How Sports Helped Vilonia Bounce Back From a Devastating Tornado

Lindsey Agerton, former member of the Vilonia High cheerleading squad. Courtesty Arshia Khan of Sync, 2011
Lindsey Agerton, former member of the Vilonia High cheerleading squad. Courtesy Arshia Khan of Sync, 2011

Thoughts and prayers going out to Arkansans whose lives were devastated by tornadoes last night. At least 16 people have died, with many more injuries. One of the towns hit hardest was north central Arkansas’ Vilonia, which just three years ago was almost wiped out by another powerful tornado. According to one eyewitness account, about 90% of Vilonia’s Main Street businesses and homes were  wiped away last night. If you feel moved to help, please visit here.

Sports, obviously, hardly mean anything when the wounds are still so raw.  But three years ago, they proved to one thread in the story of the tornado’s aftermath- a physical recovery, which painfully, was largely wiped away last night. While I’m sure some Vilonia residents will relocate from the town for good, plenty more will stay. They found a way through the devastation before. And they’ll work together to do it again.

Below is  part of the recovery story from that first time. It originally published in August, 2011, in Sync magazine.

 

Emotional whirlwind

Cross-county high school football foes in Greenbrier and Vilonia blown closer by April tornado.

If a student of the University of Central Arkansas’ digital film program decided to chronicle a high school football rivalry, this would-be Ken Burns wouldn’t have to travel far from the Conway campus. Just up the road, two Faulkner County neighbors annually stage one of the state’s fiercest showdowns. Vilonia and Greenbrier, which play their first games this week, don’t square off until the last regular season game. Still, our young documentarian could easily frame the next couple of months as mere prelude to the November night when the Greenbrier Panthers and the Vilonia Eagles tussle.

Much, you see, often hangs in the balance when one of these 5A-West schools travels across 14 miles of hilly farmland to play the other: postseason appearances, playoff seeds, a year’s worth of bragging rights. There’s always a postseason-like electricity in the air, with seniors getting amped for one final crack at foes they have seen their whole lives.

“It definitely started back in peewee football,” says Matt Cain, a former Greenbrier football player.

“You grow up not liking them on the field or on the court.”

The week before this game, Vilonia players give motivational speeches to students packed with quotes from movies such as Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights and 300. Vilonia cheerleader Lindsey Agerton has made some Greenbrier friends through her competitive cheer team in Conway, but during rivalry week, you’d think they were competitive debaters: “We bicker about who’s gonna win and fight [for] our sides about why our team’s gonna win.”

In Greenbrier, Panther players, school staff, parents and alumni gather after church the night before the game. In the parking lot of the city’s baseball field, they light a bonfire and give speeches, says Cain, now a Harding University freshman. Parents and coaches tell kids they are proud of them.

On game nights, all sorts come: the lifelong diehard, the random football fan from Conway or Little Rock, the grandpa who doesn’t have much time left for a young man’s game but makes time for this.

“We’re liable to have twice the gate as normal,” says Ed Sellers, assistant superintendent of Vilonia Public Schools. In Vilonia’s stadium, that can mean a capacity crowd of 4,500 people at $5 a pop for adults, $4 for students. That’s a $10,000 uptick in gate revenue as well as extra concession and merchandise sales. This game greases the football engines of both schools.

As in any true rivalry, neither side has totally dominated since the series began in 1967. Greenbrier, which has always had slightly more people than Vilonia, jumped to an 18-7 series. Then the Eagles won 12 of the next 13 games. In those years from 1996 through 2008, Greenbrier failed to make the playoffs, and lost all 10 games in 2006. But the Panthers have beaten Vilonia the past two seasons, and this fall Greenbrier seeks to topple state champion Greenwood with its high-octane passing offense led by quarterback Neal Burcham, one of most accomplished players in program history.

Like every year, Vilonia would love to derail Greenbrier’s hopes. But this year, when the team captains gather at midfield, there will likely be more exchanged than cliched niceties.

“We’re more bonded to them than past seniors,” Vilonia center Zach Ballard says.

It started early last fall, when NFL players wearing pink gear for breast cancer awareness inspired Greenbrier seniors to try the same. When a Greenbrier coach mentioned the breast cancer diagnosis of Vilonia head coach Jim Stanley’s wife, Sandra, his players knew the game in which they would do it.

The Panthers wore pink shoe laces, wrist tape and gloves in honor of Sandra Stanley.

“A lot of their players wore pink just out of respect and encouragement for my wife,” says Stanley. “That meant a lot.”

And Greenbrier high school students wearing pink T-shirts filled the stadium that night.

“We’ve really kind of grown together as a community,” Ballard says.

The night of April 26 bound the towns even closer.

THE TORNADO HITS

Lindsey Agerton, then a Vilonia sophomore, was with her family and boyfriend in her home’s garage off Arkansas 64 when she noticed strange clouds moving above faraway hills. The clouds, she later realized, were slowly forming a tornado.

They went inside as the clouds approached, roaring louder by the mile. “It was the loudest noise ever, unbelievable noise.”

The monster bearing down on Vilonia and the surrounding country nearly sucked the windows off the frames of Agerton’s parents’ bedroom.

“When you put your hands on it, you could feel it pulling away.”

She remembers her dad’s garage shop swaying back and forth in the backyard, that same wind whipping around to twist the trunks of three trees in her front yard into pretzels.

“It was scary. There are just so many things going through your head.”

Cell reception was temporarily out, so all the comforting text messages — ‘Are you alright?’, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Do you need help?’ — flooded in later, all at once. Facebook status updates through the night informed them which neighbors’ homes were gone. That night four people died in Vilonia, including a couple from Greenbrier. At least five more Arkansans died in storms elsewhere.

The next morning laid bare the enormity of the survivors’ task.

“You could look down the road, and every light pole was flipped over and on the ground,” says Agerton. “You didn’t worry about your house. You just went in and started helping everyone out.”

Continue reading How Sports Helped Vilonia Bounce Back From a Devastating Tornado

Mike Beebe, Todd Day & Ron Brewer at the inaugural Mike Conley, Jr. All-Star Classic

 

Here are some scenes from Thursday night’s Real Deal in the Rock event featuring all-star teams from Arkansas and Tennessee. Tennessee won 81-78. Stay tuned for an upcoming piece in Sporting Life Arkansas for details and video on Razorback signees Nick Babb and Trey Thompson.

Rep. Reginald Murdock (Marianna) points while Gov. Mike Beebe and Real Deal co-founder Bill Ingram look on
Rep. Reginald Murdock (Marianna) points while Gov. Mike Beebe and Real Deal co-founder Bill Ingram look on
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Former Razorback All-American Todd Day (L) shakes hands with Arkansas signee Nick Babb. Day, a Memphis native, was coach of the Tennessee All-Star team.
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Coach Ron Brewer gives some pointers to all-state Daryl Macon of Parkview.
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Razorback signee Anton Beard sure would have helped the Arkansas All-Star team on Thursday night, but said he couldn’t play because he’d already committed to two other All-Star games.
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Former Razorback All-American Ron Brewer coached the Arkansas All-Star team. Here, he’s giving love to Davell Roby, a Tennessee player who will play for Saint Louis University.

The Arkansas connections of Mike Conley, Jr

Conley, Jr. has grown up quite a bit from his days in Fayetteville as a nine-year-old (L)
Conley, Jr. has grown up quite a bit from his days in Fayetteville as a nine-year-old (L)

The following is republished from a Sync magazine article in 2009

The Memphis Grizzlies want your business, Arkansas.

And they’re working for it.

More radio stations carrying game broadcasts, community outreach events and 280-mile charter bus trips are a few ways that central Arkansas’ nearest pro team has tried to drum up interest in a state only miles from their FedEx Forum home.

There’s no choice, says John Pugliese, the team’s senior director of marketing and communications. Grizzlies management understood when the team arrived from Vancouver in 2001 that expanding its fan base into a tri-state area including Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee would be vital to success.

Eight years later, to what extent do Arkansans consider the Grizzlies the state’s “adopted” pro basketball team? For the sake of comparison in this specific context, let’s consider the Dallas Cowboys to be Arkansas’ adopted pro football team.

The Grizz have certainly reached across the Mississippi River. In its first years in Memphis, Grizz players, coaches, mascots and salespeople visited Arkansas cities like Jonesboro and Little Rock to promote the team, Pugliese said. The team has set up “Jr. Grizz” basketball teaching programs for children ages 6-15 in Jacksonville, Conway, Marion, Helena, West Memphis and McGehee.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said last week that he has taught one-day camps with “pretty good turn out” at a Boys & Girls Club in West Memphis the last two summers. Conley, whose father starred in track for the Razorbacks, spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville before eventually moving to Indianapolis, Ind.

Conley’s relatives, who are spread across Arkansas, may see new Grizzlies billboards in places like Marion, Jonesboro and West Memphis as they travel east to see Conley’s home games. The advertisements are part of a commercial outreach that includes four Arkansas radio stations broadcasting Memphis games. Fans can tune into stations based in West Helena, Marion and Jonesboro and, in central Arkansas, Conway’s KASR 92.7 FM. Grizzlies television broadcasts extend nearly 75 miles into east Arkansas, Pugliese added.

In an effort targeting Little Rock, the Grizzlies last year sold tickets of $47 and $99 for a charter bus round trip to select Memphis games.

“We see a little bit of our fan base in Arkansas growing every year,” Pugliese said. He added that roughly 10 percent of ticket holders to Grizz games are Arkansans, and a majority of those hail from West Memphis and Jonesboro, which is 64 miles from Memphis.

According to espn.com, Memphis averaged 12,745 in home attendance last season, 29th of 30 NBA teams. It’s kept the same spot through 10 home games this year by averaging 12,210.

So, let’s cut to the chase — has Arkansas developed a love for its neighboring Grizzlies?

Based on the many conversations I’ve recently had about this subject, I’d say “no.” Let’s explore possible reasons.

1) A Memphis native, and fellow Little Rock Central High School alum, told me while Arkansas is very much Razorbacks country, so is Memphis still very much Tiger country. He averred that despite their NBA credentials, the Grizzlies have yet to capture the hearts of Memphians as the University of Memphis Tigers do. They’re just too new, and haven’t won enough yet. It seems more Memphians would have to first come to love the Grizzlies before Arkansans would.

2) Winners attract new fans, but for most of the last eight years the Grizz have been a losing team. They had won three consecutive games going into last Friday’s game against Oklahoma City, and offered $3 tickets to help pack the house. Attendance was 13,048, and Memphis lost.

3) Although winning would help the problem, the Grizz lack “superstars” that can sell tickets on name alone. They almost had one in Allen Iverson this fall, but he bailed on the team and wound up signing with Philadelphia.

A pickup basketball friend of mine from Little Rock said he was disappointed to hear Iverson had left because he was planning a Memphis trip to see him play. I mentioned the team still had young, exciting players in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, and he laughed. He’d totally forgotten.

4) I believe Arkansas is still a football state, and that’s one reason why to many Arkies the Cowboys matter more than the Grizzlies (factor in Dallas’ winning tradition and Razorback connections like Jerry Jones and Felix Jones). This plays out even in West Memphis, the Arkansas area receiving the most Grizzlies exposure. Sonny Weems, an NBA player, said there’s plenty of enthusiasm for the Grizzlies in West Memphis, but he never attended a Grizzlies game while playing at West Memphis High School in the early 2000s. Football was his sport, he said.

This decade, central Arkansas has had chances to support NBA basketball in its own backyard but has whiffed. NBA preseason games were held in North Little Rock at what was then known as Alltel Arena from 2000-2006, peaking with an attendance of 14,672 in 2002 between the Lakers and Grizzlies, based on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. The last two years however, saw attendances of 4,290 and 6,275. Pugliese said the Grizzlies “are open” to the possibility of returning for a preseason game but there are “no immediate plans.”

It’s too bad. I genuinely feel NBA ball provides some of the world’s greatest athletic spectacle, and nobody knows how long it will last on Arkansas’ doorstep.

Arkansan NBA pioneer to be Inducted in Hall of Fame, Featured in Major Motion Film

In 1958, Arkansans Nat Clifton (L) and Goose Tatum teamed up again a decade after starring as Harlem Globetrotters
In 1958, Arkansans Nat Clifton (L) and Goose Tatum teamed up a decade after starring as Harlem Globetrotters

Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).

Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.

This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).

In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.

A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.

Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.

`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘

Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.

The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad.  It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.

Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).

In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.

Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.

My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.

It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.

More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.

 

The above is Part 2 of a series about Chicago and Arkansas sports ties. 

 

Nolan Richardson Isn’t the Only Arkansan Entering the Basketball Hall of Fame: Part 1

Chicago.

Is it in the least surprising that a city known for its wind should have so many interesting people floating in and out of it, seemingly carried aloft by the currents of fate?

When I heard Nolan Richardson was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this August, one of my first thoughts drifted northward to that great city on a lake. Ten years ago, Richardson’s reputation in Arkansas was marred after an ugly firing from, and lawsuit of, the university with whom he’ll always be linked. The idea of enshrining Richardson seemed far-fetched in that period.

In the last five years, though, we’ve seen a whole-scale rehabilitation of Richardson’s image in the state and nationwide. Much of this, of course, has to do with the passage of time. It also helps Richardson that none of his successors have achieved anything near the same level of success he did in Fayetteville.  An ESPN documentary, released in 2012, also helped Richardson by essentially canonizing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style among the great strategies in basketball history.

But I think one of the most important reasons for Richardson’s resurgence into the public’s goodwill has been his biography, written by Chicagoan Rus Bradburd. Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” published in 2010, is a must-read for all fans of college basketball and students of the race relations in the South. It goes back to Richardson’s west Texas background to explain the complicated roots of his anger, and it lays bare the knarled relationship between he and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. It shows, in a way no mere article or documentary could, the extent to which the passion that led to the 1994 championship and the frustration that led to the 2002 meltdown were two sides of the coin.

I’ve talked to Bradburd in person and over the phone a few times about Richardson, Arkansas sports, the craft of writing and more. He’s a fascinating person in his own right, a creative writing professor who’s also spent a year coaching professional basketball in Ireland while learning how to play the fiddle. Oh, and this: He was also a Division I assistant coach who “discovered” a largely unknown point guard named Tim Hardaway in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.

In the early 1980s, while a teenage Hardaway walked to courts to hone his craft, there would have been at some point a large, 6-7 heavyset older man driving a cab by those same courts. Perhaps, they knew of each other. Likely they didn’t.  The man’s name was Nat Clifton. He is one of the most significant figures in NBA history, a man who will posthumously be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Richardson.

And he grew up in Arkansas…

 

Click here for Part 2 of this series.

 

Marco Rubio, Ashley Judd & Anders Holm as Final Four Announcers

http://instagram.com/p/jxjgOCzVwV/
It appears the “savior of the Republican Party” may be a baller. He’d be an even better halftime shot caller.

The broadcasts of this year’s Final Four games feature a new twist. As usual, national television viewers can tune in to a main broadcast a semifinal game on TBS with familiar, established announcers. But on Saturday we will will also see the debut of two other broadcasts that will simultaneously air on separate channels.

These broadcasts will showcase team-centric announcers catering to the fans of Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kentucky. There will be four “teamcasts” overall to be  shown on TNT and truTv – games which you can find odds for by going to MyTopSportsbooks.com.

This is for the most part a good idea. But CBS/Turner Sports missed out by not including celebrity fans who could appeal to the tens of millions of viewers who are only casual college basketball fans and appreciate insight that veers off into other entertainment worlds like the movie business. As of now,  the teamcasts will feature regional sports channel announcers and former players like UConn’s Swin Cash and Kentucky’s Rex Chapman.

That’s fine for diehard UConn or Kentucky fans, but why not complement those announcers with non-basketball celebrity fans who know the game? Put the following famous fans on the pre or post game shows, or half time, and let them do what they do best: entertain the masses with interesting life stories.

It’s not too late. If CBS/Turner Sports were to at the last second announce teamcast cameos, here’s who should be chosen. Each Final Four program gets a favorite and at least one “darkhorse” candidate.

 

Kentucky

Favorite: Ashley Judd – who else?

She, along with Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee, are as iconic as celebrity fans get.

Judd’s ties to her team run very deep. She believes Big Blue Nation has so many fans is that it binds a geographically diverse state “that has had its hard times. She adds “basketball has given us something to distract us from hardships, from coal mines and strikes and poverty, and given us something positive about which to dream.” Judd herself had a traumatic and fluid childhood, attending 13 schools in her first 18 years. Through all this turmoil one thing she could count on was the joy Kentucky basketball brought her. I’d guess she feels gratitude toward the program.

Judd’s super-close connections to UK basketball would spark enough stories for 20 pre-game shows. For example:

“The 2002-03 squad came to our house (fan nirvana, anyone?) after they beat IUPI … in Nashville and my friend Cathy, Aunt Dot, and I cooked for them. We were all mutually awestruck, so they ended up eating a whole heck of a lot less than the boosters who came over the next night and were far less numerous! Coach loved our countryside setting, and he kept trying to get the town boys to believe he wanted them to take a walk in the woods with a kerosene lantern. One guy was nearly hysterical at the thought.”

Darkhorse #1: Of the rest of Kentucky’s seemingly never-ending list of famous fans, Drake would probably provide the most interesting commentary. Two questions for him: 1)  Does he feel anything is wrong with the fact he got his own UK championship ring before Judd? 2) Can he produce a basketball-centric rendition of his hit singe “Started from the Bottom”? I want it relay the emotional narrative of this year’s Wildcats, who started as the nation’s #1 ranked team before losing 10 games.

Suggested title: “Started at Top, Then Fell to Middle,  Now Close to Top Again.”

Darkhorse #2: The actress/superfan who would provide the most interesting visual:

 

 

Wisconsin

Favorite: Anders Holm

This comedic actor, best known for his role as Anders “Ders” Torpin Holmvik on the Comedy Central show Workaholics,  has the Badger background and improvisational chops to be the no-brainer choice here. Holm’s was a swimmer for Wisconsin in the early 2000s and has been outspoken in his support for the basketball team:

Holm is known to freestyle, which opens the door to the tantalizing possibility of a battle rap showdown between he and Drake..

I pray you, CBS/Turner Sports, do not slam this door shut on me.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERLrP5FFkM8]

 

Darkhorse: Aaron Rodgers.

 

When you can make a head coach look like this just by showing up, your star power is no joke. Rodgers could simply dish out stories as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for 90% of the time and still hold the audience in thrall:

H/T to Phil Mitten of Buckys5thQuarter.com for insight

Continue reading Marco Rubio, Ashley Judd & Anders Holm as Final Four Announcers

Kevin McHale Spits Out Perfunctory “Wow” Following Omer Asik Airball

Big nationally televised game tonight in Brooklyn.

The NBA’s third and fourth most winning teams since the New Year – Brooklyn and Houston – are squaring off. The Nets, led by recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week Joe Johnson, have won 13 games in a row at home and could win a franchise record 14 tonight.

Unfortunately, my TNT game feed is inexplicably en Espanol tonight.

Fortunately, the funniest GIF of the night doesn’t need a translation:

Addendum!