Lee Mayberry and former University of Arkansas head basketball coach Nolan Richardson go back a ways.
Way back, in fact.
Mayberry, a Tulsa native, began attending Richardson’s basketball camps at the University of Tulsa when he was in junior high and Richardson was the Tulsa head coach.
Mayberry’s older sister, Kim, was dating Richardson’s son, Nolan III. They later married.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Mayberry went to Arkansas to play basketball for Richardson, though Mayberry is quick to note it wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
Mayberry went on to score 1,940 points during his Razorback career and helped lead Arkansas to the 1990 Final Four in Denver, where the Razorbacks lost to Duke in the semifinals. He was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 1992 NBA draft, the 23rd overall pick. He played from 1992-96 for the Bucks and from 1996-99 for the Vancouver Grizzlies.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Mayberry will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, Feb. 3. Tickets for the annual induction banquet 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.
Mayberry is among 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 Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship basketball team.
Like other residents of Tulsa, Mayberry was thrilled by the exciting brand of basketball Richardson brought to town. Richardson, a 1998 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee, came to Tulsa in 1980 after winning the national junior college championship at Western Texas Junior College. Mayberry was 10 years old at the time but already loved basketball.
Richardson’s first Tulsa team in 1980-81 went 26-7 and won the NIT championship. That was followed by records of 24-6 and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, 19-12 and an NIT bit, 27-4 and an NCAA Tournament bid and 23-8 and yet another NCAA bid.
“He turned that program around,” Mayberry says of Richardson. “It wasn’t hard to get excited about college basketball when Coach Richardson was in Tulsa. I have three brothers, all of whom also played basketball. I remember that we couldn’t wait to watch his television show. Coach Richardson’s style was a fun way to play.”
During his senior season, Mayberry led Will Rogers High School to the 1988 state championship.
Richardson had gone to Arkansas following the 1985 season at Tulsa. His 1985-86 Razorback team was 12-16 followed by records of 19-14 and a 1987 NIT bid and 21-9 and a 1988 NCAA bid.
In November 1990, Mayberry told Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated that at first he hadn’t been keen on following Richardson to Arkansas because “the team wasn’t winning, and the fans there were really dogging Coach Richardson.”
Hersch wrote at the time: “For his part, Richardson wasn’t keen on recruiting this quiet kid who used to play on the living room floor with young members of the two families. ‘I’m a grandfather and his dad’s a grandfather of the same child,’ says Richardson. ‘I really didn’t need all that pressure.’
“But Nolan III, a former assistant coach in the CBA who is a volunteer coach at Arkansas, and Richardson’s other assistants kept insisting that Mayberry was worth the risk. Still, Richardson wasn’t convinced until he watched Mayberry lead undersized Rogers High to the 1988 Class 5A state championship with 26 points and five rebounds in the title game.”
“Whatever Lee had to do, he did,” Richardson said of the state title game. “He was the one head controlling the whole team.”
Mayberry now says his top three college choices coming out of high school were Arkansas, Arizona and Oklahoma.
“All of those programs were having a lot of success,” he says. “I wanted to go to a successful program, but I also wanted to go somewhere I could play right away. Coach Richardson was late in recruiting me. He felt it would put too much pressure on me if he came after me hard and everybody assumed I would choose Arkansas.”
Though he wanted significant playing time as a freshman, even Mayberry was surprised when Richardson named him a starter. Mayberry was the Southwest Conference Newcomer of the Year as the 1988-89 Razorbacks went 13-3 to win the conference and finished 25-7 overall, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
It was during Mayberry’s sophomore season that the Razorbacks reached the Final Four, going 14-2 to again win the Southwest Conference while posting a 30-5 overall record.
As Mayberry was beginning his junior season, the November 1990 Sports Illustrated story started this way: “You have descended into the Hades of College Basketball: Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville. This is where the Razorbacks create and perfect the torture sessions that Coach Nolan Richardson fondly calls 40 minutes of hell.
“Arkansas attacks opponents at both ends of the floor with a two-platoon, perpetual-pressure system that’s as dizzying as Richardson’s polka-dot shirts. Last season that scheme propelled the Hogs into the Final Four; this season, its strength still lies in the dynamic talents of two players who are as tenacious as Cerberus — Lee Mayberry and Todd Day. Mayberry, a 6-2 junior point guard, plays with the grim mien of an undertaker. Don’t be deceived, though, by his quiet manner.”
Arkansas won a third consecutive Southwest Conference title that season, going 15-1 in SWC play, and advanced to the Elite 8, finishing the season with a 34-4 record. The season ended with a 93-81 loss to Kansas.
The Razorbacks were 13-3 as new members of the Southeastern Conference in Mayberry’s senior season, winning the SEC West. Arkansas went 26-8 overall and advanced to the second round of the 1992 NCAA Tournament.
Mayberry says there were too many big games during his four-year college career to single out just one. For instance, there was the famous “Strollin’ Nolan” game on Feb. 4, 1990, at the Erwin Center in Austin. Disgusted with the officiating, Richardson left the bench and went to the dressing room with the game still in progress. Mayberry hit a 28-foot shot to send the contest into overtime, prompting Richardson to return to his courtside seat. Arkansas won, 103-96.
“There were a number of games that were big for us,” Mayberry says. “I’ve never had any doubt that I made the right decision by going to Arkansas. It was a special time for me.”
The 1990 semifinal loss to Duke by a final score of 97-83 still smarts. UNLV beat Georgia Tech in the other semifinal game and then blew Duke out in the finals.
“I thought we were as good as any team in the country that year,” Mayberry says. “But, you know, I really think the team that lost to Kansas my junior year was even better. We again felt we had a team that was good enough to win a national championship.”
At Arkansas, Mayberry:
— Was the 1991-92 scoring leader, averaging 15.2 points per game
–Was the 1991-92 steals leader with 75
— Was the 1990-91 steals leader with 100
— Led the team in assists as a sophomore, junior and senior
— Finished his college career with 723 field goals
— Made 78 percent of his free throws
— Made 218 three-point baskets
Richardson won his first NCAA title two years after Mayberry graduated. Mayberry is being inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same night as that 1994 team.
“I know all of those guys,” he says.
Mayberry compiled a remarkable record of playing in 328 consecutive NBA regular season games. He didn’t miss a game until his fifth season in the league.
“I didn’t know what to expect going into the NBA,” Mayberry says. “You just never know how it will turn out. I was lucky early in my career to stay away from injuries.”
Mayberrry averaged 5.1 points per game during his NBA career.
He’s back living in Tulsa, scouting for the Golden State Warriors of the NBA.
“It’s a great feeling,” he says of his induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. “I was a skinny kid out of Tulsa who was just happy to have a chance to play at Arkansas.”
Mayberry is being modest, of course. He was much more than that. He was, quite simply, one of the best college basketball players in the state’s history.