Friday, May 30, 2014

At least we spelled Parish correctly

Robert Parish, as a Woodlawn High School senior
(photo by Lloyd Stilley, The Shreveport Times)
      One of the biggest news stories I covered early in my newspaper career, at The Shreveport Times, was the day Robert Parish announced where he was to attend college and play basketball.
      It was Monday, May 1, 1972, at a news conference in the Woodlawn High School cafeteria (my own school, of course) ... and we didn't get the scoop. But there is a little story within this story.
      We got scooped by the afternoon Shreveport Journal, whose guys found out that the answer to the long-anticipated, long-discussed answer to Parish's destination was Centenary College, right at home.
      The news conference and announcement was scheduled for 1:30 p.m., but the Journal people were eager to get the news in that day's paper, so they held the city edition for a little while.
      I don't remember who the reporter was exactly -- Jerry Byrd, Rick Woodson or someone else -- but I do remember Bob Griffin, the KSLA-TV sports anchor who also did much work for the Journal in those days, was scurrying around after finding out that, indeed, Centenary was where the 7-foot talent -- regarded as the best college prospect in the country by many -- was headed.
      So the Journal broke the story that day. I'll tell you the rest in a moment.
      This comes to mind, and I'm writing about it now, because I continue to go through 50 years of newspaper clippings and memorabilia and I am scanning them into the computer, then into an external hard drive and/or USB flash drives.
      Those are much easier to manage (and carry) than a big tub containing all the paper/magazines/etc. of a lifetime. It's been a fun project of sorts -- it takes time -- and a reminder of all the stories, all the work, and all the fun (for the most part) I had doing it.
      So I'm working on the Robert Parish file this week -- I had written a bunch of stories/column on him and saved many items written by others -- and I found my story and column from his signing day. And it makes me think of the Journal scoop and how different things might be today.
      If a player of Parish's stature, plus height and ability, is coming out of high school today, he likely would be a one year-and-done college player, only because the NBA put in the clause forbidding the direct high school-to-NBA jump.
      By the time Robert was a senior at Woodlawn, leading his team to the state tournament for the fourth year in a row (the first two at all-black Union High) and to the Class AAA state title about two months before his college selection, a court case had opened the way for high school players to go to the NBA or then-rival ABA directly.
      But no one had done it. I think Robert might've had the chance; I believe the Utah Stars made an effort to convince him after his first year at Centenary. Not until Utah signed Moses Malone from Petersburg, Va., two years later did anyone make the big leap -- and Moses, of course, made it well.
      Perhaps Ada Parish, Robert's mother who was his guiding force and strong influence, might've still insisted that he pass up the big money -- which the family certainly could've used -- and go to college. That was what she wanted for him
      Basketball-wise, Robert could shoot and rebound and block shots -- he had good hands and beautiful timing -- but he was thin, lacked the strength he might've need in the pros. And we can look back now and after four great years at Centenary, he still spent his first four seasons in the NBA (with the Golden State Warriors) as a so-so center regarded as a bit of an underachiever.
      Who knows if he could've handled the pressure of the pro game if he had gone to the NBA or ABA at age 19? Maybe if he had struggled, his confidence -- and career -- might've been shot early.
      Moot point, of course. The way it worked out, he only played 21 years and in more games than anyone in NBA/ABA history. He was on four NBA championship teams (three as the star center of the Boston Celtics, one as a reserve with the Chicago Bulls), a couple of others that came close, and he's among the Greatest 50 Players of all time. Not bad.
      But maybe he could've played 25 years.
       About the Centenary decision: It was no big surprise. Centenary had recruited him hard for three years and there already was a strong Woodlawn influence on the Gents' team -- two starters, forward Larry Davis and guard Melvin Russell, had been the leaders of Woodlawn's 1969 state championship team, and two other starters from that team also had signed with Centenary (but didn't stay).
        So people in Shreveport were delighted. I know I was. Not only did I have a Woodlawn bias, I had been a Centenary basketball fan since the late 1950s (except for my four years as a student at Louisiana Tech). Parish playing for the Gents sounded great to me.
        But Robert, as you can imagine, was heavily recruited. My story for The Times on May 2 said that 250-300 schools showed interest and that Robert made seven visits -- Florida State, Jacksonville, Arkansas, Indiana, Memphis State, Northwestern State and Centenary. He said the decision came down to Florida State, Jacksonville and Centenary, and that Florida State was most seriously considered.
         But all that talk, all the speculation ... for a couple of years.
         Mrs. Parish addressed the recruiting process that day in May. It "wasn't too bad," she said. "I kind of expected it." But she was glad it was over. "All I've heard is, 'Where? Where? Where?" she told me.
         (I can remember that Dick "Ace" Towery, a super-fan of all sports in Shreveport, has his prediction, one of his famed "scoops" for our circle of friends. He would wrinkle his face and blurt out: Angelina Junior College.)
         That was a joke, of course. But really junior college could've been a route for Robert. Because as we came to find out, his grades and more particularly his standardized test scores were far below average. Many schools did not feel they could get him enrolled.
         Among them, if I remember correctly, was LSU. Dale Brown had just been named the LSU coach in 1972 during the final stages of Parish's recruiting, but he had seen Robert play because he had come to Shreveport as a recruiting while an assistant coach at Washington State. (At least that's how I remember it; Dale can set me straight if I'm mistaken.)
         Robert could've instantly boosted LSU's program into a contender. But Dale told Woodlawn coach Ken Ivy that he couldn't get him enrolled. Bob Knight, just starting his reign of terror as Indiana coach, also came to Shreveport and told Ivy the same.
         Perhaps Robert could've gone to a school and sat out a year while he built up his grades, or he could've gone to a junior college.
         Don't mistake this. Robert was a conscientious kid who went to class and made the effort. He just didn't have the reading/comprehension skills to score well on the ACT and SAT.
         But Centenary was using a sliding scale of grades/ACT-SAT scores to predict college potential and enrollment eligibility. It had used that scale for a couple of years and enrolled a number of athletes. It declared Parish eligible.
         However, that did not meet NCAA standards and so early in his freshman year, the NCAA ruled Parish and the other athletes enrolled under that scale -- some in baseball, some in basketball -- ineligible. The NCAA hadn't paid any attention previously, but when Parish enrolled, Centenary became a target.
         Long story short: The case went to court, the NCAA "won" the argument -- although Centenary people will tell you it was a trumped-up deal -- and Centenary was hit with a two-year NCAA penalty (no postseason play, no TV appearances) ... unless Parish and others transferred. The penalty would not begin until Parish left Centenary.
         But Robert wanted to stay, and did. To Centenary's credit, it honored that stand, and you'd have to say it was worth the publicity and fan support that the Parish Era attracted ... plus 88 victories in four years. The NCAA penalty amounted to a six-year ban because the NCAA -- in my opinion -- made an example of Centenary.
         Larry Little, who was Centenary's head basketball/athletic director then, put it this way (and I liked it): "It was a murder rap for a speeding ticket."
         Certainly there are people who think Centenary broke the rules to get Parish in school and I've heard speculation that he received extra benefits. Don't know if that's true; it was never a factor with the NCAA.
          What I do know is that the Parish years at Centenary were -- the NCAA be damned -- a helluva lot of fun to watch and to write about.
          Now about the Journal and the signing announcement. In that afternoon's paper, in about 72-point type, the headline across Page 1A said something like, "Parrish signs with Centenary."
          Parrish -- two r's. Yes, they misspelled his name, in the headline and throughout the story. He had played for four years in Shreveport, the greatest basketball player in the city's history, and they misspelled his name in a huge news story.
          Don't know why or who was responsible. But I remember it. I might be the only one who does and the only one who cares. But I was the one who got scooped.
          And I shouldn't laugh too much. Lord knows how many mistakes with names and facts I made over the years; some of them pretty embarrassing. But never in 72-point type on a huge news story.
           I did know how to spell Parish, though.  


  1. From Chuck Baker: Scott Delony and I saw every Centenary home game Robert's junior and senior year. I still have a Centenary 1975 t-shirt although it doesn't quite fit anymore.

  2. From Patrick Booras: A big smile -- The Chief. He started the path that led many people to Centenary and to love Centenary as a special place, me included.

  3. From Chuck Stewart: After they beat the crap out of Northeast Louisiana one year when he scored about a zillion points, I wrote this lead: "Too much Chief, not enough Indians."

  4. From Gerry Robichaux: Great job then, great job now, Nico. An enjoyable read.

  5. From Skip Young: Great post as usual. I remember being in the [Woodlawn athletics] office the day Parish first walked in the door and Coach Ivy was, well shall I say, "grinnin' like a possum eatin' briers." When we first saw him play, we said, "Way to be tall, Robert." Just a few years later, that saying grew to be much more than we meant then.

  6. From Meg Sinner: I've never been a major basketball fan, but I remember him. That was back when basketball was a true sport, in my opinion.

  7. From Dennis Harp: The "Chief" put Centenary on the map. I really enjoyed watching him play in the NBA.

  8. From Mike Whitler: My dad took me to many of those games and to this day I associate Jim Hawthorne's voice with the Gents primarily as we listened to his postgame show on the drive home after the games.

  9. From Jimmy Russell: Good memories. Centenary would have been crazy to push Robert to transfer. He and the others could have gone and Centenary would probably have lost a lot of games. NCAA tournament, not a chance. Why not have them stay, win games and have enthusiasm for the program. No NCAA tournament? Well they would not have gone anyway.