Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A long-ago basketball team that hit the heights

     (First in a series)
     They were our "Triple Towers" -- a basketball team with, if you can imagine, three (nearly) 7-footers.
     It's only been 50 years ago, just a short passage of time. But the memories of the 1966-67 Louisiana Tech University team are clear to those of us who were there.
     It was a championship team, the first Tech team to play in an NCAA Tournament (College Division).
photos from Shreveport Journal, 1967
     And it had that huge front line -- 6-10 senior Bob Watson, 6-11 senior Richard Peek and 7-foot freshman Charlie Bishop. 
     That was unique then ... or in any season. Opposing teams weren't necessarily intimidated, but they took  notice. It had to be one of the country's tallest teams.
     A friend recently suggested I write about those big guys, and that season, and -- to be honest -- although I stay in touch with several of the players from that team, I was not current with the three centers.
     To my dismay, as I began to research, I found on the Internet that Richard Peek, the only one of the three to make a professional regular-season roster, died two years at age 70. Then the news came that Charlie Bishop had died in Ruston -- home of Louisiana Tech -- on Valentine's Day at age 68. 
     I also found a story from May 2014 that Bob Watson was retiring after 29 years as the superintendent of schools in El Dorado, Ark. He still lives in that city, about 53 miles and one hour directly north from Ruston.
     Peek was from Pensacola, Fla., a metropolis compared to the hometowns of Watson (Logan, W.Va.) and Bishop (Summerfield, La.).
     In 1966-67, they were part of a classy, unselfish team -- the best team in our little part of the world. The big guys were fun to watch; the whole team was. 
     These Bulldogs played hard, they were competitive -- and they were smart players. They reflected the head coach, Scotty Robertson. 
     They were serious about winning, but there was lots of joking and laughter. It was a close-knit, friendly, happy bunch, even the team managers and one student sports information assistant/statistician/would-be sportswriter. 
     Watson arrived first, coming to Tech in 1964 as a transfer from home-state West Virginia University, where he spent part of one year. When he became eligible to play for the second semester of the 1964-65 season, he became the tallest player in Tech's long basketball history.
     He joined a team that was talented but lacked any significant height. And he was an immediate sensation, although that would not last.
     Peek arrived a few months after Watson and sat out a season as a transfer. He also originally had stayed in his home state, going as a heralded recruit from Escambia High School to the University of Florida, where he had played for two seasons (one on the freshman team, one as a varsity letterman).
     Peek was a starter from the start for Tech in the 1965-66 season, averaging 17.4 points a game and leading the team in rebounding. He basically replaced Watson, who had been ill and never regained a regular spot.
     A team with no seniors showed promise late in the season, going from a 6-9 record to eight victories in the final 10 games, including the memorable comeback from six points down with 21 seconds to play against Centenary (the "Donnie Henry punch game," subject of a previous blog piece:
      So the only starter not returning for the 1966-67 season was shooting forward George Stone, who opted for a pro baseball career (and made the majors).
     His starting replacement: Charlie Bishop. We went from 6-foot-3 to 7 feet. Prospects for this team were promising.
     Bishop was a true freshman in the fall of 1966, a much sought-after recruit by Robertson (about to enter his third season as head coach at Tech), a player with size that had rarely -- maybe never -- had been seen in North Louisiana. He had some ability, he'd averaged close to 30 points a game for his Class C (smallest classification) school, but he was a raw college prospect.
    Charlie wasn't shy, he was willing to work, eager to learn and Peek -- quiet, reserved, determined and a polished, skilled offensive player with strong moves around the basket -- was a mentor.
    Fans loved them, especially their dunks off lob passes from the wings or guards, as Robertson installed a double low-post offense. That helped beat a lot of teams.
    Watson was the roughest of the three centers and while he played mostly in a mop-up role, the home fans loved him, loved his spirit. He was a crowd favorite. He was all arms and legs, and jerky motion, and action always picked up -- one way or the other -- with him on the floor.
    Peek was drafted by an NBA team, but played with the Dallas Chaparrals the next season, the first season of the American Basketball Association. Two trades and a hurting body convinced him to stop playing ball.
    Watson graduated with a BA degree in Education, then earned a masters' degree in Speech and moved into a 45-year career as an educator/administrator.
    Bishop played three more seasons at Tech and started 97 games in his college career. He was Tech's No. 4 career scoring leader (1,398 points) when he finished, he made all-conference, and his 11.5 per-game rebound average is still fourth on the all-time Tech list (Peek is No. 5 at 10.3).
    Bishop had a shot at the NBA, but a knee injury spoiled that, and basketball was soon over for him.
Bob Watson
     A little-known secret, as I remember it: None of our "Triple Towers" were 7-footers then. Not even Bishop.
     Watson was a hulking 6-10, kind of a stooped figure at times. We listed Peek at 6-11; the next year the Chaparrals made him a 7-footer. His widow, Carole, says he actually was 6-10 1/2.
     And Charlie was listed as 6-11 in high school. Measured before his freshman season, he was 6-11 3/4. Close enough, said Scotty Robertson, let's round it up. So he was listed as 7 feet. Maybe he grew into that.  
    Here is a thought I had: Not many fireman were as tall as Peek (that was his occupation for 33 years in Dallas); not many school superintendents were as tall as Watson; not many industrial mechanics were as tall as Bishop. They were -- pun here -- in the upper echelon of their professions.
     I can tell you for sure that those three big guys were all popular and friends with their teammates.
Charlie Bishop
     Subsequent three blog pieces will tell of the lives of our "Triple Towers." They each had interesting and what I consider rich lives -- careers, many interests, families they were proud of (and families proud of them). They had to deal with tragedy -- a son killed, a spouse's death, and for Peek and Bishop, debilitating health issues in later years that led to their deaths.         
     Louisiana Tech has had many outstanding men's basketball teams, before and after -- 21 conference champions. The 1966-67 team wouldn't make my top five of Tech teams, maybe not even top 10 (when Tech moved to Division I, the schedule got tougher and the talent got better).
      But this isn't an objective sportswriting piece. That "Triple Towers" team in 1966-67 were my guys -- and they still are.

      (Next: A championship team and season)            



  1. From Joe Harris: I see Bob Watson every Sunday morning at church. He did an outstanding job as superintendent of the El Dorado schools.

  2. From Chuck Baker: Interesting. I actually know Mr. Watson from state school board conferences. Ran into him regularly over the past 17 years. Very nice man and well respected in education circles in Arkansas.

  3. From Tommy Canterbury: Great. I remember the first time I saw Charlie. He walked into the Simsboro gym carrying a metal medicine kit. He was already 6-foot-7 or so, in the 8th grade! All 400 people in the gym were stunned.
    We were going to see lots more of him.

  4. From Lee Bishop: Wonderful piece. Daddy didn't talk a lot about his "glory days." Was not aware that Daddy replaced George Stone (one of his pallbearers and one of my high school history teachers).