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.


  1. From Mike McGovern: You have really captured the essence of the final games of the season. Both Larry and Melvin were impressive in every aspect of these games and were becoming more dominant with each game. They both were driven with a desire to win and with the hope of continuing to play at the college level. In the final game, Melvin's defense exceeded his offense. He interrupted their flow, which as you know is very challenging to accomplish from the point guard position. In the final, my man was scoring at will. Melvin and I traded. If we had not traded, my guy might have scored 40 points and we would have lost the game. Melvin was very kind not to have mentioned that he had to step up his defensive play another notch due to my lack of defensive skills. Larry even played defense, particularly during the finals.
    Those were special times. Thanks for the reflection.

  2. From Jesse Grubbs: L.D., as we all called him, was a good basketball player and a very good friend.

  3. From Pat Booras: Some guys, on and off the court, just lead people (by instinct and example). Melvin Russell was fun to watch as a player and then years later as a coach. And yes, championships are defining moments, and the utmost goal for those who play and compete.

  4. From Doug Bland: Makes you proud to be a Knight.

  5. From Joanne Pellegrino: Elsa [Van Thyn] has told me so much about Melvin and with your blog, I wish I knew him.