Long Before March Madness...
Classic photo taken in 1963 of a division rivalry between the Treadwell Eagles and Kingsbury Falcons held on campus at the Memphis State Field House. Here hoops star Jimmy Hawkins of The Eagles snags a key rebound while reaching high from behind is Falcons (#21) Barry Cochran. In the background looking on are Treadwell teammates Richard Ennis (#14) and Don Meyers. During this era, it was quite an accomplishment for two high school teams from adjoining neighborhoods to fill a 4,000+ seat arena and still turn away eager attendants at the door. (photo by Bob Williams)
Long, long time ago, back in the day when March Madness was a term used when referring to a frustrating weather cycle, that's when people would pour into the local gymnasiums and attend the game of Basketball to cheer on the local boys and fraternize with members of the community. Times were simple and uncomplicated back then. It was a time when basketball sneakers were called tennis shoes and jock straps often doubled as sling-shots. Hard to believe but during that dated period practically all basketball shoes were manufactured by Converse while being only available in High Tops and made of canvas. Seems some of us remember those days as it was a time when after sitting in a classroom for an entire day guys would flood into the gymnasium after class in search of playing a little round ball and breaking a sweat. Looking back I recall entering into the gym with the afternoon sunshine beaming it's florescent rays through the dusty windows while the odors from yesterdays workouts still lingered. Plus, the sound of shoes squeaking and leather balls bouncing on the hardwood floors would be an enticement to athletes and music to the jock's ears. That's when the coach's whistle would echo loudly through the building as he summoned his troops to gather around. Coach would always clear his throat and then go into character, "Listen up girls cause tomorrow's game gonna be a real dog fight." He continued, "Y'all better eat your Wheaties for breakfast and bring your hard hats cause tomorrow I'm gonna need your best game." Just in case you didn't know, that's typical of a coach's motivational speech to a team of high testosterone gym rats looking to rid themselves of pent-up energy. And those pep-talks usually worked because prior to any of those games, players would be fidgety and grind their teeth while their mouths would be dry and stomachs filled with butterflies. Ask any player before the big game if he was nervous and he'd probably say, "No way." But as players took the floor their knees sorta wobbled while feeling kinda queasy. Such uncertainty was common among players as some wondered if they needed to return to the locker room and do their business. Never fail though as with any game and prior to the opening toss-up, players always scanned the gym and checked-out all the cute cheerleaders on both sides. Buzzer sounds. Game on.
The game of Basketball was invented in 1891 by physical eduction instructor Dr. James Naismith and developed for a YMCA exercise program as an indoor activity. It's popularity spread fast as many school systems invoked the game to be taught in their youth programs as an exercise activity. Not to mention also but domestically practically everyone has participated in playing the game at one time or another as it teaches the importance of team sports. The game brings out the competitiveness in all our personalities as winning a game can be a major confidence builder. Plus, Basketball is especially fun to watch and to celebrate in their victories. Incidentally, for some people being on the losing side of a game however can be major source of both sour grapes and a chapped ass. Yet, by all accounts, Basketball is an national tradition with the game now being celebrated all over the globe. And it was developed right here in America. Just like Rock & Roll. Basketball is an on-going science that is constantly evolving with individual contributions and personal touches provided from many sources. Combine the mechanics of strategic competition and bound by a few governing rules, add a time clock ticking and some physical boxing-out, throw-in a little sky-walking for colorful flare, and you got the very entertaining game of Basketball.
Early heroes in my neighborhood were Basketball players who could pack a gymnasium by their mere presence. I would circle the games on my calendar and count the days for them to arrive. Names like Earl Gillespie, Doc Hoffman, David Sission, Larry Burns, John Hillman, Don & Larry Mansfield, Ronnie Annis, B.G. Petty and Larry Higinbothom.
Probably the most revered of them all was the legendary Mike Butler (on right). Coach would give us the scouting report on Butler by saying, "Y'all better be careful and watch out for this guy cause he can really light-it-up." Mike Butler was so good that he was the first local boy to go into the pros and make it big time. Plus some of his games were nationally televised. Playing professional Basketball was the dream of many a local athlete. It seemed like it sure beat the heck out of working down at the car wash.
The pro game was exciting to watch as cable TV brought your favorite Basketball players into your living room. With games accessible almost every evening, you'd get to know all the players by their nicknames such as; Hondo, Mr. Clutch, Silk, Iceman, Cap, Chocolate Thunder, The Enforcer, The Dream, Chief, Worm, Diesel, The Glove, Dr. J and Larry Legend. Sometimes the games could get so intense that players would have these little love spats amongst themselves and literally go at each others throats. But Basketball fights generally don't last long as sometimes the same players would ride back together in the same vehicle while returning to the same hotel.
Another local boy who made it in the 'Bigs' was Hank McDowell. An example of his staying power was his 9 year tenure in the NBA as he played with the Portland Trailblazers, Denver Nuggets and a professional stint in Europe. Below is McDowell slamming one home for the Houston Rockets at the Summit Arena. Hank also had an array of cute little nicknames such as; Big Mac Attack, McGillacutty and Big Foot.
Of course, you didn't need to play in the big leagues to be tagged with some ridiculous nicknames as this guy below had a few to his credit such as; Lefty, P Q , Bird Legs, Coach ZZ (Zig Zag), El Boneia and Filll...
Great Basketball moments can become ingrained in you head and locked-in your memory forever. Especially if the moving events are captured with the frozen images of a camera. That's when you got visual poetry in motion.
University of Memphis jumping jacks John Kilzer and Ken Dunek stretch for a rebound coming high off the rim. Both players were crowd favorites and sported the nicknames assigned to them from fellow teammates of, "Gooter Yaka" (Kilzer) and "Conrad Kubeack" (Dunek).
Another U of M Basketball player Steve Meacham snags a loose ball while putting on a little emphasis in the effort. "Meach" was also a local favorite and his pretty boy looks got lots of attention.
In closing, allow me to say that experiencing the comradeship of being on a Basketball team can far exceed any expectations every imagined. The spirit of brotherhood and going into competition together for a big game is unification at it's finest. The locker room banter and laughter in the huddle still rings as the finest moments that I ever experienced. Nothing will ever replace those memories. Thank you my teammates for letting me be on the same Basketball team with you.
(Top row) John Kilzer, Malcomb McKinney, Dennis Isbell, Ron Franz, Mike O'Keefe. (Front row) Dexter Reed, Phillip Rauls, Mike Butler, Mike King and Jeffery Wyatt.
This posting is dedicated to the memory of Tommy King
Copyrighted story (c) Rauls Media LLC 2011 All rights reserved
Photograph and cartoon identification provided by their listed sources when accessible.
Ike Martin contributed to this story.