That dramatic change for me came about through a fierce loyalty to my college alma mater, the University of Houston, where Guy V. Lewis was beginning to come into his own as a coach and his run-and-gun style had a great impact not only on Lone Star State college hoops but on the high school game as well.
The old days of slow white boys playing zone defenses and multiple-pass-offense-looking-for-a-safe-shot were left in the dust of the initial seasons of integrated high school basketball.
Houston’s then-all black Wheatley High School Wildcats altered the slow-paced UIL games into an immediate, run-and-gun, slam-dunk show that quickly captured the fancy of now-mixed spectators as they grabbed the first couple of state championships in the initial seasons of integration.
WHEATLEY featured three of the greatest players to ever play in Texas high schools — quick-great-passing-and-good-shooting guard Allen Batro, high-flying-acrobatic-slam-dunking 6-7 forward “Spider” Johnson and tall, muscular 6-10 center Dwight Jones, a then-unmatched-trio of players on the same team. Jones was an excellent rebounder and always a threat to block shots, a relatively unseen feat in Lone Star high school basketball at that point.
Perhaps the greatest, most acrobatic play I’ve ever seen in basketball at any level was by Johnson in the state title game. An opposing player took a shot. Johnson caught it on the way up, pinned it against the backboard with one hand, looked downcourt to see Batro streaking toward the Wildcat basket. While still suspended in the air, Spider took the ball with that huge hand and threw a perfect pass to Batro for a layup.
Texas high school basketball, particularly the Houston and Dallas metro areas, quickly moved to a competitive level equal to the nation’s great high school basketball teams.
BY INTEGRATING, Texas high schools surge to better basketball also served to keep more African American players at home to play college hoops because simultaneously Texas colleges integrated as UH had and began a more intense recruitment of Lone Star high school basketball talent.
Wheatley’s trio of Batro, Johnson and Jones were all making Texas college coaches salivate. Batro played in college and Johnson, due to low grades, was recruited by second-level schools. But the big prize, Jones, went to UH. He had a solid if unspectacular career there and played a few years at the pro level.
Of course, having talented out-of-state players like Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney (both from Louisiana) didn’t hurt Lewis’ recruitment of Texas high school cage talent. Those players enabled UH and Lewis to challenge UCLA’s supremacy in the college basketball world. The Hayes-Chaney-led Cougars moved into the No. 1 spot in the national college polls as they beat UCLA in what was billed as the Greatest College Basketball Game of All Time and it was played to a sellout crowd in the Astrodome and televised nationally.
UH later lost to UCLA in the NCAA Final Four because star guard George Reynolds was declared ineligible for the Final Four due to a small irregularity in his transfer from a junior college. Reynolds, 6-4 and big for a guard in those days, and his defensive play were major reasons the Cougars prevailed in that hyped game. He was replaced in the finals by the coach’s son, Vern Lewis, who at 6-1 had a hard time defending the taller Bruin guards and that contributed to UCLA’s repeat title.
I FELT SORRY for the coach and for his son, to have reached that point and fallen short in the effort to bring an NCAA crown to Texas.
UH’s success enhanced basketball and promoted the sport to new high school levels in the Lone Star State. And, as previously mentioned, the pipeline for Texas talent to out-of-state schools, narrowed and some of the flow reversed to in-state colleges and raised the level and interest in the sport. It made new fans in Texas and the sport has maintained a level of interest not far behind King Football ever since.
Now, Texas high school basketball and the college game have become competitive and recognized as in the top level nationally.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.