Duke of Dunbar
Last spring, when the Fort Worth school's head basketball coach won his fifth state championship and became the winningest coach in high school basketball history, most people figured he would finally walk away from the game. Most people don't know.
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JEFF MURIEL TOOK THE INBOUNDS pass running and fired it to Dominique Williams, who dribbled across half-court with his right hand while he pulled up his sagging shorts with his left. He ran about fifteen feet before drilling a pass to the shirtless Jeremis Smith, the tallest kid on the court at six feet six inches, who took one step, rose from the hardwood floor, and slammed the ball down hard. Onto the back of the rim. The ball flew into the air, bouncing toward the bleachers. Nobody said a word, and play resumed; the only sounds were those of the meaty bouncing of the ball and the incessant squeaking of new sneakers on the floor, which, in the echoey gym, sounded like seabirds.
It was August 18, the first day of school, seventh-period basketball class at Dunbar High School, in Fort Worth, and on the sidelines stood the winningest coach in high school basketball history, a tall, gray-haired man, arms behind his back, a scowl on his face. Robert Hughes’s expression hadn’t changed in five minutes, though at the missed dunk the scowl seemed to bury deeper into his face. He was older than anyone on the court by five decades and taller than most of them too. He wandered back and forth toward the action under the rims, watching carefully as the boys ran up and down the court. And he remained silent—until someone did something that was, as he might say, knuckleheaded.
“Hold it!” he yelled. Coach Hughes doesn’t need a whistle. One of the boys had thrown a weak underhand alley-oop pass to the leaping Jeremis, and the ball had fallen short. Hughes walked over into the middle of the group of ten boys, who had stopped playing.
“In the first place,” he said loudly, “if you throw the ball underhand toward the basket, it’s going to fall short and flat. A five-foot guy could get to it.” His tone was exasperated, as if he had said this before. He demonstrated, tossing the ball underhand; sure enough, the parabola fell short. “What the hell is that? You don’t control the ball as well as when you throw it like you shoot it.” He demonstrated again. Same result. “Why would you throw a pass like that? ‘Cause you’re playing to the damn crowd! The hell with the crowd! They’re not even on the damn floor! Pass the ball the way you shoot the ball!”
The coach turned and strode back to the sideline, and the game resumed. For the next ten minutes Jeremis, the unquestioned leader of the team, who has a tattoo of a basketball in the center of a cross on his right shoulder and another of a wildcat on his left shoulder blade, shot graceful fifteen-foot jumpers, fired perfect passes, and made dunking look as simple as reaching up and turning a faucet. At one point he grabbed a pass near the basket, took a step, and went up in the air on the right side of the backboard but was met up there by an opponent, so he transferred the ball to his left hand and curled it in from the other side of the hoop. Again, nobody said a word.
With five minutes left in the period, Hughes stopped play, and the boys—his probable starting five and second team for the upcoming season—moved to the bleachers, where they sat with another group of kids, who had been watching the action. It was time for the old man to speak.
Hughes has the gravitas of an undertaker and the voice of a preacher. Though he is 75, he looks fifteen years younger, a trim and healthy six foot six, with white frosting on his eyebrows, hair, and mustache. It was still three months before the team’s first game, and the stakes were high in the upcoming season, he told the boys. “You better show me more than Tim Duncan,” he said, his voice booming in the otherwise silent gymnasium. “‘Cause if you don’t, your little boo-tay is gone.” The longer he spoke, the more ornery he sounded. “I’m a hard guy to be around if you don’t want to play. Can’t everybody play basketball. Can’t everybody play basketball for me. And I’ll be the first guy to admit that. It is tough to play here for four years. I’m a hard guy to get along with. ‘Cause I don’t say everything is okay. I don’t say it’s okay to miss free throws. I don’t say it’s okay to be out of shape. I don’t say it’s okay to play lousy defense. I don’t say it’s okay to miss practice. I don’t say it’s okay to blow off class. So if you’re looking for an okay guy, I’m sorry. I’m not an okay guy. I want your butt at practice. I want you working. I want you passing your classes. If you can’t do that, this is just not the place for you. ‘Cause I don’t want to be like every-damn-body else. I don’t want to be number five and number six. If you’re not here doing your best, you shouldn’t be here.”
IN WEST TEXAS, THEY TALK ABOUT the Odessa Permian mojo, the football mania of Friday Night Lights. In Dallas and Fort Worth, they talk about the Dunbar mystique, an aura that surrounds a basketball team that has dominated the game in the area for more than a quarter century. The Wildcats, a.k.a. the Flying Wildcats, intimidate most teams before they even step onto the court. They score more points per minute than the Dallas Mavericks—84 per 32-minute game last season, which would translate to 126 points in an NBA-length game—and they play defense like they’re angry. Dunbar’s games feel like roundball circuses, with nonstop fast breaks, brisk passes, alley-oops, and thundering dunks, and they bring out thousands of boisterous fans, more than any other high school basketball team in Texas.
Last February 11, Wildcats coach Robert Hughes did something no one in history had ever done before: He won his 1,275th high school basketball game, breaking the record for most all-time victories held by Morgan Wootten, the coach of DeMatha Catholic, in Maryland. The Wildcats set the record in front of a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 7,500 at Texas Christian University’s Daniel-Meyer Coliseum. Though the outcome was never in doubt, Hughes never let up on his players. “Use your brains, dammit!” he yelled during a late huddle. After the buzzer sounded, six TV cameras surrounded him, and blue and white streamers poured from the rafters. Hughes was given a trophy at center court; he stood with his arms crossed, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. He doesn’t like ceremony, and he doesn’t like talk.
He’s old-fashioned that way. Hughes has been coaching for 45 years, that is, since Eisenhower was president and segregation was the law of the land. And even back then, Hughes’s teams were playing fast, showtime basketball, racing up and down the court, passing, lobbing, dunking, and pressing. His players were tossing up alley-oops when Indiana farm boys were still trying to master the pick-and-roll, running like mad and lighting up the scoreboard when other teams were walking the ball up the court and carefully setting up. His style has been almost unbeatable: Hughes has a remarkable .837 winning percentage through 45 seasons.
His numbers should speak for themselves, but even today, some of his fellow coaches dismiss Hughes’ success. Some say he’s simply blessed with great athletes and that if they had his players, they’d win a lot of games too. But Dunbar’s kids aren’t superkids: The Wildcats football team this year was only 4-7. Most teens who play basketball for Hughes are of average height, with only a couple of guys every year over six feet three. And Hughes has sent only one player to the NBA, Charles Smith, who was drafted in 1997 by the Miami Heat but is currently playing in Italy. Others grumble that Hughes’s teams play undisciplined, run-and-gun, playground ball. The truth is, the Wildcats know when to run (always) and when to gun (when they have a high-percentage shot). His guards are trained to look first to the big man in the low post, near the basket; if that option is closed, they pass, looking for holes elsewhere in the defense. All his players are coached to space themselves properly, to keep moving, to shoot only smart shots. (Hughes likes dunks because they are just about the highest-percentage shot you can get.) The other half of Dunbar basketball is playing aggressive defense: crashing the boards for rebounds and pressing the other team, causing turnovers, or stealing the ball and speeding down the court for a quick two points.
The Wildcat system is about timing and teamwork. The players practice their game over and over, as if learning scales on an instrument, so ultimately they won’t have to think about what they’re doing. This work ethic, Hughes told me, is what makes Dunbar different: “It’s because we work so dang hard. There’s an intensity at our practices. Players know ‘If I can’t handle this, I’m going home to Mama.'” Hughes is a disciplinarian in an age of great permissiveness, a man who quotes Frank Sinatra to kids who quote 50 Cent. During games, he almost never talks to the officials; he saves his wrath for his players, either yelling at them or just pointing and hooking his finger, which means someone is going to the bench. The kids may look away when he yells, but they listen. More than anything, kids want to win, and more than anyone, Hughes knows winning. “There’s something about looking to the sideline and knowing Robert Hughes is going to put you in a position to win,” says Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen, a longtime observer of Metroplex basketball. “He gives you about a seven-point lead coming out of the locker room.”
Last March, Hughes’s Dunbar squad capped off the record-breaking season by winning the state 4A championship in front of a crowd of 16,258 at the Frank Erwin Center, in Austin. Dunbar finished the season 37-1, giving Hughes a grand total of 1,282 wins (by comparison, Dean Smith, the winningest college coach, has 879). There was talk in the newspapers that with the record and the title, Hughes had the perfect ending to a storybook career. But he didn’t see it that way. He had three returning starters. There were games to win. So in the forty-sixth summer before his forty-sixth season, he was standing on the sidelines and watching children the ages of his grandchildren play a game he learned on dirt courts during the Depression. For the next few months, as I watched him get his Wildcats ready for their first game, on November 18 versus 5A DeSoto High School, the only team to beat them last season (and the eventual 5A champs), I wondered: How many more games? One? A hundred? How many wins would be enough to satisfy the man who’s won more games than anyone?
ON SEPTEMBER 27, THE WILDCATS and 47 other area teams went to Colleyville and Grapevine schools for a day-long tournament, or shoot-out. Teams will play several of these in the fall, though according to University Interscholastic League (UIL) rules, their coaches can only observe their kids until the season officially begins, in late October. Hughes sat in the bleachers with a yellow pad, watching his team play and taking notes. He wasn’t the only one interested in the Wildcats; whereas the typical turnout at most of the shoot-out’s other games was a couple dozen, for Dunbar’s games there were more than a hundred, including a handful of middle-aged coaches holding clipboards.
In its first game, Dunbar, wearing gray-and-blue uniforms, played Nacogdoches High School. Jeremis swatted the opening tip to Jared Watley, who dribbled twice and passed to Dominique, who laid the ball in. With five seconds gone it was already 2-0. Almost immediately Dunbar began harassing the Nacogdoches ball handlers, who panicked and began double-dribbling and throwing the ball away. Dunbar scored at will and at halftime led 44-24. I asked Hughes how he thought the team was doing. “Let’s see,” he said, “one, two, three, four . . . nine turnovers. You shouldn’t have nine in a game. To tell the truth, if I was over there, there’d be hell to pay.” Hughes had drawn a chart, with points, rebounds, and turnovers. And he was writing notes to himself about what each player was doing badly. “You don’t see many other coaches taking notes at these shoot-outs,” says Mike Kunstadt, whose TexasHoops.com, a statewide scouting service, organized this one. “They usually just show up to watch their teams and visit with friends.”
In the second half, Hughes, sitting by himself in the stands, watched, increasingly frustrated, as his guards hogged the ball. “Pass it,” he mumbled, as Naterian Roberts, subbing for the injured Jeff Muriel, dribbled out front, with a man on him, moving up and back, up and back. “Pass it.” Up and back, up and back. “Pass it!” Naterian finally drove and threw an underhand lob pass to Jeremis. It was blocked. “There you go with that underhand pass again,” muttered Hughes. He is fond of saying, “I don’t want thirty-one flavors. Give me plain vanilla.” His players are constantly struggling with doing what they want to do and what Hughes wants them to do. Watching this dynamic unfold is part of the fun of watching the Wildcats play. Dunbar eventually won the game 73-47, but the coach wasn’t happy. “I give them a low C,” he told me. “Too many mistakes, nineteen turnovers; nineteen turnovers will get your butt beat. Also, the other team got too many rebounds and second shots. There was too much listening to the grandstand. We lost our concentration.”
Between games at Colleyville, hundreds of kids, parents, and coaches wandered around the school’s three gyms. Everywhere Hughes went, a coach or a player would hail him and say hello. One coach, who hadn’t seen Hughes in a while, said, “Congratulations. Things are going well for you. You look good, too.” Hughes thanked him, talked briefly, and walked on. He is part of the coaching fraternity and also separate from it. Despite his loud presence on the court, off it he is quiet, even introverted. He spends his rare free time reading westerns. Hughes doesn’t smoke or drink, and he goes to church every Sunday. He’s still married to the same woman after all these years. He is from a different generation, as his players joke, a dinosaur.
In game two, as Hughes scouted other teams in other gyms, Dunbar easily dispatched an all-white team from Flower Mound. But their third game, against an all-black Seagoville team whose star center, six-foot-ten LaMarcus Aldridge, is considered by the Sporting News to be the best player in the state, was the marquee matchup of the tournament. The duel quickly proved to be one-sided, with Jeremis dunking and hitting from the outside while the Wildcats’ press rattled the Seagoville squad. Dunbar was ahead by twenty when, with the last few seconds ticking down, Jared took a rebound and made a behind-the-back pass to Naterian, who dribbled several times before seeing Jeremis break for the basket. He threw up a perfect lob pass, which Jeremis grabbed in flight and slammed through the net as time ran out. Sitting in the stands, his notepad in his lap, Coach Hughes, in spite of himself, was pleased. “I think we did a pretty good job,” he said later. This is just about the highest praise he will ever give.
YOU MIGHT EXPECT CERTAIN THINGS of the winningest coach in American high school basketball history. A bigger office, for example. Hughes shares his small, cluttered, cinder-block space with his three assistants Charles Hickman, who played for Hughes from 1987 to 1989; Wendell Ivory, who was a Wildcat from 1985 to 1988; and Leondas Rambo, who has been Hughes’s assistant coach since 1974. Trophies stand willy-nilly—on the file cabinet, the microwave, and the floor. On the wall are several prints of Indians, including one of Geronimo. On the door are taped-up newspaper stories about Dunbar players who have gone on to bigger things: Charles Smith; Demetric Shaw, who played at Kent State and then in the United States Basketball League; Gary Collier, now retired after playing in Europe; Anthony Burks, who played at TCU and is now in the computer business.
One afternoon in September, wearing slacks, a white shirt, and royal-blue sneakers, Hughes sat in this cramped office behind a small desk. “People say, ‘You stress winning too much,'” he told me. “Well, if you don’t like it, get a visa and move. Winning, being successful, being the best, is as American as apple pie. Not apple strudel, but apple pie. It’s not about the right to be mediocre or average. A lot of guys are mediocre or average because nobody pushed them to be great.”
Robert Hughes, all-American, was born on May 15, 1928, in Bristow, Oklahoma, and raised on a farm in Sepulpa, a little town near Tulsa. His parents farmed cotton and corn, and his mother was part Creek Indian. Young Robert had one sister and six brothers, and when they weren’t doing farmwork, they were playing basketball. Robert learned to play on dirt courts at age eight and didn’t play in a gym until he went to high school. By his senior year, he was a forward playing the low post. He joined the Army and was recruited for a special unit that just played basketball in tournaments in the Far East; it was the first integrated team Hughes had played on.
When he got out, Texas Southern University offered him a basketball scholarship to play under coach Edward Adams. “We ran like the wind,” Hughes remembers. “And worked hard.” Adams would be Hughes’s biggest influence. “I was a finesse guy, a shooter, but I played everywhere—guard, low post, wing. That’s why I ride my players to be good at everything.” Playing at a tournament in Memphis in 1955, he met Jacquelyne Johnson, who was from Tulsa and who was also part Creek Indian. They later married and had four kids. That same year he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, but he had just torn his Achilles tendon, and he gave up playing. He returned to Oklahoma and went to the University of Tulsa, which had recently opened itself up to blacks, graduating in 1957. Landing a job as a mechanic at Douglas Aircraft and making good money, Hughes was content until Adams called, asking if he had considered coaching. Hughes said he wasn’t interested, but Adams persisted and got him a job at I. M. Terrell High School, in Fort Worth.
At the time, if you were a black kid in or near Fort Worth, you went to Terrell, no matter if you lived across the street from a white school or in Weatherford, thirty miles away. There were a few public school buses, but most of Terrell’s three thousand students got there by walking, getting a ride, or taking public transportation. Never mind that segregation had been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. In the beginning, Brown desegregated the country’s schools in name only, and states like Texas found ways to drag their feet.
Under Hughes, Terrell dominated black basketball in Fort Worth. In 1963 the team won its first Prairie View Interscholastic League title (the organization for black high schools), then two more, in 1965 and 1967. Terrell played the style Hughes had learned from Adams: run, pass, lob, dunk, press, crash the boards. Some called it hully-gully ball, or playground ball. “We were playing today’s game back in the sixties,” says Wayne Lewis, a guard on two of those championship teams. “We were doing the alley-oop lob pass to six-foot-two guys in 1964. Every fourth or fifth trip down the floor was a dunk.”
When the UIL finally began integrating, in 1967, Terrell started playing white teams, many of which were befuddled by the frantic offense and stifling defense. The referees, too, seemed unwilling to accept the Terrell brand of basketball. “We weren’t prepared for the officiating,” Hughes says about those days. “It was blatant. We were playing basketball, but these other teams were playing full-contact karate. The refs would call us for three-second violations, offensive goaltending, carrying the ball. There’s not much you can do.” Hughes didn’t protest the calls, refusing to give the officials the opportunity to call him for technical fouls.
Hughes rode his players harder then than he does now, practicing almost every day, all year long, demanding perfection. “My biggest problem,” he recalls, “was to keep from smiling when I was in this serious mode. I realized I’ve got to be stone-faced when dealing with players.” He was a harsh disciplinarian, using a paddle that he called “the board of education.” “He never hit you in a way that you thought was him trying to hurt you,” says James Cash, who played for Terrell from 1963 to 1965. “It was used mostly on freshmen and sophomores, in a kind of a socialization process, getting you to perform as a team. But if the man you were guarding in practice scored a layup, he would say to you, ‘Come by me,’ or ‘Bring it by me,’ and you’d go to the sideline and he’d give you the board of education.”
Some of the Terrell players had no father, and the churchgoing, nonsmoking, teetotaling Hughes became a surrogate. He was hyperresponsible, picking the boys up at five-thirty or six in the morning and driving them to Terrell for morning practice, then, when the afternoon practice was finished, driving them home again. When they played out of town, he shepherded them over a network of friendly roads and stopped at restaurants he knew would accept a bunch of black adults and kids. They didn’t always sidestep the ugliness, though. Lewis remembers a trip to Texarkana in 1963. “We stopped at a Sonic to get something to eat,” he told me. “The waitresses wouldn’t serve us. We just sat there while they skated by our cars.”
Terrell was closed in 1973, and Hughes took his record of 373-84 into the job market. Black coaches weren’t exactly in demand for college jobs, and even at the high school level, they were given poor choices. Initially, Hughes was offered only an assistant coaching job at a local high school. He declined. He was eventually offered the head job at Dunbar, an all-black school a block from his house in the Stop Six neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth (it got its name from being near the sixth stop on the old Dallas-Fort Worth rail line). Dunbar High hadn’t had a winning season since it opened, in 1953, and in Hughes’s first year, many of the upperclassmen quit. They couldn’t abide the practices—before and after school and on Saturday mornings. Hughes played the season with mostly freshmen and sophomores and went 12-12. “It was probably my best coaching job,” he says now. By 1976 Hughes had led Dunbar to the state playoffs.
Dunbar was finally integrated in 1980, and as the decade progressed, although the Wildcats won a lot of games and district titles, Hughes developed a rep for not winning the big one. By 1993 Dunbar had been to the Final Four nine times and lost three championship games. But that year, with the high-scoring duo of Charles Smith and Anthony Burks, the Wildcats won their first UIL title, sweetening a season in which Hughes also won his 1,000th game.
After a drought in the late nineties (Hughes had his first losing season in 1999), Dunbar returned to the semifinals in 2001 and won it all last year. By the end of the season, Hughes and the Wildcats were the biggest high school sports story in the state, and he had finally gotten some of the recognition that had long eluded him. “It doesn’t make up for all the wrongs I’ve been through,” said Hughes. “But, like Frank Sinatra said, ‘It was a very good year’—all forty-five of them.” But what is it, I asked, that drives you to do it again in year 46? “The same thing that drove me last year,” he replied. “I’m probably your ultimate competitor. I’d miss walking into the hostile gymnasium. I’d miss the preparation, developing players to fit a position you know you need to fill to be successful.”
But what are you trying to prove? “It’s not so much to prove anything. I am a competitor. That’s what I do. My engine runs at the maximum. It has always run at the maximum. To cut it off and say that’s it—I don’t think so.”
And what happens to the engine when you finally do retire? “That’s going to be a problem.”
On october 27, three weeks before their opening game, the Wildcats held their first official practice. The session was most notable for the appearance of assistant coach Rambo, who was beginning his thirtieth year with Hughes. As Hughes slowly walked one side of the court, scowling, hands behind his back, Rambo, much shorter and with a prodigious Afro, walked the other, mirroring him, hands behind his back, looking for all the world like Sancho Panza to Hughes’s Don Quixote. Rambo is the friendly face, the intermediary with the parents, the good cop. “The scowling,” he told me later about his boss, “is just to let the player know, ‘I’m not satisfied, and we’ve worked on it so much. Either you’re refusing to do it, or I’m not getting through to you.'”
The practice began with drills up and down the court—fast breaks, passing, layups. But soon Hughes had the first team playing the second, back and forth, back and forth. “We learn by repetition,” he told me. “Whether it’s your ABCs or counting to one hundred or playing our set offense. It becomes automatic after you’ve been doing it for three or four years.” The truth is, the reason the team looks so good is that they’ve been playing almost all year long. They took two weeks off after the state tournament and then, in April, the pre-season started for the returning varsity, with weight-lifting, conditioning, and workouts at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, five blocks from the school. By the summer they were practicing four days a week—the starting five playing together as a team, usually about three hours a day—plus they played thirty games in tournaments and shoot-outs. The Dunbar off-season head coach is ex-Terrell star Wayne Lewis. His assistants are Derrick Daniels, who played for Dunbar from 1985 to 1987; Vernon Newton, who played for Dunbar from 1981 to 1983; and Otis Evans, who did the same from 1988 to 1991. “We’re prep fanatics,” says Lewis, who stays in almost daily contact with his mentor. “I know what he wants, what he looks for, what he asks for from his players.”
The boys continued practicing after school started in the fall, plus they played in several pre-season shoot-outs. Players on the Dunbar first team get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses—who can jump how high, who can shoot from where, who can dribble through what kind of a press—far better and far sooner than those on other high school teams, only a few of which set up operations like Dunbar’s. So by the first official day of practice, while other teams were still trying to figure out who would get which uniform, Dunbar was already in pretty good shape.
Except, in Hughes’s mind, for one guy. That afternoon he was particularly dissatisfied with Chris Evans, a tall, muscular forward who is the only starter who wasn’t on the varsity last year. “In some ways, Chris is the most important player out there,” Hughes told me. And so he’s harder on him than on the others. When Chris made a shot in the paint, Hughes yelled, “You were in there too long!” When a pass flew off one of Chris’s hands, Hughes yelled, “Who fumbles more balls than anyone here? Now, why would you try to catch it with one hand? You can’t catch it with two!” A player has to have a thick skin to play for Coach Hughes. He almost never tells his kids they’re playing well, and this, one assumes, is the burden of pushing them to be great. But sometimes Hughes’ stone face softens and it looks like he’s smiling. When he does this, it seems like he’s thinking what anyone in his right mind would be thinking: Man, these kids are good.
IN THE STOP SIX NEIGHBORHOOD, basketball—or more specifically, Dunbar basketball—is life. Here they talk about the shots Derrick Daniels made in the mid-eighties, the moves Charles Smith made in the mid-nineties, and the dunks Jeremis Smith made last week. The neighborhood kids hang out and shoot hoops at the King Center, and it is here that young boys, eight and nine years old, get their first sense of what Dunbar basketball is all about when they come to learn to play or just to watch the local heroes in the varsity practice. It’s at the center that many current Wildcats heard about the Coach, the old man, the guy who yelled at you but made you better. Jared Watley still remembers being in the sixth grade and coming to the center to watch his big brother practice. His father had played for Hughes too, so Jared had heard the stories. “I wanted to play for Dunbar from then on,” he says.
Hughes’s legend hangs over Stop Six the way Vince Lombardi’s does over Green Bay. Like that old-school taskmaster, Hughes has always been seen as a father figure here, and one reason is, he takes care of his own, and he does it, as Sinatra might have said, his way. For example, on October 6, Jeremis, Jeff, and reserve guard Marcus Samuels were arrested for stealing $105 worth of DVDs and CDs from a local Target. Hughes was furious and treated them the way he’s always treated his players. “If you step over the line in this program,” he told me, “there’s a penalty. You’re going to have to pay for it. Those three guys are going to be running so much they’ll feel like they’re on an Olympic marathon team.” Some wanted him to kick them off the team, but Hughes was unmoved. “I don’t want to get in a debate. It’s like some countries—if you steal a biscuit, they cut your arm off. What we do has worked for thirty years. We can handle Dunbar. We can handle our problems here.”
Hughes hates talk; he only reluctantly spoke about the shoplifting incident. Like any other stern, no-nonsense guy who reads westerns in his spare time, he’s a man of deeds. And as his former players will tell you, it’s not important what he says about loyalty or discipline, hard work or responsibility; former Baylor University coach Dave Bliss used to talk about all those things too. “It’s one thing to just be a disciplinarian without setting high standards,” says James Cash, who went on from Terrell to become the first black player in the Southwest Conference, at TCU in 1965, and who eventually became a senior associate dean of the Harvard Business School. “That wasn’t Coach Hughes. I wouldn’t be what I am today without him and the lessons he taught. Not because he told me I was supposed to act this way but because of the ways he acted. This guy would not let anybody throw him off.”
Once, when Cash was in his second year at TCU, he called Hughes after a bad night in Mobile, Alabama, when the refs kept whistling him for no cause, trying to make a black teenager lose his cool. It was 1967, the first year Terrell was playing white teams, and Hughes told Cash about his own experiences with blatantly bad calls. Cash remembers, “He was very angry, but he ended up laughing. He said, ‘And they think this is going to break me?’ He taught me to stay focused on the task at hand, not to get distracted because people didn’t like me for the color of my skin or something else. There was no chance anything thrown at me at TCU would throw me off my stride.”
Cash comes back every year to watch the Wildcats play. Many of Hughes’s ex-players return, sometimes practicing with the current team, sometimes just going to the games. Dunbar, they all say, is a family; this is home. Mostly they come to see the old man, the one who pushed them so hard, sometimes too hard; the loner who preaches a team game; the man who hates showboating yet loves winning, who hates the drawing of attention to oneself yet whose team thrives on it; the man who suffered the humiliations of Jim Crow yet puts his kids through the hell of Bob Hughes; the man who uses discipline and hard work to help kids play a game to perfection. The man determined to prove one more time that you are better than number five or number six. You’re not like every-damn-body else. And neither is he.
The day of the big game, november 18, was like any other; Hughes saw to that. There was no pep rally at the school, even though this was the first game of the season in a quest to be repeat champs and even though it was a match against DeSoto, the only team to beat Dunbar last year. “We don’t do pep rallies,” Hughes had told me. The players held their own rally just before the game, in the hallway at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center. Led by Jeremis, who had just signed a letter of intent to play at Georgia Tech, they clapped, jumped, and chanted “Whoop! Yeah!” for a minute or so while six thousand fans waited. Rambo put his fingers in his ears, and Hughes stood patiently to the side, head down. He wore a blue blazer, slacks, dress shoes, and a shirt and tie.
With Hughes standing on the sidelines of the Robert Hughes Court (it was renamed last year), Dunbar jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead. The first substitution came after Chris Evans threw the ball away—straight into Hughes’s arms. Shaking his head in disgust, Hughes marched straight to his bench, pointed at Naterian, and sat Chris down. After a thundering dunk by Jeremis and a withering fast break, Dunbar led 20-8.
And then it all fell apart. DeSoto started pressing, and Dunbar started turning the ball over. DeSoto began hitting three-pointers, and Dunbar seemed powerless to stop them. All of a sudden DeSoto was doing everything Dunbar was known for—crisp passing, smart shooting, aggressive pressing—and the Flying Wildcats looked like house tabbies. At halftime DeSoto was up 40-39. In the second half, Dunbar kept trying to get the ball in to Jeremis, and he kept getting fouled, but he was making only about half of his free throws. Dunbar had no spark, no snap, and Hughes was furious, calling players over and yelling at them or benching them. Nothing seemed to work.
With three minutes left, DeSoto had a three-point lead and the ball; they went into a slow-down offense, passing back and forth, waiting for Dunbar to try to make a steal. With 47 seconds left, Dunbar fouled, and the teams traded free throws for the next 40 seconds. Then, with 7 ticks left on the clock and his team down by three, Jeremis made an inbounds pass and was handed it back. He frantically dribbled half the length of the court through a crowd of defenders to a spot 35 feet from the basket, where, with 2 seconds remaining, he leaped, leaned, and launched an off-balance shot.
The ball curved through the air in a perfect arc and snapped right through the basket. The gym erupted. Dunbar had tied the game, sending it to overtime, yet Hughes stood as he had been standing the whole game. Impassively. Furious. And though the Wildcats controlled the overtime period, they continued to turn the ball over and miss open shots. Worst of all, they weren’t hitting their free throws. With eighteen seconds left and a comfortable five-point lead, Hughes was out on the floor yelling at Jeff, who was about to shoot two more free throws. He hit only one. Hughes’s expression didn’t change as the buzzer sounded, and he walked off the court alone, looking down and fuming.
The players waited in the locker room, enveloped in a sense of dread. They had just beaten the defending 5A champs in a revenge match they had been looking forward to for a year. Yet it felt like somebody had died. Or was about to. Hughes walked in. “A word to the wise,” he said, measuring his syllables. “If I was you, I wouldn’t say a thing. I wouldn’t talk to anybody.” After a pause, he added, “We missed enough free throws to last a season.” He seemed ready to go on but stopped, as if there were too many sins to enumerate. He walked out.
The DeSoto win was number 1,283, and more would follow. But for Hughes, it would not be enough, nor would it ever be.