By DEAN CLARK
MARQUES HAYNES: The Sand Springs native who later became nationally known with the Harlem Globetrotters and later the Harlem Magicians is said to have helped recruit great players for TU from New York City, including Eldredge Webb, Rob Washington and Larry Cheatham.
Courtesy JOHN W. BARNHAM
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three part series about University of Tulsa basketball in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when TU played in what was known in basketball circles as “The Valley of Death,” the Missouri Valley Conference, which at that time was one of the best in the nation with nationally-ranked teams such as Cincinnati, NCAA final four in 1959, national champions in 1961 and 1962, and runner up in 1963; Wichita State, final four in 1965; Drake, final four in 1969; Louisville, final four in 1972 and 1975; and Memphis State (runner up in 1973). The first two articles in the series may be viewed at www.gtrnews.com.
The University of Tulsa basketball program experienced a huge challenge beginning in the late 1950s, when its conference, the Missouri Valley, became what many called the best in the nation. Ken Hayes, who served as TU’s head coach from the 1968-1969 season through the 1974-1975 campaign, admits that there is no rational explanation, other than just incredibly hard work, for Tulsa’s astonishing recruiting success in the mid-1960s to keep up with its great competition.
Well, there was a little luck.
Hayes, now retired and living in Muskogee after also serving as head coach at New Mexico State, Oral Roberts, and Northeastern State, believes there is truth to the long-standing rumor that Marques Haynes (the native of Sand Springs who became a truly mythical figures in basketball history as the first show stopping dribbler of the Harlem Globetrotters) played a role in Eldredge Webb’s relocation from New York to Tulsa. Webb, from Brooklyn, may have been the greatest player ever to enroll at TU.
“And, believe it or not, some players wanted to get out of New York City at that time, and for some reason the colleges in New York weren’t recruiting some of the local stars,” Hayes said. “So after Webb came to Tulsa, we had the inside track to get Rob Washington and Larry Cheatham, who went to the same high school, the next year.”
Getting Bobby Smith, however, required some luck and more than a minimal amount of courage.
Smith was a native of Memphis and then, as now, that city produced an amazing number of great black athletes every year. But Memphis had not yet, even by 1965, integrated its athletic teams.
“Bobby Smith was supposed to be the first black player at Memphis but for some reason suddenly it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen,” Hayes recalls. So Hayes went to Memphis to attempt to talk Smith into coming to Tulsa. The visit, which took place shortly after the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, was incredibly tense. Smith’s principal advisor obviously favored another school and he arranged for Hayes to take Smith and his mother to dinner at a very exclusive restaurant in which the complexion of the clientele in 1965 is not difficult to imagine. The purpose may have been that Hayes, when he realized what was happening, would cancel the dinner and TU would drop out of the running. But Hayes did just the opposite. He explained to the maitre d’ that he had four special guests. “They found a place for us in a corner that was somewhat screened off from most of the other diners,” Hayes recalled recently. “It got totally quiet when we walked in. I didn’t eat very much of my steak and I didn’t enjoy what I ate. You could feel the eyes of about 200 people boring right through your back.”
In the end, it may have been that the restaurant ploy backfired, because Smith came to Tulsa and was the star of the 1968-69 team (Hayes’ first as head coach). He averaged 24.5 points per game that year (still fourth highest in school history), was named the MVC Player of the Year, and was a first-round selection in the NBA draft.
Hayes continued to somehow sign a superstar almost annually during his seven years as Tulsa head coach.
“We just worked awfully hard,” he said, and specifically included assistants John Rendek (the principal recruiter in most years) and Jerry Evans. “That is all we could do. Our recruiting budget was $1,200. We usually divided it up half and half, $600 for the telephone and $600 for gas. Our facilities were horrible. We had a practice gym by that time but we had to share it with the football team and physical education classes. And, I never showed the Fairgrounds Pavilion (where TU then played its home games) to a prospect.”
The names that Hayes and his staff brought in during that period bring back memories of some brilliant talents: Dana Lewis, Steve Bracey, Sammy High, Willie Biles, Ken “Grasshopper” Smith. How good were they? Good enough that Tulsa had the leading scorer in the Valley of Death in five of the seven seasons in which Hayes was head coach: Bobby Smith in 1968-69, Lewis in 1970-71, Biles in 1972-73 and 1973-74, and Grasshopper Smith in 1974-75.
Biles has a strong case as Tulsa’s best-ever player. He averaged 30.3 and 24.7 points per game in his final two seasons and was the first MVC player to average more than 30 points per game since the great Oscar Robertson. Biles scored over 40 points in eight games (48 twice) and produced seven of the 10 highest scoring games by an individual in TU history.
So why wasn’t this amazing era more appreciated at the time? Why is it often, in fact, ignored by Tulsa fans, many of whom seem to think TU didn’t even play basketball until Nolan Richardson’s first team won the NIT in 1981? In retrospect, the answer is probably pretty simple. The NCAA tournament of that time was not the “March madness” of today with a field of 64 (not including “play-in” teams) that includes several teams from the major conferences. The NCAA tournament only had 24 teams until 1975 (and, unless you were an independent, you had to win your conference to get in) and the contemporary NIT only had 16. So, only 40 teams had a chance to go to postseason play and simple extrapolation shows that, if those rules had still been in place, TU’s wonderful 1981 team would probably not have gone on to postseason glory and might have vanished from memory. It was a great team and deserves all the fond memories it has generated. But Tulsa had some teams a few years earlier who were just, perhaps more exciting, and who achieved great, arguably miraculous, things in the face of very, very heavy odds.