Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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 much simpler then and less complicated as nowadays. It was a time when basketball sneakers were known as tennis shoes and athletic supporters were called jock-straps and often doubled as sling-shots. Hard to believe but during that period practically all basketball shoes were manufactured by either Converse or J.C. Higgins while only being 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 bright afternoon sunshine beaming it's florescent rays through the dusty top floor windows. No doubt the building still housed the musty odors from yesterdays sweaty workouts. Plus, the sound of leather balls and shoes squeaking on the hardwood floors would be an enticement to athlete's ears. Earlier in the day, you were simply confined to being a mere student. But now, as the clocked turned, you had made the transformation of becoming a jock. 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 and say, "Listen up girls cause tomorrow's game gonna be a real dog fight." He continued, "Y'all better eat your Wheaties and bring your hard hats cause tomorrow I'm gonna need your best game." Just in case you didn't recognize the spiel, that's a coach's typical motivational speech while being delivered 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 big game and prior to the opening toss-up, players on both sides always scanned the gym and checked-out all the cute cheerleaders. That was considered as a common right of young adulthood. Buzzer sounds. Game on.

The game of Basketball was invented in 1891 by physical education 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 as a exercise activity within their youth programs. 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 together in their victories. Incidentally, and for some people, being on the losing side of a game however can be major source of both sour grapes and may personify the characteristics of 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 the stateside commodity of Rock N' Roll. Basketball is an on-going science that is constantly evolving with individual contributions and personal touches that are provided from many sources. Combine the detailed 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 have 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, Bobby Bridges, B.G. Petty and Larry Higinbothom.
Probably the most revered of all the local players 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's cat-like quick and can really light-it-up." Mike Butler was a scoring machine and so good that he was the first local boy to go into the professional ranks and make it big time. Plus some of his games were nationally televised. Playing professional Basketball was the dream of many a local athlete. Plus, it seemed like a sure way to avoid a job of flipping burgers or working down at the car wash.

The pro game was exciting to watch and when cable TV was introduced the programming brought your favorite Basketball players into your very own living room. With games accessible almost every evening, you'd get to know all the players by their nicknames such as; Hondo, Mr. Clutch, The Pistol, Silk, Iceman, Cap, Chocolate Thunder, The Enforcer, The Glide, The Dream, Chief, Truck, Nique, Worm, Diesel, The Glove, Rain Man, 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 who fought earlier would ride back together in the same vehicle while returning to the same hotel.

Another local boy who made it into 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 while playing 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 seen below this guy had a few choice names to his credit such as; Lefty, P Q , Bird Legs, Coach ZZ (Zig Zag), El Boneia and Filll...

Great Basketball moments can become literally ingrained into you head and locked-in your memory forever. Especially if the moving events are captured with the frozen images of a great camera lens. That's when you got visual poetry in motion.

Above 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).

Pictured above is another U. of M. Basketball player named Steve Meacham as he snags a loose ball while putting on a dose of mustard into his effort. "Meach" was also a local favorite and his pretty boy looks got lots of attention.

In closing, Basketball has provided me with so much excitement and joy throughout my entire life. I was into the game of Basketball long before Basketball was considered as cool. Allow me to say that experiencing the comradeship of being on a Basketball team can far exceed any expectations every imagined. The spirit and thrill of brotherhood and going into competition together for a big game is unification at it's very finest. The locker room banter and concealed laughter within the team huddle still rings as the finest moments that I ever experienced. Nothing will ever replace those outstanding memories. Thank you my honorable teammates for allowing me be on the same 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.