and Towe came up with their own “special play,” called the “alley-oop.” It was far more exciting for the fans to watch than “four corners” dribbling. Towe would lob the ball toward the basket, and Thompson would soar out of nowhere to snatch the pass above the rim and tenderly lay it into the basket.
Dunking the ball was illegal in those days, but no one could guard Thompson on an alley-oop, with his vertical leap of 44 inches – to match his jersey number. (Sloan said Thompson’s jump was 46 inches).
If the opposition would overplay Towe, forward Tim Stoddard would take on the chore of setting up the high-flying Thompson.
“He jumped as high as it was necessary,” Wolfpack assistant coach Eddie Biedenbach told sports columnist Ron Morris. “I swear, sometimes, in practice and in games, it was remarkable how high he would get up and control the ball. His equilibrium was even more fantastic. You’d sit there and just shake your head thinking, how did this happen?”
The no-dunk rule might have cost Thompson “some creativity when it came to completing the alley-oop, but it also enhanced the artistic nature of what became ‘a mid-air’ ballet,” Morris wrote.
“He became the basketball version of the ‘Flying Wallendas’ of circus fame.”
Thompson was nicknamed “Skywalker” as a professional player in Denver. CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger coined the term.