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From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood

August 11, 2012 1 comment

 

 

Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed.  Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks.  Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine.  The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list.  You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.

 

 

 

From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Harley Cooper

If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in the hood, but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.

After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”

Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.

Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.'” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.

Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves.  He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.

“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”

Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”

 

 

 

Harley Cooper

 

 

 

Joey Parks

An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.

Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.

Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.

Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.

“He hit like a mule,” he said.

Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”

He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”

 

Joey Parks

 

 

Lamont Kirkland

One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.

 

 

 

Lamont Kirkland, right

 

 

 

More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers

Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.

Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.

After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.

Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.

The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.

 

 

 

Midge Minor

    

From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog.  The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since.  Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience.  The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015.  The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of  Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment.  I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.

First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.

But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.

Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.

This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.

Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.

Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.

“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”

Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.

“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”

Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.

“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”

The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.

In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.

“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”

Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.

Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.

After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.

This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.

“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”

Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.

“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”

Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”

Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.

“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”

Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.

And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”

 

 

Roye Oliver, ©azcentral.com

Chris Oliver, ©huskers.com

Ray Oliver, ©photo nswca.com

 

 

More Notable Wrestlers

The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.

North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.

Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.

The Coaches

Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.

Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.

Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.

When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.

Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.

And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.

By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.

A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.

In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”

Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.

Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”

 

 

Charles Bryant

Don Benning

Joe Edmondson

Curlee Alexander

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene

June 25, 2012 1 comment

The pursuit of my Holy Grail of interviews began with this story, an installment in a lengthy series I write in the mid-2000s for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, and in it I tried to lay out just what it was that made possible the Golden Age of athletic excellence that saw so many outstanding athletes come out of Omaha’s small African-American community.  You’ll find virtually every installment from the series on this blog.  Eventually I’ll have it all up here.  Well, back to my frustrated pursuit of an interview for this story.  His name is Mike McGee and the legend around him began when he played for Omaha North High in the mid-1970s.  He put up really big numbers as a junior.  But no one could have predicted the crazy numbers he achieved his senior season as a do-everything wing man, when he averaged about 38 points and 15 rebounds a game in the state’s largest class competition. He was simply unstoppable.  Heavily recruited, he went to Michigan and not only that stories basketball program’s all-time leading scorer but the elite Big Ten’s career scoring leader as well.  He played with the Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, won a title, and had a decent NBA career.  By the time I wanted to talk with him for this story he had cut most ties with friends and family in Omaha and was coaching overseas.  I managed to get his number and even exchanged messages with him but we never did hook up for an interview.  He’s been in China of late.  Oh, well, maybe someday.  He’s just one of many top players from Omaha’s inner city I profile here.  The talent ran rather dry in recent years but there’s a hoops revival underway led by top recruit Akoy Agau (I profile him on the blog).  You’ll also find on this site full-blown profiles I did of two old-school hoops legends from Omaha – the late Bob Boozer and Ron Boone.  Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was a helluva basketball player in his day as well and I have a few profiles of Gibby on the site.

 

 

Mike McGee

 

 

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness,, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In what is a rite of passage in the inner city, driveways, playgrounds and gyms serve as avenues and repositories for hoop dreams that get realized just often enough to energize each new generation’s hard court aspirations.

The hold basketball’s taken over urban America in recent decades is a function both of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack.

Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Every level of organized basketball today is influenced by the urban roots of its most gifted and creative participants — African-Americans. Blacks have given the game its flavor and flash.

Omaha is no different. Whether getting schooled on cement, asphalt, gravel, dirt or wood, black players emerging from the urban core have defined Omaha’s hoops legacy. Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer set the standard. John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare, Joe Williams and Ron Boone followed in their footsteps. From the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a new crop of players made noise, including Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee, Lee Johnson, Daryl Stovall, Ron Kellogg, Kerry Trotter, Cedric Hunter, Michael Johnson, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes. Then, in the early to mid-90s, Andre Woolridge, Erick Strickland, Terrance Badgett, Curtis Marshall, Alvin Mitchell, Will Perkins and company made their mark. Now, it’s Creighton recruit Josh Dotzler’s turn. The floor leader for Bellevue West’s back-to-back Nebraska Class A state championship teams, Dotzler will, barring injury, do something most of his predecesors did — play Division I ball. Coming up, he heard comparisons to them. It’s always been that way. Older players carry reps. Young bloods pattern their game after them and a lucky few are labeled heir apparents.

A handful of local inner city players have made it all the way to the NBA. The most successful was Boozer, one of two natives, along with McGee, to win a ring. Only one hometowner– nine-year veteran Erick Strickland — is still active in the league (as a reserve with the Bucks). Although he didn’t grow up in the inner city, the former Bellevue West and University of Nebraska standout ventured there for pick-up games. Other Omaha inner city products have played overseas. Andre Woolridge, the ex-Benson great who left NU to star at Iowa, still does, in Israel. It’s one of many stops he’s made in a far-flung, star-crossed career.

Kellogg and Trotter did the overseas thing before him. Lee Johnson followed a big time career abroad by assuming the general manager’s job for a team in France.

 

 

 

 

Being a superstar in The Hood doesn’t always translate to organized ball. Stories abound of playground phenoms who, for one reason another, didn’t make it at the high school or college level. Some still got pro tryouts, like Taugi Glass, but their potential and dreams never quite meshed with reality.

In this sampling of the Omaha inner city hoops landscape over the last 50 years, you’ll meet some of the players who’ve helped elevate the game here and discover the roots of what made each a legend in his own time.

Until Dotzler, Andre Woolridge was among the last Omaha prepsters coveted by elite roundball programs. Closely tied to Omaha’s inner city athletic heritage and pedigree, Woolridge hooped it up at favorite North O haunts. Two of his youth coaches, Lonnie McIntosh and Ernie Boone, were good players in their day.

Perhaps the greatest shaper of Woolridge the athlete was his father, Frank Sanders, a former athlete himself who designed a busy regimen for his son. “He always had me into something,” Woolridge said. “In the summer, there was no sleeping till noon. It was get up and go take tennis lessons or go play ball.”

Woolridge dabbled in many sports, but basketball soon became his game. “I started young. In the second or third grade I wasn’t that good, and then all of a sudden it just started coming. I picked things up fast. Playing at the boys club you always had to play against older guys, bigger guys, stronger guys, and I just took off from there.” It was in the 7th or 8th grade, he said, the talk around the neighborhood began — ‘This kid is going to be good.’” He listened and dreamed.

Faced with more mature competition, he had to push himself if he wanted to hang. Some of those pushing him became his models.

“I looked up to a lot of streetball players. Guys like Taugi Glass, Melvin Chinn, Willie Brand and James ‘Snook’ Hadden. I took different things from street guys’ games and put them into mine. I wanted to jump like Taugi Glass. I wanted to handle the ball like Melvin Chinn. I wanted to have the offensive ability of Willie Brand…Streetball, you know, that’s where I come from.”

Kerry Trottter

 

 

Then there were top-notch players from a generation before him whose games he tried emulating. Dennis Forrest, a former Central High and UNO great drafted by the Denver Nuggets, worked at the boys club and would go one-on-one with Woolridge. “He would torture me every day, for years, until I got bigger and more athletic. He could shoot the ball,” Woolridge said. After John C. Johnson led Central to consecutive state titles in ‘74 and ‘75, he stamped himself an all-time Creighton great. After failing to make the NBA he became a legend in area recreational leagues, where Woolridge watched and learned.

“There were great games at the boys club on Sundays. I wasn’t old enough or good enough to play yet, but I would watch Kerry Trotter, John C. Johnson, Lee Johnson, Mike McGee…all in the same gym…and knowing these guys were making money off the game was an inspiration for me to get out of the ghetto and out of the hood and do something.”

As he got older, he played against some of his idols. He even beat one, John C. Johnson, while only a 7th grader. Johnson knew “he had the gift.” He was special.

Of all the players to come out of the inner city, McGee, is the most magical for a certain era of fans. As a North High senior, he shattered the single season Class A scoring record with an average of 38.1 points a game in 1976. No one’s come close since. He went on to break scoring records at Michigan, where he totalled 2,439 points in 114 games, and played five years as a reserve on the prodigious Laker teams of the ‘80s starring Magic and Kareem, winning one championship. Before MJ, everybody in Omaha “wanted to be like Mike,” Woolridge said. “He was such a superstar. I wanted a piece of his game  — that sweet jump shot.” Ron Kellogg, who enjoyed fame at Northwest High and Kansas, said. “Growing up, he’s who I used to go watch play all the time. He was a set shooter and I couldn’t believe how he could get his shot off, but he had such a quick release and he moved so well without the ball. He was just a thrill to watch. Incredible.” Kerry Trotter, who made a name for himself at Creighton Prep and Marquette, said, “Mike McGee was the guy. So, I know, for me he was kind of the standard. That’s who I wanted to be like in regards to being the next guy.” These days, McGee coaches internationally, most recently in South Korea.

Like McGee before him, Woolridge worked and worked on his skills. “I would go to the basketball court and be there all day long. I mean, literally, all day. Ten hours. Some of us would hop in a car and travel from court to court,” he said. “I was a student of the game.” By the time he got to Benson High, he was a player.

“I could just score. I could put it in the basket any way. I could shoot the 3. I was quick enough to get to the hole. I had great anticipation.” He started as a freshman, scoring 17 his first game, and the rest is history. He went on to break the career Class A scoring record in Nebraska (1911 points) and led his Bunnies to the state title, capping his brilliant prep run with a dominating 50-point performance in the 1992 finals. “It’s storybook. It’s sweet. We got the win. I got the record. The first championship for Benson in I don’t know how many years.”

Andre Woolridge

 

 

The wooing of Woolridge by colleges began his freshman year and intensified after his sophmore year. The McDonalds and Converse All-American considered Iowa but settled on Nebraska. Things didn’t go as planned in Lincoln. Some say he was under-used. Others that he was mis-used. On a team of scorers, nobody wanted to distribute the ball. Whether it was the coach or the system, he wasn’t happy. He began looking at other options during the season, waiting until the end to leave NU for Iowa. “I don’t blame anybody,” he said. “I think it was something I had to go through to become the person I am now.”

He got hate mail. He used the criticism as motivation. “I knew I had a whole redshirt year to work on whatever they said I couldn’t do or whatever type of player they said I wouldn’t be, and I took that with me every day.” Going to Iowa, he said, was for the best. “It was good to get away on my own and to find myself. It was like another storybook.” As a Hawkeye, the consumate court general dished 575 assists and scored 1,525 points in 97 games.

Despite fine numbers and decent showings at pro camps, he went undrafted by the NBA. “It was a shocking blow. Devastating. It’s still a mystery to me and to a lot of people,” he said. He did get tryouts, initially with Golden State, and with 10 to 15 clubs since, but it’s always “you’re too short” or “we have too many players at your position.” So, he took the foreign route and has enjoyed a vagabound career playing for teams in France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel. There was a stint in the National Basketball Development League. When he’s actually paid, the money’s good, but he’s been burned enough to now demand a big chunk of his salary upfront. He still harbors NBA hopes, but at 31 he’s resigned to his fate.

“I’ve had the best of the game and I’ve had the worst of the game,” he said.

Ron Kellogg got his start playing ball in an area of North O called “Vietnam” for all the gang violence and desolation there. He competed at the boys club and in the tough Kellom league. But he didn’t really begin honing his game until his family moved from the ghetto to northwest Omaha, where the white next door neighbors erected a hoop in the dirt backyard. Only the basket was set 12-feet high. Taking aim at that higher-than-regulation cup is how the left-handed Kellogg developed his trademark rainbow shot launched to deadly accurate effect from the corner and top of the key. If he wasn’t going one-on-one with friend Mike Cimino, Kellogg was hooping it alone. “That’s where I spent most of my time,” he said. “I mean, every day I was outside for hours back there shooting.”

He credits three mentors with his early development: his father Ron Kellogg, Sr.; longtime youth coach Tom Ivy — the father of Maurtice Ivy; and his late grandfather Leonard Hawkins. Early on, he was identified with a talented group of players emerging in the state that included Kerry Trotter, Dave Hoppen, James Moore and Vic Lazzaretti. “We were competing from the 6th grade on, so it started early for us,” Kellogg said. They were joined by outstaters Bill Jackman and Mike Martz to make up what arguably became the best senior class (1982) in Nebraska prep history. They anchored the first Valentinos select team to crash Las Vegas. All played Division I ball.

But if one stood out from the rest, Trotter said, it was Kellogg. “He was definitely the best athlete of the bunch.” Kellogg was a fine sprinter and had what his coach at Northwest, Dick Koch, described as “great leg strength and balance.”

Even though forbidden, high schools hotly recruited the players. “That’s when I knew I probably had a chance to do something,” Kellogg said.

 

 

Kellogg got the reins his first year with the varsity at Northwest, where he said coach Dick Koch told him, “‘The ball is yours. This is your team.’ I was surprised. I was like, Wow! Really?’ His prep debut — a 28-point effort versus Ryan — was a sign of things to come. The thing he’s best remembered for — his marksmanship — set him apart. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. He could pull up on a dime and take that 16 to 20-foot shot. That’s where he did a lot of his damage,” said Koch. He got his initial national exposure at national invitational camps and with the Valentinos team. After the recruiting pitches began, the Parade All-American visited cadillac programs, strutting his stuff in pick up games versus top returning players.

“This is where they see what type of player you are,” he said. “When I performed well, that gave me the confidence I could play with anybody.”

Kansas proved a good fit. He ended up playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. He helped lead KU back to glory. He hooped two seasons with Danny Manning. More importantly, he met his wife, Latrice, a Kansas native, and the mother of their three kids. Under Brown, Kellogg learned “not only the game, but the game of life.” After two years on the bench, his turning point as a Jayhawk came in the 1984 Big Eight tournament finals against Oklahoma. The little-used soph was inserted in the lineup with about a minute left and KU trailing. “I came in and I took a shot right away and missed. Coach Brown called a time out and I got the hardest slap on my leg. It stung. I can still feel it. That woke me up. He told me what was at stake: ‘You can take this chance or you can blow it, but you can win this game.’ And in that time out I got my focus on and I ended up hitting the winning shot. That jump-started my career and put us back on the map.”

In Lawrence, Kellogg was joined by South High product Cedric Hunter, who ran the KU offense to perfection. Danny Manning is remembered as the big wheel for KU, but Kellogg was a key spoke. He twice made first team All-Big 8 and the league all-defensive team. He drained a remarkable 56 percent of his field goal tries his junior and senior years and an impressve 82.8 percent of his free throws for his career. He finished with 1,508 points, 416 rebounds and 272 assists in 130 games, averaging 17.6 and 15.9 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively.

The highlight of his collegiate days came in the 1986 Final Four at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. He scored 22 points in KU’s semifinal loss to Duke. “Playing in the Final Four was a special moment that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. It’s a big event. It’s seen around the world. You better be prepared, too, because it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides Cedric and myself, I don’t know of any other Nebraskans who’ve played in the Final Four.”

Kellogg was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2nd round of the NBA draft, only to be traded to the L.A. Lakers in a package deal for his childhood idol, Mike McGee. An injury in pre-season camp prevented him from performing near his best. He was the last man cut from the roster. “From there,” he said, “I went on a rollercoaster. I played in the CBA (with the Topeka Sizzlers and Omaha Racers) and then I went overseas and played in Belgium,” where he hooked up and kicked it with his old mate, Kerry Trotter. “After a stint in Finland, I decided to settle down.”

Kerry Trotter managed what few Americans do — he played 11 years with the same European club — Briane — located just outside Brussels, Belgium. “Absolutely, it’s very unique. I had opportunities to play other places, but I liked Brussels very much. I learned to speak French and to appreciate French wines. I have dual citizenship,” he said. Cultivating a cosmopolitan life on the continent is quite a feat given Trotter and his siblings were raised in the projects by their single mother. Her insistence that they get good grades as a prerequisite for playing ball paid off when Kerry and his twin brother Kirk got scholarships to Creighton Prep. The school’s Jesuit connections led to Trotter attending Marquette.

Like Kellogg, Trotter came up on the northside’s proving grounds. “Back in the day, the Bryant Center had a league. It was legendary. Ron and I played on a summer league team there and we went like 20-0 for two summers. Man, we were just crushing people. It was great,” he said. He said he and Kellogg were well aware of the greats who came before them and were honored to be mentioned in the same breath. “We were fortunate to keep the bar raised high.”

Coming out parties for rising stars usually begin in high school, but Trotter said a grade school select team enabled he and Kellogg to showcase their talents against other hot shots in Phoenix. “We saw we could compete with them,” Trotter said. By the time they played on the Valentinos team, they were turning coaches’ and players’ heads. “They were looking at us like, ‘Nebraska? Who are these kids?’

In high school, the pair were friends and rivals. “We took it personal,” Kellogg said. “Those two really went at it,” Koch recalled. “Boy, they competed against each other. Neither one liked to lose.” Their contests were events. “Our games had to be played at the Civic so damn many people wanted to see us hoop,” Trotter said.

A combination of power and finesse, Trotter worked for what he got. “I was either in the gym all the time or at the park. I just really wanted to be that good. I had a great basketball work ethic and IQ. Growing up in the projects playing streetball and then going to a program like Creighton Prep, where it was a system, I was able to blend that together and, man, I was just knocking ‘em out. I was a player who could fill up the stat sheet — rebound, score, assist, steal.” A rare four-year starter, he was above all else a gamer. “I wanted to win a state title at Creighton Prep, because that’s what they do. I wanted to be part of that history.” He got his wish in ‘81 when his clutch free throws sealed the deal versus Benson in the finals.

The McDonalds and Parade All-American followed his heart, to Marquette, where he was a solid all-around player, posting 1,221 points, 569 boards, 369 assists and 158 steals in 116 career games. Undrafted by the NBA, Trotter found a comfortable fit for his game and his life in Belgium. He brought family members overseas to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Having his mom there, he said, was “my pay back.”

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Neal Mosser, A Straight-Shooting Son-of-a-Gun

June 16, 2012 2 comments

As a small population state Nebraska turns out precious few athletes who reach the highest level of their sport but there was a golden era when one man, the late Neal Mosser at Technical High School in Omaha, coached a succession of talents who went on to achieve great things as professional athletes.  In a span of less than a decade he coached Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, and Ron Boone in hoops.  Mosser commanded great respect from his student-athletes because he didn’t play favorites and he didn’t bow to bigotry.  His best players were African-Americans and where some coaches may have been reluctant or dead set against to play an all-black starting five, he wasn’t. In the 1950s and ’60s in an arch conservative and predominantly white state like Nebraska that wasn’t a popular thing to do but he did it anyway.  It may have cost his team some wins come state tournament time, too, when officials seemed intent on doing what they could to prevent Tech from winning championships against white squads.  One of Mosser’s legendary players, Bob Boozer, died this past spring (2012).  This story from about eight years ago appeared as part of a series I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatnesss.  You’ll find other installments from the series on this blog.

Neal Mosser with Fred Hare

 

 

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness –Neal Mosser, A Straight-Shooting Son-of-a-Gun

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared om The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In the days of segregation, the racial divide extended to school sports competition.  At Omaha melting pots Technical, North and Central High schools, diversity was a given, even if some students and teachers were slow to accept it. While blacks played alongside whites, an unwritten practice saw to it few athletes of color suited up, regardless of ability. An informal quota system operated then at all levels of sports. From 1948 to 1967 Omaha Tech’s uncompromising head basketball coach Neal Mosser consistently defied the status quo. Under him, Tech had dozens of black hoop stars whose names survive today: Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Bill King, Joe Williams, Fred Hare, Ron Boone. A crusty ex-Marine with little use for hypocrisy, Mosser, who played at Purdue and Nebraska, took heat for playing his best players, even if they were all black. Consequently, he saw games openly stolen from his teams, including a couple infamous larcenies at the state tourney in Lincoln.

Gibson, a Creighton University great and Harlem Globetrotters veteran before a Hall of Fame pitching career with the St. Louis Cardinals, said Mosser followed a color-blind standard. “Race just never seemed to be a part of his thinking. He did a lot as far as me going from a young boy to a young man. It was more the way he carried himself than anything else and the respect he had for us as players.”

“Neal Mosser fought a tremendous battle for a lot of us minority kids,” said former player Lonnie McIntosh. “He and Cornie Collin. At that time, you never had five black kids on the basketball court at the same time.” But they did. “Their jobs were on the line, too.” McIntosh said of the two coaches.

Mosser said his ability to relate to minorities stems from growing up in a racially mixed town, Cambridge, Ohio, that straddled the Mason-Dixon line. “Blacks and whites got along pretty good then in Cambridge,” he said. “The glass works factory my dad worked in was integrated. In our church basketball league we played against blacks from the AME church. So, in playing together and in working together, we learned to get along.” As a coach, he applied unprejudiced principles. “If they showed me any promise, I worked with ‘em,” he said. “I enjoyed coaching guys that wanted to be coached. All you had to do was believe in ‘em.”

 Omaha Technical High School

 

 

When the pressure mounted on Mosser to play it safe at Tech, he didn’t back down. “I didn’t take any of their shit,” he said, referring to prep officials, coaches and fans who got on him and his players. He bluntly told bigots where they could go, but asked his players to keep their cool. “I told ‘em, ‘You can’t be thinking about these people that are always on your butt and razzing you and calling you the N-word and everything like that.’ I told them they had to look past that. Right now, they would fight, but they didn’t in those days.” A sign of the unwelcome climate was the time Mosser drove his team back from a game in Hastings and, looking for a place to stay overnight in Lincoln, he had to vouch for his players before a hotel would accommodate them. “So you see how touchy it was,” he said.

Gibson recalls Mosser standing firm. “As a matter of fact, we went to the state tournament in Lincoln my senior year and he started five black players. I give him a lot of credit for that. That night, you could hear a pin drop. And he didn’t give a shit. He just wanted to win.” While the crowd’s “stone silence” didn’t faze Mosser, what happened next did. With the fast-breaking Tech team already frustrated by Fremont High’s slow-down tactics, the referees seemingly conspired to give the edge in the nip-and-tuck stalemate to the Tigers. Observers and participants confirm it was neither the first time nor the last time that teams from Tech and Central got beat with an underhanded assist from referees.

As if he still can’t accept it, Gibson explains how his vastly superior Tech squad got robbed that night. “By the end of the first-half four out of our five starters fouled-out, and within a couple minutes of the second half I fouled out, and I never fouled out. They were cheating us,” he said. “It was that blatant. And Mosser did the same thing Josh (his older brother and first coach) did — he was out in the middle of the floor screaming, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack.” There was nothing Mosser or anyone could do. Tech lost 40-39. The pain of it all made Gibson cry. He said it was the last time he ever shed a tear over a loss.

Bob Gibson

 

 

The same story was repeated in 1955, when Mosser had future collegiate All-American, Olympic Gold Medalist and NBA world champion Bob Boozer in the middle and a talented supporting cast around him.

“We had the state championship taken away from us,” Boozer said. “We played Scottsbluff. We figured we were the better team. I was playing center and I literally had guys hanging on me. The referees wouldn’t call a foul. I’d say, ‘Ref, why don’t you call a foul?,’ and all I heard was, ‘Shut up and play ball.’”

Mosser said Boozer was clearly a target that night. “They beat the hell out of him,” he said. “They about cut his arms off.”

The bad calls didn’t end there. “On one play, my teammate Lonnie McIntosh stole the ball and was dribbling down the sideline when one of their guys stuck his foot out and tripped him,” Boozer said. “There was Lonnie sprawled out on the floor and the referee called traveling and gave the ball to Scottsbluff.  We were outraged, but what could we do? If we had really got on the refs we’d have got a technical foul. So, we had to suck it up and just play the best we could and hope we could beat ‘em by knocking in the most shots.” Boozer said Mosser helped him deal with “the sting of racism…Neal was a real disciplinarian. And he used to always tell us that life was not going to be easy. That you’ve got to forge ahead.” That credo was tested when Boozer, a hot recruit his senior year, was rejected by his top choice — the University of Iowa. “Neal showed me a letter Iowa’s head coach wrote telling him he had his quota of black players. Neal said, ‘Bob, these are things you’re going to have to face and you’ve just got to persevere in spite of it.’ It hardens you. It makes you tougher.” The same thing happened before, with Gibson, when Mosser tried getting Indiana to look at his prize player only to have the Hoosiers coach say, “I’ve got enough of ‘em.”

 

 

Bob Boozer

 

 

Perhaps the lousiest dirt dealt Tech came in its 1962 finals loss to Lincoln Northeast when the Trojans were leading by five with the ball and a couple minutes left in the game. Tech was called for an offensive foul, but instead of Northeast merely getting possession, they were incorrectly awarded a one-in-one free throw chance, which sent Mosser into a tirade. “The rule had just come in where if you had the ball and committed a foul, then the other team takes it out of bounds. They don’t get to shoot,” said Mosser. “So, when I saw them shooting a one-in-one, I just raised hell and they called a technical on me. Northeast made both free throws, plus the technical. They took the ball out of bounds, threw it back in and scored, and the game was tied without the Goddamned clock even running.”

Worse yet, after regaining the lead with just over a minute to go Tech’s go-to-guy, Joe Williams, was ejected after retaliating to some rough tactics inside. Mosser said, “he had guys hanging all over him and he swung an elbow, and they kicked my star black player out for fighting. Well, it takes two to fight. You don’t just kick one guy out of the game. Oh, yeah, they really screwed us.” Mosser lodged the usual complaints over the controversial calls, which made headlines for weeks. Referees even came out in the paper saying “they called the plays completely wrong,” Mosser said. “They all knew I was right, but they couldn’t do anything about it.” Ironically, Mosser was later put in charge of all officials in Omaha.

Mosser and Tech got a measure of revenge when his 1963 Trojan team, widely viewed as the best in Nebraska prep history, swept to the state title by such big margins that any hanky-panky by officials’ made no difference.

The star of that ‘63 club was Fred Hare, yet little-used reserve Ron Boone earned more lasting fame. Boone cracked the starting lineup as a senior, but he was given no hope of playing major college ball due to his size — 5-8 and 140-pounds. He played a year of juco ball at Clarinda (Iowa) Community College, where his stellar play and dramatic growth spurt saw him blossom into a strapping 6’2” physical specimen with major college prospect etched all over him. Mosser turned Idaho State University head coach Claude Retherford, a teammate and roommate of his at NU, onto Boone. Retherford signed him unseen. The rest is history. Boone developed into a college star and iron man of the ABA and NBA.

 

 

Fred Hare
Ron Boone

 

 

It wasn’t the first or last time Mosser looked out for his players. “I did a little bit for every one of ‘em,” he said, “but I did more for Ron Boone than for any other kid I ever had.” Boone appreciates Mosser’s influence. “He was very, very fair. Even after I became a professional, I would go up to Tech and he would let me in the gym to work out.” Over the years, Mosser’s kept in touch with his stars and lesser-knowns and regards former players like Bill King and Bob Gibson as good friends.

Mosser’s influence extended to the playing ops he gave neighborhood kids on the full-size court he built in the back yard of his family’s north Omaha house and the annual basketball school/camp he conducted for promising young talent.

The Mosser hoops legacy continues. Neal’s four sons all played ball. Jerry played for Pops at Tech. All four have coached. Grandson Mitch, a former Nebraska Wesleyan NAIA All-American, is a current assistant men’s hoops coach at UNO.

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty, Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning


I first met up with Curlee Alexander for the following story, which appeared about eight years ago as part of my series on Omaha Black Sports Legends titled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. Alexander was a top-flight collegiate wrestler for his hometown University of Nebraska at Omaha but he really made his mark as a high school coach, leading his teams to state championships at two different schools – his alma mater Technical (Tech) High School and North High School.  He is inducted in multiple athletic hall of fames.  Then, about three years ago I caught up with him again in working on a profile of his younger cousin Houston Alexander, a mixed martial arts fighter Curlee trains.  You can find on this blog most every installment from the Out to Win series as well as that profile I did on Houston Alexander.  More recently yet Curlee came to mind when I did a piece on the 1970 NAIA championship UNO wrestling team he helped coach as a graduate assistant and that he helped lay the foundation for as a wrestler under coach Don Benning.  You’ll find that story and a profile of Benning, who is one of Alexander’s chief mentors, on this blog.  The UNO wrestling program made a great impact on the sport locally, regionally, and nationally but sadly the program was eliminated a year and a half ago and now the legacy built by Alexander, Benning, and later Mike Denney and Co. can only found in record books and memories and news files.  My story about the end of the program is also featured on this blog.

 

 

 

 

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty, Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Short in stature and sleek of build, Curlee Alexander still manages casting a huge shadow in Nebraska wrestling circles even though the largely retired educator is now a co-head coach. Seven times as head coach he led his prep teams to state championships, six at Omaha North and one at Omaha Tech. Twice, his North squads were state runners-up. Four more times his Vikings finished third. Dozens of his athletes won individual state titles, including three by his son Curlee Alexander Jr., and many had successful college careers on and off the mat.

In the wrestling room, Alexander’s word is law because his athletes know this former collegiate national champion wrestler once made the same sacrifice he asked of them. Following an undistinguished high school wrestling career at Omaha Tech, his persistence in the sport paid off when he blossomed into a four-time All-American for then-Omaha University. UNO wrestling’s rise to prominence under coach Don Benning was rewarded when the team won the 1970 NAIA team title and Alexander took the 115-pound individual title in the process.

Like most ex-wrestlers, Alexander’s keeps in tip-top shape and, even pushing 60, he still demonstrates some of his coaching points on the mat with his own wrestlers — going body to body with guys less than a third his age and often outweighing him. In the old days, he pushed guys to the limit and, in wrestling vernacular, “beat up on ‘em,” to see how they responded. It was all about testing their toughness and their heart. It’s the way he came up.

Proving himself has been the theme of Alexander’s life. He grew up in a north Omaha neighborhood, near the old Hilltop Projects, filled with fine athletes. Being a pint-sized after-thought who “was always trying to catch up” to the other guys in the hood, he searched for a sport he could shine in. “I was small and weak and slow. I had to start from scratch to develop my athletic skills,” he said. “Wrestling was about the only thing I could do and I was really not very good.” To begin with.

 

 

Curlee Alexander

 

 

He learned the sport from Tech coach Milt Hearn. In classic apprentice fashion, he started at the bottom and worked his way up. “When he got me started wrestling, I was used as a doormat,” Alexander said. “All I was required to do was save the team points by not getting pinned. If I could do that, than I did my job. As a junior, I got beat out by two freshmen. I was always fighting an uphill battle. I could never let up. I could never be comfortable. I knew I had to work hard. I knew I had to work harder than most of ‘em just to be successful.” Despite this less than promising debut, Alexander said he “kept getting after it. I started buying a lot of weight training-body building books and started weight lifting. By the time I got to be a senior I didn’t wrestle anybody that was any stronger than me. I finished second in every tournament I entered my senior year. I never won a championship in high school. The first championship I won was when I reached college.”

Sparking his evolution from designated mop-up guy to legitimate contender was the motivation others gave him. “I had a lot of good role models, one of which was my father. He always preached athletics to us.” Where his father encouraged him, his brother dis’d him. “My brother was a much better athlete than I was, so I was always trying to do things, more or less, to impress him. I’d come home after losing and my brother would make comments like, ‘I knew you weren’t going to win,’ and so I picked up the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude. I was never the athlete he was, but I accomplished a lot more in the athletic arena than he ever dreamed of.”

Then there were the studs he grew up with in the hood, guys like Ron Boone, Dick Davis, Joe Orduna and Phil Wise, all of whom went onto college and pro sports careers. If that wasn’t motivation enough to hurry up and make his own mark, there were the reminders he got from friend and Omaha U. classmate Marlin Briscoe, who was making a name for himself in small college football. “I tried out for the wrestling team and there was a returning wrestler who beat me out. I saw Marlin at the student center and he asked, ‘How’d you do?’ I told him I got beat by this guy and he said, ‘Man, that guy’s no good…he got beat all the time last year.’” And that guy never beat me again. All I needed to hear were little things like that.”

Fast forward a few years later to Alexander’s national semi-final match in Superior, Wis. His opponent had him in a good lock and was preparing to turn him when Alexander recalled something former Tech High teammate, Ralph Crawford, told him about the winning edge. “He told me, with emphasis, ‘Give him nothing,’ and because of that little inspiration I knew I had a little extra to do, and it made a difference in my winning that match and going on to be a national champion.”

There was also the example set by his UNO teammates, Roy and Mel Washington, a pair of brothers who won five individual national titles (three by Roy and two by Mel) between them. “Probably the one I learned the most from, as far as determination, was the late Roy Washington,” who later changed his name to Dahfir Muhammad. He was just a great leader. Phenomenal. I watched him. Everything he did I tried to do and it made all the difference in the world. He knew how to work. He knew what it took. He just refused to get beat. He was real mentally tough,” Alexander said. “If you’re weak-minded, you can forget it.”

Finally, there’s Don Benning, whom Alexander credits for giving him the opportunity and direction to make something of himself. “He’s the reason I have a college degree and was able to go on and teach and coach for 30-odd years. He gave me a chance where I had no other chance,” he said. “He made you believe you could achieve. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve nearly as much success if I hadn’t been under his tutelage. As far as coaching, I basically followed his philosophy. Hard work. Refuse to lose. Being the best on your feet. I built on that foundation.”

Surrounded by superb tacticians, Alexander drew on this rich vein of knowledge, as well as his own from-the-bottom-to-the-top experience as a wrestler, to inform his coaching. “I took a little bit from everybody and applied it. In dealing with kids I tell them I know what it’s like to be weak and not have any athletic ability, and yet go to the top. I teach kids what they need to do in order to improve, to stay dedicated, to be successful and to be champions. What I strive to do as a coach is lead by example. I work out with them to show I’m not afraid to work.”

Much like Benning, whom he coached under as a graduate assistant, Alexander doesn’t try fitting athletes into a box. He lets them develop their own style. “If I’ve got a kid who’s got some decent ability I don’t tell him he’s got to wrestle this way or that way. We try to get what he’s got and improve on it and try to impress upon him to keep working until he understands what it takes to be a champion.”

 

 

photo
A UNO wrestling practice back in the day, ©UNO Criss Library

photo

A young Curlee Alexander in his UNO wrestling singlet, ©UNO Criss Library

 

 

Champions. He’s coached numerous team and individual titlists. As satisfying as the team wins are, he said, they “don’t compare to the individual ones. The kids put so much effort into it.” He said a coach must be a master motivator to figure out what makes each individual tick. “All the time, I’m looking for angles to get into a kid’s head to get him to believe,” he said. “What separates a lot of coaches is getting those kids to believe your philosophy is correct. It boils down to being able to communicate and to have kids want to succeed for you and themselves.”

He makes clear he expects nothing less than champions. “I’ve got a lot of guys that have placed at state, but if they didn’t win a state championship, their picture does not go up on the wall in my office. That might be kind of harsh, but it’s reality. That’s what we’re trying to get our kids to strive for and win. Championships are what it’s all about.” He said his favorite moments come from kids who aren’t talented, yet get it done anyway and claim a championship that lasts a lifetime. North High heavyweight Brandon Johnson is an example. “He wasn’t really a good athlete. Overweight. He had to cut down to 275. But he was a hard worker and he had a big heart,” Alexander said. “And, boy, when he won state in 2001, I had tears in my eyes for the first time. I didn’t even cry when my son won, because it was understood he was going to win. But with this guy, it really wasn’t expected. It was just a culmination of all the hard work he gave.”

The hardest part of coaching is seeing “kids do all that hard work and then, when they get right there to the doorstep” of a championship, “they don’t win it.”

The heralded prep coach began as an assistant at Tech, whose wrestling program he took over in the mid’70s. He remained at Tech until it closed in 1984, when he went to North, where he’s remained until retiring from teaching full-time in 2002. The next year he stepped down as head coach to serve as associate head coach and lately he’s added Dean of Students to his duties. As co-head coach, he’s freed himself from all the red-tape to just work with the wrestlers. When his mentor, Don Benning, recently expressed surprise at how much passion Alexander still has for the sport, the former student replied, “I still enjoy it. I enjoy the strategy. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy working with the kids. They keep you young.” He said matching Xs and Os with coaches during a match never gets old. “I really think I’m very good at it and, boy, when I’m successful at it, it’s exhilarating.”

Alexander’s been a pioneer in much the same way Don Benning was at UNO in the ‘60s and Charles Bryant was at Abraham Lincoln High School (Council Bluffs) in the ‘70s. Each man became the first black head coach at their predominantly white schools, where they established wrestling dynasties. In more than 75 years of competition, Alexander is the only black head coach in Nebraska to lead his team to a state wrestling title (and he’s done it at two different schools). Along the way, he built a dynasty at North, which in all the years previous to his arrival had won but a single state wrestling championship. He had six as head coach. Through it all, he’s defied expectations and overturned stereotypes by doing it his way.

 

 

Houston Alexander

 

 

Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

April 10, 2012 3 comments

 

Here is the closing installment from my 2004-2005 series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.   In this and in the recently posted opening installment I try laying out the scope of achievements that distinguishes this group of athletes, the way that sports provided advancement opportunities for these individuals that may otherwise have eluded them, and the close-knit cultural and community bonds that enveloped the neighborhoods they grew up in.  It was a pleasure doing the series and getting to meet legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale SayersRon Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, et cetera.  I learned a lot working on the project, mostly an appreciation for these athletes’ individual and collective achievements.  You’ll find most every installment from the series on this blog, including profiles of the athletes and coaches I interviewed for the project.  The remaining installments not posted yet soon will be.

 

 

Don Benning

 

 

Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Appreciation of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Any consideration of Omaha’s inner city athletic renaissance from the 1950s through the 1970s must address how so many accomplished sports figures, including some genuine legends, sprang from such a small place over so short a span of time and why seemingly fewer premier athletes come out of the hood today. As with African-American urban centers elsewhere, Omaha’s inner city core saw black athletes come to the fore, like other minority groups did before them, in using sports as an outlet for self-expression and as a gateway to more opportunity.

As part of an ongoing OWR series exploring Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, this installment looks at the conditions and attitudes that once gave rise to a singular culture of athletic achievement here that is less prevalent in the current feel-good, anything-goes environment of plenty and World Wide Web connectivity.

The legends and fellow ex-jocks interviewed for this series mostly agree on the reasons why smaller numbers of youths these days possess the right stuff. It’s not so much a lack of athletic ability, observers say, but a matter of fewer kids willing to pay the price in an age when sports is not the only option for advancement. The contention is that, on average, kids are neither prepared nor inclined to make the commitment and sacrifice necessary to realize, much less pursue, their athletic potential when less demanding avenues to success abound.

“Kids today are changed — their attitudes about authority and everything else,” says Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, an Omaha Tech High grad who grew up in the late’40s-early ‘50s under the stern but steady hand of coaches like his older brother, Josh. “They’re like, I’m not going to let somebody tell me what to do, where we had no problem with that in our day.”

 

Bob Gibson
Josh Gibson

 

 

 

 

Gibson says coaches like Josh, a bona fide legend on the north side, used to be viewed as an extension of the family, serving, “first of all,” as “a father figure,” or as Clarence Mercer, a top Tech swimmer, puts it, as “a big brother,” providing discipline and direction to that era’s at-risk kids, many from broken homes.

Josh Gibson, along with other strong blacks working as coaches, physical education instructors and youth recreation directors in that era, including Marty Thomas, John Butler, Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, are recalled as superb leaders and builders of young people. All had a hand in shaping Omaha’s sports legends of the hood, but perhaps none more so than Gibson, who, from the 1940s until the 1960s, coached touring baseball-basketball teams out of the North Omaha Y. “Josh was instrumental in training most of these guys. He was into children, and into developing children. He carried a lot of respect. If you cursed or if you didn’t do what he wanted you to do or you didn’t make yourself a better person, than you couldn’t play for him,” says John Nared, a late ‘50s-early ’60s Central High-NU hoops star who played under Gibson on the High Y Monarchs and High Y Travelers. “He didn’t want you running around doing what bad kids did. When you came to the YMCA, you were darn near a model child because Josh knew your mother and father and he kept his finger on the pulse. When you got in trouble at the Y, you got in trouble at home.”

Old-timers note a sea change in the way youths are handled today, especially the lack of discipline that parents and coaches seem unwilling or unable to instill in kids. “You see young girls walking around with their stuff hanging out and boys bagging it with their pants around their ankles. In our time, there were certain things you had to do and it was enforced from your family right on down,” says Milton Moore, a track man at Central in the late ‘50s.

The biggest difference between then and now, says former three-sport Tech star and longtime North Omaha Boys Club coach Lonnie McIntosh, is the disconnected, permissive way youths grow up. Where, in the past, he says, kids could count on a parent or aunt or neighbor always being home, youths today are often on their own, in a latchkey home, isolated in their own little worlds of self-indulgence.

“What’s missing is a sense of family. People living on the same street may not even know each other. Parents may not know who their kids are running with. In our day, we all knew each other. We were a family. We would walk to school together. Although we competed hard against one another, we all pulled for one another. Our parents knew where we were,” McIntosh says.

“There were no discipline problems with young people in those days,” Mercer adds somewhat apocryphally.

Former Central athlete Jim Morrison says there isn’t the cohesion of the past. “The near north side was a community then. The word community means people are of one mind and one accord and they commune together.” “There’s no such thing as a black community anymore,” adds John Nared. “The black community is spread out. Kids are everywhere. Economics plays a part in this. A lot of mothers don’t have husbands and can’t afford to buy their kids the athletic shoes to play hoops or to send their kids to basketball camps. Some of the kids are selling drugs. They don’t want a future. We wanted to make something out of our lives because we didn’t want to disappoint our parents.”

 

 

 

Omaha Technical High School
Omaha Central High School

 

 

 

 

The close communion of days gone by, says Nared, played out in many ways. Young blacks were encouraged to stay on track by an extended, informal support system operating in the hood. “The near north side was a very small community then…so small that everybody knew each other.” In what was the epitome of the it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child concept, he says the hood was a community within a community where everybody looked out for everybody else and where, decades before the Million Man March, strong black men took a hand in steering young black males. He fondly recalls a gallery of mentors along North 24th Street.

“Oh, we had a bunch of role models. John Butler, who ran the YMCA. Josh Gibson. Bob Gibson. Bob Boozer. Curtis Evans, who ran the Tuxedo Pool Hall. Hardy “Beans” Meeks, who ran the shoe shine parlor. Mr. (Marcus “Mac”) McGee and Mr. (James) Bailey who ran the Tuxedo Barbershop. All of these guys had influence in my life. All of ‘em. And it wasn’t just about sports. It was about developing me. Mr. Meenks gave a lot of us guys jobs. In the morning, when I’d come around the corner to go to school, these gentlemen would holler out the door, ‘You better go up there and learn something today.’ or ‘When you get done with school, come see me.’

“Let me give you an example. Curtis Evans, who ran the pool hall, would tell me to come by after school. ‘So, I’d…come by, and he’d have a pair of shoes to go to the shoe shine parlor and some shirts to go to the laundry, and he’d give me two dollars. Mr. Bailey used to give me free haircuts…just to talk. ‘How ya doin’ in school? You got some money in your pocket?’ I didn’t realize what they were doing until I got older. They were keeping me out of trouble. Giving me some lunch money so I could go to school and make something of myself. It was about developing young men. They took the time.”

Beyond shopkeepers, wise counsel came from Charles Washington, a reporter-activist with a big heart, and Bobby Fromkin, a flashy lawyer with a taste for the high life. Each sports buff befriended many athletes. Washington opened his humble home, thin wallet and expansive mind to everyone from Ron Boone to Johnny Rodgers, who says he “learned a lot from him about helping the community.” In hanging with Fromkin, Rodgers says he picked-up his sense of “style” and “class.”

 

Marcus “Mac” McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop operated in the Jewell Building on North 24th

 

 

 

Super athletes like Nared got special attention from these wise men who, following the African-American tradition of — “each one, to teach one” — recognized that if these young pups got good grades their athletic talent could take them far — maybe to college. In this way, sports held the promise of rich rewards. “The reason why most blacks in that era played sports is that in school then the counselors talked about what jobs were available for you and they were saying, ‘You’ll be a janitor,’ or something like that. There weren’t too many job opportunities for blacks. And so you started thinking about playing sports as a way to get to college and get a better job,” Nared says.

Growing up at a time when blacks were denied equal rights and afforded few chances, Bob Gibson and his crew saw athletics as a means to an end. “Oh, yeah, because otherwise you didn’t really have a lot to look forward to after you got out of school,” he says. “The only black people you knew of that went anywhere were athletes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson or entertainers.” Bob had to look no further than his older brother, Josh, to see how doors were closed to minorities. The holder of a master’s degree in education as well as a sterling reputation as a coach, Josh could still not get on with the Omaha Public Schools as a high school teacher-coach due to prevailing hiring policies then.

“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s the racial climate was such we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” says Marlin Briscoe, the Omaha South High School grad who made small college All-America at then-Omaha University and went on to be the NFL’s first black quarterback. “We were told, ‘You can’t do anything with your life other than work in the packing house.’ We grew up seeing on TV black people getting hosed down and clubbed and bitten by dogs and not being able to go to school. So, sports became a way to better ourselves and hopefully bypass the packing house and go to college.”

 

John Nared
Marlin Briscoe
Ron Boone

 

 

 

Besides, Nared, says, it wasn’t like there was much else for black youths to do. “Back when we were coming up we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that. The only joy we could have was beating somebody’s ass in sports. One basketball would entertain 10 people. One football would entertain 22 people. It was very competitive, too. In the neighborhood, everybody had talent. We played every day, too. So, you honed in on your talents when you did it every day. That’s why we produced great athletes.”

With the advent of so many more activities and advantages, Gibson says contemporary blacks inhabit a far richer playing ground than he and his buddies ever had, leaving sports only one of many options. “In our time, if you wanted to get ahead and to get away from the ghetto or the projects, you were going to be an athlete, but I don’t know if that’s been the same since then. I think kids’ interests are other places now. There’s all kinds of other stuff to think about and there’s all kinds of other problems they have that we never had. They can do a lot of things that we couldn’t do back then or didn’t even think of doing.”

Milton Moore adds, “It used to be you couldn’t be everything you were, but you could be a baseball player or you could be a football player. Now, you can be anything you want to be. Kids have more opportunities, along with distractions.”

Ron Boone, an Omaha Tech grad who went to become the iron man of pro hoops by playing in all 1,041 games of his combined 13-year ABA-NBA career, finds irony in the fact that with the proliferation of strength training programs and basketball camps “the opportunities to become very good players are better now than they were for us back then,” yet there are fewer guys today who can “flat out play.” He says this seeming contradiction may be explained by less intense competition now than what he experienced back in the day, when everyone with an ounce of game wanted to show their stuff and use it as a steppingstone.

If not for the athletic scholarships they received, many black sports stars of the past would simply not have gone on to college because they were too poor to even try. In the case of Bob Gibson, his talent on the diamond and on the basketball court landed him at Creighton University, where Josh did his graduate work.

By the time Briscoe and company came along in the early ‘60s, they made role models of figures like Gibson and fellow Tech hoops star Bob Boozer, who parlayed their athletic talent into college educations and pro sports careers. “When Boozer went to Kansas State and Gibson to Creighton, that next generation — my generation — started thinking, If I can get good enough…I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom. That’s the way all of us thought, and it just so happened some of us had the ability to go to the next level.”

Young athletes of the inner city still use sports as an entry to college. The talent pool may or may not be what it was in urban Omaha’s heyday but, if not, than it’s likely because many kids have more than just sports to latch onto now, not because they can’t play. At inner city schools, blacks continue to make up a disproportionately high percentage of the starters in the two major team sports — football and basketball. The one major team sport that’s seen a huge drop-off in participation by blacks is baseball, a near extinct sport in urban America the past few decades due to the high cost of equipment, the lack of playing fields and the perception of the game as a slow, uncool, old-fashioned, tradition-bound bore.

Carl Wright, a football-track athlete at Tech in the ‘50s and a veteran youth coach with the Boys Club and North High, sees good and bad in the kids he still works with today. “There’s a big change in these kids now. I’ll tell a kid, ‘Take a lap,’ and he’ll go, ‘I don’t want to take no lap,’ and he’ll go home and not look back. I’ve seen kids with talent that can never get to practice on time, so I kick them off the team and it doesn’t mean anything to them. They’ve got so much talent, but they don’t exploit it. They don’t use it, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.”

On the other hand, he says, most kids still respond to discipline when it’s applied. “I know one thing, you can tell a kid, no, and he’ll respect you. You just tell him that word, when everybody else is telling him, yes, and they get to feeling, Well, he cares about me, and they start falling into place. There’s really some good kids out there, but they just need guidance. Tough love.”

Tough love. That was the old-school way. A strict training regimen, a heavy dose of fundamentals, a my-way-or-the-highway credo and a close-knit community looking out for kids’ best interests. It worked, too. It still works today, only kids now have more than sports to use as their avenue to success.

 

 

 

 

 

Gale Sayers
 Bob Boozer
Johnny Rodgers

Opening Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

April 10, 2012 6 comments

Here is the opening installment from my 2004-2005 series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.  Look for the closing installment  in a separate post.  In these two pieces I try laying out the scope of achievements that distinguishes this group of athletes, the way that sports provided advancement opportunities for these individuals that may otherwise have eluded them, and the close-knit cultural and community bonds that enveloped the neighborhoods they grew up in.  It was a pleasure doing the series and getting to meet legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, et cetera.  I learned a lot working on the project, mostly an appreciation for these athletes’ individual and collective achievements. You’ll find most every installment from the series on this blog, including profiles of the athletes and coaches I interviewed for the project.  The remaining installments not posted yet soon will be.

 

 

Bob Gibson photographed by Walter Iooss/SI, ©sportsillustrated.cnn.com

 

 

Opening Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s African American community has produced a heritage rich in achievement across many fields, but none more dramatic than in sports, Despite a comparatively small populace, black Omaha rightly claims a legacy of athletic excellence in the form of legends who’ve achieved greatness at many levels, in a variety of sports, over many eras.

These athletes aren’t simply neighborhood or college legends – their legacies loom large. Each is a compelling story in the grand tale of Omaha’s inner city, both north and south. The list includes: Bob Gibson, a major league baseball Hall of Famer. Bob Boozer, a member of Olympic gold medal and NBA championship teams. NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers. Pro hoops “iron man” Ron Boone. Champion wrestling coach Don Benning

“Some phenomenal athletic accomplishments have come out of here, and no one’s ever really tied it all together. It’s a huge story. Not only did these athletes come out of here and play, they lasted a long time and they made significant contributions to a diversity of college and professional sports,” said Briscoe, a Southside product. “I mean, per capita, there’s probably never been this many quality athletes to come out of one neighborhood.”

An astounding concentration of athletic prowess emerged in a few square miles roughly bounded north to south, from Ames Avenue to Lake Street, and east to west from about 16th to 36th. Across town, in south Omaha, a smaller but no less distinguished group came of age.

“You just had a wealth of talent then,” said Lonnie McIntosh, a teammate of Gibson and Boozer at Tech High.

Many inner city athletes resided in public housing projects. Before school desegregation dispersed students citywide, blacks attended one of four public high schools – North, Tech, Central or South. It was a small world.

During a Golden Era from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, all manner of brilliant talents, including future all-time greats, butted heads and rubbed shoulders on the same playing fields and courts of their youth, pushing each other to new heights. It was a time when youths competed in several sports instead of specializing in one.

“In those days, everybody did everything,” said McIntosh, who participated in football, basketball and track.

Bob Boozer, photo ©L.A. Times

 

 

Many were friends, schoolmates and neighbors, often living within a few doors or blocks of each other. It was an insular, intense, tight-knit athletic community that formed a year-round training camp, proving ground and mutual admiration society all rolled into one.

“In the inner city, we basically marveled at each other’s abilities. There were a lot of great ballplayers. All the inner city athletes were always playing ball, all day long and all night long,” said Boozer, the best player not in the college hoops hall of fame. “Man, that was a breeding ground. We encouraged each other and rooted for each other. Some of the older athletes worked with young guys like me and showed us different techniques. It was all about making us better ballplayers.”

NFL legend Gale Sayers said, “No doubt about it, we fed off one another. We saw other people doing well and we wanted to do just as well.”

The older legends inspired legends-to-be like Briscoe.

“We’d hear great stories about these guys and their athletic abilities and as young players we wanted to step up to that level,” he said “They were older and successful, and as little kids we looked up to those guys and wanted to emulate them and be a part of the tradition and the reputation that goes with it.”

The impact of the older athletes on the youngsters was considerable.

“When Boozer went to Kansas State and Gibson to Creighton, that next generation – my generation – started thinking, ‘If I can get good enough, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom‚’” Briscoe said. “That’s the way all of us thought, and it just so happened some of us had the ability to go to the next level.”

Marlin Briscoe

 

 

With that next level came a new sense of possibility for younger athletes.

“It got to the point where we didn’t think anything was impossible,” Johnny Rodgers said. “It was all possible. It was almost supposed to happen. We were like, If they did it, we can do it, too. We were all in this thing together.”

In the ’50s and ’60s, two storied tackle football games in the hood, the annual Turkey and Cold Bowls, were contested at Burdette Field over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Drawing players of all ages, they were no-pads, take-no-prisoners rumbles where adolescent prodigies like Gale Sayers and Johnny Rodgers competed against grown men in an athletic milieu rich with past, present and future stars.

“They let us play ball with them because we were good enough to play,” Rodgers said. “None of us were known nationally then. It really was gratifying as the years went on to see how guys went on and did something.”

When Rodgers gained national prominence, he sensed kids “got the same experience seeing me as I got seeing those legends.”

Johnny Rodgers

 

 

Among the early legends that Rodgers idolized was Bob Gibson. Gibson gives Omaha a special sports cachét. He’s the real thing — a major league baseball Hall of Famer, World Series hero and Cy Young Award winner. The former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher was among the most dominant hurlers, intense competitors and big game performers who ever played. Jim Morrison, a teammate on the High Y Monarchs coached by Bob’s brother, Josh, recalled how strong Gibson was.

“He threw so hard, we called it a radio ball. You couldn’t see it coming. You just heard it.”

Morrison said Gibson exhibited his famous ferocity early on.

“On the sideline, Bob could be sweet as honey, but when he got on the mound you were in big trouble. I don’t care who you were, you were in big trouble,” he said.

Gibson was also a gifted basketball player, as Boozer, a teammate for a short time at Tech and with the Travelers, attested.

“He was a finer basketball player than baseball player. He could play. He could get up and hang,” Boozer said.

Gibson starred on the court for the hometown Creighton University Bluejays, then played with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year, but it was only after being denied a chance with the NBA that he made baseball his life. Gibson’s all-around athleticism and fierce game face was aided and abetted by his older brother, Josh, a formidable man and coach who groomed many of Omaha’s top athletes from the inner city.

Bob Gibson may be The Man, but Josh was a legend in his own time as a coach of touring youth teams (the Monarchs and Travelers) out of North Omaha’s YMCA.

“He was a terrific coach. If you were anything in athletics, you played for those teams under Josh Gibson,” Boozer said.

Others agreed.

“Josh was the one that guys like myself looked up to,” said Ron Boone. Jim Morrison said Josh had “the ability to elicit the best out of young potential stars. He started with the head down, not the body up. He taught you how to compete by teaching the fundamentals. It’s obvious it worked because his brother went on to be a great, great athlete.”

Josh Gibson is part of a long line of mentors, black and white, who strongly affected inner city athletes. Others included Logan Fontenelle rec center director Marty Thomas, the North O Y’s John Butler, Woodson Center director Alice Wilson, Bryant Center director John Nared and coaches Bob Rose of Howard Kennedy School, Neal Mosser of Tech, Frank Smagacz of Central, Cornie Collin of South, Carl Wright and Lonnie McIntosh of the North O Boys Club, Richard Nared and Co. with the Midwest Striders track program, Forest Roper with the Hawkettes hoops program, Petie Allen with the Omaha Softball Association, and Joe Edmonson of the Exploradories Wrestling Club. Each commanded respect, instilled discipline and taught basics.

Mosser, Tech’s fiery head hoops coach for much of the ‘50s and ‘60s, coached Boozer and Gibson along with such notables as Fred Hare, whom Boone calls “one of the finest high school basketball players you’d ever want to see,” Bill King and Joe Williams. A hard but fair man, Mosser defied bigoted fans and biased officials to play black athletes ahead of whites.

“Neal Mosser fought a tremendous battle for a lot of us minority kids,” McIntosh said. “He and Cornie Collin. At that time, you never had five black kids on the basketball court at the same time.”

But they did, including a famous 1954 Tech-South game when all 10 kids on the court were black.

“Their jobs were on the line, too,” McIntosh said of the two coaches.

Wherever they live, athletes will always hear about a real comer to the local scene. Like when Josh Gibson’s little brother, Bob, began making a name for himself in hoops.

The buzz was, “This kid can really jump, man,” Lonnie McIntosh recalled. “He had to duck his head to dunk.”  But nobody could hang like Marion Hudson, an almost mythic-like figure from The Hood who excelled in soccer, baseball, football, basketball and track and field.  Former Central High athlete Richard Nared said, “Marion was only 6’0, but he’d jump center, and go up and get it every time.  The ref would say, ‘You’re jumping too quick,’ and Marion would respond, ‘No, you need to throw the ball higher.'”

Admirers and challengers go to look over or call out the young studs. Back in the day, the proving grounds for such showcases and showdowns included Kountze Park, Burdette Field, the North O YMCA, the Logan Fontenelle rec center, the Kellom Center and the Woodson Center. Later, the Bryant Center on North 24th became the place to play for anyone with game, Boone said.

“I mean, the who’s-who was there. We had teams from out west come down there to play. There was a lot of competition.”

Black Omaha flourished as a hot bed of talent in football, basketball, baseball and track and field. At a time when blacks had few options other than a high school degree and a minimum-wage job, and even fewer leisure opportunities, athletics provided an escape, an activity, a gateway. In this highly charged arena, youths proved themselves not by gang violence but through athletic competition. Blacks gravitated to sports as a way out and step up. Athletics were even as a mode of rebellion against a system that shackled them. Athletic success allowed minority athletes to say, oh, yes, I can.

“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s the racial climate was such we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” said Briscoe. “In that era, we didn’t get into sports with that pipe dream of being a professional athlete. Mainly, it was a rite of passage to respect and manhood. We were told, ‘You can’t do anything with your life other than work in the packing house.’ We grew up seeing on TV black people getting hosed down and clubbed and bitten by dogs and not being able to go to school. So sports became a way to better ourselves and hopefully bypass the packing house and go to college.”

Gale Sayers

 

 

Richard Nared, a former track standout at Central, said speed was the main barometer by which athletic ability was gauged.

“Mostly, all the guys had speed. You were chosen that way to play. The guys that were the best and fastest were picked first,” he said.

Toughness counted for something, too, but speed was always the separating factor.

“You had to be able to fight a little bit, too. But, yeah, you had to be fast. You were a second class citizen if you couldn’t run,” Bob Gibson said.

And second class wasn’t good in such a highly competitive community.

“The competition was so strong Bob Boozer did not make the starting five on the freshman basketball team I played on at Tech,” Jim Morrison said.

It was so strong that Gale Sayers was neither the fastest athlete at Central nor at home, owing to older brother Roger, an elite American sprinter who once beat The Human Bullet, Bob Hayes. Their brother, Ron, who played for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, may also have been faster than Gale.

The competition was so strong that Ron Boone, who went on to a storied college and pro hoops career could not crack Tech’s starting lineup until a senior.

Bob Boozer, remembered today as a sweet-shooting, high-scoring, big-rebounding All-America power forward at Kansas State and a solid journeyman in the NBA, did not start out a polished player. But he holds the rare distinction of winning both Olympic gold as a member of the U.S. squad at the 1960 Rome Games, and an NBA championship ring as 6th man for the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks.

Boozer showed little promise early on. After a prodigious growth spurt of some six inches between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Boozer was an ungainly, timid giant.

“I couldn’t walk, chew gum and cross the street at the same time without tripping,” he said.

Hoping to take advantage of his new height, Boozer enlisted John Nared, a friend and star at arch-rival Central, and Lonnie McIntosh, a teammate at Tech, to help his coordination, conditioning, skills and toughness catch up to his height.

“Lonnie was always a physical fitness buff. He would work me out as far as strength and agility drills,” Boozer recalled. “And John was probably one of the finest athletes to ever come out of Omaha. He was a pure basketball player. John and I would go one-on-one. He was 6’3. Strong as a bull. I couldn’t take him in the paint. I had to do everything from a forward position. And, man, we used to have some battles.”

Boozer dominated Nebraska prep ball the next two years and, in college, led the KSU Wildcats to national glory. When Boozer prepared to enter the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals, he again called-on Nared’s help and credits their one-on-one tussles with teaching him how to play against smaller, quicker foes. The work paid off, too, as Boozer became a 20-point per game scorer and all-star with the Chicago Bulls.

Around the time Boozer made a name for himself in the NBA, Don Benning took over then-Omaha U.’s lowly wrestling program. He was the first black head coach at a predominantly white university. Within a few years, Benning , a North High and UNO grad who competed in football and wrestling, built the program into the perennial power it remains today. He guided his 1969-70 squad to a national NAIA team championship, perhaps the first major team title won by a Nebraska college. His indomitable will led a diverse mix of student-athletes to success while his strong character steered them, in the face of racism, to a higher ground.

After turning down big-time coaching offers, Benning retired from athletics in his early 30s to embark on a career in educational administration with Omaha Public Schools, where he displayed the same leadership and integrity he did as a coach.

The Central High pipeline of prime-time running backs got its start with Roger and Gale Sayers. Of all the Eagle backs that followed, including Joe Orduna, Keith “End Zone” Jones, Leodis Flowers, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green and David Horne, none quite dazzled the way Gale Sayers did. He brandished unparalleled cutting ability as an All-American running back and kick returner at Kansas University and, later, for the Chicago Bears. As a pro, he earned Rookie of the Year, All-Pro and Hall of Fame honors.

Often overlooked was Gale’s older but smaller brother, Roger, perhaps the fastest man ever to come out of the state. For then-Omaha U. he was an explosive halfback-receiver-kick returner, setting several records that still stand, and a scorching sprinter on the track, winning national collegiate and international events. When injuries spoiled his Olympic bid and his size ruled out the NFL, he left athletics for a career in city government and business.

 

 

Ron Boone

 

 

Ron Boone went from being a short, skinny role player at Tech to a chiseled 6’2 star guard at Idaho State University, where his play brought him to the attention of pro scouts. Picking the brash, upstart ABA over the staid, traditional NBA, Boone established himself as an all-around gamer. He earned the title “iron man” for never missing a single contest in his combined 13-year ABA-NBA career that included a title with the Utah Stars. His endurance was no accident, either, but rather the result of an unprecedented work ethic he still takes great pride in.

Marlin Briscoe was already a pioneer when he made small college All-America as a black quarterback at mostly white Omaha U., but took his trailblazing to a new level as the NFL’s first black QB. Pulled from cornerback duty to assume the signal calling for the Denver Broncos in the last half of his 1968 rookie season, he played big. But the real story is how this consummate athlete responded when, after exhibiting the highly mobile, strong-armed style now standard for today’s black QBs, he never got another chance behind center. Traded to Buffalo, he made himself into a receiver and promptly made All-Pro. After a trade to Miami, he became a key contributor at wideout to the Dolphins two Super Bowl winning teams, including the perfect 17-0 club in 1972. His life after football has been a similar roller-coaster ride, but he’s adapted and survived.

Finally, there is the king of bling-bling, Johnny Rodgers, the flamboyant Nebraska All-American, Heisman Trophy winner and College Football Hall of Fame inductee. Voted Husker Player of the Century and still regarded as one of the most exciting, inventive broken field runners, Rodgers is seemingly all about style, not substance. Yet, in his quiet, private moments, he speaks humbly about the mysteries and burdens of his gift and the disappointment that injuries denied him a chance to strut his best stuff in the NFL.

Other, less famous sports figures had no less great an impact, from old-time football stars like Charles Bryant and Preston Love Jr., to more recent gridiron stars like Junior Bryant and Calvin Jones, right through Ahman Green. In 2003, Green, the former Nebraska All-American and current Green Bay Packers All-Pro, rushed for more yards, 1,883, in a single season, than all but a handful of backs in NFL history, shattering Packers rushing records along the way.

Hoops stars range from John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare and Joe Williams in the ‘50s and ‘60s to Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Kerry Trotter, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Erick Strickland, Andre Woolridge, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. After torrid prep careers, King, Nared, Hare and Williams had some college success. The others starred for Division I programs, except for Forrest, who starred at Division II UNO.  Ex-NU star Strickland made the NBA, where he’s still active.

The prolific McGee, who set Class A scoring marks at North and topped the University of Michigan’s career scoring chart, played on one of Magic Johnson’s-led Lakers title teams in the ‘80s. Ivy made the WBA.  Others, like Woolridge, played in Europe.

 

 

Marion Hudson

 

 

Multi-sport greats have included Marion Hudson, Roger Sayers and Mike Green from the ‘60s and Larry Station from the ‘70s, all of whom excelled in football. A Central grad, Hudson attended Dana College in Blair, Neb. where he bloomed into the most honored athlete in school history. He was a hoops star, a record-setting halfback and a premier sprinter, long-jumper and javelin thrower, once outscoring the entire Big Seven at the prestigious Drake Relays.

He was the Lincoln Journal Star’s 1956 State College Athlete of the Year.

Among the best prep track athletes ever are former Central sprinter Terry Williams, Boys Town distance runner Barney Cotton, Holy Name sprinter Mike Thompson, Creighton Prep sprinter/hurdler Randy Brooks and Central’s Ivy.

The elite wrestlers are led by the Olivers. Brothers Archie Ray, Roye and Marshall were state champs at Tech and collegiate All-Americans. Roye was an alternate on the ’84 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. The latest in this family mat dynasty is Archie Ray‚s son Chris, a Creighton Prep senior, who closed out a brilliant career with an unbeaten record and four state individual titles.

Joe Edmonson developed top wrestlers and leaders at his Exploradories Wrestling Club, now the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center. Tech’s Curlee Alexander became a four-time All-American and one-time national champ at UNO and the coach of seven state team championships, including one at Tech, where he coached the Oliver brothers, and the last six at North. And Prep’s Brauman Creighton became a two-time national champ for UNO.

A few black boxers from Omaha made their mark nationally. Lightweight prizefighter Joey Parks once fought a draw with champ Joe Brown. A transplanted Nebraskan via the Air Force, Harley Cooper was a two-time national Golden Gloves champion out of Omaha, first as a heavyweight in 1963 and then as a light heavyweight in 1964. He was slated for the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team as light heavyweight at the Tokyo Games and sparred with the likes of Joe Frazier, when, just before leaving for Japan, a congenital kidney condition got him scratched. Despite offers to turn pro, including an overture from boxing legend Henry Armstrong, Cooper opted to stay in the military. Lamont Kirkland was a hard-hitting terror during a light heavyweight amateur and pro middleweight career in the ’80s.

With the advent of Title IX, girls-women’s athletics took-off in the ‘70s, and top local athletes emerged. Omaha’s black female sports stars have included: Central High and Midland Lutheran College great Cheryl Brooks; Central High and NU basketball legend Maurtice Ivy, a Kodak All-America, WBA MVP and the founder-director of her own 3-on-3 Tournament of Champions; Ivy’s teammate at Central, Jessica Haynes, an impact player at San Diego State and a stint in the WNBA; Maurtice’s little sister, Mallery Ivy Higgs, the most decorated track athlete in Nebraska prep history with 14 gold medals; Northwest High record-setting sprinter Mikaela Perry; Bryan High and University of Arizona hoops star Rashea Bristol, who played pro ball; and NU softball pitching ace Peaches James, a top draftee for a new pro fastpitch league starting play this summer.

The stories of Omaha’s black sports legends contribute to a vital culture and history that demand preservation. This ongoing, 12-part series of profiles is a celebration of an inner city athletic lore that is second to none, and still growing.

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