Sunday, March 29, 2015

Wiggins: coach, neighbor, friend ... winner

     When Billy Wiggins died Friday in Shreveport, the news was difficult to hear. It was a tough day.
     Not a big surprise because his health had been in obvious decline for several years. But tears came several times after his son, Freddy, sent me a Facebook message in early afternoon.
     Wig meant a great deal to me, professionally in a coach/sportswriter relationship, and more importantly, on a personal basis because he looked after my parents -- especially Dad -- for years.
     Wish I had written this months ago. Wiggins might've enjoyed it, although to be honest, I don't think he gave much of a damn about personal publicity. He never had much to say about anything I wrote about his teams or their games.
     But then Wiggins never had much to say about anything ... unless he was coaching his players or berating basketball officials. That he did quite well.
     He was short, in stature and with words. I've known few people who could be more succinct in describing games, people and situations. Ten words was a speech for Wiggins.
     If you were a sportswriter, he would give you exactly what you needed (if it was printable), but he was not going to be expansive or rambling. He was direct, and he was honest. If he didn't like something or someone, you'd know it.
     He was calm on the bench, actually one of the calmest coaches I've seen in basketball ... until he got hot, and that did happen.
     It wasn't so much with his players, although he could be stern. But if the officials got it wrong, in his view, he could be livid. He respected opposing coaches, but if he didn't like them, he wouldn't have much to do with them.
     But within the Shreveport-Bossier, North Louisiana and state coaching fraternity, he was popular ... and respected. Because he was a winner; his teams were winners. They played hard, they played clean, and they were efficient.
     Not many teams faced his teams at North Caddo, Captain Shreve, Trinity Heights and other private-school stops, and had an easy time. (Well, he did have a couple of clunkers late in his coaching career when talent was severely lacking.)
     His teams were tough, physically and mentally. In that way, they much reflected their coach.
     His players had to be tough; if they weren't, they sat. Or they left. And they were fundamentally sound in basketball; not many coaches in my experience in North Louisiana were better teachers of fundamentals -- shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, in-your-shorts man-to-man defense (almost always man-to-man, seldom played zone defenses).
     And, mostly, competitive. That was Wiggins.
     Mike Harrell, in my opinion one of the two best players Wiggins ever coached (his Captain Shreve teammate Jeff Sudds was the other), told me Friday, "I never met anyone who hated losing more than he did, in anything, ping-pong or whatever. ... One thing he instilled in me was to be very competitive.
     "I thoroughly liked him as a coach," added Harrell, now an attorney in Dallas. "Wiggins set me up good for college basketball [at Bradley University]."
     I thoroughly liked him as a person. Coaching was only one reason. Being around him, because he was fun and subtly funny, was another.  
     Loved what seemed to be an easy relationship with Miss Amy -- she is as talkative as Wig wasn't -- and his kids (Sharan and Freddy), and I've read on Facebook how his grandkids adored their "Popi." (Sharan, not incidentally, married one of Wiggins' players on his early -- and greatly successful -- Captain Shreve teams, Tommy McGuire.)
     But what made Wiggins special to me -- as with some of the Woodlawn coaches of the 1960s -- was his relationship with my parents. When they moved to South Broadmoor in 1967, Billy and Amy moved there, a couple of blocks away, a couple of years later.
     My Dad loved basketball, and he appreciated great athletes and great coaches. He knew Wiggins had been a great athlete in high school (Winnsboro, La.) and college (Louisiana Tech); I told him that.
     I could do paragraphs on Wiggins' achievements in athletics. His Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame bio covers it:
     Dad was quite the Woodlawn fan, so he wasn't rooting for Wiggins' teams when they faced Woodlawn. But otherwise, he became a Wiggins fan. And he came to realize in time what kind of neighbor Wig was.
     As they both retired -- well, Wiggins "piddled" at jobs long after he stopped coaching and teaching -- Wiggins would often walk those two blocks to my parents' house and visit for coffee and conversation. I mean, this was an almost daily thing for a decade or so in my parents' later years.
      You can imagine, my Dad loved to talk (and so did Mom); Wiggins was sparse with words. So who did most of the talking -- Dad, with his world view, his many experiences.
      Here was a contrast -- Dad from a big city overseas (Amsterdam), a Holocaust survivor who spoke broken English, sometimes hard to figure out. Wiggins, a four-year U.S. Air Force veteran from a rural place who spoke Southern. But he seemed to understand Dad, who amused him and Wig gently could tease him.
       I got in on quite a few coffee visits while we lived in Shreveport-Bossier (through 1988) and on return trips home. But Wiggins was much closer to my parents' age than he was mine.
       When Dad got too old to care for his yard, Wiggins did it. For a couple of years, he cut Dad's grass every week or so. Wiggins -- basketball/football coach, yardman.
       Mostly Dad loved it because they could talk sports and because Wiggins paid attention to him. It was a beautiful friendship.
       Mike Harrell said Wiggins "was the first coach I had who was intense" and he can tell stories on how much of a taskmaster the coach was on defensive and shooting drills -- to the point that as a sophomore Harrell walked off the court and wasn't sure he wanted to play. 
       "He was scrupulously fair with everyone," said Harrell, the city and state's "Outstanding Player" in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons. "... He didn't play favorites, he made everyone work equally hard. ... 
       "He never yelled at you as much as expressed disappointment," Harrell added. "I heard him yell 'crap!' a lot ... very loudly. He wasn't demeaning or belittling you, but he had a temper."
       Yes, he did. And I heard a lot worse than "crap." I saw him irate -- ready to fight -- after a one-point loss at Woodlawn in 1972 when Robert Parish made a putback shot at the buzzer after his own missed free throw -- a much-too-long 2 seconds after it looked as if an underdog and deserving Shreve team was about to beat the eventual state champs. No printable Wiggins quotes that night.
       He was absolutely crushed and furious, as were many others, after the Class AAA state championship game in 1970. Brother Martin won it 72-56, but that score ... so misleading.
       Shreve, with Harrell and Sudds (both All-State) as seniors, had won 33 in a row and was 35-1, then built a 16-point halftime lead. But in a tightly officiated game, Shreve's stars got into foul trouble, Brother Martin caught up and it was tied at 56-56 when Shreve lost a chance to win near the end. Guard Shelby Houston was called for charging on the baseline -- a highly debatable call -- with 8 seconds remaining in regulation.
       Shreve's team lacked quality depth -- its only real weakness -- and when its starting lineup practically fouled out, some in OT, Brother Martin won the OT 16-0. It was one of the toughest losses I've seen a great team take.
       The charging call was made by Bobby Olah, who after the game was laughing and joking with people in the lobby of Rapides Coliseum in Alexandria. I didn't think that was funny, and neither did Jerry Byrd, who stared him down. If looks could have killed, Byrd killed Olah that night.
       A friend Friday said he guessed Olah won't be a pallbearer at Wiggins' funeral. Olah was a name Wiggins really didn't want to hear.
       I remember the first time I saw Billy Wiggins up close -- early December 1962, a Woodlawn basketball game at North Caddo, my sophomore year as manager/statistician. Our bus pulled into the circular drive in front of the school and there was the basketball coach busy doing something. He waved, Coach Jerry Adams -- the bus driver -- stopped, and Wiggins got on our bus. What?
       It was quickly evident, as Wiggins gave directions to the back of the school where the gym was located, that our coaches (Adams and W.B. Calvert) were fond of this guy.
       We saw a lot of Wiggins and North Caddo in those early '60s years, and his teams were good but not great. He would admit that early in his coaching career at North Caddo, where he went when it opened in 1956, he was not as good a coach as he might've been. He'd rather scrimmage with his players than purely coach them.
        His teams were offensive-oriented, but not the defensive-minded units he would develop later. Once he determined he needed to coach better defensively -- remember, he had been an offensive star as a player -- the championships started coming.
         He didn't have big winners until the 1965-66 season when North Caddo -- led by Mike Durham, Pete Schuler and Jerry Carlisle -- won the Class AA state championship. That was neat to see because, even from another school's standpoint, we had seen those kids grow as players.
         Wiggins, the guard, became a masterful teacher, too, of post play with such stars as Durham, Harrell, Sudds and Tommy Grubb (Captain Shreve).  
         After the North Caddo title, Wiggins returned to Louisiana Tech -- where a lot of people wanted to see him -- as an assistant to Scotty Robertson for the 1966-67 season (my sophomore year there), and Tech won the Gulf States Conference title.
         But he didn't like the college coaching role and returned to high school when Captain Shreve opened in the fall of '67. One of his fellow North Caddo coaches, Stanley Powell, was Shreve's founding principal. 
         By the second season, the Gators won the District 1-AAA championship, taking two of three games from state champion Woodlawn. That team went 29-4, finishing with a state quarterfinals loss in New Orleans to St. Aloysius (soon to become Brother Martin in a merged school) 
         Wiggins was part of a Shreve state championship team, as a football assistant coach, in 1973. Those Gators were talented, dominant and undefeated.
          In the same school year, Carlos Pennywell -- receiving star of the football team -- led the basketball team to the state semifinals, where it lost to a stronger Brother Martin team, led by future Kentucky and NBA star Rick Robey.
          Wiggins won another state championship in the private school organization with Trinity Heights in the early 1980s. But his great coaching days soon were done. 
           Dad made it to 89. Wiggins made it to 85. They died seven years apart. For both, the last few years were tough.
           Which brings me, finally, to my last visit with Coach Wiggins. Bea and I stopped by the house in South Broadmoor last Aug. 1 -- on the day of the Ark-La-Tex Sports Museum Hall of Fame event in Shreveport -- and Wig was in the living-room recliner where he spent many days in the past few years.
            He was hooked to an oxygen tank, could barely talk, and mostly just listened to Amy and me. Amy whispered that "he can't hear anything," but every now and then I would see Billy smile, and he would utter a word or give me a thumbs-up, which indicated to me that he knew exactly what was being said.
            He was still the good audience he had been for Dad all those years.
            The fiery days were long behind, the great player and great coach a distant memory. For those of us who were around him quite a bit, he is an unforgettable, honest treasure.
            My writer deluxe friend Joe Rhodes, a manager/statistician for Wiggins at Shreve in the early 1970s, posted this Friday on Facebook:
            "Coach Billy Wiggins, who taught me how to drive, who trusted me with the keys to the gym, who gave me refuge and inspiration and a sense of responsibility, died today. Good game, coach."

Friday, March 27, 2015

George Thornton: Jumping into life

(Ninth in a series)
      George "Petey" Thornton came to Louisiana Tech University in the fall of 1968 as a basketball player ... and a high jumper. He loved both pursuits, but high jumping would have to wait a year.
      He lettered four times in each sport, but no question he was much more successful individually in track and field.
      Tech basketball coach Scotty Robertson would not allow him to high jump after his freshman  season, wanting him to use the off-season to develop his basketball skills. But in his second year at school, he joined Coach Jimmy Mize's track team, although he got a late start and limited practice.
       In four years, he finished second twice in the Gulf States Conference meet, clearing 6-10 in 1970 in only his second meet of the season and 6-6 in 1971. Tech switched conferences and he won the Southland Conference title in 1972 with a 6-9 jump, using the fairly new "Fosbury Flop" technique from about the mid-point of that track season.
       Because he needed a fifth year in school to earn his degree, and his basketball eligibility was done, he had the 1972-73 school year to work on his high jumping. It paid off.
George Thornton "flopped" his way to two conference
high jump championships, 1972 and 1973
       He did not break the school record (7 feet) held by Tommy Stinson then, but based on consistency -- six jumps of 6-10 or slightly better that season -- he became the best high jumper in school history to that point.
       "I'm very happy about it now," he told me for my April 1973 column on him in The Shreveport Times. "If I had had to come back for my fifth year and not been able to compete, it would have been a real sad year. I'm an athlete, I want to participate."
       He again won the Southland title by clearing 6-10 1/2, and helping Tech win the conference championship. He also qualified to compete in the NCAA Championships in Baton Rouge that summer, but did not place.
       His desire to compete in track, taking time away from off-season basketball work, might have caused some difficulty with Robertson, who -- as mentioned in the previous blog piece -- could be a controlling coach.
       "We didn't have the closeness we had before," George said a couple of weeks ago, "and I think that did it."
       But he credits Mize, the gentlemanly longtime Tech assistant football/head track and cross-country coach who is 98 and living with Mrs. Mize in Baton Rouge, as a positive influence.
Tech track and field coach Jimmy Mize holds the 1973 Southland Conference
championship trophy; George Thornton is at far right, bottom; longtime Tech
athletic council chairman Harold Smolinki (left) made the presentation
       "Coach Mize allowed me to do the best I could," he said. "He didn't have the way to show me better technique; I don't think many track coaches then could specialize in a lot of events. But he gave the chance to travel to other cities and states, and I saw a lot of other athletes perform. It was a great experience."
       And it helped lead to a brief coaching career.        
       After he graduated from Tech in 1973, Thornton returned home to Kirkwood, Mo., and was a teacher-coach at the high school from which he graduated five years earlier (he was inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame). He was the head cross-country country and assisted in track and field and wrestling, and he enjoyed it all.
      He wanted to coach basketball there, but the job didn't come open. To increase his financial status, after a couple of years, he moved into the insurance business and eventually started his own insurance agency.
      Then came the metal services business -- "you can make money on stuff people throw away," he said -- and it keeps him and Judith busy. Arranging time for a lengthy interview with him, and even a second shorter one, took a little doing.
      Life has had "its ups and downs," including the tragic death of a brother in Kirkwood and the recent death of another brother. But there remains a large family and "the good thing about playing sports," he says, "is that it taught me to keep pushing, to work hard, and you will overcome, and things get better."
      He's returned to Ruston, and Tech, a couple of times -- once for an alumni basketball game/reunion, one for a banquet honoring Scotty Robertson.
       He remains fondly thought of by those of us who were at Tech in the late 1960s.
      "Petey was a great guy. ... I loved Petey," Buddy Davis wrote to me. "He was such an upbeat, nice guy who was always smiling and happy. He was the kind of person that if you had a downer of a day or whatever, his disposition could lift you up."
       "I can't say anything but good things about him," Robertson said in 1973. "He always did what was asked of him, and he contributed."
      "I think I've accomplished a lot of things," Thornton said then. "I've learned respect for a lot of people and I think I'm respected by a lot of people. They know me when they see me and they speak to me. Everything is OK."
      I would say, 42 years later, that for Louisiana Tech's trailblazing black athlete, it's still OK.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The superstar, the giving coach and George Thornton

(Eighth in a series)
      George "Petey" Thornton enjoyed playing for Coach Scotty Robertson and loved being Mike Green's basketball teammate for three seasons at Louisiana Tech University.
      They are linked in history, the coach and the first two black scholarship players in the program's history. The three seasons (1969-72) they were together was a great era for Tech men's basketball.
      When Thornton looks back on it, as he did when we talked a couple of weeks ago, he says that "Scotty did a lot of special stuff for me."
      There is more to that than just basketball knowledge and guidance in life. For instance ...
      "He let me drive a Tech station wagon," Thornton recalled, and made me wonder. "I had a '55 Chevy and I was driving back from St. Louis with Mike Palmer (his roommate, also from that area). We were close to Ruston and the car threw a rod and was leaking oil, and we had to leave it on the road, and hitchhike in [to the campus].
      "Scotty gave me the money to get the car fixed, then I sold it."
      The coach, he added, also "bought me some shoes."
      Oops. This sounded like NCAA violations to me. When I said that to Thornton, he laughed. Then I added, "If he did that for you, imagine what he did for Mike Green and some other guys."
      And, well, all those years ago -- late 1960s/early 1970s -- there was always speculation. The confirmation came in the form of an NCAA probation a couple of years later.
      There are many words to describe Coach Scotty Robertson: smart, demanding, controlling, aggressive, ambitious, charming, brash, personable, giving. Maybe too giving.
      He was a fine athlete in the late 1940s/early 1950s in basketball and baseball at Shreveport's Byrd High School and Louisiana Tech, and he learned those sports well and applied that knowledge when he went into coaching.
Scotty Robertson: For four basketball decades and at many
stops, he knew what he doing ( photo)
      Those of us who were influenced by him and respected him can tell you that he was a thorough and excellent teacher of basketball, a super strategist. NBA people thought so; over 25 years after leaving Tech, he was with nine different organizations in the league.
      Mostly he was an NBA assistant coach, a strong voice on the bench. He had head-coaching shots (first coach of the New Orleans Jazz; interim with the Chicago Bulls; three years with the Detroit Pistons, where he helped set the foundation for the franchise's "Bad Boys" championship teams).
      If you saw his teams play at Byrd High and La. Tech, you knew they were disciplined and tough and hard to beat (his Tech record for 10 seasons, 161-86, .652). You also knew that he had many fans, people he charmed and who believed in him; and he had many detractors. OK, some people flat did not like him.
      He was a sharp dresser, blond, fair-complexioned and when he was fired up -- and he could get that way -- he would turn red. Opposing fans loved that.
      (Reminds me of a banner hanging one night when Tech played at Northwestern State in  Natchitoches. In a play on words of a popular song that year, it read, "Sitting here watching Scotty blow." That had us laughing, but not with Coach Robertson around.)
      Those of us at Tech knew that Scotty at times might bend/break NCAA rules. He would do what he needed to help his program (and help himself). When the rivalry with Southwestern Louisiana, and Coach Beryl Shipley's integrated team became more intense than ever, so did the bending and breaking.
      Shipley claimed he did it for "humanitarian reasons," to aid the kids. Scotty might've said the same.
      We had heard that 7-foot Charlie Bishop might have had some "help" in choosing to play at Tech -- help for him and his family -- although his hometown (Summerfield, La.) was nearby Ruston and always Tech territory. There were other transfers and highly recruited freshmen who might have received more than the scholarship. Don't have proof; it was just the talk we heard.

Mike Green
      So if George Thornton received some extra benefits, how did Mike Green -- a lithe 6-10 forward/center with an above-the-rim game, a phenom from McComb, Miss. -- not all that near  Ruston -- end up at Tech? How the next year did Robertson convince sought-after junior college guards Andy Knowles and Jim Jenkins to join Green?
      The story we heard was that Scotty went into McComb and "outbid" major-college powers, and came away with Green signing with Tech. Among those powers: University of Houston, which was always suspected of doing what it needed to get players (including Louis Dunbar of Minden, La., the best player I ever saw play in high school other than Robert Parish).
      I don't know for sure.
      I do know this. After Robertson left for the NBA in 1974, the NCAA left Tech with a two-year penalty -- no postseason play, loss of scholarships, no off-campus recruiting. The violations included car/insurance payments, purchase of clothing and small cash payments.
       It was not, however, the scope of the violations slapped on Shipley and USL and it was not the "death penalty" (two years of no basketball) the Ragin' Cajuns received. So, comparing the rule-breaking impact, Tech wasn't in the same league.

Shooting against Northeast Louisiana (photo
provided by La. Tech sports information) 
      My opinion, and I know  sportswriting friend Buddy Davis and many others will agree: Mike Green is the best basketball player in Louisiana Tech history.
       Yes, better than "The Mailman." Karl Malone was the much better pro player, a Hall of Famer, an all-time NBA star. But he was not anywhere as dominant at Tech (1982-85) as Green, who was All-Everything.
       Green set most of the significant scoring and rebounding school records, including career points (2,340) and one-season average (30.9 per game as a senior, 1972-73). He was the fourth player picked in the 1973 NBA Draft, chose to play in the rival American Basketball Association, and played seven pro seasons (459 games) -- three in the ABA, four in the NBA when the leagues merged.        He had per-game averages of 17 points and 9 rebounds in consecutive ABA seasons before his career declined and he was traded several times.                       
        And, yet ... he is not in the Tech Athletic Hall of Fame. His No. 22 jersey is not one of those Tech has retired (No. 44 Jackie Moreland, No. 32 Malone, No. 12 Leon Barmore). Certainly, it has nothing to do with basketball credentials. Whatever the standards are, he hasn't met them.
         He was not as quiet or as humble as George Thornton, who was not a problem player. Green was more brash, and obviously, off-the-court issues did not endear him to influential people at Tech who are in on the Hall of Fame selections. He remains among the nominees.
       Maybe Green's large presence took away from Thornton's game, just as not being able to dunk the ball (outlawed at the time) did, but George was like everyone -- even opponents and opposing fans -- who saw Green play. He was in awe.
       "I couldn't believe a guy who was 6-10 who could jump like that," Thornton told me recently. "I knew I could jump ... but he could block shots, he could shoot. If he could have dunked, he would have been even greater."
       In Thornton's first year at Tech, a team with only one senior and not much experience went 12-13. In the three years, Thornton was on the team with Green, the records were 17-5, 23-5, 23-3 -- a combined 63-13 (.829). There was a conference championship the first year, an NCAA Division II tournament spot the next year, Tech's best-ever season to that point the next.
       (The only Tech season better than 23-3 was the 1984-85 team's 29-3. Those Malone-led Bulldogs made the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet Sixteen" -- the only time that's happened -- and missed the Elite Eight by an overtime, last-second loss to Oklahoma at Reunion Arena in Dallas).
       About the only hurdle Green and Tech could not conquer was USL and its mercenaries. Led the spectacular long-range shooting guard, Dwight "Bo" Lamar (31.2 points a game in his college career), the Ragin' Cajuns beat Tech in six out of eight meetings, including the last five. The NCAA did a better job stopping USL than the Bulldogs.
       A couple of years after they left Tech, Green came with his ABA team to play against the St. Louis Spirits. He called Thornton and they went out to eat.
       "He wanted some White Castle hamburgers, these little hamburgers," George recalled, laughing. "He loved them. He ate about a dozen of them, and we had a good time. It was fun. I'm thinking, 'Here's this guy making all that money and he wants these little hamburgers.' "
       For Thornton, there was a bit of regret in his Tech basketball career.
       "I knew I was a good player, but I think Scotty didn't really let me reach my potential like I could have," he said recently. "There were games that I was playing well and he took me out and never put me back in."
       One such instance he recalled was perhaps his best game, one I referenced in my 1973 column on him in The Shreveport Times. He made a school-record 10-of-11 shots from the floor for 20 points.
       "That's what I'm talking about," he answered when I recalled that game for him.
       "I was like anyone else," he said. "I wanted to score. If I had 20, I wanted to score 45. But I didn't get the chance."
       And yet, he talked with Robertson about it on a return to Ruston years later.
       "He said, 'You know, George, I made some mistakes.' No one is perfect. I accepted what he said. He had lots of kids to play and he wanted to let his stars be stars, like Mike Green."
        (Next: Jumping into life) 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thornton and Tech: Chasing after USL

(Seventh in a series)
     When George "Petey" Thornton became the first black athlete at Louisiana Tech University in the fall of 1968, integrating the basketball program, it was not a surprise. The time had come.
     By that season, the University of Southwestern Louisiana -- "first program to integrate a major sports team at a large public university in the Deep South" (as a 2011 Sports Illustrated story described it) -- had had black players on its team for two seasons and was building a dominant program.
     In my freshman year at Tech, 1965-66, we heard USL had a black player on campus -- Leslie Scott of Scotlandville, La. (near Baton Rouge), sitting out as a transfer from Loyola (Chicago).
     By the next season, Scott was eligible, but only a bit player. Because Beryl Shipley, rightly credited with being the first coach in the South to break the color "barrier," had brought in a guard from Indianapolis (Marvin Winkler) who had broken Oscar Robertson's high school career scoring record in Indiana and a 6-9 center from Birmingham, Ala. (Elvin Ivory), who the word was could jump and take a quarter off the top of the backboard. And, yes, as we found out, those guys could play.
     (But Tech's great team of 1966-67 beat the USL team twice and won the Gulf States Conference championship, thank you.)
     The talk was -- "word on the street" as a friend of mine at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram always put it years later -- that those USL players, and some in future years, were well taken care of with extra benefits (read: money) and academic breaks (read: manipulation).
     Proof? Well, the NCAA came down on USL's program after the 1972-73 season with 125 rules violations and gave it a two-year "death" penalty, suspending the program and vacating results of the two previous seasons in which the Ragin' Cajuns -- led by fabulous talents Dwight "Bo" Lamar, Roy Ebron and Payton Townsend -- reached the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet Sixteen." 
     That was the end of Shipley's college coaching career. He always had his detractors -- opposing coaches, especially, and the NCAA investigators -- and he had his revisionary apologists. USL people, boosters and media and fans, felt as if the university was a scapegoat and an example for NCAA righteousness; many of us don't exactly see it that way.
     To the end of his life, such as in the SI story published a month after his death in 2011, Shipley didn't own up to much of the wrongdoing -- he had his own version -- and blamed USL officials for betraying him and having him take the fall. That's how it felt to me.
     Debate it all you want. Here's the point: Other schools felt they should recruit black players, too. Coach Scotty Robertson at Louisiana Tech, who battled Shipley and USL for nine seasons, for one was pretty darned competitive.
George "Petey" Thornton:
His Tech basketball photo
     Enter George Thornton.
     (Just a note of comparison: USL integrated its team two years before Tech; Tech integrated its team two years before LSU -- with Collis Temple Jr. of Kentwood, La.)          
     Robertson did not share his plan to integrate the program with the players on his team.
     "We knew it was going to happen," said Bud Dean, who had just finished his sophomore season (after a redshirt year). "What I remember is we had several black kids visit [the campus] that spring (1968), three or four, a couple from Hammond (La.). ... But Coach Robertson, that [alerting the players of his plans] wasn't the way he handled things."
     "I don't remember Scotty prepping us for that," said John Whitmore, Dean's roommate and the only senior on the 1968-69 team when Thornton was a freshman. "I was from a small school (in Mendota, Ill.), so [integration] didn't bother me."
     However, Robertson did share the news with a couple of young sportswriters.
     Here is a message my old friend Orville K. "Buddy" Davis sent me a couple of weeks ago:
     "You remember the time when Scotty was concerned about you and me running a story in The Tech Talk [school newspaper] about him [Thornton] about to join the team because he was wondering about how some in Ruston might react. He preferred to keep it as low-key as possible."
     One of us -- me -- did not recall that.
     "I can see our conversation on the steps leading out from Memorial Gym like it was yesterday," Buddy reminded me.
     That did bring back the memory.
     "I sure remember cuz Scotty cornered me one day outside of his office," Buddy added. "He and I later laughed about it and how times changed to where the only color that mattered was red and blue and if Tech won or lost."
     Most of the Tech players -- but not all -- were fine with George joining the team. In town and on campus, the "welcome" wasn't as warm.
     Dean and Whitmore, who in the fall would be in the dormitory room next to Thornton and Mike Palmer, a 6-7 white freshman forward from St. Louis, played against him in an informal (and against-the-rules) scrimmage on his campus visit. They were impressed.
     "Petey was the perfect guy to be the first African-American player for us," Dean said. "He was not a pretentious, outlandish person. He was quiet, kept to himself. We all liked him and he got along with us. We knew the time had come, but he didn't bring undue attention to himself."
     "I took personal responsibility to make him feel part of the team," Whitmore said, "and I think Bud did, too. ... [George] was a personable guy. You could talk to him. He was a humble guy. He didn't act like he was better than anyone."
     But here in the late 1960s, the civil rights movement still prevalent and resentment among white people strong in the Deep South, there were moments of trepidation.
     Whitmore remembered several black students at Tech and some lived in the dorm, where there was a shot or two fired through windows.
     Thornton's recollection: "The only people [on campus] that I sensed didn't want me there were the campus security officers. I got called 'boy' a couple of times. I had a nice car once and they stopped me said, "Hey, boy, where'd you get this car?' "
     He also recalled times when people would not speak to him as he crossed campus. But there were a couple of instances when he found out that his basketball teammates would stick up for him.                               
     Once was on a visit by several players, Thornton included, to a pool hall in Ruston. When the pool-hall operators wouldn't allow him to enter, all the players left. Same on a basketball trip to Mississippi and a stop at a restaurant. When Thornton was refused service, the rest of the team walked out with him.
     There was a game in South Louisiana when the razzing from the stands was audible and repetitive. "They were calling me names," Thornton said, "and Coach [Robertson] said, 'Stay close to me.' " But major problems were avoided.
     As for his teammates, he said, "I know the players didn't all like me, but nothing was said to me directly."
      However, there was one thing that caused a stir in the dormitory, the "only point of contention," as Dean put it. It was a picture of white girlfriend from the St. Louis area that Thornton had on the desk in his dorm room.
      "I remember we had some football players that made some comments about it," Dean said, "and some came [from another floor] to look. Our response [basketball players] was that 'it's his business; why would it be your business?' We thought maybe that's the way it was done in St. Louis."
      Word got back to Robertson and Thornton said, "He called me into his office and said, 'George, I know this is OK up north, but people here aren't used to this.' He suggested I put the picture in my desk drawer, and I did. I didn't want to make trouble.
      "I knew they'd hung some people on trees down there [the South], so I stayed close to my friends  on campus. ... I knew where my place was. Scotty said, 'We don't want any trouble,' " and advised him to avoid joining a fraternity. But there was no trouble attending services at a Church of God in Ruston; "they accepted [me] and that felt good."
      He found friends, too, among the [black] janitors in the Tech gym, who in his second year at school "invited me and Willie Odom to their house and we got a nice home-cooked meal."
      Odom was a walk-on from Shreveport, a 6-2 forward who I had seen play in high school for Bethune. "I asked Coach to keep Willie on the team," George said, "and he did, so I felt they had some respect for me."
      There was respect for his basketball talent, too, although he didn't develop into a "star."
      "He was a good teammate," Dean said. "He was such a gifted athlete. He was not a great player, but he had talent. He was strong, he could run, he could jump. He didn't have a great shot. He'd have to take a pencil and draw in a shot. ...
      "Petey was not a shooter or scorer offensively. He could score off offensive boards and breaks but not off the dribble or in a pattern."
      "He was very athletic; he could run the floor very well," Whitmore said. "He was what today they refer to as 'long.' He didn't shoot that well, but he was an excellent team-type player."
       "I wasn't very good," George said of his arrival at Tech. "I was tall and lanky. But I learned how to move; I knew what to do, how to fit into a team."
        And the big addition to the program in his second year was the second black player on scholarship, Mike Green. Thornton was a good fit; Green was the player to carry a program.
       (Next: Playing with a superstar)


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Petey" Thornton: No flop, then or now

  (Sixth in a series)
     It really hasn't been that long ago. But the significant events of 1968 fade with age.
     So it is with the athletic career of George "Petey" Thornton of Louisiana Tech University.
     He came out of Kirkwood, Mo., with credentials as the top big-class basketball player and one of the top high jumpers in his state. In the fall of 1968, he became Louisiana Tech's first black athlete on scholarship.
     Before the era of integrated athletics in the Deep South, it was an unwritten rule that a school's first black athlete "had to be a good one."
     Actually, it has been that long ago.
     I wrote those first four paragraphs to lead my column in The Shreveport Times on April 26, 1973. The headline: "Petey" Thornton No Flop.
     So, yes, the events have faded with age ... 42 years later. Because I thought of the trailblazing athletes at my schools when integration in athletics happened, I revisited the story of Melvin Russell at Shreveport's Woodlawn High School (previous four blog pieces) and now it's on to George Thornton at Louisiana Tech.
     Perhaps the "had to be a good one" phrase I wrote in 1973 was politically incorrect. Maybe I could have expressed that differently; didn't mean for it to be racially insensitive. Point is, the transition needed to be as smooth as it possibly could be.
George and Judith Thornton (photo from Judith's Facebook
page taken early in 2014)
     Thanks to George and a lot of other people, it was.
      For the first time in those 42 years -- and I am bothered to admit this because I should have done this years ago -- I talked to George recently, and in fact, interviewed him about those times and his life since.
      He remains the upbeat, friendly, soft-spoken and poised young man he was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was a black-athlete pioneer at Tech and a darned successful athlete at that.
      He has some stories, recollections of those times -- a mostly positive experience and, yes, a few regrets. But those have more to do with his own athletic career than any racial or social overtones concerning Tech and the Deep South.
       "I enjoyed Louisiana Tech," he told me in our talk. "I learned a lot, plus the education I received. I met so many good people there, and they treated me well."
       The education meant a B.A. degree in education, which he earned in five years, and an education in life because of the path he traveled.
        As for basketball, he was a four-year letterman but never a "star," a swing player between guard and forward at 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, and not a starter until his senior season when he averaged 12.0 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
         But he was a solid contributor to a conference championship in his sophomore season and then played on two of Tech's greatest teams -- with records of 23-5 and 23-3. Neither of those teams won conference titles because they were edged out by the notorious University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL) teams. (More on that later.)
         In his last three seasons, everyone knew the team's star was the second black scholarship player in the program, the hugely talented 6-10 forward Mike Green. (More on him later, too.)
          "When I first wanted to recruit a black player," Tech basketball coach Scotty Robertson told me in 1973, "I wasn't necessarily looking for a super player, just one who could make it in school and help our program. And 'Petey' had those credentials."
          Green was the super player. It was "Petey" who paved the way for him and the black players who followed.
          And George's contributions extended to track and field. He was a four-year letterman and two-time conference champion in the high jump, competed in the NCAA Championships, and helped Tech win the conference title in 1973.
          (The "flop" reference in the headline of my '73 column is a word play on the high-jump style -- the backward flip over the bar, body and then feet -- which became the standard style in the mid to late 1960s, replacing the old "Western roll" -- leading with one leg -- of decades.)
          George was Tech's first black athlete in track and field, too. But that fact did not faze him.
          "I did not pay attention to that," he recalled. "I knew I was the first in basketball, and the first athlete, but what I came there for was the education."
         He felt he'd be fine in what was an almost all-white university -- Tech did have a few black students at the time -- because "my high school was 70 percent white and 30 percent black. I figured I could get along with all kinds of people ..."
          He is 65 now; he and Judith have been married for 26 years, they live in St. Louis (Kirkwood is a suburb) and there are five daughters, two sons, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. For a decade, George has beens president/owner of St. Louis Avenue Metal Services, and Judith helps him run the business.
          He left Kirkwood in late summer 1968 at his mother's suggestion. He wanted to play at Kansas, but that chance never came. What was intriguing were some junior-college offers that included "some benefits such as cars, "but I wanted to  go to a four-year school. ... My mother is the one who looked after the [recruiting] process. She said 'you need to get away from your friends in this area' and suggested I look around."
          When a recruiter from Louisiana Tech came to Kirkwood High -- he doesn't remember who it was, but says Robertson did not come to the St. Louis area -- he was invited "to come down and looked around."
           On his visit, several factors sold him -- he received a friendly reception everywhere; "they had a beautiful black lady who showed me around the campus ... they knew how to get my attention," he said, with a laugh, "and the training table really attracted me; all the athletes eating in one place, and the food seemed really good." What clinched it was "they promised it would be a four-year deal, even if I got hurt. That was worth $100,000, I figured."
           So Louisiana Tech it was. It would be a new experience for everyone on campus and in the community.
            (Next: Moving into a new era)                   



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Melvin: A "masterpiece" game, lasting memories

Melvin Russell and Larry Davis, with the big trophy
(Fifth in a series)
     Look at the photo on the right -- that state championship trophy is in good hands.
     In the final three games of the Woodlawn Knights' 1968-69 basketball season, Melvin Russell and Larry Davis played the biggest roles.
     For Melvin, it wasn't all about scoring.
     His game was passing the ball, getting it in the right spots, lining up his teammates, and when needed, scoring on jumpers or penetrating drives. His 13.4 points per game didn't keep him from being an All-State selection.
      "He does it all," Woodlawn coach Ken Ivy told Jerry Byrd for a 1969 Shreveport Journal story. "He's a great all-around basketball player."
      What Ivy told me recently was, "He didn't go out to score a lot of points or show off; he was just playing team ball." He pointed out that if fans watched Melvin long enough and often enough "he made believers of those who questioned him being on the team."
      "He wasn't a pure shooter," teammate Wayne Barrett said. "He had a funny shot, kind of a corkscrew motion. It wasn't like my shot or Larry [Davis]; we were smoother. ... But his speed and running the fast break was what made our team so much better. ... Melvin could step it up in the fourth quarter; he was always so strong and in good shape."
      "He gave us leadership, pure D leadership," said Davis, who lives in Shreveport. "Coach Ivy would tell you he was talented, but his role to me was that he kept us all in check, he knew what all of us needed to do. He knew what I was going to do before I knew it.
      "It was a pleasure playing with him. He took a load off Coach Ivy."
      Barrett, the best basketball player to come out of my neighborhood (Sunset Acres) in the 1960s (I knew about him when he was in elementary school), now has an appliance retail business in Bossier City, and says Russell visits once or twice a year.
      "Melvin and I have the same concept about life and basketball," Wayne said. "It's the team concept: Know what your job is and do it right. ... We were a pretty disciplined high school basketball team. Coach Ivy made us run all the time. He'd say, 'We might get beat, but we'll be in great shape.' "
      The Knights had to be in shape to survive their playoff tests. They went to West Monroe, a district champion, in the first round and playing through a flu bug that his some players held off a hot-shooting Rebels team 94-90.
      That set up a quarterfinal game in the Woodlawn gym against De La Salle, champion of the always dominant New Orleans Catholic district and coached by Johnny Altobello, one of the great coaches in Louisiana high school history (eight state and 16 district titles, a 589-92 record, and four more state and seven district titles in baseball).
      "That was one of the best basketball teams and a coach that we ever played against," said Ivy. "They were a tough team to face. If they got the lead, they went to a stall game; they took the air out of the ball."
      It didn't happen. This was Melvin Russell's "masterpiece" game.
     Woodlawn led most of the way and by as much as 13 points. When De La Salle made a closing run, Melvin took over. In the fourth quarter, he was the dominant player, scoring on repeated drives and a couple of jumpers and making crucial steals. He finished with 21 points and Davis had 20.
      Here is the way Jerry Byrd described it in the Journal:
      The turning point of Woodlawn’s 67-62 victory over De La Salle (New Orleans) in the class AAA basketball playoffs last night came while the public address announcer lineups before the game.
      He spoke the magic words that unlocked the door to next week’s “Top Twenty” state tournament at Alexandria: “Melvin Russell.”
      Johnny Altobello, dean of Louisiana prep basketball coaches, pointed toward the Knights’ floor general and told his Cavaliers, “He’s the one you’ve got to stop!”
      The job was to big for the District 5-AAAA champions, however, as Russell did his thing again.
      Meanwhile in New Orleans the same night, Captain Shreve played a tight game against St. Aloysius, the Catholic district runner-up. They swapped momentum all game, trading leads and Shreve looked done for, trailing by six with a little more than a minute remaining. But Mike Harrell -- "Player of the Year" not only in Shreveport-Bossier but also in the state, the best inside player at 6-3 that I saw in that era -- made two last-minute baskets (the last from near midcourt at the buzzer) to force overtime (no 3-point baskets then).
      Then St. Aloysius won in OT, spoiling a possible Woodlawn-Shreve rematch. It wasn't the last time "spoiler" would apply to the Crusaders.
      Woodlawn's other three starters (Mike McGovern, Elton Odom and Barrett) and "super sub" Mark Hollingsworth made their contributions -- especially Odom on the boards -- but the plays at the end of the Top Twenty games came from Russell and Davis.
     Woodlawn opened the semifinal game at Rapides Coliseum extremely tight and fell behind early. With Ivy urging them to relax, they got their running game going and dismissed Lafayette 56-45. Davis scored 20 points and Russell 18.
      So it came down to Woodlawn and St. Aloysius. It was the last basketball game in historic St. Aloysius school history (100 years); the school would merge with another New Orleans Catholic school, Cor Jesu, the next fall and was renamed Brother Martin.
      St. Aloysius, which had reached the semifinals the previous season, had a young team. Junior Skip Brunet and sophomores Dale Valdery and Glenn Masson were three starters (Valdery the year before had become the first black player in state-tournament history).
      Brother Martin, with Valdery and Masson, would haunt Shreveport teams in the state finals the next two years, beating 35-1 Captain Shreve in overtime in 1970 in one of the most memorable games (and tightly over-officiated games; awful, really) in state-tournament history, and upsetting a deep, talented 36-1 Woodlawn team (with Robert Parish as a junior at center) in 1971.
      But Saturday, March 8, 1969, was the Knights' night.
      Before a record state-tournament crowd (12,640), the game began slowly for Woodlawn, just as its semifinal had. St. Aloysius built a six-point lead midway in the first quarter, but soon the Crusaders could not keep up with Melvin.
      He scored 14 first-half points and, as Gerry Robichaux's game story for The Shreveport Times noted, "put on some moves when leading the fast break that brought a roar from even the impartial standing-room-only crowd." (Hey, a lot of us were not impartial.)
      Woodlawn was up 34-28 by halftime, but behind again 38-37 midway in the third quarter. After that, St. Aloysius never led again ... but kept cutting into a Woodlawn lead, four times closing to one point in the fourth quarter.
       Davis just took over from that point. He had five baskets -- three jumpers, one drive, one "snowbird" layup at the end, and two free throws ... 12 points in a 26-point game. Melvin's 16 made him the only other double-figure Knights scorer.
      Then it was time to celebrate. Woodlawn had gone from doormat program to state champion in three years.
       Thing is, it happened again for Melvin Russell 11 years later.
      The 1979 team he coached made the state final, but got beat 14 points by Landry (New Orleans). But he had a strong nucleus of kids returning in 1980 and he had an All-State point guard named Melvin (Youngblood) who was more of a scorer but not as skilled in other areas as the clutch playmaker/defender/team leader of the 1969 state champs.
       The Knights went 31-2, rolled past Ouachita (Monroe) 67-55 in the state final ... and brought home Woodlawn's third tall state basketball trophy.
       Melvin kept much of Ivy's offense when he became the head coach, plus the trapping zone defense and the matchup zone, and the title team he coached -- all black players, as has been the case at Woodlawn for most of the past 4 1/2 decades -- had much more depth and quickness than the '69 team, pressed more defensively and was not as disciplined offensively.

Melvin and Mary Russell: Home today is Arlington, Texas
     "I could always see the game when I played," Melvin said when we met recently. "I knew how to make the adjustments on the floor, and that's what helped me in coaching, too."
      He went from Woodlawn in 1983 to work with his father one year in Dallas, then returned to coaching as an assistant at Northwestern State University for three years, followed by a year as a parttime assistant at Texas-Arlington.
      It's just my opinion, of course, but he was college head coaching material. It didn't happen and he decided that working in the transportation industry, which he had done for more than two decades while based in Arlington, and a steady family life was better than the coaching grind.
      Mary and Melvin, married for 30 years, have five children and seven grandchildren ... and a life.
      Yes, it has its challenges now with the kidney disease and the dialysis. He awaits the kidney transplant and the recovery, but he is planning to return to work after that.
      The people at Woodlawn and Centenary knew it, especially his basketball teammates. His basketball opponents knew it. So did the kids he coached through the years. Here is a young man -- now with a little gray hair and goatee -- who has always known he can handle challenges.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Melvin: The point guard, a student of the game

(Fourth in a series)
    Melvin Russell's first competitive basketball game for Woodlawn, in late November 1968, ended in darkness ... and scared the heck out of him.
    His last competitive game for Woodlawn, on Saturday, March 8, 1969, ended with glory, a trophy with a tall stand topped by a gold basketball. The Class AAA state championship was a memory for the ages. 
    The 1968-69 season had its trials for the team and the pioneer point guard who provided the leadership and many crucial plays for a tightly knit, well-drilled unit. There was some racial taunting and a racial issue involving another school, and there were three setbacks on the court.
     But in the end, there were 33 victories (four tough ones in the playoffs). The learning experience and the bonding made it a season they all would remember so fondly. It's still that way 46 years later.
     Ken Ivy coached high school basketball and then football for more than 40 years, the great majority of those years at Shreveport schools (Woodlawn, Southwood, Captain Shreve). He's retired now -- it was tough for him to leave the sidelines -- and living on homeland in the place he grew up, the town of Sarepta, La. (population 925 in 2000), about 50 miles northwest of Shreveport.
     He is at talkative as ever -- an interview with Ivy will give a writer plenty of material -- and Melvin Russell is one of his favorite subjects.
     "When you told him what we had to do, and why we had to do it, and what his role was, he just knew what do to, what everyone had to do to win a game. Melvin Russell understood what it took in basketball and in life," Ivy said recently. "That's what you're talking about with him."
      Ivy had him as a point guard, then as an assistant coach and then turned over the basketball program to his protege, who not long afterward took two teams to state championship games and won one.  

     He always wanted to play point guard; he always knew he would.
     "I was a student of the game," Melvin told me a couple of weeks ago. "I always watched the point guards -- K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren ... guys like that. Those were the idols of my time."
     And so, after having to sit out of games his first year at Woodlawn (he was a junior) because of an ineligible transfer ruling by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association -- a bogus ruling, in my opinion -- he knew he could step in to lead the Knights his senior year.
     "The system was a perfect match for my game," he said of Ivy's basic 1-4 offensive set (Melvin was the "1") and the matchup zone in which the guard up top was a key. "I practiced with the team every day that first year and I sat and watched the games, and all I had to do was learn everything. I knew that offense and defense like the back of my hand."
     There were no returning starters from the 24-5 team the previous season, Woodlawn's first winning team in eight years the school had existed. But Ivy knew he had talent; he had coached these kids in practices the previous year or two.
     Up front, he had 6-4 center Elton Odom, the team's top rebounder and battler inside, and 6-2 forward Mike McGovern, a quietly efficient scorer (second-best on the team, 16 points per game); at the wings were 6-2 Larry Davis, a prolific scorer (21.4 average and school single-season record 770 points) and 6-2 Wayne Barrett, an accurate shooter from range and the only junior in the group; sixth man Mark Hollingsworth, a 6-1 swing player who got a late start because he was the All-State end and top receiver for Joe Ferguson on Woodlawn's state championship football team; and the point guard who tied it all together.
     Davis was an athletic, exciting leaper who played much bigger than his size. His oldest brother, Wayne, seven years earlier had been Woodlawn's first All-State athlete as an end for the 1961 "Cinderella" district football champions.
     (Melvin and Larry would be teammates for five years, going on to play at Centenary and starring on the 1972-73 that had another Woodlawn guy, Robert Parish, at center.)
     The 1968-69 Knights didn't use many bench players. No need. 
     If there were problems concerning the first black kid to play for Woodlawn -- and in many opposing gyms -- it wasn't on the team itself.
     "I don't remember us even talking about having any [racial] problems about anything,"  Ivy said last week.
     Melvin said one of the reasons for that was his coach. 
     Talking about the "good influences" he had at the school, he said, "Coach Ivy screened a lot of things for me. If we had to eat at a restaurant or stay at a hotel, he checked ahead and made sure it would be OK for me."
     But there were some things Ivy couldn't account for, such as the lights in the Doyline High School gym.
     In the season opener -- Melvin's first game -- Woodlawn visited Doyline, a Class B school in Webster Parish, about 20 miles from Shreveport. Woodlawn was up by more than 20 at halftime and "I made a halfcourt shot at the buzzer," Melvin recalled. "On my way to the dressing room, I could hear the 'N' word out of the crowd."
     It was a stormy night with lightning in the area and just after halftime, the gym lights went out. (In fact, lights were out all over the village.)
     "I thought that was it for me," Melvin said, laughing at the memory. "I went over and hid behind Coach Ivy."
     "The lights go out, and all of a sudden, I feel two arms going around my neck," Ivy said, "and Melvin is holding on tight."
     "If they were going to shoot me," Melvin said, "we were going to go down together."
     "I remember that," said Larry Davis. "There were rumors that something like that might happen. So when those lights went off, we weren't sure what was going on."
      The game did not resume. It was a technical knockout: Woodlawn, 60-37.
      There was another "incident" shortly thereafter when Woodlawn was to play in the Homer Tournament, some 50 miles from Shreveport. The Knights' team was on the school bus ready for the trip when Ivy was told he had a phone call. He returned to the coaches' office, and the Homer coach was on the line.
       "He said, 'Coach, I'm sorry about this, but my principal said you can play in the tournament, but you can't bring that kid [Melvin].' I told him I could go back out on the bus and tell the kids that Melvin couldn't play, and I could guarantee him the other kids wouldn't want to, either. So I told him to cancel us out, and we'd stay home.
       "I went to the bus and told the kids. We got off the bus, went in the gym and had the best scrimmage we had all season."
       If there was taunting from the stands, Melvin didn't hear it. "I was real good at blocking out the crap," he said. "I was into the game. ... I heard of some incidents in the stands, but I never paid attention."
       What he did pay attention to was the officials. "I had some referees who told me that I was going to foul out," he said, "and sometimes I did. So I tried to play real hard early in games and help get our team going."
       Many of the Woodlawn games were relatively easy victories; the team won 18 in a row t start the season, and eight in a row to end it.
       The only losses were two District 1-AAA games with Captain Shreve, 63-60 and 61-56, after Woodlawn won the first meeting of the teams in the final of the Top 16 tournament at Hirsch Center.
        Captain Shreve, only in its second year of existence, had a team superbly coached by Billy Wiggins and led by three juniors -- Mike Harrell, Jeff Sudds (Melvin's junior high teammate and also a "freedom of choice" transfer) and Shelby Houston -- who the next year would be the nucleus of one of the great teams in Shreveport basketball history.
        Woodlawn was missing a starter in both of those games, but the Gators' district title was no fluke. Those might have been the state's best two teams that year, but Shreve wasn't as fortunate in the playoffs as Woodlawn.

       "We always thought having beaten the state champs two out of three," Harrell told me in an e-mail last week, "that we might have a claim to being the best team."
       Woodlawn's only other loss was 63-58 in overtime to Haughton in the Bossier Tournament championship game. Haughton, led by Kenny Covington and coached by Billy Montgomery, was on its way to a second consecutive Class A state title.

        Near the end of the season, though, the Knights were unbeatable.
        (Next: A "masterpiece" game, lasting memories)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Melvin: A long wait, fighting for acceptance

(Third in a series)
      "The story of Melvin Russell [integrating basketball at Woodlawn High School] is that it went smooth as silk because of the kind of person Melvin Russell is. I saw him get knocked into a wall or get knocked to the floor, and he'd just get up, pat the other team's guy on the butt, and keep on playing." -- Ken Ivy, Woodlawn coach, 1965-79
     "You could tell from the start that Melvin Russell was exceptional. Some [black kids] came in with a chip on their shoulder. He wasn't like that. He came in humble, not asking for anything. What he had to go through, what he had to deal with, I knew where Melvin was coming from." -- Woodlawn and Centenary College teammate Larry Davis
Woodlawn's Class AAA state champions, 1968-69
      The year Melvin Russell became a Woodlawn student, the school's basketball program became a winner for the first time. But he didn't play in a game.
      That was a huge blow. He had to sit out his junior season.
      After practicing unofficially with the Woodlawn team since early September and for more than a month after the start of official practice, and with the season about a week away, Melvin was told he would not be eligible for the 1967-68 season.
       The ruling came from the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, which did not acknowledge the "freedom of choice" plan by which Melvin had moved from all-black Union High School to Woodlawn (less than a mile away).
       All these years later, some of us still believe the ruling stunk. Same was true for Jeff Sudds, Melvin's junior high teammate at Union who was a sophomore that year at brand-new Captain Shreve High across town and also was declared ineligible.
       Melvin and his family did not change residences; there was no physical move involved, and they were clearly in the Woodlawn school district by LHSAA standards. The all-black schools such as Union had their own athletic association, their own rules.
       In plain terms, you could look at it as racism. LHSAA officials were not ready for integration in athletics to happen that year in Shreveport.
       "It was disappointing," Melvin said. "But I practiced every day, and I watched every game, and I tried to learn. I learned how to run the offense, what everyone was supposed to do, and I learned all the defenses."
       And when he was eligible the next year, he obviously was ready. He was the floor leader, the 6-foot-1 point guard of the Knights team that was the first in the school's history (ninth year) to make the playoffs ... and then won the state championship.
       What those Knights didn't do was win the district championship. That went to Captain Shreve and its second-year program, including Sudds, a 6-3 forward who with Melvin integrated Shreveport high school ball that year.
       And like Melvin, Sudds and his teammates were in the state championship game the next season. Here were two players worth waiting for, and fun to watch.
       Some Woodlawn basketball background: For the first six years, it was a wasteland, nothing close to a winning record. This despite each year having an All-City player (Charlie Williams, Jimmy Kneipp, Jon Pat Stephenson, Ken Liberto, Larry Bazer), a couple the city's top scorer. 
       In my senior year (as manager/statistician), we were 4-21; the next year the team was 5-22. Then came a coaching change, with Ivy -- the "B" team coach in 1965-66 -- taking over, his first high school head coaching job.
       His first team, with another big scorer (guard Ricky Hayes), went 16-17, missing a winning record with a one-point loss (on a late basket) in the regular-season finale. 
       Then Melvin arrived, and sat out as a team with senior starters Hayes, Bob Turner, Gary Alderman and Mike Sanders, went 24-5 but missed the playoffs, finishing third in a tough district 1-AAA. A late-season loss at home to Bossier, the district runner-up to Byrd, was the difference; Bossier wound up in the state championship game, losing to Al "Apple" Sanders and Baton Rouge High.
       Put Melvin Russell on that third-place Knights team at point guard, and he might have made a difference. 
       The next season he did.
       In basketball, as in school itself, though, he had to battle for acceptance. He couldn't fight the LHSAA, but he did fight an antagonizer in a Woodlawn stairwell, and he had to win over a teammate or two.
        A few weeks after school began and he had joined the basketball program, Melvin was coming from class down the main-building stairwell on the gym end (Woodlawn people will know this location) when he felt something hit him in the back.
       "I've got pretty good peripheral vision, and I saw this kid going up the stairs throw a paper wad at me,' " Melvin recalled. "I turned around and followed him to his class and I caught him and confronted him. I said, 'I don't want any trouble, but if you do something like that again, I'm going to whip your ass.' "
       Next day, same time, almost the same spot, same kid. This time, said Melvin, "he said,  'Don't nobody bump into the nigger.'
       "I grabbed him by the neck of the collar and threw him against the wall," Melvin said. "I remember he had a silver tooth and I was trying to knock it out. I was punching him in the face, but I was thinking to myself about what might happen. I thought I might get ganged up on. But to my surprise, nothing happened."
        As the fight was broken up, "I remember a white girl nearby fainted and they were carrying her off."
        Sent to the office, Melvin explained to "Mr. [J.W.] Cook [then the assistant principal in charge of discipline and devoted athletics fan] what happened. He already talked to some other kids and they verified what I told him. ... He sent me back to class. He knew I didn't start it."
        On his way back to class, a student stopped him and said, "I saw what happened and I don't blame you. I would have done the same thing.' That surprised me, too."
       That was the only physical challenge he had in his time at Woodlawn, but in basketball there were some tough moments, too, early on.
        "Larry Davis couldn't stand me at first," Melvin said. "There was an acceptance period there. But it wasn't so much Larry; we were OK in practice and in the dressing room. It was his friends that couldn't stand him being on the team with me. His friends tried to influence him, and maybe they did. There were some contentious moments between us."
        "I don't think I felt that way; I always had a lot of respect for him," Davis told me last week. "But older people, like my parents, were from another generation; they maybe had different feelings [toward black people]. And there were people [friends] who I didn't understand how they could hold things against certain people, but they did. ... It had always been that way, and maybe there's still some of that today. 
        "But Melvin, he was just a good person."
        They grew to be close; they played together for five seasons (four at Centenary), both in starring roles. 
        In the state championship season, Davis was easily Woodlawn's top scorer. In the last three games of the playoffs, in the stretch of each game, each of them came up big.
        (Next: Winning it all, and Russell's legacy)