Basketball fans in the Mississippi State gym at Starkville a few weeks ago were puzzled to see University of Texas Guard Jim Krivacs begin the game by approaching the free-throw line backwards to shoot a technical foul that had been called against the home team for dunking the ball during the warmup.
Granted, Texas had not been famous for the excellence of its basketball program. But surely Krivacs, raised in Indiana, knew which way to face. In the stands, people waited for someone—possibly the coach—to shout a reminder from the Texas bench: "No, no, Krivacs! Turn around, lad! You're confused!"
Instead, the Texas coach was urging Krivacs to take the shot backwards. Krivacs bounced the ball a couple of times and flung it back over his head in the direction of the basket. He missed. The Texas coach nodded in satisfaction.
That was how Abe Lemons, who took over at Texas this season, chose to protest the dunk rule.
January 17, 1977
"The rule that you can dunk the ball in a game but not in a warmup is just plain silly," Lemons said later. "When the technical was called, I asked our guys for volunteers to shoot the foul backwards. They all volunteered. I picked Krivacs because he's the smallest."
The fact that Mississippi State—one of the top teams in the powerful South- eastern Conference—went on to beat the lowly Longhorns by only two points did not shake Lemons' belief that he and Krivacs had done the right thing.
Giving away a point to protest a rule would be odd behavior for most coaches. But a great many things Abe Lemons does are so peculiar that his peers often speak of him with a kind of amused wonderment, telling stories about him far into the night.
There is one thing Lemons does, though, that prevents him from being regarded as nuts. He wins.
Back in November, a few hours before his debut as the head basketball coach at the University of Texas, A. (for nothing) E. (for nothing) Lemons confessed that on the previous day he had been visited by despair. Despair, as it turned out, looked like a tall man in his early 50s, wearing boots, a brown plaid suit with leather trim, and a purple necktie—exactly like Abe Lemons, in other words. Abe said he had wrestled with this mirror of despair, and then he woke up this morning and looked life in the eye and decided to keep on playing the game anyhow.
Abe had been hired to transform the Texas basketball team into the sort of exciting, high-scoring teams he had coached at Oklahoma City University and Pan American for the past 26 years.
"But yesterday was the lowest I have sunk in my career," Abe said. "There are players on this team who are not even interested in basketball. One afternoon I told them to do wind sprints, and one of them said he didn't want to. I said, 'O.K., you go stand over there.' I asked who else didn't want to do wind sprints. Three of my starters walked over and stood with the guy.
"I thought that was bad," Abe said. "But yesterday they were so apathetic that I chased them off the court and went home. I got to thinking about a coach I know who asked permission to hire two assistants. He hired a psychiatrist and a hairdresser. After six months the psychiatrist went crazy. The hairdresser is still on the job. One of my players this year, his sweat is so rare it'll cure cancer. Another of my guys has worn out five pairs of shoes already, just from stumbling."
By now Abe had started to grin. He scraped the hair away from his forehead and brushed cigar ashes out of his lap. "I've got a trick tonight," he said. "My plays are devised to get a guy open for a shot. But my guys don't like to shoot when they're open. They only like to shoot if they can jump and twist. Tonight the plays are changed, so the shooter will be almost open but not quite. Maybe my guys can throw some of them twisty shots into the bucket."
Before that night, the last time Abe had been involved in a game at Gregory Gym in Austin was when he was the coach of Oklahoma City University. In 18 years at OCU, Lemons' teams won 308 games (and lost 179), led the nation in scoring three times, produced seven All-Americas, competed in seven NCAA playoffs and twice went to the NIT. In that previous visit to Austin, OCU had rushed to a 3-17 deficit and Abe had been hit with a third technical foul and ordered off the floor. Abe was finishing his No. 1 Combination Dinner at El Rancho, a Mexican restaurant, when he learned OCU had won the game.
In February 1975 Lemons took his Pan American team to Denver, was hit with two quick technicals and left the arena without waiting for the third. Pan American won that game, extending what turned out to be a 10-game winning streak on the road in seven states.
Pan American had a 20-5 record last season, was fourth in the nation in scoring with a 95-point average and had the country's leading scorer in Marshall Rogers (36.8). Pan American is located in Edinburg, Texas, far down in the Rio Grande Valley, near the Mexican border. The closest large city is San Antonio, 275 miles away. Pan American must be willing to play on the road, where fortune seldom roots for the traveler. "Booking home games was like trying to get people to play us on Gilligan's Island," Lemons says.
Pan American won four games the season before Lemons took over in 1973. (It was 55-16 when Lemons left.) Abe was paid more than double the $14,000 yearly salary he had risen to at OCU. Recruiting all over the country, and having an outspoken aversion to cheating and no loot to offer anyhow, it was a challenge to Abe's charm and shrewdness to persuade players from Kentucky or Indiana that they could profit themselves by performing at Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas.
OCU and Pan American being impoverished compared to the major universities, Lemons never could afford to devise a system and then find the players to fit it. He looked for players with flair and bent his plans to take advantage of what was on hand.
As a result, many of Abe's players were great shooters, but had only a nodding acquaintance with defense; as long as they kept hitting the basket, Abe felt the team had a good chance to win. One night last year, when Marshall Rogers was being even more deficient than usual on defense, Lemons told him, "You can just rest on defense, Rogers. Help us as much as you can, but don't get in the way." However, if a player's particular flair began to dim, Lemons might suggest reviving it, as he did one evening with Pan American Center Mike Hart. "Congratulations, Hart," Abe said to him at halftime. "In the first half you got one more rebound than a dead man would have gotten."
Abe has had luck putting patches on. Arnoldo (Pizza) Vera, who quit his job at a Pizza Hut in Edinburg to try out for the team, scored at the buzzer last year to enable Pan American to beat Georgia State 64-62 in Atlanta. The next morning Lemons read in the paper that "a chubby substitute led to Georgia State's downfall." Said Abe, "Tonight, he is going to be a chubby starter against Georgia Tech." Pizza Vera did not score a point against Georgia Tech, but Pan Am's guards got 63 and Vera helped to set the picks as Pan Am won 80-73.
If a team can win games while its coach is eating Tex-Mex food or trudging against a cold Denver wind, it follows in Abe's mind that a team has its own makeup and doesn't need a lot of advice from him on how to behave. On the road. Abe's teams have no curfew, no blackboard meetings and no required meals. He tells them at what hour they are to be suited up—he prefers that his teams dress at the hotel rather than in some strange locker room—and in warmups he lets them practice whatever the players decide they want to.
Pan American arrived four days early in Las Vegas last year, and all Lemons told the players was to show up in time for the game. Pan Am lost 100-95 to a Nevada-Las Vegas team that had beaten Michigan. But in Abilene, Abe told his players they were on a reverse curfew. Nobody could go to bed in the motel before 10 p.m., and Abe would, by God, check to make sure.
His halftime responses are unpredictable. In an NIT game against Duke at Madison Square Garden, Lemons made OCU stay on the floor during halftime and scrimmage, shirts vs. skins. Or at halftime he may take his team into the locker room and silently brood, or he may tell tales of his childhood in Oklahoma, or he may bring in a magician to do tricks, or he may attend to tactics, or he may scream at his players.
If he is truly bored or frustrated, Abe will skip practice. He might play golf. In Austin, Abe and his wife, Betty Jo, live in a house in a country-club development called Onion Creek, which has a tight, short course; Abe claims he once found 18 balls on a single hole.
"I tell my players, 'Listen, if you miss practice tell me the truth about it the way I do,' " he said." 'Don't tell me you had swine flu or were trapped in an elevator. Tell me you were sick of basketball for a day, or were swamped by life, or whatever the truth happens to be. I understand those things.' "
With three hours to go before his University of Texas coaching debut, Lemons walked to the blackboard in his office in Belmont Hall, a 12-story building tucked into the football stadium. He picked up a piece of chalk and drew swooping arrows on a blackboard to demonstrate a basketball lesson he feared his players hadn't learned.
"But if you do come to practice, you shouldn't waste everybody's time," he told them. "You should try to learn what we're up to." When he arrived at Texas, Lemons chose what he thought were the five best all-round players from last year's 9-17 Longhorn team and the available newcomers. "Our first five have possibilities," he said. "A freshman, two sophomores and two juniors. But you really need eight players to have a strong team. Our first five are going to look like they've got iceboxes on their backs by the second half."
Lemons is in demand as an after-dinner speaker. Two months ago he spoke at the Notre Dame basketball banquet. The week before his coaching debut at Texas, he was master of ceremonies at the Longhorn Hall of Honor dinner. The inductions were held in a banquet room of an Austin motel. Down the hill to the west of the motel shone the lights of Memorial Stadium, where that night an ABC-TV crew was rehearsing for the following night's Texas-Arkansas football game, which was to be televised to the nation.
One of those inducted into the Hall of Honor was Darrell Royal, who several days later would resign as football coach but remain as athletic director. Royal had brought Abe's name before the Athletic Council. Royal and Lemons are about the same age and both were born in small towns in Oklahoma. Lemons is president of the American Basketball Coaches Association (his assistant, Barry Dowd, formerly head basketball coach at the University of Texas-Arlington, is vice-president and will succeed him next year). Royal has been president of the comparable organization in football. Royal says college athletic recruiters ought to be willing to take lie detector tests. Lemons agrees. Books of Royal's country-sage epigrams have been published. Abe's remarks are printed all over the world.
The University of Texas football team is usually in the nation's Top Ten. The basketball team is never considered among the nation's elite. SWC teams seldom make the Top 20—though Arkansas is currently mentioned in the AP poll. Explanations are plentiful. Eight SWC teams compete for talent in one state that also has dozens of basketball teams that do well at different NCAA levels and in the NAIA. The Texas high school athletic governing board has a rule that forbids high school players from taking part in basketball summer camps or amateur league games after freshman year. The first black basketball player in the Southwest Conference was James Cash, now a professor at the Harvard Business School. He played for TCU only 10 seasons ago.
Another explanation is that in the Southwest Conference athletic emphasis is on football, and the other sports must take the scraps—or necks and wings, as Darrell would put it.
"That's stupid," Royal says. "At Texas we've had national champions in baseball and golf and track. It would be a feather in my cap as athletic director for Texas to have a big-time basketball team. As football coach, would I have such ego and insecurity that I'd be afraid a great basketball program would put me in the shade?"
Royal said he has admired Abe's style for a long time. Darrell called Abe in Edinburg to offer him the job. Abe returned the call from a truck stop in Waurika, Okla. "Where are you really?" Darrell said.
Darrell was born in Hollis. Abe was born in Walters. They scratched through the Great Depression and World War II. Darrell admits he was poor as dirt. Abe says that while he was not from the wrong side of the tracks in Walters, he was close enough to hear the trains go past.
"I might have been the world's first hippie," Lemons said one day not long ago. "I was barefoot, the seat was torn out of my britches, I had long hair and I rode a girls' bicycle. When you're little and poor in a small town and have to ride a girls' bike, you develop a sense of humor."
His mother bestowed the initials "A" and "E" upon him rather than given names. "Mama didn't realize we were ever going to have Social Security or a war, where I'd have to have a name," Abe says. His fifth-grade teacher called him Abe. Looking back, he sees how easily he could have changed it to Ace. He flunked eighth-grade English. On the second try he had grown tall and the basketball team drew him. After four years in the merchant marine, in 1950 Abe graduated from OCU where he was a forward, became head basketball coach there in 1955 and turned out a 20-7 team the next season.
Ambitious young coaches like Eddie Sutton at Arkansas have moved into the SWC with dreams of lifting teams to the level of the Big Ten or the ACC. Then there are ambitious older coaches like 42-year-old Shelby Metcalf of Texas A&M, who lost two players and two scholarships for a season because of recruiting sins exposed after a written complaint by Leon Black, Abe Lemons' predecessor at Texas.
Black's own ambitions were thwarted in part by the necessity for playing home games in 45-year-old Gregory Gym, which holds about 7,500 people elbow to elbow and is located well onto the campus, from which public parking is barred. Gregory Gym has so many lines for different sports painted on the floor that knowing which ones are out-of-bounds is a home-court advantage. The old gym provides a close-up, vivid, noisy, sweat-splattered, shoe-screeching view of the game, but it is not what a star recruit would call glamorous.
Next season the Texas basketball team will move into the new $35 million Special Events Center, nicknamed the Super Drum, at the south edge of the campus, a few blocks from the state capital buildings' parking lots, which are vacant after dark. The Super Drum was paid for out of the university's oil-lease money and will be rented for circuses, ice shows, pop concerts and similar events as well as to the Texas basketball team. Former Chairman of the Board of Regents Frank Erwin, his close friend Jack Gray (ex-Texas basketball All-America, ex-Texas basketball head coach) and engineers and architects toured arenas around the country. They asked Leon Black for his ideas.
But then Black quit as basketball coach. Although he remains at the university in the athletic department. Black decided to get out of basketball last season after he wrote the Southwest Conference a letter that "requested there be an investigation" of Texas A&M. When the Aggies' punishment was announced, Black admitted he had written a letter; he did not know whether or not it was the only such letter. Cries of "snitch" swept his life like a typhoon. Super Drum or not, Leon Black knew when he had had enough.
At the Longhorn Hall of Honor dinner, Lemons was introduced as "the man who's gonna turn us around." Abe started off with some commiserating humor about the physical wounds suffered by the Texas football team this year. Then he told about the night he asked a basketball official, "Is it a technical if I go on the court and punch my player in the nose?" He said the official replied, "If I was you, I'd lure him over to the sideline. But I'd sure do something to him."
Abe said college players had changed since he started coaching. "It's got to where now if you say hello to a player he's liable to show up the next day in your office with his feet on your desk. He's 19 years old and he says, 'Coach, I'm not happy.' I wave my hand at him like it's magic and say, 'Happiness to you.' This kid grew up on Walt Disney. He's looking for a shortcut. Sometimes it'll happen that a kid'll want to know why you're not playing him, and you'll have to say, 'Well, the truth is I don't like you, don't like your parents, don't like your hometown, thought I did but I don't.' "
After the banquet Royal was laughing about some of the things Abe had said. "I think Abe will bring us a winner," Darrell said. "Also he's the kind of person who can fill up those 17,000 basketball seats."
Lemons took a pay cut to move to Austin, but he smoothed that with a TV show that he hustled for himself. On the show he may be seen in an orange leisure suit and white necktie in a chair before a backdrop that says ABE in orange lights inside a circle of white lights. The show includes films and comment and an interview on the order of Lemons and USC Coach Bob Boyd discussing the way recruiting is conducted.
And Abe might tell about the time his player, James Washington, got a tooth knocked out in a game at Las Vegas. Abe ran onto the floor and picked up the tooth—first time he had seen a whole tooth, he said—and took it to the scorers' table and said, "Hey, some places this would be a foul." A dentist jumped down from the stands and said he could save Washington's tooth with immediate action at his office. As Abe tells it, the assistant coach replied, "We need him."
"Well, what it really means is it's tough to survive in the coaching business," Lemons says. "They call some guys great coaches who are great at scheduling and cheating. I'm no policeman, but I'm not going to let a hypocrite beat me if I can help it."
At 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 29, the public address announcer at Gregory Gym identified Abe Lemons to the crowd of 5,000 as the new basketball coach at Texas. Up in the stands, Darrell and Edith Royal clapped. In the opening minutes, Abe looked reluctant to watch the game, which was against Oklahoma State, but by the second half he was agitated and yelling amidst the cheering students and the boom and slish-slosh of the action.
Texas led early, lost the lead toward the end, tied the score in the final seconds and won 74-73 in overtime. Hoarse and trembling, Abe trooped upstairs with the players to their tiny dressing room. Royal came in and shook his hand. "I didn't know what to expect," Abe gasped. "Looking back, I guess they had to play better than I thought they would."
Well into the season, with a 4-5 record, most of the games close and two decided in overtime, Abe began to speak as if he were selling seats in the Super Drum. "We're our own worst enemy in the Southwest Conference," he said. "We keep telling people we're not as bad as they think. We act defensive. But those Eastern teams won't play 100 miles from home. If they'd play down here on a regular basis, you'd find they're not all that good. Sutton over at Arkansas says he's got 13 major-college prospects on his roster. Not many schools in the country can make that claim."
There has begun to be a hum in the Super Drum.
HE SAID IT
•"A couple of alumni came by to see me the other day and offered to buy up my contract, but I didn't have change for a twenty."
•"I'm going to Kentucky and Indiana to recruit a couple of prospects. That's a 900-mile trip and I have to act as if I just happened to drop in."
•"I'd rather be a football coach. That way you can only lose 11 games a year."
•On how to solve recruiting problems: "Just give every coach the same amount of money and tell him he can keep what's left over."
•On his part man-to-man, part zone that allowed 52 points in one half: "It's called the sieve."
•Explaining why he does not have curfews: "It's always your star who gets caught."
•On whether the baskets should be raised to 12 feet: "I think we ought to cut a hole in the floor, instead. That way we could recruit midgets. 'Hi, there, little fella, want a Cadillac?' "