It’s not common to find high-volume shooters who connect on more than 75% of their field goal attempts over the course of a full college season. Rarer still are those players who can also connect on more than 90% of their free throws.
Rarest of all is the player who does all the above while standing less than six feet tall.
And yet, nearly 50 years, a Philander Smith College guard named Robert Thompson pulled off this possibly unmatched trifecta. In 1968-69, this 5-10 Texas native finished:
8th in the nation in scoring with a 29.1 average per game
1st nationally in field goal percentage at 77.8 %, completing 257 out of 330 field goals attempted
1st nationally in free throw percentage at 97.1 %, completing 104 out of 107 free throws attempts
These are amazing statistics. In the NBA, the kinds of players who can shoot more than 70% from the field while also shooting at high volumes are in the Wilt Chamberlin realm—unstoppable giants camped out close to the rim. Yet those same giants often struggle with their free throws, shooting under 60%.
At the Division I NCAA level, the two highest field goal shooters have been:
Davontae Cacok (UNC Wilmington): Shot 80% for 12.3 PPG in 2016-17
Steve Johnson (Oregon State*): Shot 74.6% for 21 PPG in 1980-81
Yet both of these guys were fairly large dudes operating around the rim. Cacok stands 6-7, 240 pounds, while Johnson played at 6-10, 235 pounds. And both shot under 69% from the free throw line.
Meanwhile, the Division I record-holder in season free throw percentage is Missouri State guard Blake Ahearn, who hit 97.5% in 2003-4. But he also shot under 40% from the field.
Philander Smith plays in the NAIA, so how does Thompson’s feat stack up within that association’s all-time records? Well, it turns out his free throw record still stands today. The runner-up is Klay Knueppel (Wisconsin Lutheran), who made 95% of his free throw attempts in 1989-1992.
The listed season field goal leader is James Cason, a Birmingham-Southern forward who made 78.2% of his 280 attempted field goal attempts in 1995-96. Cason, however, stood 6-5, making him one of the tallest players on the court during most NAIA games. Robert Thompson may hold the No. 2 ranking here. According to the NAIA record book, the No. 2 spot goes to Paul Peterson (Westbrook [Maine]), who shot 76.2% from the field in 1994-95. But Thompson’s 77.8% is superior, of course.
Of course, since the NAIA official record keepers didn’t include Thompson’s record, it’s possible they have missed others as well. But regardless of how high Thompson’s 77.8% ranks, it’s fair to say it’s an extremely impressive for any player—especially a 5-10, 158 pound guard.
I’ve found some old articles which delve deeper into Thompson’s historically great season. Stay tuned for those upcoming posts.
*My oh my how the Oregon State basketball program has fallen, going from No. 1 throughout much of that 1980-81 season to around 500-to-1 odds to win the 2018 national championship according to some betting lines.
Former El Paso Bert Williams was in the middle of two of the most important cultural landmark events of the 1960s: the first major city in the South to officially integrate post-Reconstruction, and the first NCAA Championship basketball team to start five black players. About a week ago, this civil rights giant suffered a heart attack and was put into an El Paso area hospital’s cardiac arrest unit, according to my author friend Rus Bradburd. Bradburd is a former UTEP assistant basketball coach who wrote the biography of Razorback coaching legend Nolan Richardson, an El Paso native who alongside Bert Williams’ played a central role in paving the path to Texas Western’s 1966 NCAA title.
Their stories began to intertwine in the late 1950s, when Bert Williams was an El Paso alderman who helped Richardson get into his first college, Eastern Arizona, as a baseball player. After Richardson returned to El Paso, Williams got him to join his fast-pitch softball team, according to Bradburd’s Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson. After one game, Williams convinced Richardson to go with him to a popular local restaurant, the Oasis, despite the 19-year-old Richardson’s protest he wouldn’t be served there.
Williams insisted they enter anyway, given his connections in city government and Richardson’s status as the best athlete at Texas Western, now known as UTEP. Sure enough, the waitress refused to serve them the beer and Coke they ordered. Williams tried to force the issue but failed. He grabbed Richardson by the elbow and headed for the door, then warned the owners “I’ll be back.”
The incident shook Williams up. He immediately began drafting legislation to officially end segregation of El Paso hotels, theaters and restaurants. Williams told Bradburd: “The city was divided by railroad tracks, but the laws were enforced more arbitrarily for Mexican-Americans, and there were places were they could eat without trouble.” But attitudes were not so permissive for blacks. Williams rallied fellow aldermen to his side, revised the wording of the ordinance and got it to pass an initial vote.
“Both El Paso newspapers, the Times and the Herald-Post, published editorials condemning the progress,” Bradburd wrote in Forty Minutes of Hell. “The mayor vetoed the ordinance, but Williams had enough votes to override him. ‘It was just by coincidence that Nolan was there that night at the Oasis,’ says Williams, who was subsequently elected mayor himself. ‘After I witnessed the way he was treated, such a great kid and the star of the college, I knew I had to do something.’
Bert Williams’s heroic act made El Paso the first major city in the Old Confederacy to officially desegregate. Yet Williams’s courage—he ignored numerous threats and enormous pressure—was barely reported nationally and remains nearly forgotten even in El Paso*. [Texas Western coach] Don Haskins took notice though. The town’s new progressive status would have a profound effect on Texas Western’s ability to recruit black athletes,” including Arkansas native Jim Barnes**, who would become the 1964 NBA Draft’s No.1 overall pick.
Don Haskins, son of an Arkansan and Hank Iba protege, had arrived on the UTEP campus in 1961 and would go on to become Richardson’s mentor. Haskins leaned on Richardson, the team’s only black local native, to become the social host for black recruits—given he knew the lay of the land and where to go to avoid unofficial Jim Crow sites. Although Richardson graduated from UTEP in 1963, he would stay around the area and play a big role in helping Haskins’ recruit many of the players who formed the 1966 title team.
Although El Paso itself was now officially integrated, Richardson preferred taking recruits to far more racially tolerant Mexico.
“In Juarez, black men could eat thick steaks, dance with whomever they wanted, and stay out as late as they pleased,” Bradbury wrote. “Heroes from the 1966 team, such as Harry Flournoy, Orsten Artis, Bobby Joe Hill, and Nevil Shed all socialized in Mexico with Richardson and had a lively time. As such, Mexico as well as Bert Williams hold a place in the history of American college basketball; they were largely responsible for the recruitment and comfort of the historic Texas Western team.”
At least four Arkansans have played basketball at the University of Kentucky. I’ve already written about three of them—Bob Burrow, Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk— though just briefly touched on the first: Houston Nutt, Sr. While question marks hang over how well Monk and Goodwin will be able to reintegrate themselves into Arkansas after having turned down the Razorbacks in favor of the Wildcats, no such question marks hung over Nutt, Sr. after he came home from college to establish life in Little Rock.
Relatively speaking, he had been every bit the high school phenom Monk and Goodwin were, and yet apparently the Razorbacks of the early 1950s were not in contention for his services when the likes of Kentucky—then a powerhouse under coach Adolph Rupp just as it is now under John Calipari—came calling. (The big difference was that in that era Rupp got the majority of his players from inside Kentucky.)
So, how good was the 6-feet-2 Nutt Sr. as a basketball prodigy?
Let’s let Jim Bailey, the longtime Arkansas Gazette (and then Democrat-Gazette) sportswriter, explain: “Quite simply, Houston was several basketball generations ahead of his competitive time,” he wrote in a 2008 letter to Emogene Nutt quoted in You’re the Best: Reflections on the Life of Houston Nutt. “A tall guard, he amounted to what coaches called the ‘The Total Package,’ handling the ball, shooting from outside, driving for the basket, rebounding and, above all, doing everything with intensity, flair and enthusiasm. He often scored 30 to 40 points, and this was in a period of time when 40-50 was a fairly typical high school basketball score.”
In terms of quickness and leaping ability, Nutt, Sr. was no Archie Goodwin—and definitely no Malik Monk. But he was far from shabby, too, according to Hank Iba, the legendary Oklahoma State basketball coach who coached both Nutt, Sr. after a transfer from Kentucky. Decades later, Iba also coached Nutt Sr.’s son Dickey Nutt. “I will never forget him saying, ‘Your dad was a black man in a white man’s body,’ referring to his athleticism,” Dickey Nutt recalled in You’re the Best, a biography of Houston Nutt Sr. written by his widow Emogene Nutt.
This book is a must read and treasure trove of Arkansas history trivia. Here are some other highlights from its first quarter:
A Family Home Built on Sandwiches?
When Nutt Sr. was a child, he banked mad money off the side hustle of selling chicken sandwiches drizzled with Heinz 57. His mom, May, made the sandwiches and then Nutt Sr. sold them at 25 cents apiece at the bus station and train depot. “Houston could sell the sandwiches literally faster than his mother could prepare them,” the story according to Emogene Nutt goes. “I’ve heard that the money was used to help buy the land on Moro Street in Fordyce where the family home is today.”
A Tennis Ball and Coffee Can
Houston was born in 1930 and had two older brothers: Fred, born 1922, and Clyde, born 1928. His youngest brother Fay was born in 1932. All four brothers loved to play basketball but in the Great Depression had trouble finding an actual basketball to do so with. So they used an old tennis ball instead. Their basketball goal “was a coffee can with both ends cut out and nailed to the wall,” Emogene Nutt wrote after Nutt Sr.’s passing in 2005.
According to her book, Fred Nutt went on to play on undefeated basketball teams at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Clyde Nutt played for the same school and made All-State in 1947, 1948 and 1949. In 1949, the brothers led the deaf school to its first state basketball title. Fay, meanwhile, played with Houston on the Fordyce Redbugs team.
A Strong Pryor-Nutt connection
In the 1940s former Arkansas governor David Pryor starred for the Camden Panthers, a rival to the Redbugs which Nutt Sr. quarterbacked. The two competitors became good friends over the years and when Pryor was elected as a U.S. senator and moved to Washington D.C., his son Mark Pryor lived with the Nutts while he finished out his semester at Little Rock Central High School. Nutt Sr. and Pryor even had major heart attacks on the same day—Houston in Little Rock and David in Washington D.C., Emogene Nutt recalled. During their recovery, they jokingly blamed the delicious hamburgers of the Redbug Cafe in Fordyce and Duck Inn Cafe in Camden for the heart attacks.
In November and December, Big Blue Nation struggles more than other blue blood programs.
Kentucky consistently starts more freshmen than any other program in the nation. It’s been this way since John Calipari arrived seven years ago and instituted a philosophy which embraces the “one and done” m.o. of so many of today’s high school prep stars who have designs on NBA riches and fame.
Playing this many Kentucky freshmen has, for the most part, panned out well on the backend of seasons. In the Calipari era, Kentucky has gone to four Four Finals and won a championship. But freshmen, no matter how gifted, take time to gell. And so, on the front end of seasons, Kentucky underperforms relative to nation’s other best programs.
That is, since 2011-12, Kentucky has “only” won 61.3% of its November/December matchups against non conference, Power 5 opponents. That’s at the bottom of the recent best of the best, as you can see below.
Duke: 20-6 (.769)
Villanova 15-5 (.750)
Kansas: 24-9 (.727)
North Carolina: 17-10 (.630)
Kentucky: 19-12 (0.613)
Below is a breakdown of each program’s season-by-season records. All data is taken from sports-reference.com.
Kentucky In Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Kansas in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
North Carolina in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Duke in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Villanova in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Kentucky’s early-season struggles have hurt the SEC’s overall cachet as a basketball conference. Consider Kentucky has been the league’s marquee program these last six years, while other SEC programs don’t play nearly as many high-profile early-season games. If Kentucky struggles to rack up significant wins pre-conference, because it more often loses head-to-head matchups with the titans of other conferences, then few other SEC teams have schedules which give them a chance to make up the difference.
So, the SEC’s strength of schedule ratings as a conference (relative to other conferences around the nation) suffers. This is one factor in the reason the SEC might have been underrated as a basketball conference until this March Madness, when three SEC teams broke into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986.
Look for SEC programs to raise the number of their high-profile early-season games soon. The league office has mandated that in the coming years each program must play non conference opponents with a three-year RPI average of 150 or above.
Curry’s 17-point detonation was one for all-time … and all-places.
After missing a potential winner at the end of regulation in Game 4 of the Golden State-Portland series, Steph Curry became visibly frustrated. On the bench, he slammed his hands together, clearing irked he’d missed a 10-foot running bank shot down the right side.
A game-winning shot there would have added some gleam to Curry’s already historic season. Instead, because he missed it, Curry ended up burnishing his legacy while strengthening his case for the greatest offensive season in basketball history far more than he could have with a mere game winner.
In his first game back from nearly three weeks off with injury, Curry filleted the Trail blazers to the tune of 17 overtime points — a perfect prelude to the announcement today that he is the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. A late, clinching stepback three-pointer left Portland owner Paul Allen doing this:
NB: The previous scoring record for a postseason overtime was 13 by Clyde Drexler.
This feat is amazing enough on its own. Even more amazing, though, is that the record would stand at the NCAA basketball level, too, where so many more players have had a chance to do better in so many more games. Roughly four times* as many Division I games as NBA games are played per season, according to research provided by basketball-reference.com.
Since the 1995-96 season, there have been 109,667 college basketball games and an estimated 26,000-27,000 regular season and postseason NBA games.
According to official NCAA records, the Division I record for points in an overtime period is shared by two players:
Howard’s Ron Williams, who scored 17 points in the first OT of a win against Norfolk State in 2003
Temple’s David Hawkins, who scored 17 points in the second OT against Massachusetts in 2004.
Essentially, scoring 17 or more points in a single overtime is really, really, really hard. The NCAA has had five-minute overtime periods since 1908, and yet it’s only been done twice before.
That Steph Curry could achieve this against a defense roughly four times more imposing than anything Norfolk State or UMass could summon, in the thick of a pressure-packed road playoff game, after recovering from an ankle injury, doesn’t seem human.
It’s possible that Curry is simply stretching the bounds of what we as fans imagine should be possible on a basketball court. Where he goes, others will eventually follow, right?
That’s not a given. The one player in the NBA who probably comes closest to Steph Curry’s long-range shooting abilities and handle — Damian Lillard — looks to be as much en fuego Curry’s match as Clyde Drexler was en fuego Jordan’s equal. Maybe a much better version of Lillard will ascend through the pipeline in the coming years, but I doubt it. The more I watch Curry, the more he appears to be a transcendental type of talent that may not come around but once a century at best.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were these kinds of talents, too. It’s been nearly 60 years since they burst onto the national scene, and we have yet to see two other big men who can as thoroughly dominate their opposition. No little man has come close to destroying opponents in the myriad, potent ways Curry can. If anyone doubted this heading into last night’s game, their silence is deafening now.
From Cleveland’s Kevin Love to Houston’s Trevor Ariza to Oklahoma State’s Russell Westbrook, UCLA has no shortage of alumni playing important minutes for competitive teams in the NBA this season. The NBA fans who closely follow the game, whether by watching, fantasy sports or online betting, know there’s a good chance Bruins will play roles on some of the teams making the deepest runs in this year’s playoffs.
When it comes to deep postseason runs, no Bruins, however, have ever stood as tall as Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s certainly the case in the NBA playoffs, as the 7’1″ Walton bagged the NBA Finals MVP en route to leading Portland to the 1977 title. And who can forget what Abdul-Jabbar did on the biggest stage? Twice the 7’2″ center won the NBA Finals MVP (in 1971 and 1985) while winning six championships overall.
As great as Walton and Abdul-Jabbar were in the pros, they were even more impressive while playing college ball for UCLA. Both won the NCAA player of the year award in each of the three seasons they were eligible for it. Walton won two of three NCAA Championships in those years, while Abdul-Jabbar won an NCAA Championship in all three seasons he played varsity (freshmen were ineligible in the 1960s-early 1970s).
In men’s NCAA basketball, few players can touch Walton and Abdul-Jabbar when it comes to a combination of titles and statistical dominance. In fact, to get appropriate comparisons, we must go to women’s basketball. Here we find players who won Player of the Year just as many times as Abdul-Jabbar (Cheryl Miller) and a superstar who has won more NCAA Championships (Breanna Stewart).
But how do all these all-timers stack up mano-a-(wo)mano? Let’s break out the spreadsheet, folks, and see. Below are the stats for the all-timers’ first season*.
COMPARING COLLEGE BASKETBALL’s BEST OF THE BEST (OFFENSE)
*In all the cases above this means freshman year except for Abdul-Jabbar and Walton (where it’s sophomore) and Sheryl Swoopes (junior year since she was a junior college transfer).
*Through first 37 games.
From an offensive standpoint, players like Cheryl Miller and Abdul-Jabbar on different planets than the likes of Breanna Stewart. This disparity is so vast I believe it destroys Stewart’s argument for G.O.A.T. despite her team’s unprecedented four-year run.
Now let’s see how these players stack up rebounding, passing and more defensive stats.
When it comes to dual success at the highest levels of men’s and women’s college basketball, the Connecticut Huskies are in a class of their own. The university’s two programs have combined for a total of 166 NCAA Tournament wins, higher than the totals from the men’s and women’s teams of any other university. Still, though, the disparity between these two powerhouses is larger than many would expect.
The Connecticut men have won four national titles and been to seven Elite Eights since 1999. This year, though, the program has fallen on hard times with a 10-11 start. A fifth national title this spring seems highly unlikely. Connecticut has only a 450 to 1 chance to win the 2017 NCAA Championship, according to these odds. That’s worse than Auburn’s or Seton Hall’s.
Still, overall, four titles and seven Elite Eights is really good. Yet it’s nowhere near good enough to keep pace with coach Geno Auriemma’s juggernaut. Since 2000, the women Huskies have won nine national titles and made 15 or 16 Elite Eights. This kind of extraterrestrial success translates into the fourth-largest disparity in Division I NCAA when it comes to women’s program success relative to their male counterparts.
The highlighted column in the below chart shows the difference between the Connecticut men’s NCAA tourney all-time total in wins (58) and women’s all-time total (107) is 48. In terms of gender success gap, that trails only Stanford (57), Louisiana Tech (61) and Tennessee (104)
*Above data, drawn from NCAA.org, is current through April 1, 2016.
If you’re interested in parity, it appears no major college program does the Title IX thing better than the Maryland. The men Terrapins have an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 41-25 while the women clock in at 42-23. Both have exactly one national title.
So, what about the men-dominant programs?
Good question, arbitrarily inserted headline.
It’s no surprise that the blueboods of college basketball are at the top of the list when it comes to men’s program-to-women’s program win disparity. Much of this is a function of the fact that the men’s NCAA Tournament started in 1939 while the women’s version started in 1982. A four-decades-long head start in winning usually builds pretty large gaps.
So we see a situation in which some very good women’s programs like Duke and North Carolina are still in the Top 7 in terms of disparity because of the strength of their counterparts.
Biggest Gaps Between Successful Men’s Programs and their Female Counterparts
It may surprise some fans that so many of these men’s juggernauts have not yet been able to find a way to cultivate more success for their female counterparts. Some female programs, like Kentucky’s, have made strides in recent years but it’s hard to close the gap when
a) the men’s program’s even higher levels of success widens it year by year
b) In the 1980s, much smaller programs like Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion took up a disproportionate share of the available NCAA Tournament wins
c) Since then, Tennessee, Stanford and Connecticut have swallowed up a much larger share of all available tourney wins. That trio of programs has been far more successful than any men’s trio over the same amount of time.
In essence, the women’s teams at the top of my first chart play a big role in making it so hard for almost all other women’s teams to develop serious momentum.
“I’ll tell you how far you can go” – Geno Auriemma
Perhaps that begins to change this weekend. The Syracuse women’s team has made it the Final Four. This marks the first time that an historically sub .500 NCAA Tournament program (e.g. Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, Villanova, Cincinnati) has made it this far. To win the title, though, the Syracuse women would likely have to beat Connecticut in the championship round. That’s a very tall order, but doing so may create enough shock waves and recruiting momentum to help start closing the chasm between the Syracuse men’s and women’s teams.
Unless, of course, the Syracuse men steal said thunder and win it all this year, too.
For more about the juggernaut Huskies, check out my BestOfArkansasSports.com piece on the first Arkansan to receiver a scholarship offer from Auriemma’s program.
The biggest question heading into today’s Arkansas-Little Rock–Purdue matchup is a question of bigs: How will the Trojans, whose starting center is 6’11” and 210 pounds, will handle a powerful Purdue front line that goes 6’9″, 7’0″ and 7’2″? How quickly both sides’ bigs get into foul trouble will play a large role in deciding this NCAA Tournament first-round game in which almost every online college basketball sportsbook lists Purdue as a favorite.
“We’re going to have to double team some,” Trojans head coach Chris Beard told Dan Dakich this week. “We’re going to have to take some chances with some single guards. We do have two big kids on our roster. Lis Shoshi is our starting center. He’s a junior college transfer, he’s a good player. He had an offer from Minnesota and Texas Tech, so we beat some big schools on him.”
Beard added, “Then we’ve got a big fifth year transfer, Daniel Green, who played at Wake Forest for four years. Daniel’s about 6’10” so we’ve got 2 guys that I think can match up decently, but other than that, now we’re starting to play 6’4″, 6’5″ undersized guys … so we’re going to really try to help our guys in coaching and game planning.”
For perspective from the Boilermakers’ corner, check out these excerpts from Purdue beat reporter Nathan Baird. Baird spoke with Trey Schapp of the Buzz 103.7 FM earlier this week:
Q: If there is a recipe for Little Rock to try to beat Purdue, what should they try?
Nathan Baird:“[Purdue] came into the season I think with some cautiously high expectations. They had a lot of talent back from last year and added a really good power forward freshman in Caleb Swanigan, who was a national recruit for that mix. I think that this season played out about how I expected. I thought that they would be about a 26-, 27-win team, and that’s right in the ballpark they’re at.Some of the things that you would traditionally associate with Purdue basketball in terms of a blue-collar work ethic, tough man-to-man defense, those sort of things — at least here in the Big 10 sometimes that’s kind of what they’re known for.
What they’ve sort of flipped the script with is adding that power forward in. They play a traditionally big lineup. They’ve got two 7-foot centers. They’re kind of interchangeable. One’s better than the other, but the backup is pretty good, too, and Swanigan next to that as power forward. That’s a really tough combo for a lot of teams to try to match up with.That’s the really big thing going into a tournament like this is how are these other teams … Very few teams are going to have that kind of size and skill combination in the front court. How are teams going to try to match up with that?”
Q:Nathan, with all that length, do they have much athleticism?
Nathan Baird: A little bit. They’re not a very fast team and they’ve gotten in trouble a couple times against teams that are throwing zone press or something out there. They’ve got a couple guys that have some athleticism. Their starting point guard, or most of their point guards are probably two of the more athletic guys they have – P.J. Thompson and Johnny Hill.
They’ve got a guy named Vince Edward who’s the “3” 6’8″ forward. He played the “4” last year as a freshman and has moved over this year. They’ve got some of that athleticism, but they’re not an essentially quick team. They pick their spots as far as transition. They like to get out and attack and be opportunistic that way. But they don’t really necessarily push the tempo as a matter of their identity.
At the same time, the 7-footers they have aren’t stiffs. A.J. Hammons was a first team All Big 10 player. He’s the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Really athletic around the basket, has really become a lot more skilled, has a lot of post moves there, has even pulled the team out more toward the perimeter this year for the first time.
His backup is a sophomore who’s 7’2″, 285 pounds — a kid named Isaac Haas from Alabama. As [Purdue coach] Matt Painter said the other night, if I played him 35 minutes a game, he’d be first team All Big 10. Unfortunately, he can’t play that much. He’s probably a 16-18 minute player at the most, usually, because Hammons gets the bulk of those duties just because he’s such a defensive player, especially in the second half. It’s not necessarily that they’re especially athletic, but they’re pretty skilled and they do a lot of little things right.
Q: How deep is Matt Painter’s bench and how do you think the Denver altitude might affect the game?
Nathan Baird: They go about nine deep and they’ve really got multiple options at each position. Again, they are a bigger team. They rely on those big guys to play a lot of minutes. What’s an interesting angle here is some of those guys I’ve already mentioned – Vince Edward, who’s a 6’8″ guy, Caleb Swanigan, the 6’9″, 250 power forward, and Isaac Haas, the behemoth that they have as a backup center – all of those guys played in Colorado Springs last year in various camps, Swanigan and Edwards with USA Basketball and Haas as part of the PanAm Games tryouts.
Some of their biggest guys, ones who would be maybe the most vulnerable to the altitude, you would expect, all have some experience playing at altitudes. Even if it’s just limited experience. I think that’s going to help them a little bit this week.
All four of these teams are going to have to adjust to it. I don’t know how much of an advantage it’s going to give anybody. The fact that those three guys in particular, for themselves, know how to adjust to it… I was talking to them after the game yesterday and basically said, ‘That first day, you’re out there running, and man it burns. It hurts. You can definitely feel it.’ It’s going to be a matter of just playing through that and not letting it affect you, getting it out of your mind. That could be an advantage for Purdue, just because those guys know what they’re feeling, know how to get through that.
Some of your big guys can shoot the ball a little bit, and that can be an advantage. If you can take those seven-footers and Swanigan and pull them away from the basket by being able to make shots from the perimeter, teams have done that and won.
Iowa was a tough matchup with Purdue that way. They beat them twice. The first loss of the year was at Illinois and Illinois did some of those same things. Some other teams have done that. If you can take one of those 6’9″, 6’10”, 6’11” kind of guys and those guys can hit shots from the perimeter and make Purdue’s seven-footers come out, it opens things up for the whole offense, because now you don’t have that guy protecting the rim and you can get in there other ways, too. You don’t have to score just from the perimeter that way.
That would be one way. The other way is Purdue has been susceptible to high turnovers. It’s not necessarily just one thing, it’s they’ll have travels and a moving screen and then just throw a ball out of bounds… Teams have not only turned them over, but then created offense off of those turnovers. If Purdue wants to make a run in the tournament, against most teams, they’ll be the first ones to tell you, they’ve got to take care of the ball better than they have in some of their other big games this year.
Q: What was Matt Painter’s reaction to the 5 seed and going up against a 12 in a team like Little Rock?
Nathan Baird: He was pretty nonchalant about it. He’s a really pragmatic coach. He’s not the guy who’s usually very demonstrative. There’s times where we’ll ask about something that’s going on in college basketball and he’s very quick a lot of times to say, ‘Well, I haven’t studied that myself. I don’t want to say something.’ I give him credit for that. Here’s part of his reasoning: If we were a few spots higher up on the seed list, then maybe you could swap us and Iowa State and then we’d still be the 4. There’s not really a difference there.
He and a lot of other people, and obviously up here we’re going to say this, but they think the Big 10 as a whole was underseeded. In fact, Painter said, ‘I think Indiana should have been a 3 instead of a 4.’ I had to say, ‘Actually, they were a 5.’ He was like, ‘Oh, really? Wow.’
Then he really got bummed out. Everyone thought Michigan State was going to be a 1 and they ended up a 2. Again, it’s razor-thin between a 4 and a 5 on the seed list. I think sometimes fans don’t necessarily look at that.”
Below is the second of a two-part series about the Hilarious Jesters, a traveling team of former college players who broke racial barriers in the early 1960s. Most stories of integration in the South of this era highlight African Americans entering white worlds, but in this case the Jesters featured a couple white players playing on a primarily black team vs. all-black teams.
The Little Rock-based group initially included core African-American players such as Chester Lane, Marion Rice and John Davis, as well as McPherson. McPherson later brought Ray Paladino aboard, along with another white player, Charles Taylor. As I mentioned the article, originally published in Arkansas Life, this group scrimmaged against high-level talent such as Harlem Globetrotter extraordinaire Geese Ausbie and NBA player Wayne Yates.
Likely central Arkansas’ first semi-professional integrated basketball team, the Jesters competed primarily against all-black squads of players hailing from communities such as Marked Tree, Marion, Clarendon, Holly Grove, Newport, England, Altheimer and other areas southeast of Little Rock.
McPherson says he had little trouble playing all-black opponents in front of all-black crowds: “First time I did something like that, I was a little bit nervous about how it would turn out, but shoot, nobody ever said a cross word to me.” Lane, however, remembers it slightly differently, recalling fans and even players who occasionally hurled racial taunts at the white players. It never got physical, though. A few times, the Jesters also played all-white teams in areas such as Benton, Conway and Menifee, and the taunting flowed the other way. “Sometimes it was nice, and sometimes we got a little razzing,” Lane says.
McPherson and Lane’s friendship centered on competition, whether basketball, chess or pingpong—which McPherson had learned from Poles while he was stationed in Europe. The two played pingpong in gyms before practices and games, and at Lane’s home, but Lane never visited McPherson’s home, even when he invited him. One day, McPherson called him out on it, asking Lane why he always had an excuse to avoid visiting. Lane said he believed his presence as an African-American man wouldn’t be welcomed by McPherson’s southwest Little Rock neighbors. “They’ll look down their noses at you,” McPherson recalls Lane saying. Lane didn’t want McPherson to experience negative feedback from his community on account of his presence. McPherson understood, appreciated Lane’s desire to protect him and never pushed the point again. “I felt like that was true friendship,” McPherson says.
Despite their name, the Hilarious Jesters provided serious competition for whomever they played. McPherson and Lane were both guards, but while McPherson specialized in shooting, Lane was an outstanding ballhandler as a result of a hip injury he had suffered while playing semiprofessional basketball after college. The injury limited his mobility, but Lane was able to compensate by developing his dribbling skills, McPherson says. “He could almost make a ball talk.”
The team didn’t profit from its games, although it occasionally got gas money and free meals through postgame picnic potlucks. Mainly, they played for love of the sport. Lane recalls a typical outing: a group of the guys jamming into a couple of Oldsmobiles, heading off to play a night game in some small northeast-Arkansas town, pure exhaustion setting in, his wife, Janet, taking the wheel for the long road back.
The Jesters folded after only a couple of years. The players’ lives had gotten too busy for the fun, unpaid times to last forever, but they left a legacy that has endured. By the 1970s, sports would be almost completely integrated, along with most spheres of Arkansas society. There can be little doubt that of the hundreds of all-white and all-black crowds who saw this integrated group of ballers play throughout the years, there would have been some men and women who would have seen in them a sign of a more hopeful future. McPherson, though, says he never thought about trying to change society. “I’m not trying to blow my horn. Race has never been an issue with me,” he says. “I was just playing ball, and color didn’t matter.”
Lane went on to coach high school basketball in Clarendon, then at Arkansas Baptist College in the 1970s. McPherson, who by the mid-1960s had four children, was on his way up the corporate ladder at Horner Boxes in southwest Little Rock. He stayed in the game by playing for corporate-sponsored Amateur Athletic Union teams and later refereed games at all levels, including AAU, high school and college games. Indeed, he recalls once refereeing an Arkansas Baptist game while Lane coached there.
Still, by that point, the friends no longer had the time to hit the courts. They had continued playing pickup at MacArthur Park and Dunbar throughout the 1960s, but those days are long gone. Occasionally, though, someone remembers them.
McPherson recalls, years later, running into a black man around town who knew him through basketball circles. The man told him he appreciated how, unlike other whites, McPherson didn’t act scared or hesitant around blacks. “We always thought you all had been afraid of us, and—little did you know—we were afraid of y’all, too,” he explained to McPherson. “It meant a lot for you to reach out.”
Nowadays, McPherson lives in Alexander and Lane in Sweet Home, south of Little Rock. They talk a few times a year and have attended a few reunions together for their old basketball buddies at Abe’s Ole Feedhouse in nearby Benton. One former on-and-off-again Jester, James Bledsoe, has died, but the others still make it. Granted, the bounce in their step is gone—Lane now enters the restaurant in a wheelchair, and many others limp—but they still know how to let the good times roll. They laugh, reminisce and joke about the old days while picking out fried catfish and hush puppies in the buffet line. Geese Ausbie, true to Globetrotters form, is still prone to clown around with servers, McPherson says.
Through it all, not a word about big-picture stuff like race relations and the group’s small but significant role in tearing down walls is ever uttered, McPherson adds. He refuses to acknowledge his own likely status as a pioneer. “I don’t want to make an issue of something now that wasn’t an issue then. That was not my intent.”
In November, his hope was to attend a basketball game at Philander Smith that would be attended by some of his old basketball buddies. Lane’s health had been off and on, so McPherson offered to stop by his old friend’s house and give him a ride.
Next month, Fort Smith native Jahlil Okafor could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. If he is, the 6’11” center will be the third Arkansan native to go No. 1 in a major American team sport since Joe Barry Carroll in 1980. Okafor spent his childhood in the Ft. Smith area before moving to a bigger metro area in Chicago. Carroll, meanwhile, spent some of his elementary school days in Pine Bluff before his mother shepherded her large family to Denver.
There, among the Rockies, Carroll grew to seven feet tall and became a prized recruit. He then became a legendary player at Purdue, leading the Boilermakers to the 1980 Final Four while racking up 26.3 points a game.
It turns out Carroll has become both a painter and writer who has been contemplating his Arkansan roots. Now living in Georgia, Carroll will return to his home state this fall for an exhibit in Little Rock:
“The Historic Arkansas Museum will host the contemporary art exhibit, “Growing Up . . . In Words and Images” by NBA All Star, Joe Barry Carroll. The exhibition will open in Historic Arkansas Museum’s Trinity Gallery for Arkansas Artists during 2nd Friday Art Night on September 11 from 5 to 8 pm. The opening reception will include a gallery talk with Carroll and a book signing in the Museum Store.
The exhibition will include paintings from Carroll’s memoir coffee table book of the same name. The colorful and evocative acrylic and mixed media paintings have been described as “folk” and “impressionistic.” The paintings explore what Carroll refers to as “shared humanity”—childhood, dreams, family ties, southern culture and self-discovery. In “Growing Up,” Carroll’s southern-comfort prose reveals the life of a boy who seemed “to not be enough of any one particular thing to be the right thing.”
Born the tenth of thirteen children, Carroll was raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Denver, Colorado, where his mother supported the family as a domestic worker, fry cook, and eventually a nurse’s aide. He dreamed of saving the day for his family and writes, “Every time I witnessed my mother’s defeat and difficulty as another dream died, I resolved to make it all better one day.”
Carroll led the Purdue University Boilermakers to the Final Four in 1980 and graduated with a degree in Economics. Carroll was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. He would go on to play for Milano (Italy), the Houston Rockets, New Jersey Nets, Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns. Carroll is now a wealth advisor, philanthropist, painter and writer.
Historic Arkansas Museum is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 – 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission to the galleries and parking are free; admission to the historic grounds is $2.50 for adults, $1 for children under 18, $1.50 for senior citizens. The Historic Arkansas Museum Store is open 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 – 4 p.m. on Sunday.”
Carroll, it turns out, had the seventh-highest scoring performance in NCAA Tournament history in 1980. Interestingly, the number one player on that list – Glen Rice – apparently was born in Jacksonville, Ark. before moving to Michigan as a baby or toddler.