RALEIGH, N.C. — Tommy Burleson is 62 years old, still lives in Newland, N.C., still is the tallest man in Avery County.
David Thompson is 59 and lives in Charlotte, N.C. He still plays basketball, still has hops, still can dunk.
Monte Towe, 60, is an assistant basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State. Tim Stoddard, 61, is the pitching coach for the Northwestern baseball team.
“When I look in the mirror these days, I see a bald head and gray hair,” Stoddard said. “But the memories are still fresh, still make me feel young.”
Memories of N.C. State, of 1974, of a special time.
Forty years ago, they were a part of one of the best college basketball teams ever. The Wolfpack, coached by fiery Norman Sloan, was 30-1 in the 1973-1974 season. When it ended, the Wolfpack was No. 1, the national champion.
Better than UCLA. Better than Maryland and North Carolina and the rest in the ACC. The best.
Thompson was everybody’s All-American, the national player of the year, a great leaper but so fluid and explosive at 6-foot-4. Burleson was a 7-2 tower of emotion and energy in the post, and Towe a 5-7 dynamo at point guard.
Stoddard, a 6-7 forward, was a big man with soft hands and a solid, all-around game. Morris Rivers, a transfer to N.C. State, was a smooth combo guard, and Raleigh’s Phil Spence offered rebounding and defensive help off the bench.
“David Thompson was one of the five best college basketball players ever,” said former CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer. “Tommy Burleson was 7-2 or 7-4 or whatever and he was a senior, something that doesn’t exist in college basketball anymore. Players like that go early to the pros.
“Monte Towe by himself was not as great an individual player as other players on great teams. But with the style of play on that N.C. State team, with the two stars and the role players they had, it elevated him and he was perfect for that team.”
Packer is not sure if the Wolfpack could have beaten the Lew Alcindor teams at UCLA in the late 1960s or could match the Bill Russell teams at San Francisco in the 1950s. Indiana in 1976, he pointed out, was undefeated.
“But it had two great players, and the combination of players on that team was better than the individual parts,” Packer said. “It was a team with juniors and seniors and didn’t have weaknesses. It had size, it could defend, it could pass and run and score. And it had David.”
It also had Sloan, a stern taskmaster, on the bench.
“He was a vicious competitor,” Packer said of Sloan, who died in 2003. “That was his No. 1 attribute. He was a great, great competitor, whether in recruiting or coaching in a game or coaching in a season. He did not fear anyone, and his team took on that same attitude.”
For seven consecutive seasons, UCLA had been the NCAA champion, the class of college basketball. The Bruins had a legendary coach, John Wooden, and all that mystique. Playing the Wolfpack in December 1973 in St. Louis, on a neutral court, the Bruins won 84-66 even with All-American center Bill Walton in foul trouble much of the game.
There would be another meeting of the two teams later, in Greensboro, with a lot more at stake. But first would come a classic game against Maryland in the ACC tournament, and David Thompson’s scary rise and fall at Reynolds Coliseum.
It was some squad Sloan put together. As Thompson liked to put it, “People called us a circus team. We had the midget, the giant and the high-flying guy.”
Burleson said he never got a recruiting pitch from N.C. State while at Avery County High.
“Didn’t need one,” he said. “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 said he was recruited by North Carolina. He said he also had another big kid, Tom McMillen of Mansfield, Pa., calling him, trying to coax him into playing together for the Tar Heels.
“McMillen wanted me to go to Carolina so he wouldn’t have to play center,” Burleson said.
Burleson went to N.C. State and McMillen wound up at Maryland, a 6-11 forward on a team with 6-9 center Len Elmore. The most intense recruiting would come the next year, for that high flyer from Shelby who had everybody buzzing.
Eddie Biedenbach was the Wolfpack assistant coach who spent a lot of time at Thompson’s house. But the Wolfpack also was eyeing another threesome of players in the Chicago suburbs, Biedenbach said.
Junior Bridgeman, Pete Trgovich and Stoddard all were at Washington High in East Chicago, Ind. The Senators were 29-0 and won the Indiana state championship in 1971, a high school team Biedenbach still says is the best he ever saw.
“I was the third choice of that group,” Stoddard said, laughing.
Bridgeman went to Louisville and later was a first-round NBA draft pick. Trgovich, a big scorer, signed with UCLA.
“I honestly didn’t know at the time who was better, David or Pete Trgovich,” Biedenbach said. “Obviously I was wrong.
“My wife and I were married in 1970, and she told me I was spending more days with David and Pete than I was with her. I said they were better players.”
One tipping point in recruiting Thompson, Biedenbach said, may have been a basketball tip he had given Thompson years before.
“He was at a basketball camp at Gardner-Webb, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and I asked him to help show the kids the triple-threat position — being able to pass, dribble or shoot,” Biedenbach said. “He later said it was the first time he had heard of it and how I had used him to demonstrate it to the other kids and how he remembered it. It made an impression. When the recruiting began, that made it easier for me.”
Burleson said he and Thompson already had formed a personal “pact” to play together for the Wolfpack.
“Carolina was after him, but he didn’t want to play the Four Corners,” Burleson said. “He wanted more freedom in the offense. So we worked together.”
Sloan, meanwhile, was talking to one of his old friends and former teammates at N.C. State. Dick Dickey, a Wolfpack All-America for coach Everett Case in the late 1940s, said there was a guard at Oak Hill High in Converse, Ind., that Sloan needed to recruit.
Towe not only was 5-7, but also looked 14. Biedenbach said he took a look and told Sloan, “Norm, he’s awfully small.”
But a few years before, Dickey recommended the Pack sign John Mengelt, a 6-2 center from Elwood, Ind. Sloan took a pass, Mengelt went to Auburn, played in the backcourt, scored 45 points against the Pack and went on to the NBA.
Sloan swore there would not be a repeat. Towe was signed.
“Norm said, ‘Dick Dickey knows what he’s doing,’ ” Biedenbach said. “And Monte was fantastic, a great competitor.”
Rivers, a Brooklyn native, would transfer to NCSU from Gulf Coast (Fla.) Junior College. Spence, a 6-7 post player and standout at Broughton High in Raleigh, attended Vincennes (Ind.) Junior College before heading to N.C. State, and forward Greg Hawkins, a West Virginia native, transferred from Tennessee.
Also in the recruiting class with Thompson, Towe and Stoddard were guards Mark Moeller and Craig Kuszmaul.
“Both Monte and Timmy Stoddard were high school quarterbacks and both played baseball,” Biedenbach said. “They were very good athletes but also winners. Norm always said it’s not so much about size and skill and talent as how they compete, how they play with teammates. It was, ‘Do you win?’ ”
The Wolfpack won a lot. Thompson’s freshman team had one loss, at North Carolina, and the Wolfpack later avenged it with a Reynolds Coliseum rout.
Allegations about Thompson’s recruitment put the Wolfpack — and Duke — on NCAA probation for a year. Unable to participate in the NCAA tournament in the 1972-1973 season, the Wolfpack played with a “chip on its shoulder,” Towe said, went 27-0 and won the ACC championship.
“David was a miraculous player that no one could guard,” Towe said. “Tommy could hold his own against anyone. Moe (Rivers) and I held our own against the best backcourts. Timmy Stoddard was the perfect fit, having that power while being a good passer and defender.
“We were a high-scoring team, and before the shot clock, before the 3-point shot. Before dunking was allowed.”
Thompson had a 44-inch vertical leap but never dunked until the final home game of his senior season. It resulted in a technical foul, not that anyone cared.
While Thompson and Burleson earned many accolades, Sloan would say it was a team without jealousy or envy, and Stoddard agreed.
“Everyone on the team, one through 15, was treated the same,” said Stoddard, who later pitched in the major leagues. “No one thought they were better or different from the rest.”
The early loss to UCLA in December 1973 definitely stung. The “Walton Gang” had won two national titles and were favored to win another.
“That game helped us,” Towe said. “UCLA was like the Yankees, where they used to say teams were beaten before the game just looking at the Yankee pinstripes. UCLA was like that and had John Wooden. And we also didn’t play well that day.
“We used that as motivation. We knew we could play with them.”
To have another shot at UCLA, the Wolfpack needed to win the ACC tournament and was ranked No. 1 in March. Only the ACC champion advanced to the NCAA Tournament, and standing in the way in the final were the Maryland Terrapins, ranked fourth in the nation.
The Pack had beaten Maryland twice in the regular season, but Terps coach Lefty Driesell had his team amped for the tournament, for N.C. State. Their game March 9, 1974, at Greensboro Coliseum was one for the ages, one that needed overtime before the Pack won 103-100 behind Burleson’s 38 points.
“It was the only time I had cotton in my mouth,” Sloan would later say. “Maryland had a great team and was playing a great game.”
Packer was at courtside with Jim Thacker, broadcasting the game for C.D. Chesley.
“At some point near the end I looked at Jim and said, ‘I don’t want this game to end,’ ” Packer said. “He asked why and I said, ‘Someone is going to have to lose it, and I don’t want either one of these teams to lose.’
“It was the finest college game I’ve ever seen. Considering the level of competition, because of what the game meant, because of how it changed the history of the NCAA tournament, the fact it was played with juniors and seniors with great abilities, because of the games they had played before that game and the incredible buildup to it, it was the best.”
Starting the next season, the NCAA would allow more than one team from a conference to make the NCAA Tournament field. Maryland would be a second team chosen from the ACC in 1975 — at N.C. State’s expense. But in 1974, only the Wolfpack advanced.
The path seemed perfect. N.C. State was hosting the NCAA Eastern Regional at Reynolds Coliseum. The national semifinals and final were set for Greensboro.
Then, David Thompson came crashing down.
In the regional final against Pittsburgh, Thompson skied as he tried to block a shot, flipped over Spence’s shoulder and fell awkwardly to the floor, his head slamming against the hardwood. Bloodied, he had to be taken to Rex Hospital for treatment as his Wolfpack teammates were left behind to play a game that suddenly seemed meaningless.
Spence said he was scared. “I thought David was dead. I panicked, I cried, I prayed.”
Added Towe, “We played, but we played with tears in our eyes.”
Thompson later returned to Reynolds, a bandage wrapped around his head and with 15 stitches but otherwise OK, and it was a cathartic moment for everyone. The game briefly stopped as players from both teams rushed over to Thompson.
“To see him walk back in,” Towe said. “He was such a great person, and we were such a close team. We all had to hug him.”
The Wolfpack won, and UCLA awaited in the NCAA semifinals. Another chance.
It took two overtimes, it took a comeback, it took great games from nearly everyone in Wolfpack red. But N.C. State beat UCLA 80-77, finally sealing the victory on two free throws by Towe.
Only Marquette, coached by Al McGuire, was left to beat, and the Wolfpack topped the Warriors 76-64. All that was left then was to return to Raleigh the next day for a celebration that had Reynolds, once Ev Case’s showcase, rocking.
And now 40 years have passed. Sloan is gone. Gone, too, are Wooden and McGuire.
“You know, every year someone comes up with a list of ‘best teams ever’ and we’re in there somewhere,” Towe said. “We had two seasons in the ACC undefeated. We won Big Four tournament titles and ACC titles and played with all the pressure of only one team going to the NCAAs. Maryland was great and we beat them. Carolina was great and we beat them. UCLA was great and we beat them.
“I know I’m biased, but I think we were one of the best of all time. We could hold our own with anyone.”