We’ve heard the story time and time again of Michael Jordan being cut from his JV team back in high school. It’s a story that is retold so often because, in hindsight, the fact seems ironic and absolutely ridiculous. While former NC State guard Lou Pucillo didn’t go on to become the greatest basketball player in the history of the game, his story is very similar to Jordan’s, and quite possibly even more absurd.
What are the odds that a player that didn’t make his high school team until his senior season, playing minimal minutes that season, would end up earning ACC Player of the Year honors, along with All-American honors? Welcome to the crazy story of Lou Pucillo.
Lou Pucillo grew up in South Philadelphia and attended Southeast Catholic. The undersized guard didn’t make his high school team until his senior season, and even then, he barely saw the floor. It is a dream of many kids to grow up and play basketball at the next level, but at this point in Pucillo’s life, his credentials pointed toward only a dream, and not actuality. Pucillo was unwilling to quit dreaming, and went on to Temple Prep School, where he averaged roughly 25 points a game, gaining the attention of the NC State coaching staff.
When Everett Case brought Pucillo into the fold, he was the smallest player ever recruited by Case, standing 5’9″, and weighing in at 157 pounds. When a guard is undersized, it is vitally important that they have a great set of ball handling skills and speed, which Pucillo possessed. Sportswriter’s dubbed Pucillo the “Bob Cousy of the collegians.” Pucillo dribbled his way into the NC State record books, earning First Team All-ACC honors twice (1 of 10 players in school history to accomplish this), and First Team All-ACC Tournamnet twice as well.
Pucillo’s senior campaign was one that was clad with accolades. After leading the Wolfpack to their 4th ACC championship, he became one of 5 players in school history to win the ACC Player of the Year award (14.6 ppg). He also became one of only 8 players in NC State history to earn the MVP award for the ACC Tournament. As a cherry on top, Pucillo earned 2nd Team All-American honors in his senior season.
After graduating from NC State, the dream of the NBA never came to fruition, but he did play professionally for the Wichita Vickers in National Industrial League and later played for Sunbury in the Eastern Professional League. When he decided to hang up the jersey and move on, he found himself back in Raleigh, coaching the Freshman team at NC State for three seasons, before stepping out and forming his own private business in the Raleigh area.
It’s rare that the kid that grows up playing basketball on the playground because he didn’t make the school team, see’s his dreams come true. Yet every once in awhile a guy like Lou Pucillo comes along and defies all the odds.
Pucillo’s jersey was honored and lifted to the rafters on February 24th, 1999.
(Pucillo’s #78 jersey is honored, but not retired. The only retired jersey is David Thompson’s #44.)
NC State’s All-Time NFL Passing Leaders Headed into 2022 Season
NC State has had 7 former Quarterbacks go on to start games in the NFL. Heading into the 2022 NFL season, Russell Wilson and Jacoby Brissett are the only two former Wolfpackers currently on NFL rosters.
Below is a breakdown of where they rank in career statistical categories as Week 1 approaches.
(Realistically, the only movement I see possibly happening on the below rankings would be Brissett possibly passing Glennon in career touchdown passes, moving into 5th. With Deshaun Watson suspended for a minimum of 6 games, Brissett will start for the Browns.)
Career Passing Yards
- Philip Rivers – 63,440
- Russell Wilson – 37,059
- Roman Gabriel – 29,444
- Erik Kramer – 15,337
- Jacoby Brissett – 7,742
- Mike Glennon – 7,025
- Ryan Finley – 638
Career Passing Touchdowns
- Philip Rivers – 421
- Russell Wilson – 292
- Roman Gabriel – 201
- Erik Kramer – 92
- Mike Glennon – 47
- Jacoby Brissett – 36
- Ryan Finley – 3
- Philip Rivers – 5,277
- Russell Wilson – 3,079
- Roman Gabriel – 2,366
- Erik Kramer – 1,317
- Jacoby Brissett – 727
- Mike Glennon – 689
- Ryan Finley – 58
WATCH: NC State Upsets UCLA in 1974 NCAA Tourney
We’re telling you right now…get some footage and alumni ready for this Holiday Bowl. Bill Walton is a wild dude and based on the west coast. We need Thompson awkwardly laughing as Walton eats a cupcake, candle and all, while big ol’ Burleson is talking about snapping the Bruins’ championship streak.
You also have to admit, broadcast highlights were way cooler back in the day. Jazz music? Nice tinted coloring? Just brilliant use of half speed replays? Put it in our veins.
A look back at NC State great Tommy Burleson, on his birthday
This article was written by Kevin E. Spencer from the North Carolina Expatriates Facebook page. He was kind enough to share it with us in hopes to have it reach NC State fans everywhere.
Tommy Loren Burleson is born ON THIS DAY in Crossnore (population: 192) deep in the North Carolina mountains of Avery County (elevation: 3,392 ft). He will eventually grow to stand well over seven feet tall, and like most young men who rise to that height, especially in North Carolina, he plays basketball.
Tall and thin, (he’s called the “Newland Needle”) but with a knack for getting between a shooter and the basket, and a wingspan that allows him to corral rebounds and own the boards, he leads his Avery County High Vikings to an 85-8 record in his high school career.
However, nearly lost now in the bright light of Burleson’s NC State years (more about those in a moment) are the memories of Burleson and the Avery High Vikings white-hot rivalry with the Marion High Rippers.
Between 1968 and 1970, the two high schools met seven times, playing for Northwestern 3A Conference titles and facing off in the state playoffs. Those games were all sell-outs, and in the crowd for nearly every game sat Dean Smith, Norm Sloan, Bucky Waters, Lefty Driesell, Jack McCloskey, and Bill Gibson, not to mention other major college coaches, with tall Tommy being the center of attention.
On the fifth game of the series, after Burleson and Avery had won the first four straight, Marion Coach Ken Brackett decided to try something different. Avery was anchored by its 2-3 zone defense, with Tommy, of course, clogging up the middle. In practice the week before the game, Brackett has his offense go against defenders with tennis rackets to simulate Burleson’s wingspan. But more than that, he wants to force Burleson and the Vikings out of their impenetrable zone.
The result is a game still talked about by those who were there to see it. It has gone down as the “Freeze Game.” Among the other more unusual aspects of this game: both teams actually shoot 100% from the floor. The catch is, there aren’t that many shots taken.
Marion decides going in that they are going to hold the ball and force Avery out of their zone. Except Burleson and Avery refuse to come out. The result is that Marion keeps the ball down to the final seconds of each quarter, and shoots. The score is 8-8 at the half.
As the game progresses in the same manner in the second half, both teams began to chip and snipe each other. Finally, at just under 2 minutes to go, Burleson hits two free throws to put Avery ahead 12-10. Marion calls timeout, and as Marion’s Archie McIntosh and Avery’s Tom Burleson cross paths…something happens.
What exactly happens depends on which team is doing the talking. McIntosh says Burleson elbows him in the face, Burleson says McIntosh elbows him below the waist. Whichever is right, both boys are instantly flailing away, and both are ejected.
With Burleson out of the game, the Vikings abandon their 2-3 zone, and in the last two minutes, lose 16-13.
Finally breaking the stranglehold Burleson and Avery had on the series, Marion will go on to win the next two games as well. After Burleson and his core of teammates graduates, Marion will also win the eighth game of the series by a comfortable margin.
After that match, McDowell County consolidates, and Marion combines with other area high schools to become McDowell High. The classic Avery-Marion series is over, and the seven-game rivalry goes down in North Carolina High School Basketball history.
How much of that high school rivalry helped fuel the competitive fire that burned in Burleson’s heart in college only he knows, but flame it did…bright and white-hot. Tommy Burleson will go on to play center for Coach Norm Sloan and the NC State Wolfpack.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated player in ACC history, Burleson’s name is sometimes lost among Michael Jordan, David Thompson, James Worthy, Bobby Jones, Cornbread Maxwell, Phil Ford, Brad Daugherty, Nate McMillan, Walter Davis, and a hundred other North Carolina-born players. But Burleson’s contribution to State’s 1974 National Championship cannot be underestimated.
It was Burleson’s tremendous wingspan clearing out underneath the basket that allowed Monte Towe and David Thompson to work their magic, a fact shown indisputably in 1975 after Burleson graduated, and State tried to repeat their National Championship without him.
In two memorable games in the spring of 1974, he showed the world just who he really was. Tommy Burleson played his heart out against Maryland’s Len Elmore and Tom McMillen in the greatest college basketball game ever: the 1974 ACC Championship game between NC State and Maryland.
Three weeks later, in Greensboro at the Final Four, NC State went up against UCLA, winner of the last seven National Championships. UCLA was led by its center, the red-headed and opinionated Bill Walton. The previous November UCLA had handed Burleson and the Pack their only loss in two years. Playing in just their third game of the season, despite having been undefeated the year before, State came out shaky and lost by nearly 20 points. Based on that game, Walton wasn’t particularly worried about NC State….he gets off the jet in Greensboro in sandals, the epitome of Southern California rebellious cool.
Most of us know the details of that epic two-overtime game.
If you were in North Carolina, you almost certainly saw it. State down in regulation and battling back, and then down 74-67 with 3:27 left in the second overtime and again fighting back. Then the final victory as the clock ticked to zero. And if you were fortunate enough to see that game, you know Big Tommy Burleson took Bill Walton to school that day. Walton got his game handed to him.
While the statistics say they played almost to a draw, in reality, Tommy Burleson wrested the National Championship right out of Bill Walton’s hands. Tommy out-played Walton on both ends of the court. Walton may have been Southern California cool…but Tommy was a red and white-hot North Carolina State fire. Burleson dominated Walton that day, despite what Bill Walton might say today.
Burleson was never silky smooth with the basketball. I once saw him corral a defensive rebound, and not immediately seeing an outlet pass available, decide to bring the ball up himself. It wasn’t pretty…each dribble was head high to most of the other players, but he got it over the halfcourt line and into Monte Towe’s hands. At which point Norm Sloan calls timeout, brings Tommy over, puts a friendly arm around his shoulder, and tells him NEVER to do that again.
– member of the Western North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
After basketball, Tommy returns to the mountains of Avery County. He and his wife Denise have three sons, Robert, David, and Quentin. Tommy has been the Director of Inspections and Planning for Avery County for many years now, as well as a grower and seller of Christmas trees. Deeply involved with his church, he spends part of each year doing mission work. And for more than 30 years, he has operated the Tommy Burleson Basketball Camp during July. Tommy also remains very involved with NC State…in fact, you can usually find him at most games. Perhaps the ultimate compliment: Tommy Burleson is as good a person as he was a basketball player.
Perhaps the most underrated player in ACC history, Tommy Burleson may not have been silky smooth, but during his time at State, he did what he did underneath the basket better than anybody else in the country…including Bill Walton.
JERSEYS IN THE RAFTERS: Vic Molodet: #73
Everett Case set the standard for the ACC, leading NC State to the first 3 conference championships (54-56). Ronnie Shavlik was arguably the most decorated player from this dynasty, but everyone knows that a great ‘big man’ is most often accompanied by a point guard that can create and get them the ball in optimal scoring situations. Some tandems are not mentioned as individual players, rather they are always remembered as a pair. For instance, rarely do you hear the name Karl Malone mentioned without the name John Stockton followed right behind it. In the case of Ronnie Shavlik, it was hard to think of the All-American center without thinking about All-American point guard Vic Molodet.
Vic Molodet was a 5’11″ point guard from East Chicago, Indiana. Molodet was the coach on the court that led the Wolfpack to three-straight ACC Championships, beginning with the 1st ever ACC Tournament in 1954. Vic played the game with a sense of flare that electrified the crowds in the early years of Reynolds Coliseum. While Shavlik might have been the focal point of the Wolfpack offense, Molodet didn’t go unnoticed by those who voted for post-season honors. Molodet earned All-ACC honors in all three of his varsity seasons, claiming 2nd team honors 1954 and 1955 and 1st team honors in 1956. Vic would go on to play one of his best performances in the ACC championship game his senior season, when he scored 32 points, taking home the tournament MVP award.
Molodet might have had a responsibility of getting Shavlik the ball in the post, but this didn’t stop the crafty point guard from putting the ball in the hoop. His career scoring average of 14.9 ranks 12th in school history, and his 1,405 career points rank 22nd, and a high percentage of those points came from the charity stripe.
In 1956, Molodet helped lead NC State to a #2 rank nationally, though they didn’t finish the year there.
After earning 1st Team All-American honors as a senior, Molodet went on to be drafted by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the the 1956 NBA draft.
1954 – 13.8pts
1955 – 13.5pts
1956 – 18.2pts
2nd Team – 1954 and 1955
1st Team – 1956
All-ACC Tournament Team
2nd Team – 1955
1st Team – 1956 (MVP)
All-Dixie Classic Team
1954 and 1955
1st Team All-American (Converse) – 1956
Molodet’s #73 jersey was honored and lifted to the rafters on February 24th, 1999.
(Molodet’s #73 jersey is honored, but not retired. The only retired jersey is David Thompson’s #44.)