Thursday, March 3, 2016

Richard Peek: A man for many seasons

      (Fourth in a series)
      One cold March day in the mid-1970s, Richard Peek was off duty from his fireman's job and went fishing with a buddy on the banks of the Trinity River in Dallas.
Richard Peek (44): A big man who could play
in the mid-1960s (photo from Louisiana Tech
sports information office)
      Within their sight, a boat overturned, and two men and a little boy went under the water.
      Peek had trained as a paramedic at the start of his 33-year career with the Dallas Fire Department. He saw the danger; without hesitation, he dove in the water.
      He saved one man and the boy. Unfortunately, the other man -- the boy's father -- drowned.
       Richard came home still wet and disheveled. His wife, Carole, asked what happened. "He was real quiet about it," she remembers. He said, 'I had to go in the water.' No further details.

       Three days later, Carole found out what had happened. The story had been reported in the papers and friends of the Peeks were calling.
       President Gerald Ford soon sent a letter of commendation. The Carnegie Foundation offered a financial reward. Richard refused to accept it.
       "Anything he did as a fireman or as a person, he didn't talk about himself," Carole said.
       We're here to write about him. We remember Richard Peek as a basketball player, the 6-foot-11, 230-pound center who played two seasons for Louisiana Tech University, the second as one of the "Triple Towers" of the 1966-67 conference championship team coached by Scotty Robertson.
       That was his senior season and he was -- my view -- the quietest, most steady player on that team and perhaps its most important player, a skilled and tough inside force.
       He was the only one of those Bulldogs to play professionally, one season with the Dallas Chaparrals.
       Beyond basketball, he was a man of many interests. He lived a full life -- as an outdoors person, an adventurer, an achiever, and particularly as a family man.
       Richard Peek died on Feb. 16, 2014, in Tyler, Texas, at age 70, after a steady, debilitating health decline -- Parkinson's and then Lewy body dementia.
       It was a tough and challenging last few years, physically and emotionally, for Carole as she had to try to move his big body when he was unable to do so on his own.
       They had moved after his Fire Department retirement and three decades of living in Garland, Texas -- east side of greater Dallas -- to a place in the country near Chandler, just outside of Tyler. That was to be nearer kids and grandkids, but the difficulty of his illness forced another move even closer, to Whitehouse.
     He and Carole -- friends since junior high days in Pensacola, Fla. -- were married for 49 years, with three children (Michael, 47; Julia Ann Cole, 45; and Jeffery, 41) and seven grandchildren. Jeffery is the tallest of the kids, at 6-7.
      Richard came to Louisiana Tech following two years in the University of Florida program. After sitting out a year as a transfer, practicing with the Tech team along with 6-10 Bob Watson (who became eligible a half-season earlier than Peek), it was easy for his teammates to be impressed.
      "He was a very good player, a pretty polished low-post player," said Leon Barmore, one of the guards in those years. "He had post moves that a lot of guys in that time didn't have. He'd leave guys guarding him in the post just standing there."
      Jimmy Pruett, the other starting guard: "Richard Peek was a very good player, steady, dependable. All-[conference]. Could score, defend, rebound, and was all about winning. ... Not particularly outspoken. ... He wanted to do the right thing and win."
      Tommy Gregory, a reserve forward who often teamed with Peek and had to guard him in practice: "I remember him as a hard-working player, good around the hoop and a good rebounder with a good mid-range shot. He was a tough, unselfish player."
     Peek led Tech in rebounding both of his seasons, and averaged 17.4 points a game as a junior and 14.1 the next year on a balanced team that went 20-8 overall and 11-1 in the conference (Gulf States).
     As a senior, he was the steady center who could be dominant, but sometimes it was excitable 7-foot freshman Charlie Bishop who had the big games.
     Part of Peek's role was as a mentor to Bishop, working on moves around the basket for the inexperienced rookie.
     "Coach Robertson told Richard when he came to Tech that he hadn't coached players that big," said Carole, "so Richard was sort of an assistant. He helped devise some of the drills for the center.
     "He really loved playing for Scotty Robertson."
        He did not love playing for Norm Sloan -- "Stormin' Norman" -- at Florida.
     Richard had starred at Pensacola's Escambia High School (later Emmitt Smith's school), and his size and ability made him a prime recruit for the Gators, who'd never had much success in the sport.
     After a year on the freshman team, he lettered on the Florida varsity as a sophomore -- a 12-10 team, 6-8 in the SEC (tied for ninth in a 12-team league). And he wasn't happy.
     Sloan was the coach and, said Carole, "Richard didn't like the players he was with. He was his own person, and there was so much mischief going on." So he looked to transfer.
     The connection to Tech was Escambia coach George Hill, who was friends with Tech first-year assistant coach Don Landry. Escambia, in Peek's years there, had played against Landry's St. Aloysius (New Orleans) teams two years in a row.
     So when Hill called Landry asking if Tech might be interested in a 6-11 center, the answer was "sure." "I knew what a good player he was," said Landry, and Robertson had Peek come to Ruston for a visit.
     "They wined and dined him at a ranch there," Carole recalled, "and he was a big hunter and fisherman. He saw that area was good for that."
     It was a fit, along with Robertson's promising program.

      More from his teammates:
      "Richard and I were close; we were roommates [on the road-game overnight stays]," said Barmore, the future Hall of Fame women's basketball coach. "We umpired kids' baseball games together one summer. Can you imagine a 7-foot guy squatting behind home plate?"
      "He knew how to handle the ball, and knew how to pass it," said Jon Pat Stephenson, the starting small forward in Peek's two seasons. "He could handle a lob pass than the other two [centers, Bishop and Watson]. We beat a lot of teams with those lobs."
     Barmore and Stephenson each remembered one Peek move with the ball in the low post. "He would dip his left shoulder and spin back the other way," Barmore said. "He'd leave guys guarding him just standing there."
      "He made that look easy," Stephenson said, "and he'd have a layup or a dunk."
     Pruett: "As I recall, his points were mainly in close, certainly inside 10-12 feet, although he was not a great leaper. An excellent college player, but maybe not quite agile enough or strong enough for the NBA.
     "Kind of the classic big man of that era -- and our best big guy while he was there. I only got to play with him one year. He was definitely the key player added -- from outside our area -- in making us a championship team.
      "He was really a nice person, kind of quiet, easy to be around, although I was only around him (and his wife) at basketball-related times."
     "He was a very mild guy, he was very coachable," said John Whitmore, a sophomore on the 1966-67 team. "He fit in perfectly with the guys who had been around for a couple of years, and he was a very skilled post player."
     "Richard was a great player -- strong, focused and could do it all," said Terry Ewing, a reserve forward who played one season with Peek and practiced against him two years. "He was very much a team player, but when he got the ball around the bucket he knew how to finish.
    "I got six stitches in practice when I wasn't quick enough to avoid his powerful elbow. Richard was a true gentleman who played hard but always played clean."
    Ewing recalled that he worked with Peek "one summer painting land lines around tracts of timber for Ewing Timber. The men who worked for my Dad laughed that they had never seen markings on the trees that high up. We became very close during that time and he was a special friend."
     Gregory: "I think it was [Southwestern Louisiana's] Elvin Ivory that dunked on him one night. Next trip down the floor, Richard returned the favor with that quick spin move down low that he had.
     "... He was a great teammate and I really enjoyed playing with him. Won't ever forget seeing him folding up into his green VW bettle that he and Carole drove."
Richard Peek (33) with the 1967-68 Dallas Chaparrals;
in front are Shreveport's Charles Beasley (12) and player-
coach Cliff Hagan (16); beside Peek, John Beasley (44).
     He was drafted by the NBA's Baltimore Bullets ... in the 15th round, 148th player picked in 1967. Slim chance, so he opted to try the new American Basketball Association, the new team in Dallas.
     The first Chaparrals -- forerunner to the now San Antonio Spurs -- were led by former University of Kentucky and St. Louis Hawks star Cliff Hagan (who was the player-coach) and included two players named Beasley -- Charles, from Shreveport (Fair Park) and SMU, and John, from Linden, Texas (near Texarkana) and Texas A&M.
     Peek was a reserve, averaging 4.6 points and 3.9 rebounds a game in 51 games. His averages were 5.4 and 5.3 for eight playoff games.
     But one season was it. Before the next season, he was traded to the Kentucky Colonels, then traded again. Failing to make an ABA regular-season roster, he was asked to play in Italy. He refused.
     And while he missed the game for a while, said Carole, "his knees were so bad; he hyperextended one knee three times, and his back hurt all the time. He was real unhappy [in the pros]."
     His basketball career done, he looked for a new career.
Tried stockbroking, but it was a bad time -- and he didn't have that much money to invest. Tried selling insurance; didn't like it. He then went to work in a sporting goods' store, in the guns department; he had hunting expertise.
     One day a few Dallas firemen came in, and he asked about their jobs. It was intriguing, and they told him the department was hiring.
     He applied -- and one problem: He was too tall; they didn't have clothes to fit him. He offered to pay for custom-made clothes; he wanted that job.
     They hired him, and he stayed for more than three decades. "He really loved that job," Carole said.
     But not all of it at first. Trained originally as a paramedic, "he became insensitive after a while because he saw so many bad things," his wife said. "I told him he needed to ask out of that part of it."
     His height was a plus in that his reach sometimes was a great help in putting out fires. But, as you'd expect, the danger was great, too.
     "I don't know how many times he was in the hospital with burns and injuries," Carole recalled.
     And there was a day when a Hunt mansion in Dallas was burning, and two of the men in Richard's company died. Richard was missing and his captain was about to head to the Peek residence to tell Carole ... when he was spotted sitting under a tree, overcome by heat and smoke inhalation.
     But he was always one to stay physically fit. "He loved to be very active," Carole said. "He was not lazy."
     He was a fisherman; he was in a bass-fishing club. He was a hunter -- duck hunting, quail, deer ("but mostly he liked shooting photos outdoors," said Carole). He liked mountain climbing, backpacking, rafting, skiing -- in southern Colorado; he was a runner (and convinced Carole to run with him). He lifted weights regularly.
     He was -- picture this -- a 6-11 rugby player for the original team of the Dallas Harlequins, one of the area's first and most prestigious clubs. "He was always beat up," said Carole. "I remember the keg parties; they sang all those songs."
     To help his ailing knees, his doctor advised him to get a bicycle, so he became an avid biker for a while. And then he was a real "biker" -- a motorcycle enthusiast who, with a friend, made numerous rides from Dallas to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the annual Motorcycle Week, and then continued on to Key West, and made the return trip. That's a long haul.
     Because of his length, "custom-made" applied, too, to his bicycle and his BMW motorcycle. His son Michael now has that BMW.
     Finally, in the years out in East Texas, he had a tractor to keep him busy on their piece of land. But the good times ran out with his health issues.
     Carole Peek still lives in Whitehouse and has some treasured souvenirs: A red-white-and-blue ABA ball, a ball from Louisiana Tech, and Richard's first fireman's helmet, an old-timer made of leather. 
     "He was very grateful (for his life) and very sweet," Carole said.
      He was, as those of us at Tech then knew in those days and today, a wonderful player and a wonderful person.
     Next: Charlie Bishop, a gentle giant

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