Friday, March 1, 2013

The punch line: What a finish!

       I've seen, and in my sportswriting career, covered a lot of exciting and even bizarre finishes to basketball games. But one game, 47 years ago, is my favorite.
       It was my freshman year at Louisiana Tech, and I was a student assistant in sports information, back home in Shreveport with our team. There was no way we could beat Centenary that Monday night (Feb. 21, 1966) at Hirsch Youth Center. Especially when we were six points behind with 21 seconds remaining.
       But it's in the record books: Louisiana Tech 112, Centenary 108, in overtime. For us, it was a glorious -- and memorable -- victory.
       Few people who saw it can forget it. We call it "the Donnie Henry game."
       Because with that 0:21 on the clock in regulation time, Centenary senior guard Donnie Henry threw a punch that connected with the upper lip of Tech junior guard Billy Ray Stokes. That, and a couple of other breaks, is what we needed to hand Centenary a stunning defeat.
       For Stokes, taking a punch in the mouth was a good price to pay. We all appreciated it.
       For four decades or so (1940s through '70s), when Centenary, Tech and Northwestern State played each other in basketball, it was called the "Pine Cone Rivalry" by the Shreveport newspapers. There were some heated games.
        They were all in the same conference right after World War II. Then Centenary became an independent and starting in 1958, a Division I team playing a schedule that included some attractive games against big-name schools. And while Tech and NSU drew most of their players from Louisiana, Centenary often recruited in Illinois and Missouri ... and, in one case, Long Branch, N.J.
         That's where Tom Kerwin was from. Older brother Jim had starred at Tulane, but Tom -- a 6-9 center/forward -- came to Centenary and became known as "Captain Hook," the Gents' best player before Robert Parish. He was the greatest hook shooter -- the sweeping old-time hook shot -- I've seen.   
         Kerwin still holds the school record for career points per game (25.8, Parish was 21.6) and 30-point games (24, Parish had 15). He was, like Robert, drafted in the NBA by the Warriors (then in San Francisco), but played only a little in the ABA (Pittsburgh Pipers). He wasn't bulky enough or good enough defensively.
         And my long-running joke about the game I'm writing about is this: We (Tech) "held" Kerwin to a school-record 47 points that night.
         He made 20-of-26 from the floor -- many of them those wonderful hook shots on the baseline, with either hand.
         But they weren't enough.
         For those of us from Shreveport affiliated with basketball at Tech, this was a difficult rivalry. Jon Pat Stephenson and Jim Pruett, Tech players and roommates, had been Centenary fans for years, like I had been. We'd all seen some games, listened to games on the radio and seen the 1960s late-night playbacks of home games on one of Shreveport's three TV stations then.
         We all liked the Gents, but we were Bulldogs.
         Plus, Centenary had some North Louisiana connections -- two great players who had led their teams to two state championships apiece -- forward Barrie Haynie (from Ringgold, Class B) and point guard Donnie Henry (from Athens, Class C).
         Haynie was a classy player and guy, a wonderful shooter who two weeks before Kerwin's 47-pointer had set the Centenary school record with 46 points against the University of Houston, one of the nation's top two teams (with UCLA) and led by the "Big E," Elvin Hayes.
         Henry was a scrappy, aggressive player. Frankly, he was not well-liked by us or a lot of opponents. We had heard from people we knew at Centenary that there was dissension and in-fighting (literally) on the Gents' team, and Henry was one reason. I think he had been suspended for a game already that season.
This is a photo from the first La. Tech-Centenary
meeting of the 1965-66 season, but it shows
some of the key players involved in the rematch:
Tech's Richard Peek (left) and Centenary's Tom
Kerwin (center) and Donnie Henry (right).
         Here is what happened, as recapped in the game story by Bill McIntyre for The Shreveport Times:
         Centenary was up 99-93, there was a scramble under the basket on Tech's offensive end as Leon Barmore (you know the name, and he was then our star junior guard) was fouled. As the whistle blew for the foul, Stokes -- a junior college transfer -- saw Kerwin throw a short punch at our 6-11 center, Richard Peek.
          Stokes and Kerwin had words and Billy Ray, who had hold of the basketball, threw a chest pass that hit Kerwin in the back. Kerwin then put a finger in Stokes' face.
          "I wanted him [Kerwin] to know that I'd seen what he did [punched at Peek]," Stokes said. "He thought he'd gotten away with it because the refs didn't see it. They were reporting the foul."
          Stokes then walked away, past Barmore at the free-throw line and toward midcourt. He remembers Tech coach Scotty Robertson hollering at him from the sideline, "but I wouldn't look over there; I just kept walking."
           Suddenly, Henry came up from behind and got in Stokes' face, asking if he'd thrown the ball at Kerwin. He remembers answering, "What the hell do you think?
           "I was watching him and I saw he had his fists doubled up. I looked over at Scotty (who was still hollering) ... and then everything went black." 
         Henry's punch knocked Billy Ray to the floor, and a melee broke loose. Henry was dragged away, but no more damage was done ... except to Centenary's team.
         When order was restored, Henry was ejected and tagged with a flagrant technical foul (two shots). Barmore, with a one-and-one, made four free throws in a row -- clutch. It was 99-97, and our ball.
         But we couldn't connect on a couple of shots. With one second left, Mike Gosdin -- a rawboned, strong 6-4 freshman from Springhill -- was fouled on a rebound shot underneath.
         Gosdin was as clutch as Barmore. He played only that season at Tech, and truly he wasn't all that good a free-throw shooter, but he made both shots to tie the game. They were his only points that night.        
         Centenary was shot. In overtime, Barmore hit eight of our 13 points and wound up with a 35-point game -- his career high. He had 11 rebounds, too (astounding!).
         It was Robertson's second season as Tech head coach. This victory was a turning point, though -- Centenary had beaten Tech six consecutive games (three seasons). Scotty would go on to build a terrific program, but that year we didn't have a senior and we were only 13-10 after this win. But the next season we won the conference championship.
         Henry was kicked off the Centenary team with only two games remaining in the season. The Gents, with seven seniors, should have been .500 (12-12), but instead dropped to 11-13 and wound up with a losing season. And Centenary's program then sagged badly ... until Parish arrived.
         When I saw Barrie Haynie last summer at a Ringgold High School reunion (that's where Bea went to school, a year behind Barrie's class), it took me about 5 seconds to bring up the game. He laughed and said, "We should have won that game. I don't know what Donnie was thinking. None of us knew."
Billy Ray Stokes and Tim Hall
         Stokes was mostly a reserve guard, a junior college transfer from Yazoo City, Miss., but a tough, crafty player and a solid contributor for two seasons.
         His roommate at Tech was Tim Hall, a huge (6-5, 250 pounds) ex-basketball center who was a conference champion in the discus. He remembered this game.
          "Stokes and I talked about that Centenary game not long ago," he wrote recently. "He came back to the room that night with a fat lip. ... I never did like Donnie Henry and for certain had no use for him after that night. I think it was appropriate that he never played another game for Centenary. I kind of always hoped he would show up at one of those independent tournaments; I would have dearly loved decking the little dink!" 
         Pruett, the great-shooting guard who was one of Fair Park's star players in its 1963 Class AAA state championship season, that season was being redshirted after a preseason knee injury and surgery. He was keeping statistics, recording them on a tape recorder -- a system suggested by Coach Robertson to double-check the stats being kept at press row. Pruett was sitting next to me that night.
          When the fight broke out, Jimmy jumped up and moved toward the scene. After the melee settled down, he came back to his seat -- and he was hot.
          You have to know that Pruett, a great friend, is one of the world's nicest people -- never heard him use profanity before or since. But when he came back to his seat, he turned on the tape recorder and let loose with about 30 seconds of profanities, starting with, "Donnie Henry is the biggest ..."
          Someone else heard him, other than me. Because on the Tech bus, the "Blue Goose," after the game -- with the famed Ikey Sanderson driving -- Coach Robertson had the tape recorder on the exact spot of Pruett's rant. He played it, loudly, for the team.
          The bus, going down I-20 toward Ruston, rocked with laughter.
          Jimmy, I swear I didn't tell.
          Dr. Billy Ray Stokes, who has an impressive resume of more than 40 years in education (working mostly with people with development disabilities, has retired twice, but returned to become  developer and director of the  Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette for the past  decade.
           He had been a bit player for most of his junior season, mostly a sub for defensive purposes. But after six points and four rebounds (and one swollen lip) against Centenary, he said "that game opened it up for me to get a lot more playing time. Scotty had a lot more confidence in me after that game."
          Barmore, who sent me the copy of The Times game story, loves to talk about it,  and why not? It was his finest game as a player, and he was a heckuva player long before his Basketball Hall of Fame coaching career with the Lady Techsters.
          "That game taught me a lesson," he said a week ago. "Don't ever give up on a game. You never know what's going to happen."


  1. From Jim Pruett: Enjoyed the read. Great memories. That victory was probably the high point of a tough year for me. I was really excited. I had spent many months nursing a low boil of anger/frustration just beneath the surface. ... It just took something unexpected -- and that sequence was definitely unexpected -- to send me over the top, which I admittedly was for a few minutes.

  2. From Tim Hall (on Dr. Billy Ray Stokes' involvement with the Picard Center at UL-Lafayette): I've seen an interview and have toured The Picard Center with Billy Ray. You are absolutely correct when you describe him as impressive. In my opinion he has more than successfully accomplished what a lot of mere mortals give lip service to every chance they get ... he is leaving behind an amazing body of work that is the underpinning of what popular culture and talking heads call a living legacy.

  3. From Bud Dean: I remember seeing about this game in Baton Rouge the next day; that was the year that I got cut from the Tech freshman squad so I wasn’t in Shreveport. I think we lost to them one time after that during my time (with Tech basketball).

  4. From Doug Bland: Captain Hook. I remember going to Hirsch and watching Centenary play Houston and Tennessee. The Vols had a big center (Tom Boerwinkle) who went on to play in the NBA and Tom Kerwin wore him out.

  5. From Jack Thigpen: I saw Donnie Henry play in high school and thought he was one of the best guards I had ever seen. He was a magician with the ball. First person I had seen to look one way and pass the other on a fast break. Too bad he let his temper get the best of him.
    I did not remember that Leon had that good of a game that night. They do not have those games with players we all knew and watched in high school nowadays. It was always fun to play against and watch guys play that you were rivals with in high school.

  6. From Jimmy Russell: This was great. What many people do not know, although you probably do, is that Henry’s teammates did not like him either. Orvis, while I guess was a good enough coach, was not a disciplinarian. He might have helped Henry along the way but tolerated him more than disciplining him. Maybe he would have had to kick him off, who knows, but he and the team would have been better for it. Anyway, my opinion.

  7. From Liz Sachs Piker: I would have felt a little left out again, when I read this "Punch Line", but, as usual, you have a way of throwing something in there that activates my "warm and fuzzy" center -- this time it was Ikey and his Big Blue Bus! I loved that man! I even remember Scotty and congratulate his family for the new building name (Memorial Gym). I am getting older as I read the latest Alumni magazine with my buddy, Dan Reneau, on the cover. Another era at Tech is at an end. GO BULLDAWGS!