In the early 1970s, one of the most amazing athletes on the campus of The University of Alabama was…
It Was Memorable Basketball Weekend
Alabama has only one senior basketball player, Andrew Steele. In seasons past, seniors like Steele – not ordinarily starters – would receive a cameo start as a part of senior day. Steele couldn't even play in the game, his ankle injury having progressed to the point where he was unable even to perform in his normal back-up role.
Others who make up part of the overall Alabama basketball game experience were also recognized, including four senior members of Bama's exceptional Crimson Cabaret dance team. One was struck at the academic achievements of these talented coeds. One was announced as having a double major, in math and dance.
When I think of "math" is often think of former Tide player Tommy Suitts, who went on to be a graduate assistant coach in my first year in Alabama's sports information office in 1970. In those old crowded conditions of a much smaller athletics department, Tommy would sometimes work on a desk in the corner of our office used by our student assistant. One day I saw him counting on his fingers as he did some calculation.
"You were a math major and you count on your fingers?" I chided.
"Math is not the same as arithmetic," he said.
Tommy Suitts was one of many, many players I was able to visit with Friday evening and Saturday following Bama's 61-58 win over Georgia.
The hero of the game, Trevor Releford, as well as a handful of other current Tide players came to a post-game reception to meet with some of their predecessors. Antoine Pettway and Ennis Whatley could both joke with Releford.
Pettway is best known for the layup he made against Florida to win the SEC Championship for Alabama in 2002. (Tide Coach Anthony Grant was an assistant for the Gators in 2002.) Whatley could brag that he made a longer shot than Releford's, though it wasn't to win the game. Late in the first half, the opponent (Mississippi State, I think, but I'm not positive) had the ball and Alabama's student's began their "7-6-5..." countdown hoping to draw an early shot from the opponent. The oldest trick in the book worked. A hurried shot went up and the ball was quickly out to Whatley. Whatley, too, had heard the countdown and thought he had only a second or so, and heaved the ball from three-quarters court.
When Whatley realized he still had about 10 seconds on the clock, he actually was embarrassed at his feat.
I was fortunate to be the sports information representative for basketball for about eight years. Charley Thornton was doing the radio broadcast and also sports information work my first year at Alabama, 1970-71, and then he gave up both – the sports information work to me and the radio broadcasts to Doug Layton.
Along with the players and managers, we traveled with Coach C.M. Newton, his assistants Wimp Sanderson and John Bostick, trainer Sang Lyda, and business manager B.W. Whittington. We were a compatible group and, naturally, got to know the players well.
It was wonderful to see a number of them this weekend.
Some I see on a fairly regular basis. Naturally one of the all-time best, Wendell Hudson, who has had a rocky time as Bama women's basketball coach, is a close friend. Also around regularly are Leon Douglas, Reese Carr, Ken Hogue, Glenn Garrett, Johnny and John Dill (the only father-son player combination I know), Tim Parker, and current basketball color commentator Bryan Passink.
Members of that first Alabama team for which I did the sports information work who were in Tuscaloosa this weekend besides Hudson were guards Jimmy Hollon and Bobby Lynch and center Alan House. It is hard to believe it has been over 40 of those 100 years since those guys were playing. Three of the four are pretty close to playing condition. House, though, is big as a...well.
Two of the most noticed at the reunion were Bobby Lee Hurt and Phillip Lockett, both wearing striking suits. Hurt was in sharkskin, Lockett (who has added a few pounds) in a stylish maroon suit.
Eddie Phillips had special pins made up for his teammates, "100 Alabama Basketball." And he wore four of those pins with the names of his teammates who have died since their playing days in the late 1970s, early 1980s – Chris Bragwell, Cliff Windham, Eddie Adams, and Robert "Rah Rah" Scott.
Buck Johnson was one of many who looked to be in peak playing condition. I told Buck about a friend of mine who always thought it was "luck" when Johnson made that little baseline jump hook. "After about three years, maybe he would have figured out it wasn't all luck," Buck said. Johnson hit 58.3 per cent of his career field goal attempts.
It was good to see Ray Odums, one of the finest athletes ever at Alabama. He was a star basketball player (and also ran on a good track team) for Bama, and then went on to a long career as a cornerback in the Canadian Football League.
I talked to Derrick McKey about the first day I saw him practice. His coach, Wimp Sanderson, came over to the sidelines as the players went to their free throw stations in that practice of October, 1984. I told Wimp that McKey looked like a great prospect. "I'll probably have to redshirt him," Sanderson said. "He's so skinny." I told Wimp that if he could redshirt McKey, he should go deep into the NCAA tournament. McKey was an outstanding three-year performer for the Crimson Tide and then went on to a 15-year career. "I remember that redshirt talk my freshman year," he said this weekend.
I visited with Farra Alford, who wore a bow tie when we traveled, and who taught me how to tie a bow tie. I didn't know until I talked to Jim Farmer this weekend that he had battled colon cancer. Greg McElveen was disappointed to learn there was no video copy of the 1976 Tennessee game. John Wooden, the legendary coach at UCLA, had retired and did the color commentary on the game. Many of the stars fouled out of that double overtime game and McElveen made the winning shot as Bama won in double overtime.
Newton said he learned only recently that Alabama has almost no film from the years in which he was head coach, 1968-69 through 1979-80.
Although they played before I was involved at Alabama, I have been friends for many years with Leon Marlaire and Jack Kubiszyn, members of the famed Rocket 8 who played in the mid-1950s, and they were there. I also met a man I saw play, but had never met, Bob Andrews. He played for the late Hayden Riley, and wanted an update on the Riley children.
Newton, Sanderson, David Hobbs, and Mark Gottfried are the only living former Alabama head coaches. Gottfried, of course, is coaching North Carolina State and could not be there, and Hobbs, who scouts for the Utah Jazz of the NBA, also could not attend because of a work assignment (though Hobbs is a regular at Alabama games).
Former player Dave Hart wasn't in Tuscaloosa. He was in Knoxville, where he is director of athletics, and where the Vols knocked off Missouri to help Bama into the number four seed for this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville.
T.R. Dunn couldn't attend because he is coaching in the NBA, and a number of former players are in the NBA (Gerald Wallace, Alonzo Gee, Mo Williams) or playing in the NBA developmental league or overseas.
There were also former managers, including brothers Ben and Scott Shurett and Ben's son Brad Shurett, and longtime friend Dan Riley.
It was a wonderful trip down memory lane on a day when Trevor Releford gave us another Alabama basketball memory for the first 100 years.
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