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.