From my earliest remembrance I have loved all types of sports. My older brother Berry Lee (Bubba) was good at most of them, and he was my idol. He excelled at football and was a high school All-American at El Dorado High School. He was selected for a scholarship to play tackle the Razorbacks at the University of Arkansas from 1946 through 1948. He would have played all four years had he not suffered a career-ending knee injury his sophomore year.
Because he was eleven years older, he was a father-figure in many ways. He taught me to play football, basketball, tennis, ping-pong and bowling. My sport’s goals were to beat him in everything but football, and by the time I was a teenager I was able to able to do it. My first love in sports was football, and I would have tried out for the team in junior high school had I not been so skinny. I chose basketball for junior high and high school competition. I didn’t make the team as a ninth grader, so I played Boys Club basketball this year. I was leading scorer on our team in every game averaging fifteen points per game. By the tenth grade I made the Wildcat B team and again was the leading scorer.
I spent hours shooting basketballs from the perimeter outside the circle, and my favorite spot was from the left which is now a three point area. When the gym was open in the off-season I preferred practicing there, but usually I practiced on the playground at Hugh Goodwin Elementary School. During every practice period of a couple of hours I would shoot at least one hundred free throws. My strong point was shooting and not rebounding since I was not heavy enough nor strong enough to “mix it up’ on the inside.
By the twelfth grade I finally made the starting line-up for the Wildcats. Our coach was Pel Austin (1st row- far right) who was quite a colorful figure. Coach Austin was earlier a professional baseball player and played left fielder for the El Dorado Oilers, a Class C League professional team in the late 40’s and early 50’s. He was the best hitters for the Oilers and well-known for his home-run power. He was known as “Pelting Pel from Peach Orchard” because his home town was Peach Orchard, Missouri. I thought he was an excellent basketball coach and a good motivator of young men. He was stern in discipline but not profane in his language, which I especially appreciated. He was physically larger and stronger than all the players on the team, so no one would dare think of challenging him in any way.
Most of our team players were skinny like me, and I was one of the taller players at 6′ 2″ (No. 28). The stronger players and good rebounders were Richard McCuistion (No. 21) and James Norris (No. 29) who were also excellent football players for the Wildcat football team. By far our best player was Bill (Spider) Jones (No. 30) who had a twenty point scoring average for the season. As a small forward he had the ability of scoring from the inside despite his relatively small size (6′ 2″ and weighing 160 pounds). The players in our conference who were bigger and stronger couldn’t stop Spider, who easily made the All- State first team and earned him a full scholarship to play for Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
The high school campus was located where the El Dorado branch of South Arkansas University now sits, and our practice gym was the on-campus gymnasium. It is still standing and has been classified as a state historical building. As an aside I was present in this gym at a game in the early 1950’s when the Harlem Globetrotters played a game against a locally organized team. The star Globetrotter was Reese “Goose” Tatum, whose home was El Dorado and was a very well-known national sport’s star. He was nicknamed the “Clown Prince of Basketball.” Some of his family members still live in El Dorado, and his sister became a surgical patient of mine forty years later
All of our home games were played in the Barton Junior High School gymnasium which would hold more fans than our practice gym. Most of our games were well attended but in those days even parents of the players were less likely to attend than now. I cannot remember my Pop and Mom attending even one home game, and I did not think it strange then. The 1950’s were long before the civil rights movement, and I never played against a team with a black American player. The Black American high school in El Dorado was Booker T. Washington High School, and the building is still used and named Washington Middle School. We never played against the Washington High Hornets but probably would have lost.
Our most memorable accomplishment my senior year was beating Little Rock Central High School on our home court. The Little Rock Tigers were almost invincible each year because it was the only high school in Little Rock. Their enrollment made it one of the largest high schools in the nation. As a comparison it would be like playing an all-star team from the twelve high schools in the city. We beat them by eight points that night and I was able to score twelve points in the game. We caught them on an especially bad night and were emotionally pretty high since we had not beaten them in four years.
Some of our better players included Billy Ray McGaugh (No. 25) who was our second leading scorer; Tommy Murphree (No. 22) who went on to a successful coaching career at Ouachita Baptist University; Max “Buddy” Barron (No. 26) who attended West Point after graduation and had a career in the Army of teaching at West Point; and Tommy Stegall in the photo standing to the right of Tommy Murphree).
After graduating from high school I attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and thought I would try out for the Razorback basketball team as a walk-on. Glen Rose was the coach, and after one day of practice I realized those players were above my skill set. I decided it best to walk-off! That one year I had a growth spurt and gained 15 pounds in weight and 2 inches in height. When I went home for our spring break I ran into Coach Austin. When he saw my current size, he jokingly said, “Johnny, if you had been this big last year, we would have won the state championship!” Of course he was kidding, but I loved the compliment. Incidentally I was known as “Johnny” by my teammates.
It’s interesting to me that parents didn’t always attend their child’s sporting events. I know grandparents who will drive 2 hours from Branson to sit in the scorching summer heat to watch their 7 year old grandson play in a pee wee baseball game. I think things have changed for the better and Nathan will have good memories of his Nana and Pops cheering him on from the bleachers!
Some very important life lessons take some Dads a lifetime to learn. Thankfully I’m still learning.