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 (nola.com 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) 


  1. From Tommy Canterbury: Remember Petey ... Athlete!
    Coach Robertson was a strong , different person, so good to me. Loved his "offense approach" to all positions on the court.

  2. From Mike Harrell: Brings back memories of being recruited. One reason I went to Bradley was no offers of inducements.

  3. From Maxie Hays: Awesome read. I really did not like Shipley and the USL players BUT they could play the game. I had lots of respect for their abilities. Tech was very good and couldn't beat them in most cases.

  4. From Tom Morris: My favorite, all-time quote from a coach -- After being told by the SLC commissioner to apologize for calling the conference "Mickey Mouse," Beryl Shipley called a presser and said, "I'm sorry, Mickey."