The funniest man in basketball is Abe Lemons, the coach at Oklahoma City University. Lemons is lanky, naturally folksy and garrulous. He prefaces a reference to almost everybody with "ol," but he never talks about himself in the third person—"ol' Abe"—the way other cracker-barrel sages do. In fact, Lemons is genuine enough to still be wearing galluses ("Remember, we was always sayin': you got your galluses crossed") like all the barefoot boys used to back in Walters, Okla., in Cotton County, down by the Red River. It was the Depression when A. E. Lemons Jr. grew up in Walters, so he really is by Will Rogers out of The Grapes of Wrath. But there is a strain of Park Avenue hillbilly here, too.
Lemons wears sharp clothes and a diamond ring, and when he walks he often jinglejangles the loose change in his pocket. He has arranged a schedule for his team (and himself) that is as classy as anyone's. This year it includes Hawaii, Miami and New Orleans, with other big-city stops in between. When Lemons first contracted to play Miami he suggested to Coach Bruce Hale: "Let's play a home-and-home series, but let's play 'em both at your place."
"This is my metropolitan schedule," Lemons says. "I ain't much for them little-bitty places you got to swap planes to get to. And I couldn't be in no conference. Why, there are places you just don't want to come back to."
Wherever they are playing, however, Lemons' teams are unpredictably exciting. They throw up a cursory defense, but shoot often and from all over. They are also invariably chock-full of colorful characters. One was even voted campus queen with the slogan, "Ain't he sexy, ain't he nice?/Don't vote once, you vote twice." The current team is typical, featuring a 7-footer who sometimes plays guard, a full-blooded Delaware Indian, a line-drive shooter named Charley "Big Game" Hunter and one player Lemons signed up when he saw him literally jump right out of his shoes at a high school practice. The freshman team includes someone called Poor Devil and three players from Rocky, Okla. (pop. 350), where Lemons has already uncovered two All-Americas (Bud Koper and Gary Hill).
January 4, 1965
Lemons' teams are almost entirely made up of small-town players that nobody else wanted—or even knew about. Many of them are attracted by Lemons' own experience as a rural and indigent youth. The team is called the Chiefs and at least one Indian is usually around. (Lemons himself is one-eighth Cherokee.) "These Endins fouled up our whole program," Lemons explained once. "We had this course in basket-weavin' that we enrolled our players in, but these two Endins got the curve up so high, the others were flunkin' out."
Last year's starting lineup was without a redskin but was the tallest team in collegiate basketball history, averaging 6 feet 7[2/5]. This year Lemons can start a crew averaging 6 feet 8⅖ and he claims he has the tallest bench. He likes height, and he once just missed getting a 7-foot-3 player. The boy's name was Lem, and Ed Nall, the OCU sports information director, found him picking cotton somewhere back in the sticks. Nall called up Lemons—who immediately named the boy "Lem the Stem"—and then Lem was spirited off to Oklahoma City. Lem did not look too bright, so for openers Lemons asked Nall if Lem could read and write. Nall said he was pretty sure, because Lem had looked at a newspaper in the car. "Did he say anything?" Lemons asked. Nall said yes, Lem had, in fact, spoken once. Apparently referring to the price of potatoes, Lem had said, "Ain't 'taters high?" That was all. The next day, mercifully, Lem's mother called up and told Lemons: "Lem says he don't want to go to no school."
Lemons' most successful recruiting coup was the landing of Hub Reed, his first of three All-Americas. "Farm boys git all embarrassed by this recruitin' fuss," Abe says. "Why, I recruited Hub just fishin' and with orange slush. I still think you cain't do no better than a grape sody and a hamburger. See, hamburgers was a real treat back in Walters. If you had the meat, you didn't have no buns, so they wasn't real hamburgers. Anyway, Hub dropped by to see me one day after he graduated from high school, and I'm up at the gym. "Shore I'll go fishin', Hub,' I said, though I ain't much for fishin'. I cain't stand myself that long. Well, when we come back, the gym has burned down. That sorta took the edge off thangs.
"But Hub never changed his mind about comin' to OCU. That's the way it was in the country. A man's word was ever'thin'. Why, my daddy paid for a dead cow once 'cause he had agreed to buy that ol' cow before it died so quick. Before the NCAA made me sign all these contracts, the only agreement I had with a boy was a handshake. Some of them thought they was smart to get it written out and shore I give it to 'em. 'Course, they didn't know they was better off with just a handshake. To me, a handshake was a four-year obligation. A contract was written just for one.
"A lot of these big schools don't bother with these ol' farm boys. But these squirrels from the small towns, they ain't had no competition. You don't know how good they are. And they been playing varsity all along. In the cities, some ganglin' ol' boy with potential don't get a chance 'cause some boy more mature just gets there ahead of him. He's stronger, but he ain't goin' to get no better.
"Luckiest thang ever happened to me was I failed eighth grade. I grew late, and the only year I played was when I was 19, that extra year. If I hadn't of failed eighth grade, I never would of played on the team, and I'd be back sweepin' the streets in Walters now." Lemons has not forgotten Walters, nor that possibility. His student manager is invariably from there, on a basketball scholarship, and he is usually the son of an old friend.
Lemons himself won a scholarship to Southwestern Oklahoma ("My daddy had two dollars and he give me one when I left"), where he lived on mayonnaise and mustard sandwiches. Food is not something Lemons worries about. All-America Reed ate pies before a game, All-America Koper ate cheeseburgers. "All these poor ol' farm boys of mine are hongry. They're like chickens—turn on the lights and they start eatin'. But when some of these squirrels come to me and want to eat like Hub, I tell 'em to get their scorin' average up 'fore they start eatin' what they want."
Lemons left Southwestern after a year to become an officer in the merchant marine. First, he had tried the Air Force. "Well, this ol' boy said, 'You got to have a name.' And I said, 'My name is A.E.' He said, 'That ain't no name, it's just letters.' But it was good enough for my daddy, and when they give it to me they didn't count on any squirrelly complications. There wasn't no Commoonists to worry about. So how you gonna forge a birth certificate? I went back and wrote a 'b' in between the 'a' and the 'e.' I thought on it later. I could have put a 'c' in and been 'Ace.' "
After the war, Lemons got married (he and his pretty wife Betty Jo have two daughters) and somehow ended up at Oklahoma City as a 24-year-old freshman. He became the school's career high scorer (7.1 points per game), and then was appointed assistant coach at graduation. He was named head coach in 1955. His teams of small-town boys have since won more than 60% of the games on their far-flung schedule. Four of the nine Lemons teams have made the NCAA tournament, one the NIT. This year's team is off to a bright 7-1 start.
Friends say that Lemons has mellowed, but he is so naturally quick and witty that he can be brutally sarcastic when he wants to turn his humor in that direction. He saves most of his cynicism for officials now. Lemons loses as hard as any coach, the only difference being that he will usually come up with some quips to satisfy the press (and compliment his opponent).
In the OCU student union—where Lemons spends some time almost every day, bantering with the students—Guard Dick Bagby came up to him recently and reported he had a cold. "That's probably a draft from all them ol' boys rushin' past you with the ball," Lemons said. Then Gary Gray, the Delaware, came by and said he had a cold too. "Good," Lemons said, confounding Gray, "Endins play best with colds." "Yeah?" asked Gray, a smart young prelaw student who should not have been fooled so easily—even momentarily. Gray introduced his father, who complained that his son had not played enough in the last game. "Why, Mr. Gray," Abe said, "if you'd just tole me you'd come up here to see yore boy play, I would of played him the whole game. Why, you just should of tole me."
"You got to be careful with parents," Abe explained later. "You tell 'em their ol' boy is good, they be in the next mornin' with their feet up on yore desk. The worst is the mothers, if they ever light into you. Now this one come at me once, 'cause her boy lost a tooth in practice. And I tole her what happened. I said, her little-bitty boy had come up behind this big 'un with the ball and shoved him, and so the big 'un just turned around and there goes the tooth. 'Now, ma'am,' I said, 'I had tole yore boy, stay away from the big 'un when he has the ball.' But she was still mad. If a coachin' job ever opens up at the orphans' home, I'm goin' to take it."
But he won't. Abe Lemons has turned down other offers so he could stay at OCU, where he is also his own athletic director and secretary and sweeps out his own office. He may be the happiest coach in America as well as the funniest. "This game ain't gotten too squirrelly for us country boys yet," Abe says.