From my earliest remembrance, I have loved all types of sports because my older brother Berry Lee (Bubba) was good at most of them, and he was my idol. He excelled at football to the extent he was a high school All American tackle at El Dorado High School and played tackle for the Razorbacks at the University of Arkansas from 1946 through 1948. He had a full football scholarship and would have played all 4 years had he not suffered a career-ending knee injury his sophomore year. Because he was 11 years older, in many ways he was a father-figure. He taught me to play football, basketball, tennis, ping-pong and bowling, and in all of which he was very good. My sport’s goals were to beat him in everything but football, and by the time I was a teenager, I was able to do that. 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; so I chose basketball for junior high and high school competition. I didn’t make the team as a 9th grader, so I determined to do well in Boys Club basketball and was high point man in every game averaging 15 points per game. By the 10th grade I finally 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 3 point area. When the gym was open in the off-season I preferred practicing there, but usually I practiced on the playground goal at Hugh Goodwin Elementary School. In one practice period of a couple of hours, I would shoot at least 100 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.
In the 12th 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 was the left fielder of the El Dorado Oilers, a Class C League professional team in the 1940’s and 50’s. He was one of the best hitters for the Oilers and well-known for his home-run power. 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 good football players for the Wildcat football team. By far our best player was Bill (Spider) Jones (No. 30) who had a 20 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” weighing about 160 pounds). The teams in our conference who were bigger and stronger couldn’t stop Spider, who easily made All State 1st team and earned 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 sits, and our practice gym was the gymnasium on campus. It is still there, and I believe has been classified as a state historical building. As a side note, I was present at the game in the early 1950’s when the Harlem Globetrotters played in that gym against a locally organized team. The star Globetrotter was Reese “Goose” Tatum who was from El Dorado and very well-known as a national sport’s star. He was known as the “Clown Prince of Basketball.” Some of his family still reside in El Dorado, and his sister was a surgical patient of mine years later
All of our home games were played in the Barton Junior High School gymnasium which would hold more fans than the high school 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 parents attending even one home game, and I did not think anything about it. The 1950’s was long before racial integration, and I never played against a team in the state with an African-American player. The African-American high school in El Dorado was Booker T. Washington High School where the current school stands. We never played against their team (the Hornets), but probably would have lost!
Our most memorable accomplishment the year I started was beating Little Rock Central High School on our home court. The Tigers were almost invincible because that was the only high school in Little Rock at the time and their enrollment made it one of the largest high schools in the nation. As a comparison today, it would be like playing an all-star team from the 7 or 8 high schools in the city. We beat them by 8 points and I was able to score 12 points in that game. We caught them on an especially bad night, and we were emotionally pretty high since we had not beaten them in 3 or 4 years.
Some of our better players included Billy Ray McGaugh (No. 25) who was our 2nd 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 (standing in the photo to the right of Tommy Murphree).
After graduating from high school I went to 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 I was way over my head in skill set, so I walked-off! That 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 size, he jokingly said, “Johnny, if you had been this size last year, we would have won the state championship!” Of course he was kidding, but I loved the compliment. By the way, I was known as “Johnny” by my teammates.