Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Charlie Bishop: Always "the gentle giant"

A good free-throw shooter -- especially for a 7-footer -- Charlie Bishop, left, against Southwestern Louisiana in February 1967,
 Louisiana Tech's biggest victory in his title-winning freshman season. That's  Richard Peek (44, in white).
The game drew a sellout, overpacked crowd to old Memorial Gym. (Photo provided by La. Tech sports information department) 
    (Fifth in a series)
    When Charlie Bishop died a couple of weeks ago, it was sorrowful news for those of us who remember him. Seven-foot people are a rarity.
    He was a basketball player in the 1960s, a star at Louisiana Tech University, and for many of us, a bit of a legend. He was, as several friends noted, "a gentle giant."
    The end came on Valentine's Day when his system shut down. Many woes -- the death of a wife and then a long string of physical challenges, including amputation of much of his right leg and a broken bone in his left leg -- made the last two decades somewhat difficult for him. He was 68.
    He had two children who are proud of him -- and he was proud of them; he became a grandfather; and he married again (Barbara) and gained four stepkids. And he almost never stopped hunting and fishing, and working.
    We identified him, of course, long before as the "big kid" in basketball.
    He was, in the spirit of this series, the third part -- the youngest part -- of the "Triple Towers," three near 7-footers on Tech's 1966-67 conference championship team. Charlie was the closest of the three to 7 feet.
    I write without hesitation that at one time he was (1) the best basketball player from tiny Summerfield, La., and (2) the best 7-foot player from North Louisiana.
    And then he wasn't.
    Two all-time greats, both NBA stars and Basketball Hall of Fame inductees, erased that Bishop legacy.
    A few years later, Robert Parish -- from Shreveport -- became the 7-foot all-timer in North Louisiana.
    And about Summerfield, here's what you should know (and many do) ... that's Karl Malone's hometown.
    Some 15 years younger than Bishop, Malone -- not quite "The Mailman" yet -- did what Bishop couldn't do at Summerfield High School -- he led his team to a state championship. In fact, Malone led Summerfield to three consecutive championships (1979-81) in Class C, the state's smallest classification.
      And then Karl, picking up his famed nickname, delivered in college, too -- also replacing Bishop as the best player from Summerfield to star for Louisiana Tech.
    But Charlie stood tall in his time.
    He's still in the Tech record books, most notable for 33 rebounds in one game -- against Centenary as a freshman. I will vouch that 33 is the legitimate number; I kept the stats that night (and the guys from that era will tell you I wasn't charitable.)
    A season later, he had 39 points in one game (at Louisiana College), one of his four 30-point games at Tech. He had 1,398 points (at that time, only three Tech players had ever scored more) and 1,115 rebounds in 97 games.
    Some games he simply was the most dominant player on the floor -- just as he had been at Summerfield (but against lesser opposition).
    As a freshman on the 1966-67 Tech team, he was the final piece in an otherwise veteran team that rolled to a conference championship, a 19-7 regular-season record, and Tech's first NCAA postseason tournament (College Division).
    "What Charlie did that first year was important," said Leon Barmore, the senior guard, leading scorer and co-captain of that team. "He was very good at doing his job and blending in.
    "He was good at being the second trailer on the [fast] break. He could make the jumper from the perimeter; his scoring wasn't just around the basket. He had a nice shooting touch."
    In that season's most important game, a victory against a heralded, talented Southwestern Louisiana team that was led by the first African-American players to play against all-white teams in our area, Charlie had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
    Summerfield has no stoplight, not even a blinking light. Some call it a small town; I'd call it a place. Might be 1,000 people. It is at the top of once oil-rich Claiborne Parish, nearly into Arkansas.
    You have to be going there; it's rural.
    But college basketball coaches knew the way in the mid-1960s, or found where the Rebels were playing. Because this very tall young man was scoring 30 points a game, just overwhelming opponents. He showed promise to be a centerpiece for a program.
    Louisiana Tech head coach Scotty Robertson was a regular Summerfield visitor and got to know the Bishop family well.
The scholarship signing photo, spring 1966: (from left) Louisiana Tech
coach Scotty Robertson, big Charlie, Summerfield principal-coach
Bill Bailey (photo provided by Jan Bailey Carter)
    Summerfield is an easy trip to Ruston and Louisiana Tech, about 35 miles, maybe 40 minutes. And Tech had some recruiting advantages.
    The Summerfield principal-coach -- yes, one and the same -- was Bill Bailey, a standout Tech basketball player in the early 1950s, and he still loved the place. There was a student  -- team manager in basketball -- at Tech, Brian "Butch" Smart. His job, we kidded him, was to recruit Charlie Bishop.
    And so there was Charlie, in his red-and-white Summerfield letter jacket (large, extra long), sometimes sitting behind the Tech bench for home games. At times his parents were there, too, and very tall younger sisters Sandra and Cindy.   
    All the area schools wanted him -- and maybe he wasn't a major-college prospect -- but Charlie and the two Bishop girls were a cinch to go to Tech.
    He was Robertson's prize recruit ... until Mike Green three years later.
    And let's be honest here -- Tech paid a price (literally). The NCAA investigated the recruiting and a few years later, the Tech program went on NCAA probation for "extra" benefits given -- if I recall -- to Bishop (and his family) and Green.
    (Both Bishop girls played basketball for Summerfield, too, and were the leaders of teams that played in four consecutive Class C state championship games -- with titles in 1967 and '68, and as runner-ups in '69 and '70.
    This was pre-Lady Techsters days, so they were just students at Tech. Sandra went on to play for pay with the All-American "Red Heads," a Globetrotters-like women's touring exhibition team in which all the players -- aha -- had red hair.)
    Charlie arrived at Tech -- young, inexperienced, goofy at times but affable, able to take the teasing he often received from teammates and taunting from opposing crowds.
    "He was a big, good ol' country boy who was very easy to get along with," Bud Dean, a starter at forward as a senior the same season (1969-70) as Charlie, told a sportswriter from The Shreveport Times recently.
     Longtime Ruston Daily Leader sports editor O.K. "Buddy" Davis, a Tech student in the mid-1960s: "My lasting memory of Charlie was some oversized shorts that would invariably droop and he'd have to make necessary adjustments on the run."
     And Butch Smart -- a future outstanding coach and subject of one of my early blogs http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/05/hes-taken-life-to-max.html -- was his advisor/guide/protector. He made sure Charlie was where he was supposed to be and doing what he was supposed to do.
     With Coach Robertson pushing him, and fellow big men Richard Peek and Bob Watson and the other team veterans showing the way, Charlie was a fit.
     There were -- and are -- people who felt Bishop didn't fulfill his potential at Tech, that he was lazy. I don't agree.
     As a senior, he teamed Green -- then a 6-10 freshman sensation, and in my opinion, Tech's best-ever player (better there than Malone or Paul Millsap) -- and that season ended with a 17-5 record and conference championship, too. So it was two titles in four years for Bishop.
     He led the team in scoring one season, in rebounding twice, and he made all-conference.
     "He was a rawboned, raw talent when he got there," said Jon Pat Stephenson, who started at small forward in Bishop's freshman season, "and he was pretty darned good when he left.
     "Charlie just tried really hard, harder than any of the others in the bunch. He probably improved more than anyone we had there in that time. ... I think Scotty did a great job with him."
     Tommy Gregory, a forward who teamed up front with Bishop two seasons and practiced against him often:  "Charlie helped us to the conference championship that year but could not play in the playoffs as a freshman.  Stupid NCAA rules then as well as the no-dunk rule the following year."
     Jim Pruett, a starting guard for two seasons with Bishop: "Charlie was a good human being and a very good basketball player. He had a good touch around the rim and greater [shooting] range than most big guys of that era. If he got hot, stopping him was a tough proposition."
    Pruett also recalled this: "Gentle giant. ... Periodically, something (probably Scotty) would set him off and it would be almost funny to see him angry ... because it just didn't fit him."
       In the 1970 NBA Draft, the Cincinnati Royals -- then coached by Boston Celtics legendary guard Bob Cousy -- picked Bishop in the sixth round.
    As Barmore, visiting with Charlie at a nursing home in his final months, recounted for The Shreveport Times: "He told me about going to Willis Reed's camp in the Catskills and every night he played in pickup games with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Walt Frazier and Oscar Robertson. Can you imagine playing with all those guys?"
    Then Charlie tore up a knee, and needed surgery. He never went back to basketball.
    Maybe he lacked the drive for rehab or felt the game, the NBA player, were too fast, too talented, for him to compete.
    Soon he was married, had a family, stayed in the Ruston area and worked -- at T.L. James Construction, on oil platforms in south Texas, at Louisiana Pacific and then for the last couple of decades at Pabco Insulation, located in Grambling. Mostly he was a heavy equipment manager.

Charlie, with his children -- Lee and Hope
    He didn't dwell on basketball and was not a regular at Tech games. He did play in a few alumni vs. faculty games, said his son, Charles William Bishop III, known as Lee.
    "Daddy, as far as I can remember, always followed Tech's program," Lee said. "He would listen to games on the radio. ... I know he missed basketball just by the excitement I would see in him when he listened to Tech games, as well as the few times he took us to the games."
    Charlie's daughter, Hope Neuroth, is 45. Lee is 41, 6-foot-3 and a 17-year policeman in Monroe, La.
    Tommy Gregory: "I was truly touched by his son when he spoke at Charlie's funeral. A really moving testament of Charlie's life."
    In that eulogy, Lee told of his father's modesty: "... I learned of Daddy's basketball accomplishments through passing." How strangers would stop him and ask if he was the Bishop from Summerfield and Tech, as if 7 feet wasn't a clue. (With his bushy red beard, though, maybe he was not recognizable.)

     Lee: "Daddy as always would stand there with his hands on top of one another in front of him rocking slightly back and forth and would reply 'yes, m'am' or 'yes sir.' And would politely excuse himself from the conversation."
    Lee later added, "... But that was Daddy. He didn't brag or boast unless it was about his kids, nephews, nieces or [four] grandchildren."
    Lee spoke of Charlie's tough discipline at times with an "attitude adjuster" paddle, and of learning from his father about "a strong work ethic," "a strong family bond," "the value of self-worth, integrity, respect for others, and the satisfaction of doing for yourself. 
    "... But most of all Daddy and Mama taught us to have a sense of selflessness to put others ahead of yourself and for that I am truly grateful."

    He taught Lee about hunting, fishing, marksmanship, skiing, building and fixing things, how to cut steel and weld, how to start a garden, and how to barbecue the Southern way -- charcoal and wood, no gas.

    But in some ways, Lee said, he was "very 'old school.' He'd get our kids or Hope's kids to show him how to use an I-phone, how to do things on it."

    Most importantly, he taught about pain, life ... and death.
       "Daddy was a very loving father who taught me growing up the meaning of chivalry by example," Lee said. "He always would open doors for mama brought her flowers and candy and loved her passionately even after she was called home 16 years ago."  
     His health problems mounted over the years. The original knee problem evolved into two painful knees, for years. In 2006, Charlie had double knee replacement surgery. A fall led to a re-injury in his right knee and an implant replacement. 
     More trouble with that knee, subsequent surgeries in Houston -- and then the amputation of the lower part of that leg, and he began to learn to use a prosthetic leg.
    "He eventually fell and broke his hip and had to have hip surgery," Lee said. "He never walked again after that."
    Then he fell over in his wheelchair and broke his left femur, requiring a bone graft to repair, in September 2015.
    That led to respiratory issues during the operation, a prolonged hospital stay, recovery time and physical therapy in an assisted living center, and finally a return home right before Thanksgiving.
    Pneumonia in January 2016 sent him to the hospital -- for good.
    "He did not let it get the best of him," Lee said of all the problems. "He still did things he liked -- went fishing, shooting," and he was ready to go after deer again this year with a new rifle.
    A friend suggested that Charlie, over the years, "was kind of a loner, withdrawn from society" and that perhaps "his life had not turned out like he thought it would."
    Jim Pruett said that "Charlie and I reconnected a few years ago when Scotty was sick, and we talked periodically ever since. I did not know he was nearing the end.
    "Last time I saw him, at Butch [Smart]'s funeral [late May 2013], he was in a wheelchair with his wife rolling him around. Strange sight to see a 7-footer in a wheelchair.
    "Still, he was as friendly and as gentle as ever. I will miss him."
      Almost strangely, in his last years, Charlie was deferential to his old friends and teammates, addressing them as "Mr. (last name)" instead of by first name. He was told -- repeatedly -- he didn't need to do that, but it remained that way.
    Maybe it was because it was manners, that's how he was taught. It was his gentle way.
    "I always enjoyed visiting with him," said Leon Barmore. "He was such a polite man."


  1. From Jack Thigpen: Wonderful series on the three BIG men. All three were super individuals as well as good players. Thanks for bringing back the memories and giving information on each that I did not know.

  2. From Maxie Hays: Great read. Awesome series about big men at Tech. However, Jackie Moreland was as good as any of them, in my opinion.

  3. From Danny G Norris: Great writing. Thanks for the memories and helping to relive some great moments and people in Tech sports history.

  4. From Joe Harris: Enjoyed reading about these men. They came along behind me at Tech but made me proud that I was a Bulldog. Oh, and Scotty [Robertson] was our coach at Vivian [High School]. Came there my senior year.

  5. From Leon Barmore: Thanks for the stories on the "big three," brought back great moments we all had. Well done.

  6. From Jimmy Russell: Did not know much about Charles Bishop, but remembered seeing him play. When I got out of college, he was at Summerfield and I had someone who knew Bill Bailey take me to Summerfield to apply for the [coaching] job. Bill told me and the person with me that there had been some problems with the former men's basketball coach and he was going to coach them. Anyway, at that time I certainly was not ready for something like that but did not have enough sense to know it.

  7. Dr. Robert Haley: Have read with interest your blogs on Louisiana Tech athletics. I was especially drawn to the ones that mentioned Summerfield. I spent my first five years in that thriving metropolis. My Dad was coach-principal there until we moved to Homer in 1945.
    The people of Summerfield were very gracious and caring, and our family remembers their kindness.

  8. From Lee Bishop: That was a great series of articles. I truly found them informative and they were a great read. If Daddy were still around, I think he would have enjoyed rehashing memories from the "good ol' days." Thank you again for the time and effort you put into the articles.