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)

1 comment:

  1. From Jimmy Russell: I enjoyed reading this. ... [As a coach] Melvin ran the same things [Ken] Ivy ran when Melvin was his player. I did not realize Melvin had trouble with any racial things -- my ignorance. That about Homer is disgraceful.