Friday, March 24, 2017

Magic words: Fair Park High School

Fair Park: A beautiful sight ... always
        The news came officially earlier this week, not unexpectedly and not satisfactorily: Fair Park is no longer going to be a high school in Shreveport.
      Aw, nuts.
      Don't like the sound of that. To not see "Fair Park Indians" regularly in stories about athletics does not seem right.
      Of course, this is much more about education than athletics, but for me and so many of my old friends -- and we're old, folks -- it was athletics that brought us to Fair Park so many times. 
      So 89 years is enough, right? So much for tradition and history. One of Shreveport's two oldtime white public high schools is going away or, in this case, being "demoted."
      C.E. Byrd opened in 1926, Fair Park in 1928 ... and, by gosh, it would be hard to find anyone in Shreveport who would dare to suggest that Byrd be closed. (No way it should be.)

      My e-mail and Facebook "friends" list includes about 75 people with Fair Park ties -- mostly former students -- and I probably know about three times as many Fair Park people altogether.
      I feel sure that if we took a vote whether or not Fair Park should no longer be a high school, it would be many-to-zero.
      Oh, there might be a few who don't care because it's been so long since the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s when it was the school we knew, and so many loved.
       But the only vote that counted was the Caddo Parish School Board's vote. And that was 10-2 last Tuesday to merge Fair Park High students with Booker T. Washington High students, to be housed at BTW.
       Fair Park will become a junior high -- middle -- school.
       Which is OK because -- as the lengthy discourse on the school and its history, and recent-events updates on its excellent alumni web site notes several times -- after many building renovations and some additions, "it remains both a functional and beautiful facility, standing proudly, to serve the students and the surrounding community."
       There is going to be a middle-school vacancy in the area because the School Board also voted to close Lakeshore -- which has been one of the main Fair Park "feeder" schools for as long as I can remember.
       The other main junior high in the area -- in fact, within a mile away -- was Midway, which was moved a few blocks from its original site and is now an elementary school.

        Back to Fair Park, and what's happened. There was much anguish about this, much written in the Shreveport paper and much said/argued, pleas to the School Board, and the old-line and current Fair Parkers had plenty of company in opposing this.
        I am not qualified to make judgments on the School Board's business; I leave that to others. I read it is about financial matters, dropping enrollments and "failing" schools.
        It is also, though, about emotional ties. Obviously, I am not as emotionally tied to Fair Park as its graduates, but I do feel for them. So many made such strong efforts to convince the School Board -- and the superintendent -- how wrong this was.
         Have to be honest, when a few years ago there was talk of closing Woodlawn -- which is now labeled a "leadership academy" rather than a high school -- it did not bother me.
           That might rankle my Woodlawn friends and leave others puzzled. But I've been gone from Shreveport for so long (since 1988) and haven't even been back to our old school in maybe 15 years, and have rarely been in the neighborhood in that time.
           Our old junior high (Oak Terrace) at the southwest end of our old Sunset Acres neighborhood -- a school I attended the first year it was open (1959) -- closed long ago, and that's no problem for me.
           In fact, four of the Shreveport junior highs of our time, the late '50s/early 60s -- OT, Hamilton Terrace, Midway and now Lakeshore -- are going, going ... gone.
           This also brings to mind when Shreveport-Bossier high schools integrated in January 1970 because at that time several of the previously all-black high schools -- Union, Eden Gardens, Valencia, Walnut Hill, Charlotte Mitchell -- were "demoted" to junior highs. Only BTW, Bethune and Linear (soon to become a junior high and replaced by new Green Oaks High) remained mostly (or all) black high schools.
           Point is, it happens. Time moves on, neighborhoods and institutions change. School boards do what they think is right, supposedly what is best for students and education.
           I don't doubt that there is more to this, and maybe some selfish, or misguided, motives on the part of School Board members. Not my call, and I leave the second-guessing to others.
           I do feel for the Fair Park people who tried so hard, especially Cathy Ridley Bonds, who has been the school's alumni director for more than a decade and so instrumental in organizing projects to boost the school's physical facilities and its public image.
           And if it's any consolation, here is what I offer: Think of the memories and the people.
           My allegiance to Woodlawn, and to Shreveport-Bossier, North Louisiana and the state, is about the memories they gave me, the people I met who became lifelong friends.
          Same for Fair Park. All those memories, the wonderful people it has sent into the world, who have done so much for Shreveport and beyond.
           Thinking of Fair Park ...
           -- Black and gold -- a beautiful uniform combination.
           -- That majestic presence off Greenwood Road -- Highway 79 -- with its steeple right across from the home stadium (once State Fair Stadium, now Independence Stadium);
           -- The mosaic school logo embedded in the front lobby (don't step on it!);
           -- The turn off the side street (San Jacinto?) to park in the lot next to the gymnasium (opened in 1956, a carbon copy of the Byrd gym), the split-level gym with the dressing rooms and classrooms downstairs;
           -- The trophy case in the gym foyer with the 1952 state football championship trophy (the only one in a glorious football history), with the Nos. 10 and 12 basketball jerseys retired, with the 1963 basketball state championship trophy and then 2006, and several state runner-up trophies, plus dozens of district championships;
           -- The baseball field down the hill from the gym, where Fair Park was a powerhouse with four state titles (1957, 1963, 1965, 1970) and dozens of outstanding teams and players.
           -- A ways from deep left field in baseball, the football practice field, and track/field facility (the 1980 state track champs and, again, dozens of individual state champs).
           -- The tennis courts, in the valley just below the third-base side (the Indians' home bench) of the baseball field.
           -- Byrd vs. Fair Park, Turkey Day football. Round the Reservation week.
           -- The "Big Indian" dance.
           -- The Pow Wow (school newspaper) and the Sequoyah (yearbook).
           -- I could give you the great names of athletes -- and sportswriters -- from Fair Park, but this is already long and I could spend the next week doing that. We're talking nine decades. I have written about many of them. Better yet, I consider many my good friends.
           The place was special, still is. The building is historic, and it remains. We have the memories and we know the people. 
           Go big Indians. Forever.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Where there is a Will, is there a national championship?

     I have said this often, and written it a time or two: I want to see LSU win the national championship in men's basketball.
From LSU basketball's Twitter account.
      So there is your assignment, Will Wade, introduced today as the latest new LSU men's basketball head coach.
      Good luck to you.
      It is one of the few dreams I have not seen come true in a lifetime of rooting for my favorite teams, schools and countries.
      I am not the college basketball fan I once was (gee, I said that about the NBA a couple of weeks ago), and to be honest, I only really follow LSU and Louisiana Tech men's basketball. (In the rare instances when LSU and Tech teams play, in any sport, I root for ... the winner. So there.)
      The NCAA Tournament, and the Selection Sunday show, are only must-see for me if the Tigers and/or Bulldogs have a chance to be part of it. 
      Tech has not been in the NCAAs in 26 years and its only chance, most always, is to win its conference tournament because it is -- almost without exception -- in a one-bid league. Three consecutive conference regular-season titles and consistent high finishes have given us hope the last five years, but it hasn't happened.
      LSU was no factor the past two years, but someday -- soon, we hope -- it will be again, and the thought should be the first thought in this blog.
      Go ahead and laugh and say that's preposterous. It is not a joke to me.
      LSU's basketball history and tradition -- which some perceive as not very good, but they are wrong -- tells you this is not an impossible mission.
      Difficult, yes, but four Final Fours, 10 SEC regular-season championships, 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, 24 NCAA victories (and 24 losses), and a string of great players -- some of them among the greatest in the sport's history -- are proof this can be a big-time program. 
      I won't make you read through the list of great players. Just believe me. But most people know.
      I don't want to hear, as I am told by some of my friends, that basketball isn't important enough at LSU, that it is an exercise (often in futility) between football and baseball seasons.
      I don't agree. I don't agree at all. I never will.
      I wrote much about Dale Brown, Shaq, LSU's program and basketball history almost two years ago, if you care to go back and check on the consistency of my feelings: 
      True, LSU has never hired the proven big-time winning head coach at the top levels, or broken the budget to pay the coach as much as some other universities do.
      But Dale, in 25 years, proved you can take a middling, or mediocre, program and make it a consistent winner (NCAA Tournament 13 times in a 15-year period, including 10 in a row). John Brady, in 11 years, had two SEC champions -- one that made the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and  one exciting Final Four team. Trent Johnson's first LSU team, with mostly Brady-recruited talented, was an SEC champion.
      Six times LSU has been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by the eventual national champion.
      So it can be done. Winning fairly big consistently, though, year after year, only has happened in the middle portion of Brown's long, often wacky, tenure.
      Enter Will Wade.
      I really like the selection. He is -- to borrow from Hamilton -- "young, scrappy and hungry."  
      I like his youth (34, one of the youngest major-sport coaches LSU ever has hired) -- Dale was 37 in 1972 -- and his reputation as a tireless promoter of the game (like Dale was), and his short record of success as a head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga and Virginia Commonwealth (two years each).
      He was a Virginia Commonwealth assistant to Shaka Smart when their 2011 team pulled a huge surprise, after a good-but-not-great regular season, to surge into the NCAA Final Four.
      At VCU, they became known for their "havoc" defense, the fullcourt, scrambling pressure that dictates to opponents.
      So he comes in as a defensive-minded coach. Good, because -- in my opinion, my observations -- that is what was lacking so often in Johnny Jones' five years as head coach.
      Wade's team beat LSU this season. But then, obviously, that was no great feat, considering the Tigers' 10-21 record.
      Some thoughts about Jones' tenure:
      (1) When he was hired, after 11 seasons as head coach at University of North Texas, I thought he was the right guy for the LSU job because of his long ties as player and assistant coach;
      (2) Few accused him of being a great coach, so as I watched his teams -- and talked with some friends -- I thought the Tigers lacked discipline on offense (especially in shot selection) and especially on defense. Patient teams could break down the LSU defenses inside, and the few games I watched, I thought the Tigers were often just outhustled. 
      At times, I did see great effort. Too often I didn't. And then it got to where I couldn't watch.
      (3) Johnny Jones, we were told, was a gentleman, a relatively calm sideline presence and good ambassador for LSU. (Same with Trent Johnson, we heard. Brady, again by hearsay, had an often profane sideline manner, to the dismay and concern of nearby spectators.)
      With two good inside players, NBA draft choices Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, Jones' third LSU team went 22-11 and made the NCAA Tournament. But -- an indication of how it went -- it lost a game it controlled most of the way and should have won, fading late and losing by a point to North Carolina State.
      One-and-done: Jones' NCAA record at LSU.
      And then there were such great hopes last season because the world's No. 1 recruit, wonderfully talented 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons (from Australia), chose to play at LSU.
      He proved he could play point guard because he is a great ballhandler -- maybe too great; he tended to try to do too much -- and a slashing forward with a strong inside game, but not a consistent mid- or long-range shooter, and because he was a freshman still learning, not able to carry his team to great heights.
      Early last season, after watching LSU a few times, I wrote an e-mail and Facebook post (not a blog post) criticizing LSU's defensive efforts and shot selection, and warning that if there wasn't improvement, the Tigers would not live up to expectations.
      Dale Brown -- defensive for the kid he recruited and coached out of DeRidder, La., the young man he then made a longtime top assistant, and the older coach he so eagerly lobbied for to return as head coach -- sent me an e-mail saying it was easy to be critical and that he was confident Johnny would bring his team around.
       I have not written another word publicly about LSU basketball since then ... until now.
      Simmons -- my opinion -- "used" LSU, knowing he would be a "one-and-done" player en route to the pros and just waiting his time for the NBA Draft (and he was the No. 1 pick). I don't know how badly he cared about LSU.
       The season was a disappointment, the final loss to Texas A&M by 33 points an embarrassment.
       In Jones' defense, the top true guard off that team was injured and then this season he had to boot one of his top players from the squad. But it was obvious, too, that this team lacked enough talent, discipline and -- maybe -- grit to compete.
       When you lose by at least 15 points 10 times, and by 30-plus four times, when you lose 17 of the final 18 games and go 2-16 in the SEC, longtime LSU ties aren't enough.
       Will Wade will have to see if his defensive style will work with the returning players and will have to recruit the talent to fit that style or whatever he needs to compete in the SEC and nationally.
        I have always considered Louisiana a talent-rich basketball state. Think about the talent that's come out of there. The best LSU teams, too, have had their share of players from Baton Rouge, New Orleans and all over the state. Dale Brown had great players from points east and west, north and south, but he did strong work in-state, too.
        Maybe Jones and his staff didn't dig deep enough. One example: Robert Williams was a 6-9 forward at North Caddo High School, just above Shreveport, a year ago, a strong prospect.
        He wound up going to Texas A&M, where he was one of its top players this season and a projected NBA lottery pick. (He just announced that he will return to college ball another year.) It is hard to imagine that he would not have been interested in playing for LSU. But the word was that the LSU staff did not put a fullcourt press on him; that they had questions about his style of play.
        If LSU had been more dogged and signed him, perhaps Johnny Jones might still be the coach. Moot point.
        It's up to Will Wade now. He loves fullcourt presses. He can take the beloved gold ties he always wear wherever needed.
        We'll see where this takes us -- hopefully to the NCAA championship. Dream on.