Kings Highway runs east-west through Shreveport, La., past Centenary College. The road is a fast-food haven typical of off-campus main drags everywhere. Students can have it almost any way they want it, from hot and juicy to soft and chewy.
The Kings Highway restaurants are popular alternatives to the lone cafeteria on campus. But none of the food in town rates better than the fried chicken served in a private basement eatery in Rotary Hall. Get back, Colonel, we're talking real lip-smackin', finger-lickin' chicken.
"I love chicken. Sometimes it seems that's all I have a taste for," says the master chief, er, chef, Cherokee Rhone. "I love it so much I'm thinking about starting a chicken farm right across the street."
When Rhone isn't shaking and baking over the electric skillet in his room, he's doing it on the basketball court as a 6'8", 215-pound junior center. He's the "only player in this season's major college crop who averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game and made at least 60% of his shots from the field during 1979-80.
Rhone's statistics—20.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 66.6% (third best in the nation) gave Centenary fans a glimpse of something they haven't seen since Robert Parish, now of the Boston Celtics, graduated four years ago. The Gents had an 87-21 record in the Parish years (1972-75), but few people knew it because Centenary was on NCAA probation for academic violations.
"We have to hold the record for most consecutive years on probation," says Gents Coach Tommy Canterbury, who came to the school as assistant coach in 1976 and became the head man in January of '78. Centenary was on probation from 1972 to 1978.
Although the Gents are off probation now, some folks have found a new reason to ignore Centenary. "The officials at one Big Eight school offered us $10,000 to play them on December 22," Canterbury says. "Then they asked around and found out about Chief [Rhone] and all of a sudden December 22 was out of the question. Other schools have told us flat-out they won't play us until Chief graduates. He's definitely one of the best players in the country."
Rhone, who has the same room and 7-foot bed that Parish used at Centenary, realizes comparisons with his imposing predecessor are inevitable. "I hear it all the time," he says. "Someone will say, 'You're the best player we've had since Parish,' or 'We've sold more seats than any time since Parish was here.' I think it puts more pressure on me, but I understand. Those were great teams." Rhone must also endure a lot of talk about his first name. "People always ask me what's my real name," he says. "I tell them that Cherokee is my real name. They say, 'Uh huh, sure, kid,' and they look at me like I'm crazy or something."
Although one of Rhone's paternal great-great-grandmothers was a member of the Chickasaw nation, Cherokee, 20, was named after a man his father met in a bar. Like Johnny Cash's "boy named Sue," Rhone had to deal with the resultant teasing by himself. At age six his father left home, leaving Cherokee's mother, Bernice, a third-grade teacher, to raise the four Rhone children. "My mom is my favorite person because of the way she stuck it out, working and raising us," says Rhone. "I give her a gift on Mother's Day and Father's Day."
"Cherokee was always hanging around the house," Bernice says. "If I was baking a cake, he'd want to stir the batter. If I was grocery shopping, he'd push the cart. I knew he'd be a cook or a basketball player."
When Rhone wasn't helping his mother, he was going one-on-one with his younger brother, Tim, in bedroom basketball. "We'd take a sheet of paper and staple both ends together so it looked like a hoop, and tape it to the bedroom door," Rhone says. "Then we'd take another sheet of paper, crumple it up into a ball and play. We'd go at it all night. We got so rough with each other that Mom had to put a rim up in the backyard to give us more room."
By the time Rhone reached Springhill (La.) High he was good enough that they had to make room for him on the all-state team. After a year at Panola (Tex.) Junior College, he moved on to Centenary, which he led to the 1980 Trans America Athletic Conference championship while earning the TAAC's Newcomer of the Year award.
Rhone, a physical education-coaching major, jokes that he might not have attended Centenary if he hadn't been permitted to cook up plenty of chicken to satisfy his huge appetite. "When we give the players meal money, everybody else goes out to McDonald's or wherever and blows it," Canterbury says. "Chief goes to the supermarket and buys two or three chickens. Says it'll go a lot further.
"A couple of weeks ago I went by his room and he was keeping a dog there for his mother. Between the chickens and the dog, I don't know. I told him the NCAA wouldn't mind, but I wasn't sure about the Department of Health."
Rhone says he didn't trust anyone else to keep the dog, and as for the chickens, hey, a man has got to eat, doesn't he? "Cooking in the room's illegal? I didn't know that," Rhone says, fighting to keep a straight face. "I burn up a lot of energy so I make sure I get my three meals a day and then some. Besides, with all these guys around, one poor chicken doesn't stand much of a chance."
That's for sure. Rhone prepares chicken à la Cherokee by coating it with seasoned flour and then dipping it into an egg batter—"to keep it crunchy." After another coat of flour, it's ready for the skillet. By this time his teammates are chomping at the bit to get at it, but Rhone holds them off with a frown. "You should never rush a chicken," he says, with a seriousness that Harland Sanders would appreciate. As it is, Rhone can barely get the bird out of the skillet to a plate before it's time to fry some more.
As much as he enjoys his reputation is a cook, Rhone would like to make an even bigger name for himself as a basketball player. Last season he had 41 points and 21 rebounds in a pair of games against Arkansas. The Gents go against the Razorbacks again in two weeks, but most of the time Rhone will have to be content with opponents like College of the Ozarks.
He had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the Gents' 92-79 opening season victory over the Mountaineers last Friday. Rhone took only eight shots and made seven—six of them dunks. After the game, he gave his mother a kiss and invited her to join him for the best meal in town.