Archive for the ‘Basketball’ Category

Bill Clinton, Ricky Norton and me

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

I’ve loved this time of year since I was a boy — basketball tournament time.

My father, a sporting goods dealer who called on high schools across the state, would take me to state tournaments with him. I recently ran across a letter postmarked in March 1980. It reminded me again just how long I’ve been watching, broadcasting and writing about tournament games.

Jimmy Carter was the president, Bill Clinton was in his first term as governor and I was a sophomore at Ouachita Baptist University that spring.

In addition to carrying a full load of classes in college, I had two full-time jobs — sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald and sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL. Ricky Norton from tiny Okolona High School in Clark County was one of the most highly recruited high school players in the country that year. In fact, he was one of the few Arkansas players that the University of Kentucky had ever come after in a big way. Basketball Weekly had Norton on its list of the top 25 prep prospects in the country.

Because of the attention Norton was receiving, we decided to broadcast all of Okolona’s postseason games on KVRC-AM, 1240, in Arkadelphia. I would serve as the play-by-play announcer.

I was in the small gymnasium at Emmet describing a district tournament game when L.D. Hoover broke in from the studio to say: “Rex, there has probably never been a hockey score given on this station, but you might be interested to know that the United States just defeated the Soviet Union in the Olympics.”

The date was Feb. 22, 1980.

Most of the country was interested in the Miracle on Ice that day. I was more interested in making sure I had Norton’s stats right.

Okolona eventually would move on to the Class B state tournament on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

There’s no longer a Class B, and there’s no longer an Okolona High School.

But there’s still an Okolona, though its population fell from a high of 525 in the 1940 census to just 147 people in the 2010 census.

“Okolona served as a regional agricultural and transportation hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before slowly fading into obscurity,” David Sesser writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The earliest known inhabitants of the area were Caddo Indians, who constructed a mound that is today located near Main Street. The first white settlers arrived in the Okolona area in the early 1830s. They named their new community after their hometown in Mississippi. In 1858, a post office was established in the town, and by the 1860s several general stores had been opened in the area.

“The earliest settlers founded schools, and education would continue to play an important role in the town for many years. The first school began in 1833, and a new school opened in the town in 1857. By 1871, the Okolona Male and Female Institute was founded in a two-story wooden building where the former 1857 school had been. The local Masons, who owned the building, used the second floor for meetings. When Okolona High School was built in 1890, the institute became known as The Academy. Other notable institutions of learning in the town included a Rosenwald school, constructed in 1928 to serve African-American students. It was consolidated with Okolona High School in 1969.”

By the late 1800s, there were five cotton gins in or near Okolona. The first fair held in Clark County was at Okolona in 1875. The first Okolona newspaper was published and the railroad reached reached the town in 1885.

“By 1899, about 10 businesses made up downtown Okolona, and the town was incorporated in 1902,” Sesser writes. “By the 1920s, Okolona was declining in population. Many residents traveled to Arkadelphia or Gurdon to conduct business, and the cotton market collapsed. The town made some improvements during this period, however, including the installation of a city water system in 1973 and the construction of a station for the volunteer fire department in 1982. But by 1987, the Okolona schools were closed and consolidated with adjoining districts.”

This is the tiny southwest Arkansas town that produced the finest pure shooter I’ve ever seen at the high school level. Yes, Ricky Norton was that good as a high school player.

At the Class B state tournament, the state’s young governor showed up unexpectedly for the semifinal game between Okolona and Wilmar. He was with Eddie Sutton, the University of Arkansas head coach who was recruiting Norton.

After the game, I was approached by an angry Nelson Catalina, who at the time was an assistant for Marvin Adams at Arkansas State University. Catalina, who hailed from Turrell in the Arkansas Delta, had played college basketball for the legendary Bill Vining at Ouachita and was my favorite college basketball player when I was growing up. He graduated from Ouachita in 1972 and was an assistant for Vining before joining Adams at ASU. Catalina later would serve as ASU’s head coach from 1984-95, compiling a 188-139 record.

Catalina, who still lives at Jonesboro, had known Norton since the Okolona product was a junior high student attending basketball camps in Arkadelphia each summer. Catalina thought he had a chance to sign Norton and was furious that Clinton had gone to the dressing room with Sutton.

Catalina, his face red, said to me: “The last time I checked, he was the governor of the entire state. We’re also a state school. The governor has no business taking sides.”

I assured Catalina that I would blast Clinton in a newspaper column. After all, I thought to myself, the governor will never see a column written by a 20-year-old sports editor in Arkadelphia.

My Daily Siftings Herald column the following Monday was headlined “Guv Bill is out of his field.”

Here’s what I wrote:

“Once again, Okolona High School’s Ricky Norton drew the major college basketball coaches to The Pit on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello for the Class B state tournament.

“In the quarterfinals on Wednesday, the list of VICs (very important coaches) had included Joe B. Hall of the University of Kentucky (the B. stands for basketball when he’s winning and for something else when he’s losing), Marvin Adams of Arkansas State and assistants from the University of Arkansas, Memphis State and elsewhere.

“Minutes before the start of Friday’s semifinal game against Wilmar, the list suddenly became even more impressive. In walked head Hog Eddie Sutton followed by a group of assistants and friends. And among that group was none other than the governor of the state of Arkansas, proud papa and noted sports car driver Bill Clinton.

“I’d remembered Clinton attending the overall championship game between Parkdale and Marmaduke last year in Conway. But this trip came as a surprise to everyone. Quickly it became apparent that it is an election year with the governor pressing every palm in sight.

“While Clinton received congratulations on the birth of his first child, Sutton received numerous condolences for the way his Arkansas team had been slaughtered the night before by Kansas State University in the first round of the NCAA playoffs. Sutton made no excuses in answering each word of sympathy, saying, ‘We didn’t deserve to win. We just played horrible. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team play that bad.’

“But it was obvious the trip to Drew County wasn’t to keep up his image. Sutton is hot on the trail of Norton. The Razorbacks have wooed the Bear senior heavily, especially after word leaked out that he might be leaning toward Arkansas State. With the recruiting so intense, one can’t help but wonder if Clinton was at the game simply because he loves high school basketball. Several sources told me that Clinton said in effect, ‘We need to get Norton in the hills.’

“Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton, a person I’ve come to trust and respect during his recent recruiting trips to the state, told me: ‘I’m not sure the exact words, but the governor did say something about getting Norton to go to Arkansas.’

“If that’s the case, Clinton has made a serious mistake. As governor of the state of Arkansas, he represents not only the school in Fayetteville but also Henderson State, Arkansas State and all other state institutions. ASU assistant Nelson Catalina and Henderson head coach Bobby Reese, who were at the game, have a right to be mad at the governor’s actions. Sports and politics should never mix. It’s shades of Huey P. Long and his dealings with the LSU football team.

“We have no objections at all to the governor attending athletic events and rooting for a certain team. But helping that team recruit is another matter, even though he used to teach at Arkansas. Just as it’s best for people like Lou Holtz and Sutton to stay out of politics, Clinton should make it a point to stay out of athletic recruiting. It would seem this state has enough problems without him creating more.

“We’ll all be better off when we realize that the UA is not the only college in the state. Razorback assistant Bob Cleeland, thinking I was covering the tourney for the Gazette, chastised me for giving so much coverage to Hall’s visit. I didn’t write the article, but I would respect Ricky no less if he went to Lexington. In fact, it might prove to be a wise move. I have, however, lost a lot of respect for our governor after his intrusion into the recruiting war. He owes an immediate and sincere apology to all other coaches in this state.”

Several days later, a handwritten note arrived at our office addressed simply “Rex Nelson, Sports Editor, Daily Siftings Herald, Arkadelphia, Ark.”

No address was needed. The note was on governor’s office stationery. The letter was dated March 15.

Clinton wrote: “I know this may be impossible for you to believe, but I came to Monticello to watch a basketball game, not to recruit Ricky Norton for the U of A. By coincidence, I was talking to Eddie Sutton about other matters, learned he was flying down and asked if I could go because (a) I hadn’t been out since my daughter was born; (b) I love high school basketball and want to support it; (c) we needed to complete our discussion of unrelated matters.

“Contrary to rumors you have have heard, I was very careful about what I said to the Norton family and to the press and to everyone else. As for my shaking hands, I always do that, even in non-election years. Those who attended last year’s state championship game can attest to that.

“By the way, I would have been at the state championship tonight rather than here writing to you, but I had to stay home and babysit — something I love even more. If I gave any ASU fan or anyone else the wrong impression, I’m truly sorry. But it was a great game, and I’m glad I went.

“P.S. I do hope Mr. Norton elects to stay and play in our state, and I know you must feel the same way.”

Chelsea Clinton had been born Feb. 27, just 16 days earlier.

Bill Clinton would lose to Republican Frank White that fall in perhaps the greatest upset in Arkansas political history.

Our paths would cross countless times in the years that followed during my later stints as Washington bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat and political editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Norton, meanwhile, signed with Arkansas. The Razorbacks won two Southwest Conference regular-season championships and one Southwest Conference Tournament championship during his four years as a Hog. Arkansas made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of those four seasons and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1981 and 1983.

In an interview several years ago with ArkansasFight.com, Norton said: “My mom fell in love with Coach Sutton. He just blew her away. Of course, Coach (Pat) Foster did the heavy recruiting, and he and I formed a great relationship. All of of sudden, Kentucky pops up in the picture. I take a recruiting trip to Kentucky. I’m going to tell you, you take a trip to Lexington and it’s kind of hard to come away unsigned. It was a great trip.

“The night before signing day, I was in Little Rock at my aunt’s house, and we were having dinner. All of the family members were gathered around, and they said, ‘OK, where are you going to go to school?’ I said, ‘I’m going to the University of Kentucky.’ We had about 30 or 40 people there, and we had all been laughing and carrying on. And it got silent. I’m like like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I look at my mom and I said, ‘Mom, you look sad. You look disappointed. You told me during this process that you wanted me to be happy and you wanted me to make the decision because I’m the one that has to live with it. That’s what you told me, correct?’

“She said, ‘Yes, baby, that’s what I told you. But you know darn well I want you to be a Razorback.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I went through some soul searching and talking with my mom. I called Coach Sutton and told  him that I was coming to the University of Arkansas.

“I have no regrets. People ask me all the time, ‘If you had to do it over again, would you have gone to Kentucky?’ I say, ‘No way.’ Arkansas is home. I love Arkansas. I love the people of Arkansas, and the university was great to me. If I had to go through the process again, even knowing what I know now, I would go to the University of Arkansas and be a Razorback.”

One final note about the Norton interview: There was no mention of Bill Clinton.

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To Jonesboro and back

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

As a sports fan and former sportswriter, I’ve heard about the Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament (commonly known as just the NEA Tournament) all of my life.

The basketball tournament is currently celebrating its 70th edition at the Convocation Center on the campus of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

It’s truly an Arkansas classic.

My father coached at Newport High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s and talked about attending some of those early tournaments.

The NEA Tournament first was played in late 1947 and early 1948. The following boys’ teams took part — Bay, Clover Bend, Hickory Ridge, Hoxie, Lake City, Leachville, Manila, Marked Tree, Nettleton, Oxford, Pocahontas, Rector, State High and Trumann.

Hickory Ridge defeated Trumann in the finals, 41-38.

A girls’ division was added in 1977.

Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council, who grew up at Imboden in Lawrence County, often would tell stories of what a holiday tradition the tournament was for those who lived in the small towns in the northeast quadrant of the state. Schools from the Ozarks and schools from the Delta would come together on a basketball court in Jonesboro during the Christmas holidays each year and do battle.

People in Northeast Arkansas loved high school basketball, and folks would drive an hour or more in those days to see stars such as Chester Barner Jr. of Marmaduke (who later would lead the Greyhounds to state championships as a coach), Rickey Medlock of Cave City and Bill Bristow of Strawberry play in various tournaments.

Bristow would go on to play college basketball at Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in Batesville and then attend law school at Harvard. He became one of the state’s top trial lawyers. I was the campaign manager for Gov. Mike Huckabee in 1998 when Bristow was the Democratic nominee for governor. When I headed Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities (the association representing the state’s 11 four-year institutions of higher education), Lyon was an AICU affiliate and Bristow was on the Lyon board of trustees. It’s a small state.

Medlock, meanwhile, would go on to star in basketball at the University of Arkansas and then become a highly respected ophthalmologist in Little Rock.

In a 2012 newspaper column, Harry King wrote: “The best free throw shooter in Razorback history was a technician with a self-imposed penalty for failure. Rickey Medlock, who set a Southwest Conference record of 48 consecutive while at Arkansas, would eye the back of the rim, his left hand almost underneath the ball, and use his legs, something ignored by many shooters today. He learned under his grandfather, Corbet Medlock, a former high school coach in Sharp County who sat on a stool and rolled Prince Albert cigarettes while watching Rickey shoot at a wire hoop nailed onto a garage.

“Alone at Cave City High School, Medlock would not leave until he made 10 straight free throws. If he missed, he would do a line drill and begin again. He led the NCAA in free-throw shooting in 1973-74 with 87 of 95 and made 62 of 66 the following year, but needed four more attempts to qualify for the NCAA title.”

Chester Barner Sr. was the successful head coach at Marmaduke in the 1950s.

In a 2002 interview with the Clay County Times-Democrat, his son Chester Jr. said: “One day my dad hung a sign in the old gym that said, ‘Those who fly with owls at night can’t run with the Hounds the next day.’ The next morning when I went into the gym, I saw that a dead hoot owl had been draped over the sign. One wing was affixed to the top of the sign, and the other wing touched the floor. A note was attached to the owl that read: ‘Coach, we killed the owl. Now, we’re going to run with the Hounds.’ Being a kid — I was in the seventh grade — this made a big impression on me. I idolized those older boys. That they thought it necessary to really work hard at basketball really impressed me.”

The junior high team that Chester Jr. played on won a state championship in 1957.

As a sophomore, he led the senior high team to a state title in 1958.

“I didn’t start early in the year,” Chester Jr. said of his sophomore season. “I sat on the bench. In a game against Monette, Larry Joe Miller broke his collarbone, and I took his place in the starting lineup. … We started playing well as a team toward the end of the season as we advanced to the finals of the state tournament. In the title game, we faced Caddo Gap. They came into the title game undefeated at 30-0 while we came in with a record of 31-5. When we beat them, we thought we owned the world.”

In his senior season, Chester Jr. set an NEA Tournament single-game scoring record by scoring 58 points in a victory over Mount Pleasant from Izard County. That record still stands.

While Chester Sr. was achieving success as a coach at Marmaduke, Jess Bucy (who later would be the head coach at Harding University) was doing the same eight miles to the north at Rector.

“It was the biggest game of the year,” Chester Jr. said. “Both Rector and our team had great fan support. When we met, it was something. It was the one game that mattered the most.”

Chester Jr. graduated from high school in 1960 and then played college basketball at Arkansas Tech. He met his wife Sue, who was a Tech cheerleader, in Russellville. He coached at several high schools following his college graduation, sold insurance for a time and then returned to Marmaduke High School as head basketball coach in 1974.

His first team there was 23-11, and his second team had a record of 28-10.

In Chester Jr.’s third season as head coach, a senior named Tim Porter transferred to Marmaduke and was named the most valuable player in the state tournament. The team finished 37-5, losing in the state championship game to McNeil from south Arkansas in what at the time was the Class B tournament.

The Hounds were led the next year by 6-8 Scott Horrell. They went 35-8 and won the 1978 state championship.

In Horrell’s senior year of 1979, Marmaduke went 40-2 and won the Class A state title again in a game I covered as a young sportswriter. It was played in the Duke Wells Center on the campus of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. Parkdale then beat Marmaduke, 73-62, in the finals of the Overall Tournament on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

Chester Jr.’s final season as head basketball coach was the 1997-98 season. He retired in 2002 as athletic and transportation director for the Marmaduke School District.

I was thinking about all of this rich high school basketball tradition in northeast Arkansas when Paul Austin picked me up at my home in Little Rock at 7 a.m. last Saturday morning. The destination was Jonesboro, where we would attend the first day of this year’s NEA Tournament.

For sentimental reasons (I mentioned that my dad had coached at Newport, and my older sister was born there), we stopped at Newport for breakfast. The restaurant of choice was Lackey’s Smoke House BBQ. That stop not only resulted in an excellent breakfast but also allowed us to buy some of Lackey’s fine tamales to take home for Christmas.

Newport was a hopping place when my parents moved there in 1948. A fellow named Sam Walton was still running the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store downtown.

“Newport’s most significant growth occurred in the postwar period,” Marvin Schwartz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The Newport Air Base, utilized as a training site for the U.S. Army Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, operated from 1942-46, bringing a large influx of military personnel and families to town. After the war, the air base was leased to the city. Former base housing met the demand for public housing. Base hangars and other large structures were used as incentives in a successful industrial recruiting campaign by the Newport Chamber of Commerce. Manufacturers originally located at the site included Trimfoot Shoe, Victor Metals (the world’s largest producer of aluminum toothpaste tubes) and Revere Copper & Brass.

“The May 18, 1951, Newport Daily Independent ranked Jackson County as one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, being 10th in the nation in cotton production, eighth in rice, 11th in soybeans, 110th in strawberries and 42nd in local volume of timber. A 1954 Federal Reserve report cited Newport’s economic development as a leading example of community adjustment to national economic growth, noting Newport’s effective balancing of its agricultural and industrial economies.”

Schwartz goes on to note that the economic growth was complemented by “many civic initiatives, including music and drama associations, women’s groups and civic organizations. In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous honky-tonks and music clubs were established in Newport and Jackson County. The clubs became a popular performance venue for rockabilly musicians, many of whom recorded for Sun Records in Memphis. Newport also had a popular summer league baseball program. Professional and semiprofessional local baseball teams were affiliated through the Northeast Arkansas League with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dogers.”

The city’s population peaked at 8,339 in the 1980 census. It had fallen to 7,849 by the 2010 census.

“Newport has been negatively influenced by problems common to the Arkansas Delta region,” Schwartz writes. “Mechanization of agriculture and an economy of scale that promotes large corporate farming have caused land loss in the rural population. Limited employment opportunities have caused outmigration and restricted growth. The dense retail activity formerly concentrated along Front Street has diminished.”

While Newport has struggled in recent decades, Jonesboro has boomed.

There was a time when those in east Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis — they read Memphis newspapers, they watched Memphis television stations, they listened to Memphis radio stations, they went to Memphis to visit the doctor, to shop, to eat out, to attend concerts, etc.

Fueled in part by a perception that Memphis is a place with bad traffic, a place that’s dirty and a place that’s dangerous, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. In 1960, the city had 21,418 residents. In the 2010 census, Jonesboro had 67,263 residents. That growth has continued with more than 70,000 people now calling Jonesboro home. By the 2020 census, the city likely will have 80,000 residents.

Compare that to Memphis.

In 1960, Memphis had a population of 505,563.

By the 2010 census, there were 298,645 people living within the 1960 city limits. That’s a loss of more than 200,000 people in those neighborhoods.

Jonesboro has become a true regional center.

The people in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas have, in certain instances, now turned their backs on Memphis. They read the Jonesboro Sun, they watch Jonesboro television stations, they listen to Jonesboro radio stations, they go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, to shop, to eat out, to attend concerts, etc.

The message boards at the Convocation Center were advertising upcoming concerts by Luke Bryan and The Four Tops along with a Harlem Globetrotters game in January.

As we drove in heavy traffic down Red Wolf Boulevard (formerly Stadium Boulevard) on Saturday, the parking lot of every restaurant and store appeared full.

For Jonesboro, these are the good ol’ days.

After watching four basketball games and part of a fifth, it was time to drive back off Crowley’s Ridge and into the heart of the Arkansas Delta.

In a driving rain as the temperature tumbled, we headed south on U.S. Highway 49 through Weiner, Waldenburg, Fisher, Hickory Ridge, Tilton, Fair Oaks, Hillemann, Hunter, Zent and Fargo.

We made our way to Brinkley where Gene DePriest was waiting for us in the back room of his namesake restaurant.

Gene killed more than 100 squirrels this fall, and I had called in advance to see if my friend would fry us up some squirrel to be served alongside mashed potatoes, slaw, biscuits and cream gravy.

I signed a copy of my new book, “Southern Fried,” and gave it to Gene since he’s featured in one of the chapters. Gene is 80 now but still going strong. He’s the type of character who makes the Delta such a fascinating, colorful section of our state.

We watched part of Arkansas State’s Cure Bowl victory on television while finishing off the squirrel, content at the end of a long day in northeast Arkansas.

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Chris Beard and the UALR Trojan miracle

Friday, March 18th, 2016

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s double-overtime victory over Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday was a win for the little guy.

As someone who has spent decades writing about and broadcasting small college sports, I was delighted last April when UALR hired the head coach from Angelo State in Texas, an NCAA Division II school.

Not everybody in Little Rock was happy.

Joe Kleine, the former Razorback and NBA star who had been Steve Shields’ top assistant at UALR, wanted the job and had broad support in the community. You say “Big Joe” around Little Rock, and people immediately know who you’re talking about. Great man. Great family. I’m among the many people who consider him a friend.

Others (including key executives at Stephens Inc.) were pushing for another former Razorback and NBA star, Darrell Walker. Walker served as the head coach of two NBA teams, the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards.

But the school’s first-year athletic director, Chasse Conque, wanted someone who not only was a proven head coach at the college level but also was young and hungry.

Conque was castigated in the days that followed the announcement of Beard’s hiring. He was too young and too inexperienced, they said of Conque. He just “didn’t know how Little Rock works.”

Conque, the son of former University of Central Arkansas head football coach Clint Conque (who is now the head football coach at Stephen F. Austin University in the piney woods of east Texas), actually knew the UALR program inside and out. He had worked for four years under the previous athletic director, Chris Peterson, as the department’s development director before spreading his wings a bit in 2011 when he went to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to raise money for the UAMS Medical Center.

Having worked at both UALR and UAMS, Conque indeed knew how Little Rock worked.

Having grown up as the son of a college coach, he also knew what he wanted in a coach.

When Conque was hired as athletic director in January 2015, UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson said: “Chasse represents an unusual opportunity to hire someone who is both an insider and an outsider, and I believe he’s the right person for this department at this time. He knows the challenges and the opportunities of Trojan athletics very well, and he brings particular strength in the critical area of fundraising. After growing up living and breathing intercollegiate athletics, Chasse proved himself as a person and as a professional when he was here.”

One important move that Conque made was to rebrand the school’s teams simply as Little Rock. UALR means nothing to a national audience. Little Rock is an existing brand.

He came up with the hashtag #LittleRocksTeam to take advantage of a metropolitan area of 730,000 people.

He made sure there was a contract extension for women’s basketball coach Joe Foley (who, with all due respect to Beard, just might be the best college coach for any sport in the state), already an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He renewed the school’s contract with Nike.

He started the aggressive “I’ve Got Mine” season ticket campaign.

And he hired Chris Beard.

Beard was a guy who spent seven seasons learning the game under Bobby Knight at Texas Tech. When Knight’s son Pat was named Tech’s head coach in 2008, Beard became the associate head coach. In Beard’s 10 years on the Tech staff, the Red Raiders made it to the NCAA Tournament four times and made it to the NIT three times. There was a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2005.

Beard was born at Marietta, Ga., and raised in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He’s a 1995 University of Texas graduate (he was a student assistant for the basketball program) who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, spent a season at Abilene Christian and then spent a couple of seasons in Denton at the University of North Texas.

It would have been easy for Beard to have been a career assistant, but he wanted to be a head coach. He started his head coaching career at the junior college level at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas in 1999-2000 and then moved to Seminole State College in Oklahoma in 2000-01 before going to Texas Tech. His Fort Scott team won 19 games and went to a regional tournament. His Seminole State team was 25-6 and finished No. 14 in the junior college national rankings.

After that decade at Texas Tech, the head coaching bug bit again.

Beard worked in 2011-12 as the head coach of the South Carolina professional team in the ABA (remember when the Arkansas Rimrockers were in that league?), where finances are always shaky. The first-year franchise posted a 31-2 record under Beard’s leadership.

He then returned to Texas to serve as the head coach at Division II McMurry for the 2012-13 season. Success there (McMurry was 19-10 in its first season as a Division II member) led to the offer to be the head coach at another Division II program, Angelo State in San Angelo.

The Rams, who had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, went 19-9 in Beard’s first season. Angelo State won its first 10 games that season and found itself ranked for the first time since 2009.

The next season saw Beard lead Angelo State to a school-record 28 victories and the Division II Sweet 16. The Rams were 17-0 at home and finished the year ranked No. 19 nationally in Division II. They led the nation in scoring margin, were third in field goal percentage, fifth in assists and in the top 10 in total rebounds, assist-to-turnover ratio and assists per game.

So you had a coach who had gone 47-17 in two seasons at Angelo State.

Here’s what the Kansas head coach, Bill Self, had to say at the time: “I think it’s a great hire. He had the chance to learn under one of the all-time pillars in our game in Bob Knight. He’ll bring energy, he’ll bring excitement and he’ll bring a work ethic and recruiting knowledge that will be very beneficial to the Little Rock program.”

Here’s what the Tennessee head coach (and former Texas head coach), Rick Barnes, had to say: “Chris has an incredible work ethic and has won at every level he has ever been. I’m very confident that he’ll accomplish great things at Little Rock.”

Here’s what Kent Hance, the former Texas Tech chancellor, had to say: “I think Chris Beard is the finest young coach in America, bar none. He’s a great recruiter and coach, but the thing that I like most about him is that he cares about the kids. He graduates players and makes sure they’re good citizens and complete student-athletes. I’m thrilled for him and Little Rock. Get ready because you’re about to move up.”

Still, there were those in Little Rock who complained.

I liked Beard the first time I met him. Soon after the coach arrived in Little Rock, my friend Kevin Crass invited me to Doe’s Eat Place to share a steak with Beard. Kevin and I have been friends since we were students at Ouachita Baptist University. Kevin’s son Ted was the only member of Shields’ staff that Beard retained.

Beard told stories of how Bobby Knight would drive two hours to try out a new barbecue joint for lunch. I certainly thought more highly of Knight after learning he was a fellow barbecue aficionado.

Beard was witty. He also struck me as intense, maybe even someone with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. In other words, exactly what UALR needed.

That attitude was evident in this quote Beard gave to USA Today earlier this week: “Me personally, I’ve been overlooked my whole life. I wake up every day with an edge. Guys like me get one chance. I wasn’t a great player. I don’t have a famous grandfather. I get up every day, surround myself with winners. Every day I feel like I’m an underdog.”

That newspaper story told how Beard took his team up on Petit Jean Mountain to Camp Mitchell, the old camp operated by the Episcopal Church in Arkansas.

The players slept in bunk beds and talked late into the night, getting to know their coaches and each other much better.

Senior Roger Woods told the newspaper: “We had a lot of players with a lot of different stories that were really impressive. … We all wanted to come together and get something going in Little Rock.”

Conque liked what he saw in Beard.

And Beard liked what he saw in Little Rock. He saw a chance to build something special at the Division I level.

“We have everything we need to build a successful program,” Beard told interviewer Greg Henderson last year. “We have the best facility in college basketball, a great capital city, a great university, history. I don’t see any reason we can’t get it done. Our mission is ‘why not us’ from the first recruiting call.”

He also took Conque’s rebranding as “Little Rock’s team” to heart, saying his players took pride in having the name of the state’s largest city on their jerseys.

I have to believe that this is what the late Jack Stephens had in mind when he gave that $22.4 million gift to UALR to build what’s now the Stephens Center, which is a perfect size for a mid-major program (seating 5,600 people) and is as fine an area as there is in the country.

“We’re not done yet,” Beard said after Thursday’s win over Purdue. “We came to this tournament to win two games in Denver and try to advance to the Sweet 16, just like everybody else.”

Now, some of those same people who were criticizing Conque’s choice in a coach a year ago are worrying that Beard’s stay in Little Rock might be a short one.

Even if it is, he has given basketball fans in this state a season they’ll always remember.

Why not us indeed.

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Remembering the AIC

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Look through the list of inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and you will find dozens of people who either played or coached at schools that once were members of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference.

Want to hear some great sports stories?

Just attend a Hall of Fame event and get “the old AIC guys” talking.

It was a conference with quite a colorful history. For those of us who grew up with it, it’s hard to believe it has now been gone for more than 18 years.

What became the AIC was formed in 1928. The league disbanded in the spring of 1995. Most of the state’s four-year colleges and universities were members of the AIC at one time or another during its existence.

During most of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the AIC consisted of five state schools and five private schools.

The state schools that were members of the conference were Arkansas Tech University at Russellville, the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Henderson State University at Arkadelphia and Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia.

The private schools that were AIC members were the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville, Harding University at Searcy, Hendrix College at Conway, Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia and Lyon College at Batesville.

Most of those schools had name changes during that period.

Lyon (Arkansas College at the time), Hendrix and Ozarks had dropped football by the mid-1960s but continued to compete in the AIC in other sports.

The AIC was affiliated nationally with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which was headquartered at Kansas City.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was a member of the AIC from 1970-72 and 1983-87.

By the early 1990s, many of the NAIA schools across the country that played football were moving to NCAA Division II. UCA, which at the time had a much larger enrollment than the other AIC members, decided to make the move to NCAA Division II beginning with the 1993-94 school year. Henderson’s board of trustees also voted to move in the fall of 1993 into NCAA Division II. UCA and Henderson joined the Gulf South Conference, which also had member institutions in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

The defections of UCA and Henderson left the AIC with just five football-playing schools — UAM, SAU, Arkansas Tech, Ouachita and Harding.

UAM, SAU and Arkansas Tech were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 1995-96 school year. The Gulf South refused to admit Ouachita and Harding, the only two private colleges playing football in Arkansas at the time. Ouachita and Harding wound up in the Lone Star Conference, which also had member institutions in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Harding and Ouachita were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 2000-01 school year.

UCA, meanwhile, left the Gulf South Conference to move into NCAA Division I as enrollment continued to soar, becoming a Southland Conference member in 2006.

Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, six former AIC members — Henderson, UAM, SAU, Ouachita, Harding and Arkansas Tech — became charter members of the new NCAA Division II Great American Conference. Several former members of the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference also are affiliated with the Great American Conference, which is headquartered at Russellville.

The AIC was organized in 1928 as the Arkansas Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. What’s now Arkansas State University at Jonesboro and what’s now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock were among the original members.

The first champions of the conference in men’s sports were UCA in basketball in 1928, UCA in baseball in 1928, Hendrix in track and field in 1928, SAU in football in 1929, Ouachita in tennis in 1948, Henderson in golf in 1948, UCA in cross country in 1962, Arkansas Tech in bowling in 1963 and Hendrix in swimming and diving in 1964.

The AIC began sponsoring women’s sports during the 1983-84 school year. The first women’s champions that school year were Lyon in cross country, Arkansas Tech in volleyball, UCA in basketball, Hendrix in swimming and diving, Harding in softball, Lyon in track and field and UCA in tennis.

In 1957, the AIC began presenting the Cliff Shaw Scholar-Athlete Award. It was given annually for the remainder of the conference’s existence to the senior male athlete who posted the highest academic grade point average and earned at least two athletic letters in AIC-sponsored sports. The first recipient of the award was John Clem of Ouachita.

In 1984, the AIC began giving a similar award for female athletes known as the Downing-Swift-Wallace Award. The first recipient was Marci Crump of Harding.

The AIC began awarding an all-sports trophy in 1964. UCA won the award the first four years it was presented. SAU captured the all-sports trophy in five of the next seven years.

Cliff Shaw of Little Rock generally is regarded as the most important figure in conference history. He became the AIC commissioner in 1956, replacing Gen. H.L. McAlister of Conway. Shaw served as commissioner until 1971, when he was replaced by Charles Adcock of Little Rock.

The commissioner’s job was an unpaid, part-time position for Shaw, but he devoted many hours to the conference. His main job was with Coleman Dairy in Little Rock.

Shaw, who was born in 1908, was a four-sport letterman at Little Rock High School, earning 10 letters during his high school years. He signed a pro baseball contract with the Little Rock Travelers in 1927 as a shortstop.

In 1930, Shaw began officiating athletic events and later became one of the most respected football and basketball officials in the country. He officiated for 35 years in the Southwest Conference, the Big Eight and the Big Ten. He worked a number of football bowl games, including the Cotton Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. Shaw also officiated in the finals of the NCAA basketball tournament in 1953.

Shaw was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Arkansas Officials Association Hall of Fame in 1996. Under Shaw’s direction, the AIC became known for having the finest officiating corps of any small college conference in the country.

Adcock, who was Shaw’s successor, was replaced as commissioner by Leroy Nix Jr.

Nix, in turn, was replaced in 1978 by Sid Simpson. After just one year as commissioner, Simpson was replaced by Harry T. Hall, who served in the role until the conference disbanded.

Hall, a retired Army colonel, was a building supervisor for the Little Rock School District when he was named commissioner. He had spent two decades as a college basketball official and was age 46 when he was hired by the AIC in July 1979.

Hall, a Dyess native, had received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Henderson and had played basketball for the Reddies.

The conference’s first recognized All-Americans were Raymond “Rabbit” Burnett of UCA in football in 1937, Ken Stephens of UCA in outdoor track in 1951, E.C. O’Neal of Arkansas Tech in basketball in 1954, Bill Tiner of UCA in baseball in 1960, Cliff Clark of Harding in cross country in 1965, Tom Bateman of Harding in indoor track in 1966, Charles Burt of Harding in bowling in 1967, Jim Saucedo and Mike Pelizza of Ouachita in tennis in 1967, John Bumpers of Hendrix in swimming in 1971 and Stan Lee of UCA in golf in 1972.

The first three AIC-connected individuals to be inducted into the national NAIA Hall of Fame were former coaches — Ivan Grove of Hendrix for football in 1957, John Tucker of Arkansas Tech for football in 1960 and Sam Hindsman of Arkansas Tech for basketball in 1965.

The first two former AIC athletes to go into the NAIA Hall of Fame were Eddie Meador of Arkansas Tech for football and E.C. O’Neal of Arkansas Tech for basketball in 1967.

The AIC is gone, but its imprint on the sports history of Arkansas is permanent.

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Bennie Fuller needs our help

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Summer has officially arrived.

No group was happier to see the end of spring than the residents of the Oklahoma City area. That region was hit by major tornadoes this spring that took lives and did tens of millions of dollars in damage.

Among those who lost homes was a former Arkansan named Bennie Fuller.

Those of us who grew up in Arkansas and are of a certain age need no introduction to Fuller.

He was, quite simply, one of the greatest high school basketball players in Arkansas history. The fact he’s deaf just makes the story more intriguing.

Back in January, the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock named its basketball court for Fuller, who was in attendance at the ceremony along with his wife, Emma. Also there was Little Rock’s Emogene Nutt. Her late husband, Houston Nutt Sr., was Fuller’s coach.

Emogene was the mother hen who treated all of the athletes as if they were her sons. She, of course, has four sons — Houston, Dickey, Danny and Dennis — who went on to careers as college football and basketball coaches.

Emogene Nutt refers to Fuller as the “Wilt Chamberlain of the deaf.”

She devoted more than three decades of her life to the school and considers Fuller a “once-in-a-lifetime athlete.”

Houston Sr., who died in 2005, no doubt would have agreed.

An account has been set up at First Security Bank to help the Fuller family. Checks can be made out to the Bennie Fuller Donation Fund and left at any First Security location across the state.

Fuller is the all-time leading scorer in Arkansas boys high school basketball history and still ranks fourth on the national list. He scored 4,896 points at the School for the Deaf from 1968-71.

All of those ahead of him are from Louisiana. Greg Procell of Noble Ebarb scored 6,702 points from 1967-70, Bruce Williams of Florien scored 5,367 points from 1977-80 and Jackie Moreland of Minden scored 5,030 points from 1953-56.

Procell, who is Choctaw-Apache, played at what later became a designated Indian school on the banks of Toledo Bend Reservoir about 70 miles south of Shreveport. There were no limits on the number of games that could be played in that era, and Ebarb played 68 games during Procell’s senior season.

In Arkansas, no one comes close to Fuller for career points. Jim Bryan of Valley Springs is second with 2,792 points from 1955-58, and Allan Pruett of Rector is third with 2,018 points from 1963-66.

Fuller is third nationally on the per-game scoring average list (50.9 points per game during the 1970-71 season) behind Bobby Joe Douglas of Louisiana (who averaged 54 points per game at Marion High School in 1979-80) and Ervin Stepp of Kentucky (who averaged 53.7 points per game at Phelps High School in 1979-80).

In 1971, Fuller scored 102 points in a game against Leola that was played at Arkadelphia.

“I didn’t know I had 22 points in the first quarter and 44 points at halftime,” Fuller said in an interview several years ago through a sign language interpreter. “I wasn’t counting. We were just playing. At the end, I had no idea I had scored 38 points in the fourth quarter. It was like a machine gun, one after another. It was just nuts.

“I had some big nights before. If I had to guess that night, I would have thought around 70. But they showed me the scorebook. It was incredible.”

This was, mind you, long before the three-point shot. Here’s how it broke down that night in Arkadelphia in each of the eight-minute quarters:

— First quarter: Nine field goals and four of five from the free-throw line for 22 points.

— Second quarter: Seven field goals and eight of 11 from the free-throw line for 22 points.

— Third quarter: 10 field goals for 20 points.

— Fourth quarter: 15 field goals and eight of eight from the free-throw line for 38 points.

Fuller had grown up near Hensley, where he learned to shoot a basketball into a hoop made from a bicycle wheel. By his senior season in high school, college coaches were filling the stands at the School for the Deaf to watch the Class B team play.

After campus visits to Arkansas, UTEP and Memphis, Fuller chose to attend Pensacola Junior College in the Florida Panhandle.

Bob Heist explained that choice in a story for the Pensacola News Journal: “Jim Atkinson, an assistant on the coaching staff at the time, accepted the head job at PJC on an interim basis when Paul Norvell unexpectedly left during the spring recruiting period. The Pirates’ program wasn’t competitive … so the new coach returned to some old roots for talent.

“A native of Fordyce, Atkinson shared the same hometown as the state’s first family of the deaf — the Nutts. All the children were born with either serious hearing or speech impediments, including Houston Nutt Sr., the only person to play for basketball coaching greats Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State).

“Nutt, whose speech was impaired from birth, was the coach and athletic director at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. His brother, Clyde, was a sensational athlete who led the 1957 U.S. deaf basketball team to the world championship in Milan, Italy. Clyde’s son, Donnie, was full hearing and an accomplished player at a Little Rock public school, and he understood sign language.

“Why did Fuller choose PJC? The school offered a vocational trade course in technical typesetting he was interested in, plus Atkinson offered a scholarship to Donnie Nutt. No other school could accommodate Fuller with a personal interpreter.”

Atkinson told Heist: “I had heard of Bennie and what he had done like everyone else, plus I knew Houston was the head coach and athletic director. To be honest, I was trying to find someone to tie our next season to, that one player who would make it interesting for fans. To me, that had to be Bennie. Then I learned about Donnie. I didn’t know how to do sign language, and he was also a very good player. I had a spot, so we kind of got two birds with one stone.”

Fuller averaged more than 30 points per game and Donnie Nutt averaged more than 20 points per game in 1971-72 even though PJC only went 7-18. Atkinson was replaced at the end of the season by a junior college coach from Missouri named Rich Daly, who brought in a number of highly touted recruits. Fuller and Nutt found their roles reduced as the Pirates went 26-4. Daly would later go on to serve as a longtime assistant for Norm Stewart at the University of Missouri.

Fuller received an associate’s degree after two years. He moved to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff but was only a role player for the Golden Lions. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from UAPB, he taught at the School for the Deaf for a time before beginning a long career in Oklahoma with the U.S. Postal Service. He and his wife’s four children all could hear.

Fuller’s 102 points on Jan. 19, 1971, against Leola are the most points ever scored by a deaf high school player in a certified varsity game. Fuller is also believed to be the first deaf player to receive a college basketball scholarship at a hearing institution.

“In the world of the deaf, Bennie Fuller’s name resonates like a midnight lightning strike,” Heist wrote. “He’s the legend for the hearing- and speech-impaired.”

Or as Emogene Nutt puts it, there was no one like Bennie Fuller in the deaf community before and has been no one like him since.

Now, Arkansans are being called on to lend a hand to this native son.

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Sonja Tate: Hall of Famer

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Raised in rural Crittenden County near the community of Edmondson, Sonja Tate learned to compete athletically at an early age.

“I had eight brothers and two sisters,” she says. “Everyone was very active. I played outside a lot when I was young with my brothers and my cousins. I always wanted to be a part of their basketball games. They made it clear to me that they didn’t want a girl out there with them. I wouldn’t back down, though. I wanted to play with them, and I knew I had to get stronger and tougher in order to do that. I had to develop my skills.”

Tate developed those skills to the point that she became perhaps the best basketball player to ever wear an Arkansas State University uniform.

Tate, who played at ASU from 1989-93, remains the career scoring leader at the school with 2,312 points. She returned to Jonesboro prior to the current season to serve as an assistant coach on the ASU women’s basketball staff.

In addition to being the school’s career scoring leader, Tate holds the single-season scoring record with 820 points during the 1992-93 season. She has the top five single-game scoring performances at ASU. She also remains the only ASU women’s player to have scored 40 or more points in a game, a feat she accomplished five times.

Now, she’s an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Tate played junior high basketball at West Memphis and then really began to blossom once she reached high school.

“I wasn’t a starter at the first of my 10th-grade year, but I was starting by later in the season,” she says. “I had a brother who broke a leg playing football and a sister who broke a leg in the long jump in track. I was determined to prove myself quickly since I had seen how other people had their playing careers shortened by injuries.

“There were great high school teams in the state at that time. We had our ups and downs, but I was able to play against some of the most talented players in Arkansas. That made me better.

“I’ll admit that I was not the best student coming out of high school. Basketball was my main subject back then. I was struggling to improve my ACT score. I talked to Coach Joe Foley about playing at Arkansas Tech and was also being recruited by the University of Missouri at Kansas City. I thought I was going to sign with Tech, but I ended up at ASU. I didn’t sign until the summer after I graduated.”

Basketball fans across northeast Arkansas were glad she made that decision. Tate earned a starting position during her freshman season. Following that season, she was named the Co-Newcomer of the Year in the American South Conference. She earned All-American South Conference honors as a sophomore and All-Sun Belt Conference honors as a junior and senior.

Prior to her senior season, Tate was named a preseason first-team All-American by Dick Vitale’s Basketball Magazine. Following her senior season, she was named to the Kodak All-America team and was honored as the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.

In addition to being the leading scorer in Arkansas State history, Tate:

— Owns the top five single-game scoring performances, including a 50-point outing against Louisiana-Lafayette during the 1992-93 season

— Connected on 95 three-pointers during the 1992-93 season, an ASU record that still stands

— Holds the single-season rebounding record with 327

— Is third on the all time rebounding list with 1,006

— Is the school’s career steals leader with 402

— Owns ASU’s top two single-season steal records with 125 during the 1992-93 season and 114 during the 1991-92 season

— Is the only player in ASU history to have a quadruple double after finishing with 29 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in an 86-59 victory at Mississippi Valley State University on Jan. 27, 1993

— Won most valuable player honors in the 1993 Women’s National Invitation Tournament at Amarillo, Texas, after leading ASU to a 67-54 victory over SMU in the finals

Tate’s first contact with Arkansas State as a high school student had been with the track program rather than the basketball program.

She says modestly: “I did pretty much everything in track.”

Indeed, she was a track All-American and remains in the top 10 in ASU history in six events. She set the school record in the heptathlon in 1994 with 5,247 points.

After finishing her college basketball career in the spring of 1993, Tate went to Europe to play basketball and didn’t like it. She returned to Jonesboro to finish her course work toward a bachelor’s degree while competing in track, in which she still had eligibility remaining.

In 1996, the NBA Board of Governors approved the creation of the WNBA. The new league was announced at a news conference on April 24, 1996. At about the same time, another women’s professional league known as the American Basketball League was formed. The surge in interest in women’s basketball had followed the gold medal performance of the U.S. women’s team at the 1996 Olympics.

The ABL lasted just more than two seasons. On Dec. 22, 1998, the ABL declared bankruptcy and suspended its operations. At the start, however, the ABL had been considered a better league and generally paid better salaries than the WNBA.

“I went to try out for the ABL at Atlanta,” Tate says. “The tryouts were held on the Emory campus, and it was a huge event. I was broke at the time, and I had to collect donations to even afford the trip to Atlanta.”

The visit paid off. About a week later, Tate learned that she had been selected to play for the Columbus Quest in Columbus, Ohio.

“We only had six players at the start, so you got a great deal of playing time,” Tate says. “It was a good league for the players, and I was with it until it folded.”

The Quest won the ABL’s Eastern Conference during both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Columbus went on to beat Richmond for the title the first year and defeated Long Beach for the title the second season. Columbus was leading the conference again with an 11-3 record in late 1998 when the league folded.

“After the ABL ended, there was a disbursement draft for the WNBA that followed a camp I attended in Chicago,” Tate says.

Tate was a three-year starter for the Minnesota Lynx. She led the team in minutes played, assists and steals. She also was among the top three rebounders on the team. After leaving the Lynx, Tate went to Europe and played professionally in France, Russia and Spain. She retired at the end of the 2004 season and returned to Jonesboro.

Tate earned her master’s of education degree from ASU in 2005. She was inducted into the ASU Hall of Honor in 2004.

After obtaining her master’s degree, Tate decided she wanted to coach. A friend talked her into moving to North Carolina, where she coached on the high school level at two schools. Most recently, she was the girls’ coach at William A. Hough High School in Charlotte, leading the team to a two-year record of 37-19 and two trips to the state playoffs.

At the end of the 2012 season, Tate began applying for college jobs.

“I was on the NCAA website every day looking at the job listings,” she says. “One day, I hadn’t gone to the website yet. A friend walked into my classroom with a sticky note that said there was a job opening at Arkansas State. Everything circles back around. It was a blessing to play basketball and see the world, but it’s good to be back in Arkansas.”

ASU head coach Brian Boyer said at the time of Tate’s hiring: “One could argue that she has accomplished more here at Arkansas State than not only any other women’s basketball player but more than any athlete period. What she has accomplished as a player speaks for itself, but I’m now convinced that she’s ready to make a name for herself as a coach.

“Sonja was not successful as a player because she was just better than everyone. She was successful because she was driven to be better than everyone. This attitude will be great for both our current athletes and our future athletes to be around. … As a bonus, our program has sent a message loud and clear to all other programs within our athletic department that we are not to be taken lightly when it comes to noon pickup games. I’m convinced that the women’s basketball staff will now be considered the favorites.”

Tate lives back in Crittenden County with her aging parents and commutes to Jonesboro each day.

“It’s a blessing to be able to spend time with my parents and be back at ASU at the same time,” she says. “That’s priceless.”

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Marcus Brown: Hall of Famer

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

This is the seventh in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

West Memphis has been a hotbed for basketball in Arkansas for many years. Consider that:

— The West Memphis High School boys’ basketball teams have won six state championships — 1980, 1981, 1991, 1997, 2004 and 2005

— The West Memphis High School girls’ basketball teams have won two state championships — 1992 and 2003

— The West Memphis boys also have appeared in the state championship game in two of the previous three years — 2011 and 2010

— The West Memphis girls also have appeared in the finals four other times in the previous decade — 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009

— The West Memphis boys won overall championships in 1980, 1981 and 1991. The overall tournament was discontinued following the 1992 season

Of all the great basketball players to have come out of West Memphis, Marcus Brown always will rank as one of the best.

And of all the Americans to have competed in the Euroleague, none have accomplished what Brown did. He retired in 2011 at age 37 as the Euroleague’s all-time leading scorer. During his 11 seasons, he rewrote the league’s record books. Brown left the league with 2,715 points, having averaged 15.3 points per game. That’s the second-best average among the top 15 all-time scorers.

At the time of his retirement, Brown also:

— Was the league’s career leader in free throws made with 688

— Ranked sixth in three-point shots made with 323

— Ranked ninth in assists with 457

— Ranked 10th in steals with 184

Brown reached the Euroleague Final Four on three occasions. He also had nine national championships in France, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Israel and Lithuania. Now, he has found his way into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“Brown enjoys rock star status in several European countries,” writes Billy Woods of the West Memphis School District. “But in West Memphis, the 6-foot-2 Brown can walk the streets in peace and only be recognized by a few for his accomplishments at the old Devil Dome, where he led West Memphis High School to a 1991 state and overall championship.”

As a high school player, Brown was overshadowed in the statewide media by the exploits of Corliss Williamson of Russellville. Brown wasn’t offered a scholarship by the University of Arkansas. He wanted to play at the University of Memphis. He had attended Tiger head coach Larry Finch’s summer camp on multiple occasions, but an offer was slow in coming from Memphis. Brown signed with Murray State University in Kentucky.

Scott Edgar had recruited Brown when Edgar was an assistant on Nolan Richardson’s staff at Arkansas. When Edgar took the head coaching job at Murray State, Brown followed.

Brown would later say of Edgar: “He didn’t talk about how good I was, nothing about NBA prospects. He told me he would help me continue to become a better man and give me a chance at a free education.”

Brown was an All-Ohio Valley Conference performer three times and was twice the OVC Player of the Year. He’s one of only nine former Murray State players to earn All-OVC honors three times. He holds multiple school records, including the most points scored in a game with 45 against Washington University of Missouri in 1995. Brown is third on the all-time points list at the school with 2,236 and holds the Murray State single-season scoring average record with 26.4 points per game during the 1995-96 season.

Brown ranks as the all-time steals leader at Murray State with 232, including a single-season record of 76 in 1994-95. He’s second in school history in single-season free throw percentage at .896 and third in all-time free throw percentage at .849. He’s also second in career made free throws with 585.

Brown often saved his best performances for games against major powers. He scored 33 points against Purdue and 32 points against Louisville in regular season games. He scored 26 points against North Carolina in the 1995 NCAA Tournament.

In February 2010, Brown’s No. 5 was retired at halftime of a Murray State game. His number was the ninth retired at the school.

In a story last year for Memphis magazine, Ed Arnold wrote about what happened following Brown’s senior season at Murray State: “The 1996 college basketball draft class was shaping up to be one of the most promising in NBA history. The names called out in Madison Square Garden on this night included more than a few future Hall of Famers. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Derek Fisher all crossed the podium, put on caps and shook hands with the commissioner that night.

“So too did a prospect named Marcus Brown from Murray State University in Kentucky. Chosen in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers, the 6-2 guard was coming off a stunning senior season in which he averaged 26 points a game, when he had been named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year for a second straight time. When his name was called from the podium, former Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown, then an on-air draft host for ESPN, opined that ‘shooting makes up for a multitude of sins, and this guy can score.'”

Brown headed to Portland’s training camp in the summer of 1996. Arnold wrote: “There were no assurances for a 6-2 shooting guard in the NBA. Because of his size, scouts worried that he wasn’t big enough to play his traditional shooting guard position and that he was too inexperienced handling the ball to play point guard. … Brown played in only 21 games during his rookie season with Portland. He shot a consistent 40 percent from the three-point line and averaged four points in about eight minutes a game, but it wasn’t enough. He was released and signed as a free agent a few months later with the then Vancouver Grizzlies.”

Brown would later say: “I just don’t think they knew what to do with me. I think they really didn’t know how to use me.”

At the start of his second NBA season, Brown said he was “called into the office and told point blank that I wouldn’t play a single game. To this day, I just want to know why. At the preseason combine in Phoenix, everybody plays three games. I was the only guy there who didn’t play three games. I was the only guy in the league getting paid during the lockout of 1999. They cut me before the lockout, and they still owed me money.”

Having been waived during the 1998 season, Brown signed a contract with the French club Pau-Orthez and averaged 20 points per game his first season. He was named the most valuable player in the French League. He tore his ACL during the final game of the French playoffs in 1998. Brown had knee surgery in the United States and then took the 1998-99 season off.

Brown signed with the Detroit Pistons for the 1999-2000 season. He had a good preseason, but the Pistons cut him after six games.

Arnold wrote: “It was a discouraging time. At 26, Brown had been cut by three NBA teams and had undergone major knee surgery, but his family in West Memphis and the desire to make them proud continued to motivate him.”

Brown told Memphis magazine: “I got strength from my grandfather’s honesty. He took me aside and said, ‘Never bring shame on the family.’ All I wanted to do was make my grandparents proud of me, and my mom and dad proud of me. Whatever I did, I was going to put forth my best effort and go from there.”

Brown’s mother was a fixture at basketball games in West Memphis for years. Brown’s own love for the city was evident when he chose to return there following his retirement as a player and help the high school basketball program.

In Europe, Brown eventually would play in nine countries. Asked by Arnold to pick his favorite country, he said: “I say all of them because I was able to see people smile, people have joy, people fulfilled with some kind of a gratification at our victories. My experience was great. Over there you have fans who are so genuine and so true. Their excitement is so pure.”

In a 2011 story for ESPN.com, Evin Demirel wrote: “No matter the European nation in which the next American NBA player plans to make a splash, chances are Marcus Brown has already been there, done that. Success eluded the former Murray State Racer during brief stints with the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons. He’s more than made up for it overseas.

“Consider before Allen Iverson and Deron Williams signed contracts with an Istanbul club, Brown played in that city and won two league MVPs and Turkish national titles. NBA journeyman Hilton Armstrong signed with a team in France, where Brown, a shooting guard, had also won two league MVPs and domestic league championships. Later, Brown played for CSKA Moscow and again won two league MVPs and national titles in his two seasons.”

Brown told ESPN: “Coming from West Memphis, I would have never imagined I would go to the Holy Land. I would never imagine I’d be up close to the Eiffel Tower or visit the Colosseum in Rome or the Acropolis of Greece. My time in Europe, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world. My experiences helped make me a better man.”

Brown said he likes “the normal life and being simple. I just go about my business.”

He might like a simple life, but Marcus Brown is the among the most extraordinary basketball players to come from Arkansas. Now, he’s giving back.

West Memphis High School principal John Collins told Memphis magazine: “You walk into his interaction with any of the kids he’s dealing with, and it’s instant respect. He’s got their attention, he’s keeping them captive, he’s teaching them the proper skills they need to play the game and doing it the right way. With the rapport he builds and communication skills that he has, I’m certain Marcus will make a great coach.”

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Don Nixon: Hall of Famer

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Don Nixon didn’t set out to be one of the state’s best basketball coaches.

In fact, he didn’t plan to be a coach at all.

“I was an accidental coach,” Nixon says. “I was teaching high school science and history at Joe T. Robinson, and the coach left during my first year there. They asked me to step in and take his place. I figured it would be for just a few months. At the end of the summer, they still had not hired a new coach and asked me to do it again. Even then, I thought I would put in a year or two and then move on to something else. Obviously, I never moved on.”

Nixon, who had graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway in 1951, went on to a stellar coaching career. He coached four basketball teams — junior high boys, junior high girls, senior high boys and senior high girls — at what’s now Pulaski Robinson from 1952-54 before moving to his high school alma mater at Mabelvale from 1954-59.

After coaching at the junior high level in the Little Rock School District from 1959-67, Nixon coached the boys’ team at Little Rock Central High School for five seasons and the men’s team at UCA from 1972-79. Nixon’s Central Tigers won Class AAAA state championships in 1970 and 1972 along with winning the state’s first overall championship in 1972.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Nixon will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Nixon was raised in rural Pulaski County, where his father sold spring water and later was in the grocery business. Nixon’s father built Lake Nixon, a 35-acre reservoir that’s now owned by Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church and operated as a day camp and retreat.

“A lot of our grocery customers out there were moonshiners,” Nixon says. “They bought plenty of sugar.”

Nixon attended Lawson Elementary School on Lawson Road through the eighth grade. That’s where he learned the sport of basketball on an outdoor court while also excelling at fast-pitch softball, which was a popular sport in those days. He went from there to Mabelvale High School, where he continued to play basketball and softball.

“We only had one softball loss in four years at Mabelvale,” Nixon says. “I played in the outfield mostly. We had two really good pitchers, which was the key in fast-pitch softball. We also had quality basketball teams.”

Nixon joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. He was stationed in San Diego and later in the South Pacific.

“World War II ended, and they let me go after 14 months,” Nixon says. “I decided to attend Little Rock Junior College (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) on the GI Bill. My goal wasn’t to coach. My goal was to go into business and make some money.”

After two years at LRJC, Nixon went to ASTC in Conway to earn his bachelor’s degree.

“Jobs were hard to get, so I jumped at a teaching position,” Nixon says. “My first contract was for $2,131. That was for the entire school year.”

After taking on the basketball coaching position, Nixon read everything he could get his hands on about famed Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) basketball coach Henry “Hank” Iba.

“He was a tough-nosed coach, and that’s what I wanted to be,” Nixon says. “He also stressed defense. I’ve always believed that defense is the key to the game. That’s probably because I was a much better defensive player than I was a shooter in high school.”

Nixon also was the boys’ and girls’ softball coach at Robinson, which didn’t have football in those days. In 1953, both his senior high boys’ and senior high girls’ basketball teams won county tournaments and conference championships.

“I had a really talented team coming back at Joe T. Robinson when Mabelvale called,” Nixon says. “I thought I would turn things around quickly over there, but it took a little longer than I thought. I then had what was going to be my best team at Mabelvale coming back in 1959. I had worked with a guy named Eugene Keaton, who had moved on to the Little Rock School District. He came out to Lake Nixon, where I worked in the summer, and said he needed to see me. I remember exactly what he said: ‘They sent me out here to hire you.’ He already knew what I was making and quoted me a figure that was quite a bit larger. So I left Mabelvale and went to West Side Junior High in Little Rock in 1959.”

Nixon later would move to Southwest Junior High. There were state championship tournaments for junior high basketball in those days. His 1964-65 West Side team was the state runner-up. His 1966-67 Southwest squad won the state championship.

That’s when Nixon was offered the job of head boys’ basketball coach at the district’s largest school, Little Rock Central. He replaced Jim Cathcart, who moved to Hot Springs High School as athletic director. Nixon’s first team in 1967-68 captured a share of the conference championship. His second team was the state runner-up, losing to North Little Rock in the finals. His third team won the state championship in the spring of 1970, beating Fort Smith Northside.

Jim Bailey wrote in the Arkansas Gazette: “Little Rock Central’s Tigers built a mountain of momentum in the second half late Saturday night in Barton Coliseum, and from its pinnacle, they read a most unlikely final score: Central 75, Fort Smith Northside 48. Going for his fifth state tournament championship, which would have been a record, Northside veteran Gayle Kaundart absorbed perhaps the worst beating of his illustrious career.”

Nixon said of Kaundart (who had won state titles at Northside in 1958, 1959, 1965 and 1968): “The old fox is hard to beat. We knew the only way was to keep the pressure on.”

Nixon’s fourth team at the school was the runner-up to North Little Rock. His fifth team in 1972 won the Class AAAA state championship and the first overall title. Overall tournaments pitting the winners of each classification against each other were held from 1972-92.

“I had a lot of great players at Central,” Nixon says. “You don’t make it to four consecutive state championship games without those kind of players. I had coached many of those boys in junior high, so I knew what I was dealing with.”

UCA Coach Cliff Horton and a member of the school’s board of trustees visited Nixon soon after the Tigers had captured the 1972 overall championship. They convinced Nixon to move to Conway and serve as Horton’s assistant. Nixon was being groomed.

After one year, Horton stepped down as head basketball coach to become the school’s full-time athletic director. Nixon moved up to head coach, taking the Bears to NAIA District 17 championships in 1974 and 1975 and spots in the NAIA national tournament at Kansas City.

Nixon retired at the end of the 1978-79 basketball season and was replaced by Don Dyer, now the winningest basketball coach in both UCA and Henderson State University history. Dyer was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.

“Don was on the floor all of the time,” Dyer says of Nixon. “Whatever he said, that’s how it went — both for his players and the officials. He always had their attention. He was on the job constantly.”

Cliff Garrison, who spent 31 seasons as the head basketball coach at Hendrix College in Conway and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, says the most fitting adjective to describe Nixon is “intense.”

“I always admired how he handled his kids,” Garrison says. “His teams executed on defense as well as any team you would ever see. And they were always disciplined. You have to adjust when you move from the high school level to the college level as a coach, and Don had the ability to adjust. He was just a tremendous competitor.”

Garrison especially remembers an incident when UCA was playing Hendrix in that once-heated Conway basketball rivalry.

“After the game, I went into the dressing room UCA had used, and the trash can was just mangled,” Garrison says. “I later found out that Don had kicked that trash can at halftime and gotten his foot stuck. I think the old Navy man came out in him.”

Dyer, meanwhile, remembers a game when his son Don Paul was young. The younger Dyer had eased up to the door of the dressing room to hear Nixon’s halftime talk.

“Don Paul said to me, ‘Dad, you should have heard the things he was saying,'” Dyer says, laughing.

“I was fortunate enough to have smart players,” Nixon says. “They went on to become doctors, dentists and lawyers. A number of them went into coaching. I often think back to when I started as a coach with our teams sometimes playing on outdoor courts.”

It was quite a career for the man who considers himself an “accidental coach.”

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Sporting Life Arkansas

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I knew big changes were afoot when Jeff Hankins left the Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Jeff was a fixture at Arkansas Business, one of those people I thought might be there until retirement.

Now that Jeff has landed at the Arkansas State University System offices here in Little Rock, I have a feeling he will be happier than ever. He has long had a passion for ASU, his alma mater. There’s nothing like getting paid to do something you’re passionate about. Take it from a guy who is passionate about our state’s private colleges and universities and now has the chance to work full time for those 11 schools.

I hate to date myself, but I first met Jeff more than 30 years ago. He was a high school student in Pine Bluff working part time at the Pine Bluff Commercial. I was a college student in Arkadelphia, holding down a full-time job as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald. The Commercial and the Siftings Herald were owned at the time by the Freeman family of Pine Bluff, and we worked closely together.

I became friends in the late 1970s with a Commercial sportswriter named Jim Harris, who was working for the newspaper’s well-known sports editor, the late Frank Lightfoot.

Let’s just say that Jim and I have covered a lot of miles together through the years — from the Liberty Bowl in Memphis to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville (how many of you remember the fog that descended on the Arkansas-North Carolina game there in December 1981?) to the late (and not so great) Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham.

Within days of Jeff’s departure from Arkansas Business, it was announced that the vehicle for Jim Harris’ outstanding reporting and commentary on sports in our state — Arkansas Sports 360 — would be shut down by the Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Fortunately, Jim was not without a vehicle for long.

Enter Simon Lee.

Simon, another longtime friend, was once an Arkansas Business employee. He’s an Internet whiz who has now made a career of doing web-based work for the health care industry. With most of Simon’s and business partner Jon Davis’ clients based outside the state, Simon has kept a low profile in Arkansas. But this Dumas native loves our state. He loves sports. He loves hunting and fishing. He loves the people and events that make Arkansas unique.

So two ol’ southeast Arkansas boys — Simon Lee from Dumas and Jim Harris from Pine Bluff — have hooked up to launch a go-to website at SportingLifeArkansas.com. The site went live last week.

Here’s what Simon had to say in his introduction letter on the site: “If you understand that sports in Arkansas is even more than tackles and blocks and dunks and homers and includes tee-ball, volleyball, swim meets, deer woods and eating some great food with good people, welcome. We are happy to launch a new online publication that features Jim Harris and a cast of other sports journalists and opinion makers from around the state.

“We want to bring you writers who will report and write about all levels of Arkansas sports, from the Razorbacks and Red Wolves to the Bears and Reddies. … We are going to work to be an outlet for sportswriters and aspiring sportswriters from high school through college. Part of the excitement of this for us is building a platform and outlet for the next generation of journalists and writers in our state.”

I’m happy to be part of the initial cast of characters at Sporting Life Arkansas.

Arkansas Business Publishing Group had a large audience for Arkansas Sports 360 but never could figure out how to make money off the venture. Simon thinks he can put his past business experience to work and find a way to monetize the site.

Sporting Life Arkansas won’t ignore hunting and fishing, which are so much a part of who we are as Arkansans.

“The sporting life in Arkansas is fun,” Simon writes. “The site should reflect that fun.”

Go to SportingLifeArkansas.com and check it out.

I like what I see so far.

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The 1994 Razorbacks: National champions

Monday, January 30th, 2012

The evening of Monday, April 4, 1994, remains seared into the memories of University of Arkansas Razorback fans.

The national championship in basketball was on the line.

With less than a minute remaining in the game, 6-6 Scotty Thurman hit the most famous shot in Razorback basketball history. His three-point basket snapped a 70-70 tie against Duke. Arkansas went on to win the national championship that night, 76-72, against a Blue Devil team that was playing in its sixth Final Four in seven years and its fourth championship game.

Corliss Williamson, a Russellville native, was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

Williamson, Thurman, their teammates and their coaches will be honored Friday night when the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inducts its Class of 2012. This is only the second time in its history that the Hall of Fame has inducted an entire team. The 1964 national championship Razorback football team was inducted in 2010.

The man who coached Arkansas to the national championship in basketball, Nolan Richardson, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998. Thurman was inducted in 2010, and Williamson was inducted in 2009.

Tickets for Friday’s banquet, which will be held at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

There also are 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Class of 2012.

The 1993-94 Razorback basketball team had the pressure of being ranked No. 1 in the country for 10 weeks during the regular season. Williamson was the team leader from start to finish in that campaign, averaging 20.4 points per game, shooting .626 from the field and making 70 percent of his free throws.

Thurman, meanwhile, didn’t save all of his last-minute heroics for the national championship game. He made a three-point shot with seven seconds left to give Arkansas a one-point victory at Tennessee and hit another three-point shot in the final 30 seconds to help the Hogs beat LSU in overtime in Baton Rouge. Thurman averaged 15.9 points per game that season.

Williamson and Thurman received plenty of help from Corey Beck, who led the team in assists. Beck and Clint McDaniel were regarded as the best defensive guards in the country as they took Richardson’s “40 minutes of hell” approach to heart. McDaniel could score from the perimeter. The fifth starter on the team, Dwight Stewart, also was a perimeter scoring threat.

Richardson took advantage of a deep bench. Al Dillard was a three-point shooting threat. He was the team’s third-leading scorer with an 8.9-point-per-game average even though he averaged playing just 12 minutes per game.

Roger Crawford, one of only two seniors on the team, also was a scoring threat. Crawford was injured early in the NCAA Tournament and didn’t play in the Final Four.

Coming off the bench on a regular basis were Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson, both 6-11 centers. Others who saw significant playing time were Ken Biley and Elmer Martin.

Other members of the national championship team were forward Craig Tyson, guard Davor Rimac, guard Reggie Merritt, forward Reggie Garrett, guard John Engskov and forward Ray Biggers.

Richardson had gotten Arkansas close before. The Razorbacks reached the Final Four in 1990 and lost in the semifinal game to Duke. Kansas defeated Arkansas the next year in the Elite Eight.

In 1992, the Hogs fell to Memphis in the second round of the tournament. Arkansas made it to the Sweet 16 in 1993 before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina.

Duke, Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina — all members of college basketball’s elite.

Now, it was the Razorbacks’ turn.

The Hogs finished the regular season with a 24-2 record. A 13-game winning streak was ended by Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but Arkansas still found itself seeded first in the Midwest Regional at Oklahoma City.

Williamson scored 24 points and had seven rebounds as the Razorbacks defeated North Carolina A&T, 94-79, in the first round.

Two days later in the second round, Williamson had 21 points and Robinson, as a surprise starter, added 13 points as the Razorbacks beat Georgetown, 85-73.

It was on to Dallas and the Sweet 16. The opponent was Tulsa.

Earlier in the season at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane had taken the Razorbacks to overtime before falling, 93-91. Most people were expecting another close game in the Sweet 16 after Tulsa had posted victories over UCLA and Oklahoma State in the tournament’s first two rounds. It was, however, a blowout in favor of the Razorbacks. The Hogs won by 19 points, 103-84, as Williamson and Thurman scored 21 points each. McDaniel added 19 points.

The Elite Eight foe was Michigan. Its star player was Juwan Howard. Williamson was held to just 12 points, but Thurman answered with 20 points and the Razorbacks won by eight, 76-68. President Clinton was among those in attendance in Dallas.

The next stop: The Final Four in Charlotte, N.C.

The semifinal opponent was an Arizona team led by guards Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves. With Beck and McDaniel playing their best defensive games of the season, Stoudamire and Reeves hit just 11 of 43 shots. They were two of 22 on three-point attempts. Williamson scored 29 points and had 13 rebounds for the Razorbacks as they posted a solid 91-82 victory.

President Clinton was back in attendance for the national championship game, joining 3,000 of his fellow Arkansans who had made the trip to Charlotte.

Back home, hundreds of thousands of Arkansans were glued to their television sets.

Arkansas led 34-33 at the half, but Duke jumped to a 10-point lead in the first three minutes of the second half. Next, it was Arkansas’ turn to go on a run as the Hogs built a 70-65 lead.

Grant Hill hit a three-point shot for Duke to tie the game with 1:29 remaining. As the shot clock was running down, Thurman’s three-point shot was true with 51 seconds left in the game. Arkansas led by three, 73-70.

Two free throws by McDaniel and another free throw from Dillard sealed a 76-72 Arkansas victory and the national championship.

The president headed down to the court to embrace Richardson.

At 31-3, Arkansas had won its first national championship in basketball.

This Friday night, we get to salute that team again as it’s inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

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