This is a fascinating post which will make you consider a new definition for “free agent.” It looks at a group of pro baseball players who locked horns with California state prison inmates called “the Midgets.”
Unfortunately, not many details could be released about who these prisoners were. But we do know prisoners No. 27784 and No. 26130 had some serious skills…
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.
One opposing SEC coach called Andrew Benintendi the nation’s best college baseball player. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
In the early 1990s, Arkansas joined the SEC and the conference began awarding a baseball player of the year award to complement already established football and basketball MVP titles. Since then, the conference has soared to lofty heights, becoming arguably the NCAA’s most powerful organization. Much of that has to do with stretches of dominance by Alabama, LSU and Florida in football; Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida in basketball and the likes of LSU (five national titles 1993-2009) and South Carolina in baseball.
Many of these programs have produced multiple players of the years in various sports, yet no one school has yet been able to hit a POY trifecta by having a male player win the ultimate individual honor in each major team sport in one calendar year.
That may soon change.
In 2015, the Razorbacks athletic department has a chance make SEC history by sweeping these honors. The push started earlier this spring with sophomore Bobby Portis winning basketball SEC Player of the Year. Then, on Monday, sophomore Andrew Benintendi was announced as SEC baseball’s player of the year. Benintendi, of course, has helped spearhead the Hogs’ surge from a 1-5 start in SEC play to 18-7 finish including two wins so far in the SEC Tournament. The outfielder from Cincinnati, Ohio leads the nation in slugging percentage (.760) and ranks first in home runs. “He’s probably the best player in college baseball right now,” Tennessee coach Dave Serrano told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bob Holt.
I write more about this unique record in the context of SEC sports and the Razorbacks’ upcoming football season for Sporting Life Arkansas, but here I want to look beyond the SEC.
Specifically, how many times has a school pulled off this one-year POY trifecta among all major conferences?
Three times – sort of.
Here they are:
In basketball, Grant Hill secured ACC player of the year and first team All-American honors. But thanks to the Razorbacks, “national champion” was one honor he didn’t grab for the third straight year. Ryan Jackson took home ACC POY honors after setting a single-season school record with 22 home runs. In football, bruising back Robert Baldwin won it after helping lead Duke to its highest national ranking in 23 years.
Baldwin was the last Duke player to win ACC player of the year honors in football, but was the 10th such POY in school history (which is a surprisingly high number to my 33-year-old self. It reflects how un-dominant Florida State once was).
The history of the African-American athlete at the University of Arkansas has become well chronicled in the last couple decades. Many outlets have covered their experiences on the field – ranging from Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel’s look at Darrell Brown, the first black Razorback football player, to a new “Arkansas African American Sports Center” business which focuses on the histories of black student-athletes at the UA across various sports. The university’s athletic department itself has created a series honoring its minority and women trailblazers.
But what about the history of the Razorbacks’ black fans?
That story appears to be entirely unreported. It’s time that changes and – thanks to Henry Childress, Sr. and Wadie Moore, Jr. – the right time is now.
Childress, Sr., likely the oldest living African-American man in Fayetteville, told me about a small group of black men, women and children who consistently attended Razorback football games at Razorback Stadium in the 1940s. Remember – this was an era in which Jim Crow laws still pervaded the South, although the social climes of Fayetteville have always more progressive than many other Southern towns (aside from a brief flare-up of KKK activity in the early 1900s).
Childress, Sr., now in his upper 80s, recalls seeing about 25-40 black Hog fans at games he attended in the 1940s through early 1950s. They weren’t allowed to sit in the bleachers like all the white fans. Instead, they had to sit in chairs on the track which then encircled the football field. But black and white fans alike Woo-pig-sooed their hearts out during the games against Tulsa, Texas, Texas A&M and SMU which Childress, Sr. saw. A black Fayettevillian named Dave Dart was the loudest cheerleader. “He’d be out there – he’d be out on the side of the field almost. He’d be just a-holerrin’ and yelling ‘Come on!'” And soon enough, Childress couldn’t help but join the frenzy.
This Hog mania was a far cry from Childress’ younger days growing up in Ft. Smith. Then, he didn’t consider himself a Razorback or much of a football fan at all. One reason was Hogs’ games didn’t then dominate statewide airwaves like they would after 1951, when Bob Cheyne – the UA’s first publicity director – crisscrossed the state to enlist 34 radio stations in the broadcasting of Hog games.
Plus, Childress hadn’t gotten swept up in football mania at his all-black Ft. Smith high school. Lincoln High had cut its football and baseball programs by the time he moved to Fayetteville in 1944, he recalled. He added in the early 1940s the school only sponsored basketball. The teens who still yearned for football simply gathered to play it by themselves on a nearby field after classes let out. “We’d go out to the back of the school, and choose up sides.”
After moving to Fayetteville, it took a little while to warm to the fanaticism and voluminous qualities of certain Razorback fans. “It was kind of strange to me,” Childress said. “I just came out and sat and looked.” Pretty soon, though, he got the hang of it. He learned many fellow black fans actually worked on the UA campus, usually as part of house, cafeteria or groundskeeping staff. This meant they personally knew the white student-athletes for whom they rooted. Dave Dart, for instance, worked at a fraternity home and cheered on the frat bro-hogs he knew by name, Childress recalled.
Hog games weren’t the only setting where black Fayettevillians came to cheer all-white spectacles. Childress said in this era both races got off work to watch the town’s parades (which then featured all-white floats). “We’d come out and stand. There would be lines all up and down Dickson Street.”
I asked Childress what he then thought of the whole situation. Did he or any friends at any point consider it unfair only white players could represent a state university to which blacks had contributed as employees, taxpayers and students since its 1872 founding?
“No, we didn’t give it a thought,” Childress said. “Wasn’t nobody [African-American] going over there to school,” and he didn’t expect an influx of black UA students to begin any time soon.
What About Black Fans at War Memorial Stadium?
I haven’t yet found anybody who can speak to the experience of central Arkansan blacks at Razorback football games at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium in the immediate years after its 1947 construction.
But I did find Wadie Moore, Jr., who recalls the situation in the early 1960s Little Rock was more stratified than in 1940s Fayetteville. As a 13-year-old in 1963, Moore began working at War Memorial, where his father was a maintenance worker in the press box. Moore said about 5-10 black fans would attend each Little Rock Razorback game in that time. They didn’t sit in sight of the white fans. Instead, stadium policy “would allow you to sit under the bleachers in the north end zone and watch the game,” he said.
Wade Moore Sr.’s proximity to the media – including future local legends like Jim Bailey, Bud Campbell and Jim Elders – actually opened doors for his son, though. When Moore Jr. found a passion for sportswriting as a high schooler at Horace Mann High School, it was his father who made sure an article he wrote got into the hands of Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette.
The mid to late 1960s brought a tidal wave of change to racial dynamics across the South and War Memorial was no exception. Wadie Jr. recalls one of first times he saw black Razorback fans sitting in the crowd – and not secluded below in the stands – coincided with the Little Rock homecoming of one of the Razorbacks’ first black band members. The young woman’s family, last name of “Hill” as he recalled, watched her in the audience around 1965 (the first year black UA students were allowed to live on campus) or 1966. In 1965, too, a young walk on named Darrell Brown joined the defending national champions in Fayetteville full of hope he could break down regional color barriers all by himself. By the end of the next fall he would limp away, that hope beaten out of him.
But he had opened the doors for others, including Jon Richardson – who a few years later became the Hogs’ first black scholarship player.
There are hundreds of other stories about Arkansas’ forgotten sports heritage which need to be recorded and published before it’s too late. Thank you to Henry Childress, Jr., Rita Childress, Jerry Hogan (author of the NWA pro baseball history Angels in the Ozarks) and the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History) for helping me find a treasure of historical knowledge in Henry Childress, Sr. Send tips on stories/interviewees to evindemirel [at] gmail.com.
Mike Anderson: This is a day that, you know, you have dreams when you’re a young kid. Coming here, taking this job four years ago, one of the first tasks that I had was to go down to Hall High School, and see this young man work out. In that spring, in that summer, this committed to the University of Arkansas. His sophomore, you’re talking about finishing his sophomore year, so when you talk about a guy committed early, this guy committed early, so to sit here four years after that, and he has an opportunity to realize his dream. It’s kind of a more sweet than it is bitter day. Why, because this kid, he’s part of my family, and that’s Bobby Portis, as well as all my other players on our team. When you talk about a young man who’s had two unbelievable years, it’s amazing what has taken place. In his freshman year, he’s second team All SEC. His second year. You got to understand this. He’s second team All-American. That is a special, special year, and that’s why we are here today.
His teammates are here in attendance, as well as our staff, as Bobby has announced that he will be moving beyond that, and I’ll let him talk more into that. As a coach, he’s been a great ambassador for our university. He’s a great basketball player, we know that, but he’s been a great, great ambassador, a great, great role model for a lot of young players around, young people in the state of Arkansas and around the country. We could not have a better representative than Bobby Portis. To be here today as he makes his statement, I couldn’t be no more proud of Bobby Portis. Player of the year in our league. Things that haven’t taken place here in 20 years. That tells you how special he is. Not only special Bobby is, but his teammates as well. He’ll be the first to say that. I can’t talk any more, because I get a little emotion, but to Ms. Tina, I want to thank her for entrusting me with her son. I told her, “You send me a young boy, I send you back a man.” Well, he kind of expedited the process. I told him to go at his own pace, as a freshman, because coming in, you can imagine, McDonald’s All-American, all the pressures, and I said go at your own pace. His pace was a tremendous pace, and that’s why we’re here today. I just pass over here to Bobby Portis.
Bobby Portis: How everybody doing today? Ain’t nobody sad or nothing, is it? Everybody good? You know, today’s a good day
for me, to try to take that next step and go to the NBA. As a kid, all kids grow up wanting to go to the NBA. For me, myself, I finally had that first chance to go to the NBA this year, so I took the opportunity and tried to run with it. Thanks for Coach A for always having that trust in me, on and off the court. He made me a captain this year, as a sophomore, and I think that’s big for me and my teammates. Thanks for my teammates, always having their trust in me, on the court, passing the ball to me, even though I’m hollering, “Give me the ball! Give me the ball!” All that stuff. Thanks to Coach [Matt Zimmerman] staying late in the gym with me, and always rebounding for me and all that. Thanks to the managers, too, and Coach Watkins and Coach Cleveland. You’re all a part of my family, now, and this is something that I’m proud of, so thank you all and God Bless.
Reporter: You really talked a lot about your mom and what she means to you. How big a part was her, how hard she works and what she does, in your decision?
Bobby Portis: It was a big part, just because, my mom, she works 2:00 AM to 1:00 PM. That’s an 11 hour shift. For any person, that’s a tough burden on anyone, so I just want to take that next step, not just for her, but for myself. I’m not doing this for my mom, or anything, I’m doing this for Bobby Portis, just because I feel like I’m ready to take that next step, and go on about my basketball career.
Reporter: In the beginning you said it was going to be a committee decision. In the end, was it just you that made the call?
Bobby Portis: I believe so, just because, my mom wanted me to make the decision for me and not her. That’s something that she always preaches. Not trying to make me make a decision for her, just to change her life and my little brother’s life. She wants me to live my dream and try to be the best basketball player I could be.
Q: I understand it’s a basketball on one side, but how nice is it that you’re going to be able to help your family out?
Bobby Portis: I think it’ll be nice to help my family out, but I still have to work as hard as I can every day, and just try to be that same person that I was, and just stay humble and hungry. Just because, if I get my name called and put that hat on, that doesn’t mean that it’s just the end of the road and I get money. It’s more than just money. It’s a job, too, at the same time.
Q: What kind of feedback did you get from the NBA folks about where Bobby’s likely to be drafted?
Mike Anderson: First of all, this wasn’t an easy decision for Bobby. This guy, again, he committed as a sophomore to be a Razorback, and trust me, he’s been wrestling with this. I know you guys, whether it be social network, or we continued at the banquet last night, “Hey, Bobby, what you going to do?” It wasn’t an easy decision for him, so we gathered information for him, in terms, of where, what’s going to take place. Obviously, from the lottery to first round. He’s going to be … He’ll be a first rounder, there’s no question about it. Where? That remains to be seen. I have all the confidence in this guy, right here. He’s on the fast track, on the fast track to do some great things. No one can knock his work ethic. For a 6’11” guy, that can do the things that this guy does, is remarkable. He has that burning desire, to not only be a good player, so even as he goes to that next level, he don’t just want to be a good player in the NBA, he wants to be a great player in the NBA. I don’t question anything this guy puts his mind to. The feedback we got was very positive, and so we sat down, and just discussed it. At the end of the day, it was Bobby’s decision, and I think, one thing about it is that, I think, for him, I think he made the right decision.
He’s done some great things here for us, here at the University. Took us some places we hadn’t been in a while. I think he just starting something that’s really going to continue to take place, and when you talk about elite players, having the opportunity to come in, and have a chance to showcase the God gifted talents. He took my word, when I sat there with he and his mom, because there’s a lot of places he could have went. There’s a lot of programs he could have went. He chose the University of Arkansas. In the matter of a year, two years, now he’s had an opportunity to go and live his dream. It’s a big statement in a lot of ways. I’m sure the basketball people out there, the NBA teams, and hopefully, the recruits understand that, you know what – we get it done here at the University of Arkansas. Our kids, they develop. They do it the right way on and off the floor and when they leave here they will be ready, not only for the NBA, but they will be ready for the real world.
Q: What was the tipping point when you decided everything?
Bobby: Last Tuesday me and Coach Anderson sat down and talked about everything. He just laid out two or three scenarios and from there, I kind of ran with it. I sat down and told him then that I thought I was ready to make that next step. I made it last Tuesday.
Q: … How tough a decision was it? … Like Mike said, it was something you had to wrestle with.
Bobby: Man, last night I played this song, “I don’t want to leave, but I got to go right now.” That was cold, though. No, it was a tough decision for me just because growing up in the state of Arkansas and being a native of this state, I felt like I was a great ambassador for our basketball team and for our program, not only for the basketball team, but for the whole, entire Razorbacks. I believe I showed kids that you don’t have to go to Kentucky or Florida just to try to live your dreams. Coach Anderson and his staff gets it done here, too.
Without question, Corliss Williamson had the greatest sophomore season in Arkansas Razorback basketball history. No other Arkansas player may ever match his quad-fecta accomplishment of 1) SEC Player of the Year 2) Second Team All-American 3) National Champion and 4) Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. While knocking out the last two deeds, though, Big Nasty might could have left the door open for his protege, Bobby Portis, to surpass him in junior year greatness.
In the 1994 NCAA championship game against Duke, Williamson broke his left, nonshooting wrist, an injury that wasn’t detected until a month later. This meant Williamson couldn’t lift the weights he’d thrived on since high school. For the first time since fifth grade, he didn’t play full-time in the summer, as sportswriter Paul McMullen wrote in 1995:
Williamson sat at home last summer and got fat. There was a day in his honor in Russellville, Ark., and many Big Nasty Combo Platters at a family restaurant owned by cousins. All those bacon cheeseburgers, fries and sodas added 40 pounds to a 6-foot-7 frame that is at its best when he weighs 245. Even if I didn’t have a cast on my hand, I was going to rest last summer,” said Williamson, who withdrew from the U.S. Goodwill Games team, “but I wasn’t able to develop my game at the pace I wanted. That hindered me a little early in the season…
It showed. In an early season matchup with John Calipari’s Massachusetts, Minuteman forward Lou Roe ate up “Big Nasty” in a 104-80 romp by the Minutemen. Roe had 34 points and 15 rebounds, Williamson 15 and seven. “He had been embarrassed before a national television audience,” McMullen wrote.
In the end, as you see below, Williamson’s junior year numbers slightly decreased from the year before:
This kind of dip is would have been unlikely from Portis, who in terms of individual stats has had the greatest first two seasons season at Arkansas since Williamson, as the numbers below show:
Comparison: Corliss Williamson and Bobby Portis through 34 games in their sophomore seasons (CW’s year ended at 34): pic.twitter.com/JiT2t329kp
Portis has partially matched his long-time mentor by securing an SEC Player of the Year award and second-team All American honors as a sophomore. Williamson’s slow start in 1994-95, combined with the increased double and triple teams he saw, gives Portis a shot at surpassing Big Nasty in terms of junior year production.
Barring injury, the prediction here is Portis likely averages around 19 points and nine rebounds next season. With the addition of a star recruit Jimmy Whitt and Ted Kapita, along with the addition of transfer Dusty Hannahs and development of Anton Beard, he would not face would not have faced as much triple-teaming as a junior as Williamson did.
If Portis soon declares he is returning, If Portis had returned, he would have immediately become a front-runner for numerous 2015-16 national player of the year awards. There are six such major awards, and no Razorback has ever won one. He would also likely battle have likely battled the likes of LSU’s Ben Simmons and Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer for a spot on the AP’s first-team All American team – which would be a notch up from Williamson’s junior year repeat of second team.
[OK, by now you get that I originally wrote this before Portis announced his decision to go pro. That should explain the language in the rest of the piece]
A film production company has optioned the rights to a screenplay about Mose J. YellowHorse, a star on the Arkansas Travelers’ first championship team and the first full-blooded Native American in the MLB. Enid, Okla.-based River Rock Entertainment will work with screenwriters Todd Fuller and his wife on developing the script after their first draft is finished, according to Fuller.
YellowHorse was not the first Native American in the big leagues, nor the best, but was certainly one of the most colorful. As a child growing up Pawnee, Okla., he performed as a child in the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show and, according to the story of his relative, Albin LeadingFox, learned how to throw a baseball by hunting rabbits and birds with rocks. His fastball became elite.
In 1920, he led the Arkansas Travelers, then in the Southern Association, to their first league championship. The team went 21-7 and included included Joe Guyon, who in football had starred in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s backfield with Jim Thorpe and Bing Miller, who went on to post a .316 lifetime batting average in sixteen major league seasons, according to Fuller’s “60 Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home: The (Baseball) Life of Mose YellowHorse.” The screenplay will be an adaption of this book.
YellowHorse then spent a couple of seasons in Pittsburgh, where his roaring fastball and gregarious personality made him a kind of cult figure for decades afterward. His final career tally was eight wins, four losses and 3.93 ERA in 126 innings, but his most memorable stat might have been a purposefully mis-hurled foul thrown at Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players of the early 20th century.
“Ty Cobb was crowding the plate anyway, he always did. And Mose wasn’t going to let him get away with it. Cobb was up there yelling all kinds of Indian prejudice, real mean slurs at Mose, just making him mad anyway. So he shakes off four pitches until the catcher gives him the fast ball sign, and Mose nods his head. I mean everyone in Detroit was whooping and all that silliness. So he winds up and fires the ball as hard as he could, and he knocked Cobb right in the head, right between the eyes. Mose knocked him cold. And a fight nearly broke out at home plate. All the Tigers’ players came rushing off the bench. The Pirate players started running toward Mose. But no punches were thrown. They just carried Ty Cobb off the field. And all three of the Pirates’ outfielders just stood together in center and laughed. Said they wished they could see it again.”
The incident is notable as a reversal of the common narrative often framing the relations of Indians and Anglo-Americans in this era. Here, it is a full-blooded Pawnee “who holds the weapon (a ninety-five mile-an-hour fastball) and inflicts harm,” Fuller writes. It’s also significant YellowHorse’s teammates eagerly enter a fracas to protect him, suggesting a loyalty and camaraderie that would prove so instrumental in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ success with Jackie Robinson a quarter century later.
When reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities here between YellowHorses’ actions and those of one of the “Jackie Robinsons of the NBA” – Arkansas native Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. In the early 1950s. Clifton had no quibbles about flattening those who would spew racist vile at him. Instead of throwing baseballs, though, the 6-7 center threw enormous fists at the faces of offenders.
The rest of YellowHorse’s life is one of sadness (alcohol addiction) but ultimate redemption found in his homeland. His story, like those of other minority baseball pioneers, is an important one. Godspeed to those who would make a movie about it.
I’ll leave with the following poem intro. The scene is Pittsburgh, 1921, in the moments before Moses’ major league debut:
What it Means to Wear #50 (for the Pittsburgh Pirates)
This moment begins in the dim light
Of a locker room, and Mose Yellow-
Horse struggling against his uniform
Buttons. It’s just y’r nerves the boys
Tell him, but he knows it’s butterflies
And the sparkle of Opening Day.
Soon enough he’ll take in the field,
The crowd of twenty-five thousand,
See mustard dripping from the chins
Of enchanted fathers.
This will be the first time they’ve seen
An Indian in Pittsburgh. And some
Whoop and holler; mumble & inquire.
Some will cheer. They watch the Reds
And Pirates battle deep into the tussle;
Nip and tuck from the start.
It’s April 21, and Mose YellowHorse
Doesn’t know that kids are peeking
Through cracks in the outfield wall…
I recently examined how good Kentucky’s defense has been this season compared to the best teams in college basketball history. The piece is in SLAM here.
Naturally, the great UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s (winners of 88 straight! Seven straight national championships!) were part of the analysis. And fortunately two of the best Bruins of this era – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes – provided me with some first-hand insight.
I found out that Abdul-Jabbar considered the best UCLA defense he played with to be different from what UCLA’s media guide indicates. Jabbar’s senior team (1968-69) held all of its opponents to an average of 37.4 % field goal shooting and 63.8 points a game. Those numbers were at 38.4% and 67.2 ppg the previous season.
And yet it’s Kareem’s junior year, 1967-68, which he considers the best college defense he played on. He explains:
“That was our most versatile team. The depth and the good athletes made that our best team. The only loss we had was against the University of Houston because I had a sub par game having spent the previous week in the Jules Stein Eye Clinic with an injury. Everyone counted us out until we had the rematch in the NCAA Tournament and beat them by 32 points.
I had kept the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Elvin [Hayes] hanging inside my locker for the rest of the season as a reminder and motivator. Since this was the first loss my UCLA teams experienced I didn’t want it to be a repeat occurrence. It must of worked because I only lost two games during my entire college career.”
I’m not one to argue with an authority like KAJ. It’s very possible the ’68 defense was actually better than ’69 relative to how strong its opponents were. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same kind of strength of schedule metric for teams of this era as we do for more recent teams.
The work around, as I detail in SLAM, is to look at how teams performed purely against Associated Press Top 25 foes. Those specific stats often take work to come by, but they are worth it.
Here are other excerpts from my January interview with Abdul-Jabbar, who recently authored the latest installment of his “StreetBall Crew” series for young adults:
Q: I know many rules have changed since the 1960s, but how do you think that [1967-68] defense would have fared against some of the top teams in modern NCAA basketball?
A) I think we would have been just as dominant as we were in the Sixties. I think the fact that our players had to stay in school and could not jump to the NBA enabled them to learn the game in-depth and the one and done players don’t have that type of complete fundamental preparation.
Q) Do you feel like the best UCLA team you played on would have been athletic enough, overall, to beat a modern elite NCAA team?
A) Modern elite NCAA teams do not feature players who have stayed through their junior and senior years and lack the in-depth competence of a team that has upper classmen. I still think we would have to be considered as one of the best teams that ever played college ball.
Q) On the defensive end, what similarities do you see between the 2014-15 Kentucky team and your best defensive UCLA team? Are there any current Wildcats (or Wildcats on the 2010 or 1996 teams) that remind you of any Bruins on that team (in style of play, physicality or both)?
A) I haven’t seen the Wildcats play recently so I can’t compare them, but I do know that they are dominant team from the way they whipped UCLA and held them to 7 points in a half.
Q) In your opinion, what are the best two or three defensive teams in all of NCAA history?
A) Bill Russell’s 1956 USF team*, John Wooden’s first NCAA championship in 1964 and my UCLA 1968 team are the three best. None of the modern teams would have been able to compete with Bill Russell’s teams or the UCLA teams because they lack the cohesion you get from staying in a program for four years. Bill Russell’s team featured two of the best defensive players that ever played in the NBA, namely Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The 1964 UCLA team was undefeated – need I say more ?
I had the chance to talk to the Razorback legend for a North Carolina-Arkansas mini oral history which runs on Sporting Life Arkansas today. Kleine, who recently finished his eighth season as an assistant coach with UALR, was pivotal figure in leading Arkansas to an historic 1984 win over No. 1 UNC. I couldn’t help also ask him about what will happen in Saturday night’s second round game between the programs, in which Arkansas has a shot to break into its first Sweet 16 since 1996.
Q: What’s your take on the Tar Heels?
A: I think they’re talented. Especially Marcus Paige – he’s a really good point guard. Any time you’re pressuring as much as Arkansas does, a really good point guard worries you. Because he gets through there, he can cause a lot of trouble.”
Q: Bobby Portis has had a great season, you agree. In order for him to take his game to the next, where do you think he must most improve?
A: I’m a little leery to critique him because I’m not there, seeing him every day. These are things I’ve noticed just one or two times – in his post play, as with all young post players, he’s got to develop a counter move with his left hand.
I’ve seen him do some things with his off hand but he’s got to get the point where he can put it up over his shoulder with his left hand as well as he does on the other side. Still, I love his face up game and his rebounding. He has a tenacity there that is a really, really good sign … He just has to continue to work on his face up game, get to the point where he can drive as well with his left hand as with his right.
A: I’m 53 years old, and I would be well served by spending time in that academy. That man is simply amazing.
Q: How good can Bobby be?
A: Worst case scenario, for Bobby Portis, I see Joe Kleine – a guy who can play a long time in the league, can spot shoot, can defend. Whether he can be a big time scorer, that remains to be seen. His ability to score against bigger, taller, more athletic guys is going to be indicative of what kind of career he’s going to have.
Q: Overall, who do you expect to win on Saturday night?
A: You could make an argument either way. You’ll have two good teams playing on edge, that have a lot to lose, with a lot of emotion. It’ll bring out the best in both of them … I’m a fan of Arkansas – that’s gonna push me toward them. I wouldn’t want to make a living having to pick the outcome of that game.
Q: UALR head coach Steve Shields was just let go. It’s hard for me not to ask: What are your plans now?
Malik Monk’s 35 points per game average so far this postseason is on track to likely be the most impressive in state history.
I looked at the post season performances of Joe Johnson, Ronnie Brewer, Corliss Williamson and KeVaughn Allen for Sporting Life Arkansas and found none of them have come close to the sheer, terrifying scoreboard deluge Monk is currently unleashing. Big Nasty came closest in his senior year at Russellville by pouring in 29.7 ppg in the state tournament.
Out of burning, insatiable, Arkan-nerdified curiosity, I also want to know how the old-school greats compare here. The closest comparison I could find to Monk, in terms of pure scoring ability, was Willy Cutts, a McDonald’s All-American from Bryant by way of Conway by way of Little Rock. Cutts played on one of the first Arkansas Wings AAU teams, and once dropped 66 points on a north Louisiana squad led by future NBA All-Stars Joe Dumars and Karl Malone, according to Billy Woods’ indispensable “60-0: The West Memphis Basketball Dynasty.”
In the 1980 state tournament, Cutts, as a sophomore, averaged 33.5 points in his two games before bowing out to West Memphis. Keith Lee and Michael Cage were West Memphis’ headliners and the main engines to their historic 60-0 run. Lee was the more polished scorer of the two, but never had to be the postseason scoring monster Monk has become.
Among scorers at the highest classification who lead their teams to the title game, it appears LR Central’s Fred Allen is Monk’s closest all-time parallel. In the 1972 state tournament, the 6’2″ scoring guard racked up 28 points against Jonesboro, 36 points on North Little Rock, 31 points on Parkview and 30 points against El Dorado for the AAA-AAAA crown.
Based on the official AAA records, it’s unlikely any big schooler has averaged above Allen’s 31.25 ppg in a three-game-or-more postseason run. All the more impressive given the top shooters of this era didn’t have the three point shot.
Honorable mentions goes to Allen’s top rival of the era: Parkview’s Dexter Reed.
Reed was a force of nature in his own right and as a sophomore in 1971 averaged 29 ppg in a four-game postseason stretch – including a then-record 43 points in a state title game against Helena. He doesn’t appear to have topped that in his next two postseasons.
Perhaps I missed some all-time great scorers here. For instance, it’s possible big schoolers like LR Catholic Chris Bennett or Scipio Jones’ Eddie Miles deserve mention, too. I just haven’t been able to find their postseason numbers.
Give me hell if I’m missing someone obvious.
** Above, I didn’t look at the schools that haven’t been in the state’s top two largest classifications. Most postseason scoring records do belong to players from smaller schools.
N.B. Sidney Moncrief was an outstanding prep baller – averaging 19.2 points and 14.1 rebounds his senior year in high school – – but he didn’t explode for 30 points often in the postseason. Hall’s 6’9″ center Gary Tidwell also led the team in scoring a lot. Also, I haven’t forgotten about Ron “Boothead” Brewer and Marvin Delph. They are coming soon…
Keith Lee / West Memphis
1980 state tournament (as a junior)
West Memphis 60; Jacksonville 43 (15 points)
West Memphis 83; Conway 63 (30 points)
West Memphis 57; Forrest City 49 (21 points)
[West Memphis played two additional postseason games to win the now-defunct Overall State Championship between each classification’s champion]