Friday, December 5, 2014

Down From the Mountains, Above the Treetops

We always have a seven-foot Christmas tree.

We know this because ever since my wife and I moved back to the Triangle in 1994, we have bought our annual Fraser fir at a grassy open lot on Cary’s Kildaire Farm Road. That’s where, since 1992, former NC State basketball All-American Tommy Burleson—all 7-feet, 2-inches of him—and his three sons have sold trees they grow on their farm in the North Carolina mountains.

For five weeks, starting at Thanksgiving, either Burleson, his sons or one of their farm hands are at the lot, trimming trees and loading them up on the cars of loyal customers and a fresh crop of newbies who wonder what the story is with the guy who is taller most of the trees he sells.

During their five-week selling season, someone stays on site in a small camper in the back of the lot. They are next to a church and a hospital, so they aren’t too worried about what might happen. Tommy returns home to Avery County, where he’s the head of the planning commission, but comes back every weekend with a fresh load of trees to check on business and sometimes to catch a Wolfpack basketball game.

Ever since our first son was born in 2002, we’ve taken our kids to have their picture taken with Mr. Burleson; they look forward to it as much as seeing Santa.

It’s always breath-taking to watch him pick up our tree and place it down on top of our SUV.
The other day, we stopped to get our tree on the way home from the NC State-UNC football game. Tommy’s whole family—sons Robert, David and Quentin and his wife Denise—were there, and we reveled in the big football win. It was pretty eye-opening that our oldest kid, not yet a teenager, is chest high to Burleson.

He’s always been tall for his age.

Tommy’s known for playing basketball, of course: in the Olympics, in college and in the NBA. Coached by Norm Sloan, inspired by fans and driven by the desire to be the best center in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Burleson helped NC State win two ACC titles and the 1974 NCAA championship. Sure, he got assistance from his best friend, All-American David Thompson, and point guard Monte Towe, but Burleson was the centerpiece Sloan began with when he built one of the best teams in college basketball history.

Burl is one of only four players in ACC men’s basketball history to win back-to-back Everett Case Awards as the most outstanding player in the ACC Tournament, and his 38 points and 13 rebounds in the 1974 tournament championship game against Maryland and Len Elmore might still be the best game ever played by an ACC big man.

But this isn’t a basketball story. Burleson doesn’t sell his home-grown trees because he needs the money, even though he had some agent-related financial troubles after he his professional basketball career ended in 1981. He doesn’t sell them to pay for his professional speed boat racing career, death-defying hobby he picked up after his on the court were over. And he doesn’t do it to fuel his time at the poker table, though he’s something of a cardsharp too. Last fall, he won first place—and more than $10,000—in a World Series of Poker No-Limit Hold ‘em Tournament he and his son David entered on a lark in Indiana.

Tommy sells trees to help his friends in Malawi. He raises thousands each year to pay for travel expenses to the impoverished landlocked country in southeastern Africa, one of the world’s least developed countries, with a low life expectancy and a high infant mortality rate.

He sneaks across the border from Ethiopia, then folds his 48-inch legs into a minibus to take medical supplies—mostly aspirin and antibiotics—to the town of Nkhoma, where Presbyterian missionary Barbara Nagy of Morganton, North Carolina, is a resident physician specializing in prenatal care, at the  local hospital. She’s part of a long line of missionaries from that denomination who have been in Malawi since David Livingstone first arrived there in 1859.

(Sneak? How does a giant who has towered head-and-shoulders over everyone he knows except Bill Walton his entire life sneak anywhere? Well, a bazooka and a crisp salute helps.)

Since 2005, Burleson has made one or two annual trips to Malawi with 10 other volunteers from Fletcher Presbyterian Church in Newland, North Carolina, on behalf of the Tommy Burleson Christian Evangelistic Ministries, his newly minted 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

Nagy has been at the hospital, which was built by missionaries in 1915, for the last decade, after working for years in western North Carolina and as a missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She first elicited Burleson’s help in 2004, and he’s been one of her biggest supporters ever since. The hospital gets about 80 percent of its support from 51 churches in the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, but Burleson’s foundation and others such as Franklin Graham’s Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse help provide other support.

“It was a little rugged the first time we went,” Burleson admits. “We had outhouses and mostly outside facilities. I got an intestinal virus the first time I went.”

There was also an outbreak of viral meningitis on that first trip, something that could be treated with the Amoxicillin Burleson and his resource team had packed in their Actionpacker cargo boxes.

“We were saving lives within 15 minutes after we got there,” Burleson says.

In the decade since, the resource team has added 100 meters to the hospital’s men’s ward, 75 meters to the women’s ward, an updated pediatric unit, a new surgical theater and other hand-built first-world improvements. The Malawi government also has awarded Burleson the rights to operate 10 health clinics in the country, of which five are now complete.

“We’ve gone from serving a population of about 30,000 to covering more than 250,000,” Burleson says.

Burleson and his foundation have also helped educate some of the kids of the village. Currently, he’s funding scholarships for four electricians who signed contracts to work at the hospital for five years after they receive their degrees.

Tommy has raised money with low-cost basketball camps and clinics for decades. He’s had bowling tournaments that included many of his friends from the world of basketball. But his primary fundraiser is selling the trees he’s grown on his farm in the mountains.

At 62, Burleson says he’s within a year or so of retirement from his county planner job in Avery County. He’d like to spend even more time raising money for his foundation and doing even more good work in Malawi.

So if you need a fresh-cut fir this year, go see Tommy or one of his sons in Cary. Most all of their trees are seven feet or taller.

You can easily tell.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Have We Gotten Ourselves Into?

The day he was hired, Jim Valvano put on a show. As usual.
He flew in from New York on a private Lear jet.

He brought with him, not surprisingly, his own reporter to cover the events of the day.

And in a room full of media—a veritable braintrust of ACC basketball knowledge—he quickly won over a crowd that, for more than a decade, had been openly called the “Worm Brigade” by his predecessor.

That’s how Jim Valvano arrived in Raleigh on March 27, 1980, to begin the circus of his NC State coaching career.

Recently, an author contacted me to do some research for his upcoming book about the golden age of ACC hoops and I found a bunch of clips that had been tucked away some years ago. One batch was from Valvano’s inaugural press conference, and it only reinforces why the Eye-talian coach from Queens became a beloved figure here in the South, long before he devolved into a pariah in the book/academic scandal of the late 1980s and resurrected himself as a hero in his fight against cancer.

That early spring day almost 35 years ago was magnificent, a bit more raucous than the press conference two weeks earlier in which Duke introduced its straight-laced new coach, 33-year-old Mike Krzyzewski of Army.

As was his wont, Valvano told some whoopers that day – about changing flights in Charlotte, about being a co-owner of a bar in New Rochelle—but he certainly got off on the right foot with the collected media, which was quite a stew of hospitality room philosophers and North Carolina newspaper luminaries.

They liked him as soon as he walked by the photo corps and said: “I’ll take a dozen 8x10s, please.”

To set things straight: he flew from New Rochelle to Raleigh on a private jet with NC State assistant coach Marty Fletcher, a holdover from Norm Sloan’s staff, and Al Mari, a writer from New York’s Gannett News Service, for which Valvano wrote a weekly basketball column. (Probably not a coincidence: Four months after Valvano arrived in Raleigh, with his blessings and those of new football coach Monte Kiffin, Stu Coman began publishing “The Wolfpacker,” a newspaper covering Wolfpack athletics and featuring a column by Valvano in each issue.)

At the time, Valvano also had a cable access coaches show before most the rest of the country had cable television, 10 weeks of summer basketball camp and an outside income of more than double his base salary at Iona—a cool $35,000 per year.

Valvano, 34, told the gathered people that he was part owner of two bar-restaurants, one of which was called “The Fonz,” where fans and players came by after games to see the coach, adorned in an apron, serve Amaretto sours and lead everyone in singing. He walked back those claims pretty quickly when it was suggested that the “The Fonz” was a place where local gamblers hung out, as well as agent Paul Corvino, whose illegal signing of Iona star Jeff Ruland got Valvano in trouble with the NCAA before he ever coached a game for the Wolfpack.

Few may remember it, but Valvano was not the first choice to replace Sloan, despite what the people on the search committee called the greatest in-person interview they had ever participated in. It had happened two weeks before in Washington.

The first choice of athletics director Willis Casey was Morgan Wootten, the famed coach of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. On the day Valvano was introduced, Casey so vehemently denied that Wootten had ever been extended an offer that it absolutely had to be true. Casey did say four college coaches had been interviewed for Sloan’s vacancy, and they were thought to be Valvano, Bill Foster of Clemson, Tom Young of Rutgers and Jack Hartman of Kansas State.

In other words: Who?

Valvano had been a hot coaching commodity for a while. He definitely had been offered the Providence job two years before, and had been in talks with both Oklahoma and St. Louis.

“Can you see me at one of those Southern schools?” Valvano said a few years earlier. “You know, where the referees wear crewcuts and say ‘Hey, C.T., mighty fine team you got there. How’s your wife? How’s that prized pig of yours?’”

Wonder how Wendell Murphy felt about that?

Here then, is some of the raucousness of that day at the old College Inn meeting room, where Valvano was introduced underneath a Slobbering Wolf logo, without much of the “I’ve worked my whole life to get her and I couldn’t be happier” nonsense. He signed a contract worth somewhere between $40,000-$45,000, and Casey said any outside business Valvano generated was between the coach and the outside company, so he wouldn't disclose any information on a full financial package.

In attendance that day were Casey, school president Joab Thomas, assistant athletics director Frank Weedon, sports information director Ed Seaman, the  usual collection of superfans and boosters and a standing room only collection of writers and three television stations.
  • “I played very hard to get. I told them I would take a multi-week contract. And that’s what I got. I called Willis Casey back at 11:30 the other night and said ‘I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve got a wife and 2.7 children. They’d like to know if my contract is for a year, a month, if I’m getting paid, or am I paying you?’
  • “I have an average family, with 2.7 kids. My wife is pregnant. She’s working on a power forward.

  • Of his own family, with older brother Nick and younger brother Bob, he said: “I’m the one in the family that there are no pictures of."

  • Of his one-year stint as head coach of Johns Hopkins: “Most places you start two guards, two forwards and a center. I started an ophthalmologist, a gynecologist and a pediatrician, I sent in a general practitioner for the pediatrician.” (He used this line a lot over the years, but this was a new audience.)
  • Of moving to the country life North Carolina after growing up in New York City and Long Island: “I don’t fly fish. It’s tough casting into a fire hydrant.”
  • His thoughts of academics: “I’m not in the business of fouling kids up. I like to have a close relationship with my players. It’s important for players not to always see their coach in a three-piece suit. I’d like them to see them come over to my house and see my wife make me take the garbage out. Self-image is so important. I consider myself fairly intelligent. I like the theater. I like to read. I like to have conversation with the academic community. I like to feel good about me. Basketball is not my whole life. I want [my players] to understand that someday the cheering is going to stop. My job is to prepare them for that. When you get your first job at IBM, they don’t say, ‘Here comes No. 10, at left desk.’”
  • On his five years at Iona, the small Christian Brothers schools in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he guided the Gaels to 31 consecutive conference wins, two conference championships and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances while serving as men’s basketball coach and athletics director: “The last time they had won anything up there was during the French and Indian War.”
  • (On the way home, he told Mari, with a much more reflective tone: “I thank God my path and the paths of the kids at Iona crossed. We enjoyed highs together, and we suffered through some lows together. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have had two people at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. Wednesday night, we had a houseful. Iona went far beyond everyone’s expectations. They’ll still have a great team this year, but when you think about it, the coach—me—is bigger than the program. Here, the program is bigger than the coach. I had to think of the future. The trend toward league play will hurt Iona. After this year, the NCAA has a rule that states that to qualify for an NCAA bid, a team must face every team in its conference. Do you think Army will want to face Iona? Of course not. Look at St. John’s and Syracuse. Do you think those schools—the so-called big boys—want to play little Iona? No, they don’t. So they go into the Big East. What’s going to happen to Iona after this year? Will they go independent? If they do, will they get a bid? Sure—if they win 22-23 games. The five-year program there is over, and now everybody know how good Iona is. But at 34, I wanted to coach. As athletics director at Iona, I was getting bogged down in swimming problems and football helmets. Here, I was told I would coach a long time and that made me feel good.”)
  • On his enjoyment of the game: “I work 365 days for 30 nights. They’re special to me. To me, the greatest thing in the world is being introduced and running from the bench to mid-court before the game."
  • And on coaching in the shadow of Dean Smith at North Carolina, something that grated at Sloan, Duke’s Bill Foster and others who never got to share the same spotlight as the Tar Heels Hall of Fame coach: “Shadow? I’m 34 years old, have respect for everybody, but I won’t live in anyone’s shadow. I look forward to meeting him on the court, but I’m not worried about it. And I’ll tell you one more thing—I’m going to outlive him.”
It might have been the biggest laugh line of the day.

And, in retrospect, the saddest.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hurricane Hugo: "Them Deer Heads Are Hard to Come By"

Hurricane Hugo from space


I stayed up late into the night on Sept. 21, 1989, watching CNN and baking apple pies. A bunch of my friends had gone to the Rowan County Fair, but I was trying to prove to a co-worker that I could replicate my mom’s award-winning creations in the kitchen. I don’t think I succeeded.

I was too distracted by seeing Hurricane Hugo make landfall on Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Little did I know that just a few hours later, the storm would smash into the inland town where I lived and I would get my first chance to cover a real natural disaster.

I don’t pretend that what we experienced was at all similar to my friends on the South Carolina coast, where Hugo killed 35 people and caused $6 billion in damage. I never understood why the storm had to take out most of Charleston, one of America's greatest cities, and leave most of Myrtle Beach and South of the Border relatively unscathed.

At least Lowcountry residents were warned to evacuate and expecting something bad to happen that night, and voyeuristic newsies like myself were eager to watch at a time when live weather coverage of major storms was still in its infancy.

At the time, I lived in Salisbury, N.C., some 250 miles from where Hugo came ashore as a Category 4 storm near Charleston. It headed straight up I-85 at a blistering speed and was still a Category 1 storm with 89-mile-an-hour winds when it crossed the Rowan County line.

None of us had any hatches to batten down. So when the lights went out and the brick chimney in the apartment where I lives collapsed in the middle of the night, it was unexpected.

The trees were still bent and misshapen when the eye of the storm passed over and I went outside to see the damage. I was living on Fulton Street near downtown. Locals will know exactly what I mean when I say three doors down from Mrs. Hanford, where Liddy grew up.

The storm hit around 6 a.m. and the worst of it was gone in less than an hour. I was able to drive nonlinearly to the office, avoiding downed trees and live power lines, in my little red Honda. It had been a bad year already for storms in North Carolina. That spring, an F4 tornado tore through my hometown of Vale, killing four people and taking out an eight-mile swath in the landscape.

The funny thing was, I showed up to a mostly empty newsroom. There were two other sportswriters, Steve Phillips and Horace Billings, and two or three news reporters and a couple of layout artists. One of the guys who ran the presses lived in the apartment above me. While much of the county was without power for weeks to come, our skeleton crew that morning was able to get out a full noon edition of the paper, unlike most of our competitors in the area.

The damage and misery notwithstanding, it was a glorious day to be a newspaper reporter.

Rowan Memorial Hospital lost its phones. The county’s 911 services were out. The Emergency Operations Center even lost its backup generator. Trees blocked Fulton Street and chainsaws were buzzing all morning long.

I somehow ended up at the hospital, checking on injuries around town. As I recall, the only one reported there was a man with a severe ankle injury. He slipped while running in flip-flops to answer the phone. It was his wife calling him to be careful, there was a storm coming.


Other reporters, Steve and I spent all day Friday running around town, dictating reports to the newsroom for Friday’s special edition and Saturday afternoon’s regular afternoon edition. I shared a frontpage byline with Martha Yates about the damage done to the city and the sadness it caused. I have no idea who got this gem of an anecdote that appeared in Saturday’s paper, but if there has ever been a better quote about surviving a natural disaster, I haven’t heard it.

Jimmy Carpenter had just moved from his recliner to a sofa when a tree crushed half of his mobile home. Carpenter was safe, as were his wife and pregnant daughter, but the taxidermy trophies on his wall were crushed.

“Look at that…It crushed my deer heads,” Carpenter said. “We can replace the trailer, but them deer heads are hard to come by.”

It was the biggest story of the decade and the first time I ever participated in award-winning journalism. Our staff took first place in our division for spot news coverage in the North Carolina Press Association awards. A judge noted that we did exceptional work getting out a paper that day, when few others did. As Steve says, “Not really. We were just lucky that we had power.”

Soon enough, though, we were both back to covering sports.

Hugo hit on a Friday morning. High school games were canceled throughout the area, but the NC State-North Carolina football game was on as scheduled Saturday afternoon. Steve and I drove to Raleigh to for the game, which the Wolfpack won 40-6. Driving back into town late that night was like entering a war zone.

The next few weeks were a grind, trying to live without power and work and hearing the heartwrenching stories from South Carolina about those who survived the storm, those who didn’t and all they endured.

A few months later I was offered a job at the Myrtle Beach Sun-News to write about golf on the Grand Strand, but I couldn’t bring myself to take it. The entire area was still decimated.

I’ve made it through a surprising number of hurricanes since that early morning experience 25 years ago. I played golf Hope Valley Country Club in Durham with Steve Elling and Dave Droschak the day Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh in 1996. The last three holes were the soggiest I have ever played. 

Two days later, the airport was still running on generators when I flew to Syracuse to cover North Carolina’s win at the Carrier Dome. NC State played Georgia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium that on about half of its electricity.

From the window of our resort hotel, my wife and I watched a minor Category 1 hurricane hit the beach at Aventura, Fla., snuggled up with no electricity and food from the defrosting hotel kitchen. They didn’t even bother to charge us for everything we took from the minibar that night.

When Floyd hit in 1999, I went to Greenville to cover the massive flooding around East Carolina’s campus. The entire eastern part of the state seemed to be under water.

I even went to New Orleans a few years after Katrina for a week-long Habitat for Humanity project to rebuilding a neighborhood. 

Hurricanes still scare me and, because of Hugo’s unbelievable wrath, always will.