Bill Clinton, Ricky Norton and me

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 ┬áhim 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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