Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sweet Lou: From Webster to Globetrotters

     "Certainly Dunbar and Woodlawn's 7-foot junior Robert Parish rank as the most dominant players in the Shreveport area this year."
     -- my column, The Shreveport Times sports section, Dec. 20, 1970
Sweet Lou Dunbar today (photo from
ESPN telecast)
---
     The late, great Meadowlark Lemon was not my favorite Harlem Globetrotter. Sweet Lou Dunbar was.
     He was only Louis Dunbar -- not yet "Sweet Lou" -- when I met him and first watched him play basketball late in 1970. He was playing for Webster High in Minden, La., and his game was as sweet as any I've ever seen in high school.
     How fortunate I was that in my second year as a fulltime sportswriter, I covered games and wrote about the two greatest high school basketball players I've seen. Both would become legends.
     Robert Parish is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame after a 21-year  NBA career in which he played more regular-season games than anyone. Louis Dunbar is among the Harlem Globetrotters "Legends," a player for 25 years -- their "clown prince" for much of that time -- and the past 14 years their director of player personnel and a bench coach.
     Which is why I tuned in last week when the Harlem Globetrotters' 90th Anniversary Show came on ESPN. I wanted to see what it would have on Meadowlark, who died Dec. 27, and if Sweet Lou was part of the show.
     And there he was, the (very) big man in the dark suit sitting on the Globetrotters' bench, a few pounds (well, a lot) past his playing weight at Webster and the University of Houston. He was tall and thin then -- "sleek" is what comes to mind -- an explosive jumper, great passer and ballhandler (as his Trotters' days proved) and superb shooter. 
     He was, as many have called him, Magic Johnson before Magic. At 6-foot-9, he could play any position -- center, forward, point guard -- and did. Excelled at all.
     After he got to Houston, he grew an enormous Afro -- the subject of an earlier blog piece http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/07/it-was-only-willie-mays.html because when we ran his photo on the sports front of The Shreveport Times, the editors told us no-no. 
     The hair is shorter now, and much of it is gray. So is his goatee. He is -- hard for me to believe -- 62 (4 1/2 months younger than Parish). But I recognized him instantly sitting on that bench.
The young man from Webster
High School (1970 Shreveport
Times photo)
     Good to see Louis. The young sportswriter who talked to him after a few Webster games in 1970 and '71 and saw him again a couple of years later did not ask enough questions to draw out the delightful, upbeat personality. He was a polite, bright young man, not as reticent as Parish.
     He probably never before had talked to a white sportswriter. Little did I think that later he would entertain and keep audiences laughing for years and years. Maybe he didn't either. We both probably thought he'd be a college and NBA star. 
     And he was a star, an All-American choice by some, at the U. of Houston. Saw him a couple of times after Houston played Centenary in the early 1970s, when Dunbar and Parish (and their teams) had some epic battles -- just as they'd had in high school -- and the last time I talked to him was in the early 1990s when I called him at the Globetrotters' hotel when they played in Jacksonville, Fla., where I was working.
     Just after halftime of the ESPN show last week, we saw him up close on screen.
     Sideline broadcaster Sam Gore began: "A legend, Sweet Lou Dunbar. We lost one of the great showman on this earth, Meadowlark Lemon. Your thoughts about Meadowlark, Lou?"
     "He was my mentor," Lou answered. "My very first year with the Harlem Globetrotters (1977), I played with Meadowlark and Curly [Neal], and he [Meadowlark] taught me everything I know about this game of Harlem Globetrotters basketball, and he is going to be truly missed.
     "I mean he's a legend in his own time. And for those of you who did not know Meadowlark, he was the Harlem Globetrotters."
     With that, Sweet Lou went back to the bench and began laughing -- just as always -- at routines he has seen hundreds of thousands of times. The Globetrotters, if you love seeing a basketball move at rapid paces and slick ballhandling tricks and dribbling, are still fun to watch.
 ---
     My most vivid memory of Dunbar's final season at Webster: The state championship game in Class AA (third-highest in Louisiana then) and Webster about to win it all, with Louis practically dribbling out the final 3-4 minutes by himself and making the free throws his team needed to hold on.
     The 75-68 victory against Franklinton -- which had won the state title the year before -- ended a 34-1 season for Webster.
     Reminded of that record by my source at The Times, my far-back memory told me that the lone loss was to Silsbee, Texas, in a tournament. So the Wolves did not lose to a Louisiana team.
     They also did not play against Woodlawn and Parish, a team that was -- my opinion -- the best (most talent, most depth, most size) of the five Woodlawn teams that reached state championship games in a 12-year period.
     Webster vs. Woodlawn, Dunbar vs. Parish, would have been a super matchup. But Woodlawn was in Class AAAA, two classes above Webster, and the respective coaches did not schedule a meeting.
     As my 1970 column noted, Webster and Dunbar had faced Parish -- then at all-black Union High -- in the previous season. Webster beat Union twice in the regular season, but Union won the bidistrict state playoff game (Parish led his teams, Union and Woodlawn, to four consecutive state tournaments). Parish scored 30, 25 and 29 points to Dunbar's 22, 31 and 24.
     Parish fouled out of both of his 1971 state tournament games. Dunbar, with two dominating performances, was an easy choice for "Outstanding Player" in the state tournament; by acclamation, if I remember the sportswriters' vote.
---
     Some background: Integration of Louisiana high school began in earnest in January 1970, but many all-black schools remained open for the rest of the school year. In the fall of 1970, many of those schools were phased out or made middle schools -- which is why Parish went from Union to Woodlawn. 
     But Minden -- 30 miles east of Shreveport on Interstate 20 -- was a holdout, and its all-black school (Webster) remained open, leaving Minden High only partially integrated. (In many parishes, private schools -- all white -- opened to skirt forced integration.)
     So Webster kept its powerhouse basketball team intact, and Dunbar & Co. remained with the already legendary Webster coach, a kindly old man -- at least he seemed like it to me -- named Ozias Johnson. 
     Much of my 1970 column is about him because by then his teams had won 818 games, which made him the winningest coach in the state (75.2 percent). His Webster teams had won state titles in the all-black athletic organization in 1961 and 1962 with 45-3 and 43-2 records, and they kept winning, with four 30-wins-plus seasons after that, including 31-3 in Dunbar's junior year.
     As a young man, Johnson had gone to Grambling when it was a junior college and in his mid 20s and early 30s -- before Eddie Robinson began coaching there -- Ozias was the head football coach for a couple of games and then the head basketball coach. That was only a partime job; he also was the postmaster in Grambling. 
     He was a soft-spoken, smaller man (maybe 5-7, 5-8), pleasant and humble. He was fortunate to have talented players on hand, and he knew how to get them to play together. (And to put it into perspective, Coach Johnson was 60 when I wrote about him; he seemed old to me then. Not now.)
     The 1970-71 Webster team had other quality players -- a 6-3 guard, Con L. Flournoy, and 6-6 junior forward Billy Bennett. But Dunbar was the man. In leading the Wolves to an 11-0 record when I wrote the column, he had averaged 30.1 points, 15.2 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game. Flournoy was averaging 22.9 points. 
     I don't recall their final stats, but they likely were in the same range ... pretty impressive and probably accurate. (Webster had a very good statistician, a sharp kid named Rodney Seamster.)
     Johnson told me then that Dunbar had developed more quickly than any player he'd ever had: "He played for me as a freshman and he's the only one to  do that."  
     Ozias, who had arrived at Webster in 1946, coached only two more seasons and finished with 889 victories. Few have topped that. But the smartest thing he did in 1970 and '71 was let Dunbar run the show -- player/coach, perhaps -- on the floor.
---
     Obviously Dunbar was being recruited by every college that thought it had a chance. While I was visiting Webster, a coach from LSU called to check when the team was playing again. But LSU, where Press Maravich was in his next-to-last season as head coach, didn't have a chance. No one did, except Houston.
     The word was that Houston was going to outbid everyone for Dunbar. Yeah, read between the words.
     Houston was an independent and had a reputation as an "outlaw" program, in football and especially in basketball under Coach Guy V. Lewis. Was it fact? Can't recall an NCAA probation ever, but Lewis and his chief assistant/recruiter, Harvey Pate, had recruited some great Louisiana talent in the 1960s, notably future NBA stars Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney.
     (The story is that Pate, recruiting Dunbar, made himself at home in Minden and in the Dunbar home. Near signing day, Pate sat next to the phone at the Dunbars. When it rang, he picked up the receiver ... and hung it up. True? Who knows?)
     Lou became one of Houston's top players ever. Here is the link to a 2011  story for a Houston-area newspaper that caps his UH and Globetrotters careers:
     http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/bay_area/sports/sweet-lou-dunbar/article_2a1966a7-4520-5b64-bdde-28c8540a87e6.html 
     He certainly was a fit between the Hayes/Chaney NCAA Final Four teams of the mid-1960s and the Phi Slama Jama teams -- Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Co. -- that twice lost NCAA title games in the 1980s.
     Houston wasn't as successful in Dunbar's time, but a tough opponent for anyone ... including Centenary (and Parish). Dunbar was in a lineup with Dwight Davis and Dwight Jones, each also about 6-foot-10, and that was much for Parish to handle. But there were some classic Houston-Centenary games in the '70s.
     I saw one matchup at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston in which Parish, a freshman, outplayed all three of those guys -- probably the best game I saw Parish play for Centenary (and he played a lot of great ones). Houston won, but tight officiating was one factor.
     In the return game at Centenary, Parish again starred -- except for the finish. Fouled while shooting as the clock ran out, with Houston ahead by one point, he had two free throws. The clock read 0:00, no one lined up on the lane, and Centenary's No. 00 stood alone. Win, tie, or lose. There was another zero.  Miss. Miss.
     The next season, though, Parish and Centenary got the best of Dunbar and Houston in the Gold Dome in Shreveport -- maybe the most significant of Centenary's 89 wins in the Parish Era.
     Parish and Dunbar never faced each other again. Lou was headed to the NBA a year earlier than Robert, or so we thought. Didn't happen.
      Next: Part II -- Minden's best ever?


11 comments:

  1. From Jerome Vascocu: Being a Minden guy (Class of '66), I had a great appreciation of the Dunbar family. Louis's dad was a deputy sheriff and as fine a man as you could ever meet. Louis himself was a source of great pride for us. Amazing skills. And a first-class guy. It's always risky to rank players, but I'd say in the category of "Best pair of players from same town in Louisiana," Lou Dunbar and Jackie Moreland (of '50s vintage) would be hard to top.

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  2. From Jack Thigpen: I was in the Army during that time. On one visit home my father-in -law, who lived just south of Minden in Heflin, asked if I would like to go see the best basketball player in North Louisiana play. Off we went to watch Lou Dunbar. He was then, and still is, the best high school basketball player I have ever seen play. What a talent -- as you said he could do everything. A number of years later I got to see him as a Globtrotter and meet him in person. A wonderful man and great ambassador for basketball.

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  3. From Patrick Cobb: Thanks. Got to talk to Lou for a bit many years ago when the Trotters came to Billings (Montana). My kids thought I was a big deal because I was talking to a Globetrotter.
    I remember the Houston game when Parish missed the free throws. Dad and I couldn't believe it. Good thing it didn't ruin his career.

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  4. From Charlie Tyler: Thanks. Louisiana Tech Coach Scotty Robertson was on a recruiting trip to Shreveport in 1968, and my Byrd teammates Joe Cordill and Steve Robertson and I had dinner with Coach. He was getting ready to leave when he announced he was going to Valencia High School to scout James Speed. When he said, "Do you guys want to go?" we jumped at the offer. Valencia was playing Webster High, and everyone was there to see Speed, but a sophomore named Louis Dunbar stole the show. He literally spent the game above the rim, and the visitors upset Valencia with Dunbar scoring 30-plus. Great memory of a truly great player. Thanks again.

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  5. From Tim Looney: Oddly enough, I remember playing against him in a small town (near Minden) independent men's tournament. Must have been in the 1970s, I guess. His team CRUSHED us, of course!

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    1. Update from Tim Looney: I stand corrected on my earlier comment. Our ragtag team actually BEAT Sweet Lou's team that day in Minden! I was thinking of another game. How could I forget that?

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  6. Ross Montelbano: Great article, as always. Do you have an opinion as to why Dunbar chose the Globetrotters over the NBA?

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    1. The 76ers were building a championship team -- Billy Cunningham, George McGinnis, Darryl Dawkins, Lloyd (World B.) Free and others, and Dr. J the next year. It was going to be difficult to get playing time plus big money (they drafted four players ahead of him). Think he saw the Globetrotters as something he could do -- he had the skills and the personality -- and a chance to make decent money and travel the world. Might have been tired of the competition, too.

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  7. From Billy Hathorn: Good work; one must have something like a photographic memory to be a sportswriter. It's a never-ending tale of strategies and statistics.

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  8. From Tommy Canterbury: First year to coach at Springhill -- I was barely 23 -- and we were Class AAA, the first year of high school integration. We played Woodlawn and Robert; I believe we played Webster the next year, in Minden. ...
    Louis Dunbar was the best high school player I ever saw ... Period! Orlando Woolridge reminded me of him, but nobody got it done as effortlessly as Sweet Lou!
    Great blog.

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  9. From Danny Walker: Just now read about Lou and Parish. I had the pleasure of officiating the game when Parish missed both free throws. What a wonderful life we had and still have.

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