Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tom Kerwin: the terrific "Captain Hook"

     He is 71, a retired teacher, a widower with two grown children and his first grandchild born recently, and he has lived in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C. -- a tiny place on the Atlantic Ocean coast -- since 2000.
Tom Kerwin, Centenary's "Captain Hook"
    My attempts to find out "whatever happened to" Tom Kerwin didn't work out entirely because he didn't answer repeated calls or reply to messages.
     But I can tell you this: He was one of my favorite basketball players ever. He is a legend for those of us from North Louisiana who remember him.
    Tom Kerwin was "Captain Hook." Still is to me.
    He had a unique talent -- the hook shot.
   Wherever the Centenary College Gentlemen played from 1963 to 1966, but especially in Shreveport, fans got to see the sweetest hook shot of any player I've seen, and that's 60 years worth.
   The 6-foot-7 center/forward from Long Branch, N.J., would go on to play a little pro basketball. He wasn't a great jumper, he wasn't fast, and he was thin, so he was overmatched in the pros and his game didn't excel after college.
    But I know many fans from our area and that era will agree, he was a memorable college player ... because of that hook shot.
   This was a real hook shot -- the wide, sweeping, up-and-over motion, not the "baby" hook shots you see in today's game. Yeah, Kerwin's hooks were a throwback to the 1940s and '50s; they were old-timey, even in the mid-1960s. Today, it is ancient.
   Tom also was called, if I recall correctly, "Tom Terrific" after the cartoon character created in the late 1950s. He was terrific; undoubtedly Centenary's best player before Robert Parish (1973-76).
    In fact, Kerwin was a better scorer at the small private college than the future Basketball Hall of Famer. It's true.
    Parish only once in four seasons topped Kerwin's three season scoring averages (25.2, 24.2, 27.9) at Centenary (in Division I at the time, Kerwin wasn't eligible for varsity play as a freshman). Parish had 30 points or more in 15 games; Kerwin did it 24 times.
    Even now, his career scoring average (25.8) is the best ever at Centenary, which is now in Division III athletics.
    When Parish set the school single-game record with 50 points early in his freshman year, the record he broke was Kerwin's 47. Even after Parish's sensational four years, Kerwin had six of the top eight single-game point totals (five 40 or more).
    Impressed yet? If you had seen him play, you'd know.
    Because he didn't score that often on easy stuff (dunks or layups or second-chance rebounds). He did it most often with that devastating hook shot.
    He'd set up mostly on the low right side of the lane, take the entry pass, maneuver, and -- swoop -- deliver on the hook. He was so accurate with it.
    For instance, in his greatest games, he was 20-for-26, 19-for-31, 17-for-24, 15-for-25, 12-for-16, 17-for-30. In many games, "Captain Hook" -- "Tom Terrific" -- was unstoppable.
    He wasn't the first Kerwin in his family to play college basketball in Louisiana. Oldest brother Jim, three years before Tom, came from South New Jersey to be a three-time All-Southeastern Conference guard, leading scorer in the SEC, for Tulane.
    But Jim, a longtime coach now retired and living in Norman, Okla., vouches for "little" brother (Jim was a guard, five inches shorter than Tom).
    "In all my years of coaching and playing, he was as good or better at hook shots than anyone I've seen," said Jim. "He was a great player."
     This is a common view.
     "A super guy, the best hook shot I ever saw or played against," said Barrie Haynie, Kerwin's four-year teammate at Centenary, the "Ringgold (La.) Rifle," as he was called. "We roomed together on [road-game] trips. We had a lot of fun on those trips."
      (When Kerwin set the Centenary record with 47 points in an overtime loss to Louisiana Tech in February 1966 -- the infamous "Donny Henry punch" game I've written about previously -- it was only two weeks after Haynie's record 46 points against nationally ranked Houston.)
       Orvis Sigler was Kerwin's coach at Centenary and recruited him after seeing him play once at Long Branch High School. Tom's coach there, Frank Millner, was the recruiting contact.
       "He had that shooting touch," Sigler said recently. "He could shoot the ball as well as anyone I'd seen, especially that hook shot.
       "He could turn his head to see the basket; he had the peripheral vision to line up the shot, and he was turned away so he could keep it away from the defender. He was so adept at it. He had worked on that hook shot for years."
       But he also kept working while he was at Centenary, and Sigler -- now 93 -- admits that even he and assistant Doug Mooty had little idea that Kerwin would be as proficient a scorer as he became.
       I asked Coach Sigler, "Did you think he would be as great as he was when you recruited him?"
       "Not quite," he replied. "We thought he'd be a good one, a very good one, knew he'd give us some height under the basket. But he really developed his shooting, especially as a sophomore. ... Wish he could have played all four years (on the varsity)."
      Kerwin's game wasn't all hook shots, Sigler pointed out. "He could turn and face the basket, and make the jump shot, or he'd duck under [the defender] and make a move toward the rim, but mostly he went to the hook ... played with his back to the basket mostly."
    Like Parish, Kerwin was drafted in the NBA by the San Francisco [later Golden State] Warriors -- third pick, fifth round, 43rd overall, 1966. He chose instead to play semipro ball, with the Phillips 66 Oilers (Bartlesville, Okla.), where Jim Kerwin had gone after Tulane and was still on the team.
      "He was our highest-paid player," Jim recalled. "A two-year contract at $17,000 a year; that was big time for that league."
     That low-post presence also was noted, Jim Kerwin recalled, by the Phillips 66 coach, Gary Thompson. "He told me," said Jim, "that of all the players he coached, Tom posted up better than anyone."
    But a broken ankle, placed in a cast, sidelined Tom for 3-4 months and the next season, the semipro league began fading with many of its top players, especially the big men, heading for the new American Basketball Association. Tom was among them.

     He went to the Pittsburgh Pipers, but played only 13 games, 68 minutes, with 14 points and 20 rebounds. It was a championship team that first ABA season, led by Basketball Hall of Fame forward Connie Hawkins.
     What Sigler appreciated most about Tom Kerwin, other than being the scoring leader of probably the best team Orvis had in his 10 years as Centenary coach (16-8 against a competitive D-I schedule in 1963-64), was Tom's attitude.
     "He was a good kid," Sigler said. "He did what you asked him to do; he worked hard. I stayed on him pretty hard sometimes, but he responded to it well. I couldn't have asked for a better person to coach."
     Haynie remembered something else.
     "He liked to sleep," he said of his road roomie. "He didn't like to get up early. I'd get up and get going, but Tom, he'd stay in bed another five hours. ... He liked to read, and he was a good student. All of us could have done better [in school] probably, but he had no problems."
     Jim Kerwin probably was the first to see the Tom Kerwin hook shot ... when they were kids in Long Branch.
     "He wasn't strong enough [early on] to shoot a jump shot, so he would shoot hooks," Jim recalled.
     And then he joked, "Anytime he tried to shoot jump shots against me, I would block them."
     They lived in an area with plenty of future athletes, on a block with only four homes together, next to a Catholic school with a playground and basketball goals and also next to an alleyway with a goal that was in much use, even with a spotlight hung for night practice. How many hooks shots did Tom fire up there?
     There were six kids in the James and Margaret Kerwin family, all achievers and eventually recipients of college scholarships. They were an Irish family -- all four of the kids' grandparents were immigrants from Ireland (Tom has made a number of trips to that country) -- and they were sports-minded.
Tom, as a high school player
(from the Asbury Park Press)
     Both parents were athletes as youngsters (the mother was a high school basketball player) and their sports interests carried on.
     From the Internet: "The Margaret M. and James J. Kerwin awards are given each year to the outstanding male and female basketball players in the Jersey Shore. These prestigious awards have been a Shore fixture since 1974 and are given in honor of two great Jersey Shore sports legends."
       Jim and Tom would become legends, too, in basketball. Earlier this year when the Asbury Park Press had a series on the Jersey Shore's top players (by decades), the Kerwins were among the stars of the late 1950s/early 1960s.
       Jim was the big shot in high school, averaging a state-record 40 points a game as a junior and then more than 36 a game as a senior when he led Croydon Hall, a private school in nearby Middletown to the independent school New Jersey state championship in 1959.

      They were teammates that season, Tom as a freshman. Jim Sr., a prosecutor in Newark, N.J., until a heart problem forced him to change professions, was the Croydon Hall athletic director.
      Tom eventually went to public school (Long Branch High) and kept growing ... and shooting hook shots. He was a high 20s points-per-game scorer and first-team All-State, all classes, just as Jim had been.
      Heavily recruited ("we got tired of talking to people on the phone," he said), Jim originally signed with West Virginia, where Jerry West had just finished his college career and the team lost the NCAA title game by one point to California. But in those days, players could sign multiple conference letters of intent, and Jim's final destination was the SEC and the Deep South (Tulane).
      And there he scored 1,462 career points (22.2 per game) and was second in the nation in scoring in 1963.
      By then Tom was also in the Deep South, a freshman at Centenary.
      In the spring of his senior year in high school (1962), Tom had interest in Miami, and St. John's, and -- as Sigler recalled -- was thinking of going to Cincinnati, the reigning two-time NCAA champion ('61 and '62).
      But "we worked on his dad," Sigler said, and Papa Kerwin convinced Tom that Centenary, a small school playing a big, challenging schedule, was the right place for him.
      A Centenary player at the time -- and future assistant coach, then head coach and athletic director there -- was a factor, too.
      "Riley Wallace had a big influence on Tom," Jim Jr. recalled. "He helped recruit him. He was a senior when Tom was a freshman."
       "I thought [Tom] would be a very good player," Jim Jr. said, "but he needed more strength. If they'd had weightlifting, strength programs like they do today, he would have really benefited.
      "He was a really good competitor."
      And Tom was a really good college rebounder, not with power or leaping ability but because of smarts and finesse. His 748 rebounds (10.1 per game) remain among the best in Centenary history.
       But it was his scoring, his shot, that people remember.
       The second Kerwin brother, Billy -- a year older than Tom -- followed Jim to Tulane, but as a track athlete. (He died last July.)  A younger sister, Marie, followed Tom to Centenary and graduated there. 
       Basketball became Jim's career. Drafted by an NBA team (New York Knicks), he wound up with the Phillips 66 Oilers for four years and then embarked on a long coaching career, much of it in Oklahoma.
       He was the top assistant coach to Billy Tubbs at University of Oklahoma in the 1987-88 season when a great Sooners team rolled to the NCAA championship game, only to be upset by Big Eight rival Kansas.
       In 1992, he began an 11-year stay as head coach at Western Illinois. That included five consecutive winning seasons before a decline.
        Meanwhile, Tom was out of basketball after the brief ABA stay, but he found a home, a teaching job -- and a wife -- in Pittsburgh.
       Gwen Grant was a University of Pittsburgh graduate and teaching public school when she met Tom. They soon married, and their two kids grew to be college basketball players -- Kevin, a four-year letterman at Holy Cross, and Bridget -- known as Bree -- for a year at the Naval Academy.
       Kevin now is a film producer/director based in Cleveland. Bree is a sustainability specialist for the City of Kernersville, N.C., and a recent new mother.
       Tom and Gwen were married for 43 years until her death in early September 2011. In 2000, Gwen -- lover of the ocean, according to her obituary -- must have convinced Tom to make their home near the Atlantic in North Carolina. 
     Jim Pruett, a very good shooter of the basketball who starred at guard for Fair Park High's 1963 Class AAA state champions and then at Louisiana Tech University, saw Kerwin play for Centenary -- up close -- and here is what he remembers:
     "Tom Kerwin was just terrific. That hook shot was a thing of beauty. Never understood how anyone could make that thing, but he definitely could."
      As Pruett noted, "After he shot, all we did was take the ball out of the net."
      No question, as basketball fans, Tom Kerwin had us all hooked. He was our Captain Hook.


  1. From Kyle Kerwin: So sorry you never got a hold of Uncle Tommy. I enjoyed your article and I'm sure the rest of the family will as well. Those six Kerwin kids were something else growing up on the shore in NJ. They all have some crazy stories and sure are entertaining. ... I wish there was footage somewhere of my dad [Jim] especially so I could see him play, but I'd love to see some on Uncle Tom as well. Keep up the good work!

  2. From Stan Tiner: Watched him many times. He was great. Many memories of my dad and I at those games.

  3. From Tim Looney: Big fan of Kerwin myself. I used to use a (much smaller and less accurate) hook shot that I patterned after Kerwin's when I played at Jesuit [High]. I used it often. It was fun! Cliff Hagan, who played on the same St. Louis Hawks team as Bob Pettit, had a great hook shot.

  4. From Ross Montelbano: Hard to disagree with "The Man" on the history of Shreveport sports. However, I don't know if Kerwin was the best [Centenary] player before Parish. He certainly is the best scorer. I thought [Barrie] Haynie was the best player. Then again, I was a kid then and when we have a favorite player, it's hard to make reason-based decisions.

  5. From Warren Massia: Remember watching Centenary home games on TV late at night -- Captain Hook was my favorite. Even asked my coach if I could shoot [the hook shot] in a game.

  6. From Roy Fletcher: He was a player and that was a team. Barrie Haynie. Donny Henry.

  7. From John Balance: As a boy I watched the [Centenary] games (recorded) after the 10 o'clock news. A very good small college team.

  8. From Pesky Hill: Thanks for this piece. Loved watching Captain Hook. And got to know Jim when I worked at Oklahoma State and Jim was coach at Stillwater High. Great guy.

  9. From Rod Chandler: My gosh, what a great basketball player. We all wanted to be like "Kerwee" back in the day. Thanks for bringing back the great memories.

  10. From Jimmy Russell: Hey, I really enjoyed this. I saw Jim play games, too, [for Tulane] as I was at LSU and saw Tom up close at Centenary a bunch. I used to think that Tom should shoot his free throws with a hook shot. You did some good research on this. Really good.

  11. From Don Birkelbach: Great job. My Dad used to take me to the games at Hirsch.
    Haynie's fallaway jumper was great, but Kerwin's hook was unforgettable.

  12. From Donald Mayeaux: Remember that team well ... he could shoot the hook!