I’m writing this story both as an insider and an outsider. I was a freshman on the team that went 26–4, finished as SIAC Conference Co-Champions, won the SIAC Tournament and made it to the Regional Finals of the Division II NCAA Tournament. Everything that happened that season was completely outside my experience coming from Minneapolis, MN. My high school had a losing record (though they won the State Tournament two years after I left). My high school was maybe 15% black, while at Fisk, I could name the two white students that attended during my tenure, Shawn and Snow.
I hadn’t intended on playing basketball at Fisk. I got there because I scored well on standardized tests. I was offered scholarships around the country. Somebody in my family who knew better than I pretty much shut down the conversation saying, “you’re going to Fisk!” After being in school a month, I was homesick and got to fly home for a weekend. Most of my old friends were doing the same things; hanging out at the park, chasing girls, drinking beer, or discussing one of the above. I didn’t even spend the whole weekend with them, I stayed close to home with family, ready to go back, homesick no more.
My mother brought me to Fisk. We somehow had hotel reservations in Madison, TN a good way from the Fisk campus. I remember we were ordering breakfast, the middle-aged white waitress walked over smiling, “Can I help y’all?,” in what I thought was the most exaggerated Southern accent I’d ever heard. I later learned that was the norm. When the cab dropped us off at New Livingston dormitory. We went to the enclosure across from the lobby that served as the greeting station. While my mother and I were checking in, there were several members of the football team draped all over the lobby furniture. They had arrived days earlier and appeared tired from practice. At the time I was 6’6″ and 217 lbs. I heard a voice, “Look at him, big ol’ sissy, I bet he don’t play nothin’.” I think the player was Dirty Red but I’ll never know for sure.
A hundred yards from my dorm was the Henderson A. Johnson Gymnasium. I’d been playing basketball half my life so it was natural to go there after classes and join in the pick-up games. It didn’t take long before I was asked if I was going out for the team. I discovered the fundamentals I’d been taught by Coach Prohofsky in high school traveled well. Playing against some of the returning players gave me the confidence I could hang.
Three weeks prior to the official opening day of practice, those trying out were required to run three miles each morning to the Buckman Bridge. There’s a metal plate on the bridge that reads, “Built by Virginia Bridge and Iron Co. 1917.” We’d run to the bridge, touch the plate, then turn around and run back to campus. Freshman rookies like myself thought there was some correlation between how fast we ran and future success on the team. A fellow from Boston, Charles Woodson, would win the race every single day. The veteran players had no interest in racing, just finishing as Coach Ron Lawson cruised up and down the route in his Camaro, presumably making sure who was there.
I don’t recall if it was the first day of regular practice but it wasn’t long before the weight jackets came out. Approximately 25 lb. vests which we wore every moment of practice from beginning to end. Coach Lawson’s game plan required everyone to be in shape. We employed a full-court press from the opening tip until the end of the game unless the score got so ridiculous he’d ease up on the other team.
There were three things about that 73–74 team I came to appreciate more and more each successive year. We had two senior guards, Dick Gold and Freddie Lewis, who had played together for four years. They were listed in the program at 5’10” and 5’8″ and both may have been exaggerations. They were tough as nails and did whatever was required to win unselfishly. They could score a bunch if that’s what we needed. There was a game against Stillman where they each scored thirty points.
They typically got a tremendous number of steals in our pressing defense, ran the offense, one or the other assisted on most of our scoring plays in the set offense. The week heading into the NCAA playoffs, with each approaching the end of their college careers. An article ran in the Nashville paper, “Who Were Those Guys?” featuring Dick and Freddie.
Freddie was quoted, “We’ve been playing together for these four years and we knew what to expect of each other. And that goes not only for the two of us but for Billy Hastings, Roy Jackson, and Ernest Crawford, too.” Dick added, “This team is a real unit. We know what to expect from each other and from the coach.
The second thing I appreciated was that we had seven players that averaged in double figures which is unheard of. Some of that was related to our press defense which generated a lot of lay-ups off steals. We averaged nearly 100 points a game and we looked forward to, “busting the clock” which wasn’t equipped to handle more than 99. I credit our balanced scoring to the decision making of Dick, Freddie, and Corwyn Hodge who is to date the fastest player I’ve ever seen on the court. Dick Gold said, “We’re not supposed to be the primary scorers. We get things started and let the big guys like Billy Hastings, Ernest Crawford, Kit Floyd, Stephen Lee or Bill Spivey do the scoring.”
The third thing and most intangible was the leadership. Dick was mostly quiet but whenever he spoke people paid attention. Freddie was always keeping us focused on what we needed to do. I was the baby of the group at 17 throughout most of the season. It was Roy (Pops) Jackson who kept challenging me to concentrate on team goals and not my own. Billy Hastings also adopted me calling me “son.” The following season I got a “son” of my own, carrying on the tradition.
This was a team that was genuinely happy at the success of any individual on the squad. We laughed at each other but mostly with each other. It was a group of men that genuinely loved each other. I talked to Roy Jackson the other day and all that love is still there. It will be great to be in a room with most of them again one more time at our Hall of Fame induction.
To those who know, some parts of the story were left out. The Daytona/Atlanta trip which led to Coach Lawson banning fans traveling with the team ever again. We went from 16–1 to 16–3 over the course of two nights but between the beach and the “Brass Monkey,” I can’t recall a better time. There was the time we were in Knoxville and had our pre-game meal at a Morrisons Cafeteria, eating a ridiculous amount because Coach Lawson was at a meeting and not there to supervise us. We were so sluggish we were down by 20 points at halftime before coming back to win 120–100 once the food was digested.
Coach Lawson and Asst. Coach Kindell (M’dude) Stephens are no longer with us. Coach Lawson talked more trash than a little bit, having earned the right setting freshman records as a player at UCLA in the John Wooden years. He had high expectations and ran us until we were able to make them come true. Kindell had been a star Fisk player who’d been drafted by the Lakers. He was always there to talk to, making sure we stayed in shape and paid attention to our education. I’m sure when we players get together some stories will be told.
There are individual moments on the court that come back to me as if they just happened. The favorite involving me was a defensive play where I tracked down a ball going out of bounds near a baseline corner, I spun and threw it to a streaking Corwyn Hodge who scored on what seemed an impossible play. Our gym was small but we always rocked. There was a stretch of over four years we didn’t lose a home game.
Matthew Knowles with his two-handed high-arching shot that just floated through the nets. Steve Brown double and triple pumping in his New York style. There was a series where Kit Floyd got four consecutive offensive rebounds before putting in a lay-up while Coach Stephens kept recording the stats. Billy Hastings hitting jumpers from the corner. My favorite Stephen Lee moment didn’t involve one of our own games. We went down the street to see Tennessee State play Kentucky State. A KSU player, Billy Ray Bates dunked on three TSU players when you couldn’t even see the dunk coming. We were seated in the upper deck and Stephen Lee jumped up and screamed at the play, running down the steps to the lower section. Sam Gates who I often matched up against in practice, issued out more punishment than most opposing players. There was the time my roommate William Settle and I arrived in Chicago a day early for a Christmas tournament at Chicago Circle. We used the time to visit friends in Gary, IN and attended the West Side Basketball Tournament wearing new hats we knew were bad.
The favorite team moment had to be our second game in the NCAA Tournament. We faced Tennessee State after defeating James Madison in a play-in game for the right to play TSU. They rested while we played the night before. Their team featured All-American Leonard “Truck” Robinson who later played for the Knicks and led the NBA in rebounding one year. They were a much bigger school with taller players and heavily favored. We won 65–54 with Billy Hastings, Dick Gold, and Stephen Lee in double figures. Truck Robinson fouled out in the final few minutes, ending his college career other than he planned. The official attendance for that game was 5,428. I’ve met 10,000 people since then who swear they were there.
We lost our game the next night against the University of New Orleans. We were playing on our third consecutive night. I can’t speak for anyone else but I remember a play where my mind was willing to move over and cut someone off but the body wasn’t able. A week or so later we had a team banquet and got gold jackets. Perhaps a week after that, we had a team only party at Burrus Hall in which I learned bad things happen after drinking 16 short cans of “The Bull.” What I’ve never forgotten is how much that team and its players meant to me and how I’m looking forward to seeing them again.