Bert Williams: Nolan Richardson’s Friend & Giant of College Basketball History

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.”

 

*In 2009, the city of El Paso did officially honor Bert Williams.

**To learn more about Jim Barnes’ roots in Newport, make sure to read this segment from Untold stories: Black Sport Heroes Before Integration.

Mike Anderson Vs. Nolan Richardson: Comparing Their First 4 Years At Arkansas

nolan-mike far

For Razorback fans, the question never gets old: Will basketball coach Mike Anderson lift the program to the same levels reached by his mentor Nolan Richardson? Tonight’s game, on the road against No. 20 Iowa State, should provide the best start of an answer yet. The greatest Arkansas teams of the early to mid 1990s regularly defeated ranked non-conference teams away from home but that hasn’t happened since 1997*. But, so far, all signs point to this being the best Arkansas team since that era.

The most dramatic evidence is below. Look at this steady improvement through Anderson’s first four seasons in Fayetteville:

imageThe Razorbacks’ scalding shooting from the outside this season – 46% on three-pointers – has been a major reason for the boost in Effective FG % and True Shooting % (definitions below). That shooting helps space the floor and lead to a nation-leading assist rate. But the Razorbacks can’t rely on shooting at this clip in the kind of hostile environment the Cyclones’ Hilton Coliseum will present. So it’s important they get to the line and build an early lead.

Referee bias (conscious or not) toward the home college team makes it doubly difficult for visitors to play from behind or in a back-and-forth affair. “On the road especially you want to help keep the officiating out of it as much as you can,” Nolan Richardson said in a phone interview.

As always, defense fuels offense for a “40 Minutes of Hell”-style program. The below numbers show that while Arkansas is playing at a faster rate than ever in the Anderson era (78 possessions per 40 minutes vs. 72 in his first year), they are barely giving up more points. This is a credit to the lower rate at which they are fouling this year than the past two seasons (more experienced players) and fresher second-half legs generating turnovers at a higher clip (more depth).

image(1)It’s likely older Razorback stars like Bobby Portis, Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls will play well at Iowa State, where the Cyclones are 50-4 the last five years, Iowan-Arkansan sportswriter Nate Olson points out.  They proved they could deliver on the road last season and have played in similarly intense arenas like Kentucky’s.

The pivotal issue is how Arkansas’ three first-year guards – Anton Beard, Jabril Durham and Nick Babb – play. “You’re as good as your guards take you,” Richardson said. So far, all three have played their supporting roles well but they have played in only one game away from Bud Walton Arena. While often what’s needed is a timely, clutch three in the vein of Scotty Thurman, this year the right play may simply be avoiding a turnover and making a timely entry pass to Portis. Last year, “we got discombobulated in the final few minutes of games,” Portis told USA Today, recalling seven losses in ten road games. “Are we going to finish teams off? That’s the biggest question.”

To me, North Little Rock native Anton Beard is the most important of the three young guards. Perhaps I’m simply biased,  as I have followed him closely since he was a freshman in high school and seen many of his games at Parkview High and North Little Rock.  He’s a champion, point blank, winning three state titles in four years. Point guards simply don’t start for Parkview coach Al Flanigan as freshmen. He’s the only one who has, and that season I watched him lead his team to a victory at Hall High School in the middle of its four-year run of consecutive state championships.

So far, Beard the collegian freshman has played the role of a scrappy, clutch shooter (46.2% on threes) off the bench who has a not-stellar 1.2 assists-to 1 turnover ratio. “Beard is moving in a pretty good direction,” Richardson said. “For the Razorbacks to be where they got to be, his game has got to improve.” Beard is fairly stocky, but Richardson says he (and all other current Razorback guards) don’t compare in the physical toughness department to Corey Beck, the point guard of his ’94 title team. “Beck was an animal.”

Perhaps the most apt comparison for Beard, at this point, is Arlyn Bowers who ended up pairing with Lee Mayberry as guards in Arkansas’ 1990 Final Four run. Two years before that, Bowers and Mayberry were just starting out as freshmen in Nolan Richardson’s fourth year as head coach.

Just six games into Year 4, it’s difficult to conduct a thorough comparison of Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson as Razorback head coaches. Obviously, the jury’s still out on Anderson. But the sample size is large enough now to at least take a look:

image(2)[Most conferences didn’t adopt the three-point shot until 1986-87. So 1985-86 Effective FG % stats reflect two-point field goal percentage only.]

image(3)Comparing these numbers with the last four seasons,  we see Anderson’s teams have improved at more steady clip, year by year, in most categories. And from an overall statistical standpoint, Anderson’s Year 4 is significantly more impressive so far than Nolan’s.

But it’s important to note that Nolan’s Year 3 team finished 11-5 in conference vs. the 10-8 record Mike’s Year 3 team had. Nolan made the tournament in 1987-88 (losing in the first round to Villanova) whereas Mike hasn’t yet. In Year 4, Nolan got a massive injection of talent when Bowers and Mayberry arrived, along with fellow freshmen Todd Day and Oliver Miller. Their play paid immediate dividends, and the Hogs ultimately finished 13-3 in conference and 25-7 overall. They lost in the 1989 NCAA Tournament’s second round.

We’ll see if Mike’s Year 4 team keeps pace. A win tonight certainly certainly helps toward that end.

* November 29, 1997 was the last time Arkansas beat a ranked team on a neutral court in pre-conference play. Arkansas beat No. 17 Fresno State in Phoenix. And December 6, 1992 was the last time the program scored such a win on the road. The Hogs beat No. 9 Arizona in Tucson, AZ.  Mike Bibby was 14 years old.

** Using data from six of Hogs’ first seven games in 1988-89 (Box score from Game No. 5 not available at HogStats.com).PS: Partial season data not available for Turnovers Forced Per Game, so this stat instead reflects per-game average from entire 1988-89 season.


Effective Field Goal % adds weight to three-point shots. Formula: (FGM + (0.5 x 3PM))/FGA

True Shooting % is similar, but also factors in free throws. Formula: Pts/(2*(FGA + (.44*FTA)))

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.

 

Sneak Peek at ESPN’s “40 Minutes of Hell” documentary: Part 2

“He used to tell us all the time if you see me and and a bear fighting, you better help that damn bear. I ain’t gonna need you to help me” – former Razorback Corey Beck on coach Nolan Richardson
This is Part 2 of a two-part preview of ESPN’s upcoming “40 Minutes of Hell”

Richardson had never shied away from provocative accusations of racial inequality, but at these conferences he unleashed more vitriol than ever. After a loss in Lexington, Ky. he said he’d leave the university if the remainder of his $7.21 million contract was bought out. The worst of it came in Fayetteville:

When I look at all of you people in this room, I see no one who looks like me, talks like me or acts like me,” he said the white reporters at the Ark. press conference. ”Now, why don’t you recruit? Why don’t the editors recruit like I’m recruiting?”

Richardson, the only black among the Fayetteville campus’s 17 head coaches according to a New York Times article, also said he was treated differently because of his race.

”See, my great-great-grandfather came over on the ship, I didn’t,” he said. ”And I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship. Not Nolan Richardson.
”I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on.”

In the ESPNU video, former Arkansas chancellor John White says the anger had boiled to a point that it could burn the university:

It was important for me that he send the message that he was happy at the University of Arkansas. Because people all over the state – particularly African Americans in this state – were watching Coach Richardson and they were making decisions about whether their sons and daughters should come to the University of Arkansas to go to school.

In the end, Richardson’s greatest strength became his ultimate undoing, Bradburd says. “We can never escape ourselves and what made him a great coach was this us-against-the-world mentality.”

Continue reading Sneak Peek at ESPN’s “40 Minutes of Hell” documentary: Part 2

Sneak peek at “40 Minutes of Hell,” ESPN documentary on Arkansas’ 1994 team and Nolan Richardson: Part 1


“A lot of people didn’t get him. They had too many expectations about how they should talk and how he should talk and how they should all behave, which in the end is what I think led to the end of his tenure. Which I always regretted. I always thought the guy had real power.” - Bill Clinton

Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas Razorbacks faced no more daunting obstacle on their path to the 1994 national championship than the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Ky. Since losing to the Hogs in 1992, the #4 Wildcats had reeled off 33 consecutive victories at home. When the #3 Hogs entered Rupp Arena on Feb. 9, 1994, the Wildcats roared to a 39-24 lead with 4:44 left in the first half. Arkansas, though, kept up the full-court pressure.“The style that we play, there’s a lot of times you’re gonna get down in the ballgame,” former Arkansas coach Richardon tells ESPNU in its upcoming documentary “40 Minutes of Hell.” “But if you stay after it and stay after it, it’s like wear and tear constantly. Something’s gonna break. And if that breaks then we’re gonna be in position to do something about it.”

By the end of that Feb. 9 game, Kentucky’s endurance was shattered and Arkansas’ confidence had never been stronger. The documentary uncovers footage of Razorback Corliss Williamson walking off the court carrying teammate Al Dillard on his back, and of Scotty Thurman busting out some kind of celebratory shimmy shake amidst the ensuing locker room hoopla.

In his postgame talk, Richardson roars: “We were supposed to do that. That’s how you look at it. That’s why I say it’s a day at the office.”

Such heady times might have become the norm in the mid-1990s, but the Razorbacks program has not seen similar success then. “40 Minutes of Hell” doesn’t explore why success dwindled in the last seven years of Richardson’s 1985-2002 tenure. Instead, it focuses on how the very same forces driving Richardson to that 1994 title led to his fall following two 2002 press conferences.

The video presents original footage and commentary from some of the most pivotal Razorback games of the era, including the 1991 showdown between #1 UNLV and #2 Arkansas at Barnhill Arena and 1993’s 120-68 victory over eventual Big Eight champ Missouri. It also packs in interviews with former President Bill Clinton, current Hog coach Mike Anderson, former Arkansas Chancellor John White and a few key members of Arkansas’ championship team.

Here are some of the most interesting excerpts:

In 1985, Richardson initially declined the Arkansas job. But his daughter Yvonne convinced him to change his mind, pointing out Fayetteville was only 90 miles away and he already had fans there. With only 12 wins in his first season, it was a rocky start:

It wasn’t the easiest place to start a career. I had a lot of racial slurs, I had a lot of hate mail. We weren’t very good. There was one night I could not even go in my condo because of a bomb threat. I wasn’t winning so ‘Get him out of here.’ – Nolan Richardson

Yvonne was diagnosed with leukemia in 1985. Mike Anderson, then an Arkansas assistant coach, helped the Richardsons by regularly driving her 100 miles to Tulsa for treatments. Two years later, however, Yvonne died at age 15.

I think from her I gathered some more strength. It was like ‘I got to show these people something. I got to show them something before I get out of here.’ And you’re gonna help me do this, because you brought me here. Let’s show them. Let’s show them it can be done. – Richardson

Many national pundits favored Duke over Arkansas heading into the 1994 title game. The Blue Devils were deemed more intelligent. This perception, unsurprisingly, irritated Richardson, who used it as fuel to further motivate his team.

Well, it was the smart kids versus the dumb kids. The smart coach against the dumb coach.
How smart do you have to be to block a shot? How smart do you have to be to trap? How smart do you have to be? You have to be smart to do that? What is smart? You don’t have to be as smart as everybody says you need to be. All you have to do is understand the game… [Duke coach Mike] Krzyzewski is no doubt one of the masters of the game, but my team played a little bit better than his.” – Richardson

Arkansas hasn’t returned to the Sweet 16 since 1996. By the early 2000s, the mounting demands seemed to be getting to Richardson.

“I think as the team started to take a dip, the pressure is building. The years of anger and feeling like he had to prove himself, he’s not able to forget that stuff or leave that stuff behind. I think that all came to a head” – Rus Bradburd, author of “40 Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson.”

“I had the impression for several weeks leading up to it, that Nolan was growing tired of pushing the big, big ball up the mountain” – former Arkansas Chancellor John White

Then it all unraveled for Richardson within about a week in February, 2002. At two press conferences – first at Kentucky, then in Fayetteville…

“40 Minutes of Hell premieres Saturday, Feb.11 at 8 p.m. CT on ESPNU. Its preview continues here.