Go You Wildcats, Go!

Something happens to basketball at Wheatley, a school that thinks it could win the Southwest Confrerence. And probably could.

February 1974By Comments

SUMMER, 1973, ARRIVED AT THE doorstep of Barry Dowd like a hungry wolf. Fangs bared, fur bristling, full of ominous growls and gloomy predictions, it seemed to be trying to tell him something he was really in no mood to hear. For Dowd, who had just steered the University of Texas at Arlington through a so-so campaign in the sprawling Southland Conference, the future seemed shrouded in black crepe. His beloved Mavericks were in dire need of reinforcements and his trusty assistant had just been whisked away to another job, leaving Dowd all alone in the recruiting forest. It was one of those moments when a basketball coach recalls the words of his sainted mother-in-law and wonders what it would be like to sell insurance for a living. Looking back, he recalls his most vivid impression at the time.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘Boy are we gonna be in bad shape,'” he remembers.

Then a blessed event occurred. The phone rang, and after a brief conversation Dowd was prepared to face hungry wolves by the thousands. In UTA’s brief struggle to become a major athletic power, that phone call may come to be remembered as a moment of destiny. It was those wonderful folks down in Houston, calling to say that Michael and Willie would be delighted to come join the Maverick crusade and, oh, yes…Robert had decided to come along and make it a threesome. It was a joyous moment for Dowd, except that he was having a slight problem with his equilibrium and was in danger of sliding from his chair and landing nose first on the carpet.

“I nearly had a coronary when I found out they were coming,” he admits. “I couldn’t get down to Houston fast enough…I was afraid they’d change their minds before we could sign ’em.”

What he signed—Michael Long, Willie Davis and Robert Jammer—was approximately half of a high school basketball team noted for bounding over tall buildings and running through opponents with the power of an exploding mortar shell. They were the faithful minions of coach Jackie Carr—known to their friends as the Wheatley Wildcats. To their enemies, they were a constant reminder that Attila the Hun once lived.

It was a team that achieved the impossible—denting the smug Texas conviction that God placed cattle, oil, and football players on this good earth and that everything else is an annoying example of man’s imperfection. Shattering this time-honored belief, Carr’s purple armada launched each voyage to the tune of stomping feet and wild chanting from the audience. It was almost like a football game.

This frenzy reached its peak on a sultry March evening when the Wildcats trotted sleepily into the University of Houston’s Hofheinz Pavilion (Cap. 10,400) for a playoff game and were greeted by 13,000 screeching converts, with upwards of a thousand more sulking about outside, casting surly glances in the direction of the guards barring the doorway. Neither of the arena’s two regular tenants—the Cougars and Rockets—ever had it so good. Next day, the newspapers dutifully reported that it was the largest crowd ever to see a high school basketball game in Texas and that, in fact, it may have been the healthiest throng that ever witnessed ANY sort of basketball game here.

The game itself was just another laugher for Carr’s raiders; for this was a team which averaged 110 points per game enroute to a 43-1 season and a state championship and sent 16 graduates into the college ranks on basketball scholarships.

Three of these, as previously noted, are now the treasured possessions of Barry Dowd, who scored such a major recruiting coup that he does not particularly mind that the crown jewel of the Wheatley arsenal—Eddie Owens—escaped and is now safely ensconced in Jerry Tarkanian’s new nest in Las Vegas, or that Steve Jones, another of Carr’s awesome delights, defected to Shelby Metcalrs camp at Texas A&M. This last arrangement hit a slight snag when Jones narrowly missed fulfilling the entrance requirements at A&M, but he accepted a momentary detour to Hill County JC, where he is doing pleasing things with a basketball and strengthening his academic history.

The manner in which this talent became scattered is perhaps a source of some vexation to the University of Houston’s Guy Lewis, who already owns the services of Jones’ older brother Dwight. It was widely assumed that Jones and Owens, at least, would don Cougar robes, but Lewis can be consoled by the acquisition of Wendell McKelvey, a spitfire guard who quarterbacked Wheatley’s searing attack.

Dowd’s particular good fortune apparently stems from an annual high school tournament held in the Maverick gym which Wheatley usually wins. In the course of their yearly visits, several of Carr’s players grew fond of the place.

“That tournament was the greatest idea we ever had,” says Dowd. “In five years, we never got a single player out of it, but we sure made up for it this year. This was really a great breakthrough for us…we feel it could be the start of something big.”

What it started has not yet become big, but it gets a little larger with each game. Long, Davis and Jammer have, in the manner of their comrades, proven that even as dew-eared freshmen they are capable of playing college basketball. Dowd reports that “everything is gonna be just fine around here.” Tarkanian, similarly, grants Owens an appropriate share of the credit for his team’s fast start this year, a comforting thing for a coach in his first year at a new school. Most impressed, perhaps, is Hill County coach Carter Williams, who had Jones unexpectedly dumped in his lap and has spent the season watching his young dervish pump in 20 or so points a game with the regularity of an expensive Swiss watch. Hill County won one of its games this year 167-83, reminiscent of the things Jones and his playmates used to do at Wheatley.

When they were all assembled together on one awesome high school team, the player people heard about most often was the 6′ 7″ Owens, whose only apparent limitation was recurring attacks of boredom. His prime asset is a feathery left-handed jump shot which arches slightly more than most and with which he is accurate from practically anywhere in the gym. He was also a guiding force in Wheatley’s fast break and was not averse to bringing the ball upcourt when the guards had momentarily misplaced themselves.

This talent has been well-received at his new home, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where Tarkanian is embarking on a new venture and already feeling more at home since Owens reminds him of Eddie Ratliff, his cherished all-American at Long Beach State.

“They’re a lot alike,” says Tarkanian. “Owens can do so many things so well—anything YOU need from a guard or forward. He’s one of the finest players I’ve ever seen and he’s so sound fundamentally it’s obvious he’s had excellent coaching. Ordinarily, I’d say it’s very difficult for a college freshman to become a starter, but Owens is one of those rare ones who’s capable of it. Right now, he’s our sixth man, but he’s playing two positions so he gets about as much playing time as anyone else. I’ll say one thing…he’s a helluva player right now, and someday he’s going to be great.”

Carr is inclined toward an even more succinct analysis. Last year he flatly labeled Owens “the best high school player in America.” He also admitted that his star pupil was something of an unknown quantity, since the Wildcats were seldom pressed and it was not that often that Owens was asked to exert himself for an entire game. Even so, he averaged approximately a point a minute and was recruited by almost everyone in the country except UCLA. “Most of ’em just sent letters,” Carr recalls, “because they all thought he was going to Houston. Well, he does his own thinking and he went where he wanted to go, not where everyone thought he was going.”

So did Jones, although his plans to become an Aggie will be delayed for at least a year while his academic record gains a little weight. Williams, his new coach, has no doubts concerning his eventual pilgrimage to College Station…”He’s sold on the place”…but is prepared, in the meantime, to enjoy the fruits of his good fortune. “He’s by far the best player we’ve ever had around here,” says Williams. “He can run and shoot with anyone and his body control is amazing. He can twist in mid-air and make a shot look easy. He has a great deal of talent.” Jones, in fact, is similar to Owens in many ways, including height (6′ 7″) and the easy nonchalance which gives opponents the uncomfortable impression that they aren’t really being taken seriously.

Along with body control, Jones also has a shadow of sorts in the person of older brother Dwight, who was one of the most widely-sought prospects in Texas schoolboy history when he graduated from Wheatley and has done nothing to tarnish his image while leading Lewis’ Cougars into the NCAA playoffs these past two years.

Toward the end of Wheatley’s season last year, Jones sat listening to Carr and assistant coach Tommy Tucker extol his virtues and remind everyone that he certainly needed no apologies when compared to Dwight.

When everyone was finished, he sat staring at the floor and said, “I’m just trying to be me.”

Long, affectionately known as “Iron Hand,” was often referred to by Carr as the “backbone” of his team. Long represents an aberration of sorts, being fond of playing defense, which is commonly regarded as a foreign substance at Wheatley. He was frequently observed assuming a protective stance beneath the Wheatley basket, patiently awaiting the arrival of fresh meat, and has been known to discourage a fast break simply by staring at it. His fondest pastime involves swatting enemy shots into the third row seats, a charming habit he brought with him to UTA.

“Sometimes,” Dowd admits, “he’s awesome. When he’s got his mind on it, he can dominate a game. Of course, he’s up against kids now who are a lot more experienced than the ones he faced in high school, and sometimes he gets faked out of position, but he’s learning. And when he’s in position, it’s very difficult to get a shot off against him.”

Physically imposing at 6’7″, Long was also the keeper of the Wheatley psyche—a lethal weapon which occasionally caved in an entire team even before Carr’s bombers had begun their deadly strafing. He has mastered a number of facial expressions ranging from a menacing, Henry Bibby stare to a patronizing grin. He alternately cows opponents with his strength and humiliates them with his derisive congratulations after they have met with some small success. Once, before a tournament game against a team with a rather unfortunate nickname, he stared down at an uncomfortable opponent and inquired pleasantly, “How you do, Mistuh Rebel?”

Jammer offers perhaps the most interesting angle, since he spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on the Wheatley bench, yet was recruited almost as voraciously as Owens. Tallest of all the Wildcats, he stands (or sits on the bench) 6′ 8″ and there is an alarming suspicion that he may be only half-grown. “He has an uncle who’s seven feet tall,” Dowd informs you with a diabolical giggle he developed recently.

A year younger than most of his Wheatley teammates, Jammer still appears to be in a comparatively early stage of development, which has caused Dowd and others to wonder what his true potential will be by the time he’s a college senior. Accordingly, he received more recruiting visits than any of Carr’s young bandits, including Owens. Dowd, who won the battle, is grateful. “He’s got the greatest attitude you could ask for,” he notes. “Always wants to learn. He could really develop into something else.”

Davis, a playmaker who last year was second only to Owens in the Wheatley scoring parade, has also found a warm place in Dowd’s heart. In the season opener this year, the Mavericks journeyed north to face Ohio State’s imperious Buckeyes and were predictably shot full of holes. But Davis, inserted as a sub, popped in 10 quick points against the startled hosts. Afterwards, he wandered up to Dowd and remarked, “I didn’t think I did too bad for a freshman.”

Dowd hastily concurred and wondered if maybe Willie couldn’t arrange a similar contribution for his next game. Willie, at last reports, has been most cooperative.

Along with McKelvey, the team captain, these five formed the elite inner core of a treasure hoard which graduated three full teams into the college basketball ranks.

AS GOLD MINES GO, THE Mother Lode which spewed forth these benefits is somewhat deceiving in appearance. Phyllis B. Wheatley High School sits just off the access road to I.H. 10 running east to Beaumont, in the midst of one of Houston’s poorest ghettos—the Fifth Ward, a neighborhood dominated by small stores, narrow streets and a project-type apartment complex. You can buy beer at the chicken place across the street from the school and nearby is a park where, according to one local story, future Wildcats play basketball far into the night with the aid of flashlights. The school was named after a gentle woman…a writer of poems…and has contributed to the world, among other things, one of Playboy’s more dazzling monthly foldouts.

It has also produced 15 state championship basketball teams in the past 25 years, dating back to the days when Jackie Carr starred on the school’s first super squad. Most of these were achieved under the leadership of Collin Briggs in the old Negro Leagues, and therefore carry an asterisk as far as the state’s omnipotent high school bureaucracy, the University Interscholastic League, is concerned.

But in the six years since the UIL magnanimously opened its membership to black schools, Wheatley has won 219 games and four state crowns, losing only 11 times. If the Wildcats are not yet loved, at least they are feared.

Last year, Carr came up with the most feared vehicle yet to rollout of Wheatley, one which he unabashedly labeled “the best high school team in the country,” adding casually that “we probably coulda won the Southwest Conference.”

Not quite the same thing as sending UCLA into overtime, perhaps, but it is a rather novel idea in high school circles. Carr, however, is full of novel ideas.

One of his more interesting inventions is the Five Mile Run, a subtle character-building device strapped on the team every time they fail to hit 100 points in a game. It is of course extremely popular with the players and once prompted Long to note that “being held under 100 is just like losing.” Last year, the Wildcats escaped this fate 33 times.

Another notable feature of Carr’s approach is that the offense, which on two occasions last year sand-blasted the foe by victory margins in excess of 90 points, runs smoothly in the absence of such hindering devices as set plays.

“Oh, it’s all keyed off a fast break,” he’ll tell you, “but once we get down there, anyone who thinks he can score is welcome to put it up. ‘Course, they all better be reasonably successful unless they want to run five miles.

“Our philosophy is somewhat different from what you normally find,” he continues. “We don’t coach out of those books written by Hank Iba and all those others who believe defense is such a cardinal virtue. We don’t care if the other team scores 150 points…as long as we get 200.”

This principle was aptly demonstrated a couple of years ago when the ‘Cats surrendered 116 points to a team from Louisiana and won the game by 42.

Defense, when required, is accomplished by a full court press in which the Wildcats simply gather around the offending party and harass him until he coughs up the ball in return for his life. In this pursuit they are prepared to chase the chap home and corner him in his garage, if necessary.

But scoring is more fun, and it was in this endeavor that Owens & Co. were most articulate. It was this talent that brought college scouts to Houston’s East Side in droves and convinced Carr that it was the greatest team in Wheatley’s bloodthirsty history, better even than the ones led by Dwight Jones which pieced together a 72-game winning streak a few years ago.

He attempted to prove this fact by inviting various guests down for a wicket or two, but the phone kept going dead. “We had a couple of teams from LA lined up to play,” he recalls, “but something happened. One of ’em somehow got hold of some of our game films, and right after that, they cancelled.”

Thus Carr’s conviction that this was the best team in the nation went unchallenged. He admits to having seen few teams from other parts of the country, but deems it a minor fault.

“How many times do I have to see a team averaging 65-70 points a game?” he asks, scornfully.

His own team dipped into that disgraceful latitude only once, despite the fact that more than half of Wheatley’s opponents try to simply hang onto the ball and escape with a “moral victory,” at least.

Against this group, which owned the option of thrusting as many as five gentlemen in the 6′ 7″ to 6′ 8″ range onto the court at one time, hanging onto anything often became a severe problem.

With the back court mischief of Davis and McKelvey complementing the talents of the big men underneath and a senior-laden bench able to keep the starters rested and out of foul trouble, it was a team Carr admits may never be duplicated, even at Wheatley.

Somehow, the Wildcats managed to lose the fifth game of the season (by one point) and Carr is properly apologetic. “It was my fault,” he admits. “We had six games that week and I was afraid they’d get worn out so I substituted a little too freely. Suddenly I looked up at the scoreboard and we’d lost. I couldn’t believe it.”

It never happened again. In the other 43 games, no one came close enough to cause any real alarm and the average margin of victory was 30 points.

As the season progressed, the Wildcats’ disdain for the silly mortals scrambling around at their feet became evident. While opposing coaches grew hoarse pleading for a miracle from their troops, Carr often seemed half-asleep on the Wheatley bench. Once, having detected some displeasing trend on the court, he whistled to McKelvey, who was bringing the ball upcourt. Obediently, his war leader dribbled over to the sideline and stood there, bouncing the ball up and down while Carr expressed his wishes and the two men guarding McKelvey stood and gaped. Instructions received, young Wendell casually resumed his journey upcourt. The thought that it is usually prudent to call time-out in such situations apparently occurred neither to Carr nor McKelvey.

Afterwards, the vanquished coach wondered ruefully if the day would ever come when Wheatley was just another basketball team.

The collective frustrations of the alsorans reached a climax in the closing moments of the state championship game when a desperate Midland Bulldog, caught in a two-on-one squeeze with Owens and Jones, was left dangling from the rim like some gangly monument to futility as Jones sank an easy layup and Owens suffered a sudden attack of giggles. Minutes later, the season ended, mercifully.

Such easy success, of course, fosters a certain public resentment, which Carr accepts philosophically. “Nobody likes to see the same team win all the time,” he observes, “unless it’s their team.”

But critics are persistent by nature, and the Wildcats continue to suffer small indignities off the court, where they are at least partially vulnerable. Carr is frequently castigated for his loose, free-scoring style, the inference being that the fellow really can’t coach, no matter what the record says.

Then there is the saga of the Wildcats’ trip to the state playoffs, during which they were virtually inundated with civic pride. The bus scheduled to take them to Austin failed to show up, and the funds provided for the trip ushered them into the state capital in something less than the style of conquering princes.

Carr, conditioned by 20 years’ experience to expect nothing, admits he complains only sporadically to the city athletic department.

“I wasn’t born yesterday,” he reminds you.

And, in a bizarre postscript to the season, the Texas High School Coaches Association managed to hold two of the Wildcats to a draw, at least. First Owens and then Long were invited to participate in the annual all-star game, but were informed they would have to shear their luxuriant Afros in accordance with the THSCA’s grooming code. Both refused, and the game was played without a representative from the team that had flattened the field.

There were, to be sure, certain improvements in the Wildcats’ public image. Texas sportswriters voted Carr Coach of the Year for the first time, and “name” schools were beginning to peer into the Wheatley talent pool, where Prairie View and Texas Southern were the principal takers in the past.

But as the current season approached, Carr felt compelled to warn the Wildcat faithful that hard times were practically seated on the front porch. Owens, Jones, Long and all those other wonderful warriors of yesteryear were now scattered to the winds, and in their absence the sharks were circling for the kill. Only one player, Gary Reese, returned from last year’s squad, and he had a bad back. And those pitifully small recruits up from the junior varsity would certainly be no help. No matter that they had gone 28-4 last year. There was joyful anticipation among the masses that this would finally be the year when Wheatley became just another basketball team. Early in the season, Carr announced that his worst fears had borne fruit. “Oh, we’re scoring 110-115 points a game,” he said, morosely, “but this isn’t our year. In fact, we’ll probably be down for two or three years. We’ll be lucky to finish third in the district.”

Nevertheless, his emaciated children struggled on, making do as best they could, stumbling to 15 victories in the first 17 games. They joyful masses were becoming a trifle edgy.

It all brings to mind something Jackie Carr said while trying to explain how Eddie Owens wound up in Las Vegas instead of Houston. “We never do what folks expect,” he warned. “We always surprise people.”

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