David Thompson is the greatest basketball player in NC State history and his No. 44 jersey hangs in the rafters of the PNC Arena, never to be worn again – the only jersey in Wolfpack history to be retired.
But the greatest jersey in NC State history isn’t No. 44 – it’s actually being worn this year by the Pack’s ACC Player of the Year candidate. T.J. Warren’s No. 24 is the most accomplished number in NC State history, and it’s not particularly close.
Fourteen players have donned the jersey for the Pack and four of them, soon to be five; have been All-ACC selections, first-round NBA draft picks and All-Americans. All four of those players have their jersey honored in the rafters – no other number is honored more than twice. Twenty-four stands in third, 10th and 14th place on the all-time scoring list at State; second, sixth, ninth and 13th on the all-time rebounding list. Both NCAA championship teams had a 24 in a significant role on the team.
And who exactly is responsible for starting the legacy of the greatest jersey number in NC State history – why the NCAA rulebook of course. John Richter, the first player at State to wear 24, only took the number when the NCAA changed the rules and forced players to wear jersey with numbers of five or less to make it easier to signal fouls to the scorer’s table. So Richter hung up his 84 after his sophomore year and donned 24.
"We all had those high numbers – I can’t remember why it might have been a promotional thing with Coach Case," Lou Pucillo, Richter’s teammate for three years, said. "I had 78 because it was Vic Bubas’ number and he had recruited me hard."
But the rule change forced them to all pick new numbers, and Richter chose No. 24. The big man finished his career at NC State with three All-ACC honors (in just three seasons) and remains sixth all-time in rebounding for the Pack. If blocks were kept before 1975, he’d likely rank in the top 10 there as well.
"He was a great player. He was 6’8" and was more agile than most of the 6’8" centers at the time – he could run," Pucillo said. "He wasn’t the offensive player that Ronnie (Shavlik) was but he rebounded and could get those offensive rebounds."
The next great 24 kept the same position as Richter, as Tommy Burleson picked up the jersey a decade later and once again made it famous. Burleson, a North Carolina native who was recently honored along with the rest of the 1974 NCAA championship team, was directed towards the No. 24 by the coaching staff.
"It was told to me that it was one of the more prominent numbers at NC State so I was like ‘sure I’ll take it’," Burleson said.
If the coaching staff had hoped he would follow in the footsteps of Richter to become the next great center at NC State, they were prescient. Burleson is most famous for out-dueling UCLA center Bill Walton in the 1974 championship semi-finals, but he was a dominant force all three years with the Pack and in addition to three All-ACC teams he was also named ACC tournament MVP twice.
"To me it’s been handed down to players who made an impact," Burleson said.
The number 24 went to Tony Warren next, who went on to be drafted in the NBA and father a son you might have heard about recently. After that it went to Terry Gannon, who was a key reserve for the 1983 championship team before going on to become one of the nation’s most respected sports broadcasters. In the first year of an experimental 3-point shot, granted an incredibly short 3-point shot, Gannon hit over 60 percent of his 3s.
Then, after a few years off, the number 24 fell into the lap of a little used freshman reserve named Tom Gugliotta. The New York native picked the number because growing up as a manager on his father’s Walt Whitman High School team his favorite player was Alex Agudio, who was Mr. Basketball in New York as a senior in 1982.
"Valvano actually recruited him, but he ended up going to Niagara," Gugliotta said. "He was the best player at the time and that’s why I picked the number."
There was little evidence that the New York native would one day have his jersey in the rafters his first year with the Pack, when he played in just 21 games and averaged under three points a contest. But Gugliotta grew up, improving every year until putting together back-to-back All-ACC campaigns as a junior and senior. Despite his 6-10 frame he could score outside (39 percent from 3 as a senior), pass (nearly three assists per game his last two years) and defend.
Julius Hodge wanted to be the next great 32, not the next great 24, as the Harlem native grew up idolizing and modeling his game after Laker great Magic Johnson. But when it came time to join the varsity team in high school, Hodge ended up with a new number simply because it was available.
"I was actually in high school and I just got moved up to varsity in the middle of the year," Hodge said. "I wanted to wear 32 because of Magic Johnson but it was taken. So I took 24."
Hodge went to NC State with no idea of the 24s who had come before him, but that didn’t stop him from forging continuing the tradition and forging his own legacy. He became the first of the 24s to win ACC Player of the Year when he grabbed the honor his junior season, and the next year he led the Pack to its first Sweet 16 berth in nearly two decades. Eight years later, his number found a worthy successor.
Warren enters what will likely be his final game at PNC Arena looking to highlight his spot as the fifth member of the All-No. 24 team. Warren’s father, who played at NC State in the late 70s, originally wore No. 24 and his son has followed in his father’s footsteps.
"He’s awesome," Burleson said. "He’s been mentored so well by his father. You can see that. He’s got a high basketball IQ for someone his age."
"He reminds me a lot of Paul Pierce," Gugliotta, who briefly played with Pierce in 2005, said. "He has that mid-range game which nobody really has anymore."
Warren is leading the ACC in scoring and certain to finish the season with the highest scoring average of an NC State player since 1992 (Gugliotta, of course). He’s got a shot at becoming the first player since Hodge to win the ACC Player of the Year award, a fact that has made Hodge’s visits back to the PNC a little surreal.
"I heard some people saying ‘Twenty-four’ and I was like ‘Nice they still remember me’... it took a little while before I was like ‘this is for T.J.’," Hodge said.
Sunday evening will be for T.J. as well, one last chance to play under the banners of the 24s that came before him – Richter, Burleson, Gugliotta and Hodge. Whoever picks up the jersey next doesn’t just have a big pair of shoes to fill; he’s got five pairs and more than 50 years of greatness behind his jersey number.
"I’ve felt honored that it’s been worn by those guys," Burleson said. "That it’s living up to its legacy of being worn with pride and by individuals who have been such a big part of NC State."