“Come on! (Let’s Celebrate)” – Kool and the Gang
In this five part series, I honor my dad and the players that made magic happen on a “God-awful blue court” in a gym located on the campus of Seminole Junior College in Seminole, Oklahoma. My dad and those players were more than just a coach and his ballplayers. They were my heroes, and this series of posts is a dedication to that time, those men, and some unbelievable basketball. And, oh yeah, you know I’m going to bring some sweet sounds from that era as well!
Part 1: Trojan! Power!
I moved to Seminole, Oklahoma in the summer of 1980 when I was 9 years old. Ronald Reagan was President, inflation was 13.5%, the average cost of a new home was $68,000, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the year at 963 (it’s currently hovering around 30,000 as of mid December, 2020). And, you know what? I didn’t care about any of that. I was nine, remember? Pay attention, cause here we go…
What I did care about during those formative years was making friends, riding bikes in the woods behind Northwood Elementary School, trading baseball cards, listening to cassettes on my Walkman, and playing sports. And it pretty much remained that way the entirety of the four years our family spent in Seminole.
My dad was hired as the head men’s basketball coach at Seminole Junior College after a successful two-year stint at Northern Oklahoma Junior College in Tonkawa, Oklahoma (N.O.C.).
In our two years at Northern, our team was led by one of the best junior college forwards in the country who hailed from Jacksonville, Florida. People just called him “Slim,” but Rodney “Slim” Jones was more than just a cool nickname. For two years, he led our Northern teams to 24-8 and 21-9 records, and he did something maybe even more important – he helped open up the pipeline from Jacksonville, Florida to Oklahoma that fueled many of my dad’s teams for years to come.
My dad: “Rodney Jones was about 6th or 7th man for Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Coach Lanny Van Eman told Ribault’s coach Bernard Wilkes that he should send some of his players to play for me at Northern. So I called Coach Wilkes and told him to send me both the players he was trying to find colleges for. One (Al Madison) only lasted maybe a semester or a little more, but Rodney Jones turned into an All-American. Coach Wilkes was so impressed with how Rodney turned out that he started sending me more and more players when I got to Seminole.”
Rodney Jones: “I was actually the last man on my Ribault team. I quit the day after the final cut to work at our local super market bagging groceries.”
The 24-8 NOC team in 1978-79 was the best record in Northern history at the time and was capped with an Oklahoma State Junior College championship. The 21-9 team in 1979-80 averaged over 80 points per game and made it to the semifinals losing to eventual champion Connors State College. Rodney Jones was recruited by over 125 Division I schools by the end of his sophomore campaign and eventually chose head coach Larry Little, assistant coach Riley Wallace, and the University of Hawaii over TCU in Dallas (his second choice).
When Seminole came calling and my dad accepted the job, our family (which consisted of my mom, Gayle, my one-year old sister Kari, and myself) packed up for Seminole, Oklahoma. The town had an oil boom back in the mid 1920’s that saw its’ population soar to almost 25,000 people, but by the time we moved there in the summer of 1980 Seminole’s population was holding steady at approximately 8,500 residents.
Little did we know what lie ahead the next four years for my dad, his teams, and the town of Seminole: Four years, four Oklahoma Junior College state championships, two Region II championships, and one magical run to the NJCAA national championship game.
My dad (then 39 years old) was hired to take over the Seminole Trojans after the firing of former coach Jack Herron who was coming off a 9-19 season at Seminole. Headed by a search committee that included SJC President Elmer Tanner and athletic director Thurman Edwards, my dad beat out Robert McPherson of Western and Cletus Green of NEO to land the job. Edwards was a native of Seminole where he was a high school sports star, and was SJC’s first ever athletic director serving as A.D. from 1975 to 1994.
Edwards recalled: “Cletus didn’t speak to me for years afterwards. He was my high school coach at Seminole and we had a good relationship, but he thought the Seminole job was going to be his, but I had been watching your dad even as far back as when he coached at Stillwater (where he was coach at Stillwater High School from 1973-78).”
“I had been playing racquetball and golf with Myron Roderick (Oklahoma State University wrestling and tennis great, coach, and eventually OSU Athletic Director from ’83-’90) who encouraged me to consider and follow your dad. Elmer Tanner let me be an athletic director, and said if you want this Kerwin guy, go hire him. The rest is history.”
At the press conference my dad was quoted as saying: “Of all the junior colleges in the state, I feel Seminole can be the best.” He was right on the money as he jumped from the old Oklahoma Junior College Conference (OJCC) to the Bi-State Conference. Edwards added “one of the principal reasons that made him so successful in Juco is that he taught defense.“
The better quotes from his presser that day though came from my mom who said: “I’m enthusiastic. I yell a lot. I’ve never met a good official, and I’m into the game at all times.”
And was my mom ever into the games. She could easily be heard yelling at the officials, cheering on the players, or stomping on the metal stands and leading the “Defense!” chants. She sponsored the cheerleaders our first season in Seminole and always helped lead the “Trojan Power!” cheer during timeouts where one side of the gymnasium would yell “Trojan!” and the other side would respond with “Power!”
We moved into a duplex in Seminole as my dad hit the recruiting trail and welcomed in a few key transfers to his first team.
The 1980-81 team featured a starting backcourt of sophomore Ralph Davis (a transfer from Oklahoma Christian in Edmond and very good all-around point guard) and sophomore Rick Westfall of Mesquite, TX (honorable mention all-conference). Our athletic front-court featured 6’5 freshman Greg Hicks of Jacksonville, Florida, All-American honorable mention Harold Taylor (another Sophomore transfer from Oklahoma Christian), and big man (and my favorite player on dad’s first team) – Bruce Lee of Edmond, OK.
Lee, a Division I prospect, was fresh off of a MVP performance at the annual Faith 7 basketball game featuring the best high school players in Oklahoma against the best high schoolers in Texas when he opted for Seminole JC where he could work to develop his outside game. Providing bench punch was big man Willie Maree of Jacksonville, and guards Frank Comisky (Albuquerque, NM), and Henry “Deac” Wright of Jacksonville.
“Deac” (short for “Deacon,” a nickname he picked up as a youth having a dad that was a pastor for 35 years) was a raw talent when he came to Seminole. “Deac” didn’t even play basketball in high school, but his Jacksonville friend “Slim” Jones convinced my dad to give him a chance. So my dad flew to Jacksonville, Florida to check out this unheralded player.
Wright recalled seeing him in his Jacksonville neighborhood at the house next door. “He said I’m looking for “Deac” and I said, that’s me. So he came in and met my mom and then we went up to Ribault High School. We didn’t really do much but shoot around a little bit and I showed off some dunks, and that’s all he said he needed to see. We went back to my my house and he told my mom that he was offering me a scholarship and my mom started crying. It was answered prayers for her.”
My dad: “When I flew to Jacksonville to see “Deac” I just figured if he wasn’t any good I could make him the manager or something. Turns out he ended up being really good.”
And so it was off to Seminole, Oklahoma for “Deac” as well as 6’5″ Willie Maree and 6’5″ Greg Hicks, an outstanding athlete and Florida All-Stater.
“Seminole was a culture shock!” said Wright, “It was like we stepped back in time coming from Jacksonville to Seminole! The wardrobe. The language. The social life went downhill for me when I got to Seminole, and we didn’t know what to do when it snowed! None of us had coats or clothes for the cold weather and we didn’t know it got that cold! But when we were on the basketball floor we had fun. Your dad would get in your chest and yell and scream, but he got the best out of us.”
He had to get the best out of them, because the brutal Bi-State Conference consisted of some tough teams and legendary coaches like Don Sumner (St. Gregory’s), Cletus Green (NEO), Mickey Weiberg (Carl Albert / Connors), and Gayle Kaundart (Westark). The teams in the Bi-State Conference consisted of: St. Gregory’s College (Shawnee, OK), Carl Albert (Poteau, OK), Claremore, OK, Westark (Ft. Smith, AR), NEO (Miami, OK), Oklahoma City SW, Bacone College (Muskogee, OK), and Seminole.
After a slow start that found the Trojans just 5-4 after our first nine games, we caught fire and finished the ’80-’81 regular season winning seven of our final nine games to complete a 22-9 record and a second place finish in the Bi-State Conference.
In the first round of the Oklahoma State Junior College tournament at Fredrickson Fieldhouse in Oklahoma City, the Trojans faced Eastern. The two teams had split during the regular season, and we were good enough to win the rubber match that day – 59-51. A semi-final win followed over Claremore, who we had also split with during the season in two high-scoring closely contested overtime games (a 107-106 OT win and an 84-82 OT loss). It was another high scoring game, but no overtime this time around as Bruce Lee pumped in 23 points while Ralph Davis and Harold Taylor each had 22 in the 95-87 semi-final win.
St. Gregory’s College, a team Seminole had beaten twice during the regular season, awaited the Trojans in the finals. The Cavaliers’ talented Larry Skinner led all scorers with 25, but a dismal 35% field goal shooting percentage doomed St. Greg’s. The Trojans led by 17 with 10 minutes to go and the Cavaliers never got any closer than 12 the rest of the game. Harold Taylor, who would go on to sign with Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and is remembered for his huge hands and big vertical, only had eight points, but was still named the tournament’s MVP on the strength of the first two wins. He would also receive honorable mention All-American that season. Bruce Lee had 17 points and joined Taylor also on the all-tournament team. Greg Hicks led the Trojans with 19 points in the finals.
“I think we controlled the tempo of the game. We ran when we could, and set it up when we wanted,” said my dad after the win. “The whole key has been our defense. It’s been three good days of defense that has carried us.”
The 25-9 Trojans then battled our arch nemesis – Westark College located in Ft. Smith, AR, in a best-of-three series where the winner earned a birth in the National Championship tournament as the winner of Region II. Even though we were in the same conference as Westark, the Lions played in the Arkansas State Junior College tournament, which they had won to set up the showdown.
The NJCAA National Tournament has been held every year since 1949 in Hutchinson, Kansas. “Hutch,” a town on the Kansas plains with a population of about 45,000 people back in the mid to late 80’s, was the mecca of junior college basketball, and it was the destination goal of every junior college basketball program in the country. In game one, our Trojans won a hard fought battle 46-44. But we couldn’t win pull out a second win losing the next two games to Westark 51-46 and 59-55. We ended our first season at 26-11.
The Westark Lions, who had defeated my Seminole Trojans by nine total points in the last two games proceeded to “Hutch” where they promptly won the national title over Lincoln College (Illinois) 67-50. Westark finished 33-5 and only had to survive one game in Hutch where they didn’t win by double digits.
By the summer of 1981, my dad’s team had lost every player except the Jacksonville trio of Hicks, Maree and Wright. Four starters were gone – Taylor to Arkansas Tech, Ralph Davis to my dad’s alma mater, Tulane University, and All-conference honorable mention Rick Westfall was gone to the University of Missouri.
The 6’7″ Lee was also gone to the University of Oklahoma. Lee was tough and skilled and was a leader on that first Seminole team, but he opted to transfer to OU after his freshman season where he then spent two seasons in a supporting role for the Sooners. Lee had one of the most outstanding games my dad ever recalled while at Seminole when Lee scored 28 points and pulled down 26 rebounds against Claremore College. Lee also played his junior season at OU in 1983 with a freshman All American sensation from Tulsa named Wayman Tisdale.
Sadly Lee didn’t get to see his senior season at OU. Bruce Lee passed away in May 1983 during a routine tonsillectomy in Oklahoma City. The official cause of death was cardiomyopathy, which is an abnormality of the heart.
“He (Lee) played with great determination, desire, and pride,” my dad shortly after Lee’s passing. “As a coach in recruiting other players, Bruce was an example of the ideal standards you look for in recruiting. I feel very fortunate that Bruce touched my life that one year he was an athlete at Seminole Junior College.”
In the summer of 1981, we welcomed ten new faces including three more from Jacksonville. Our new roster for 1981-82 season consisted of six players from Jacksonville, four from New Orleans, one Californian, one player from Kentucky, and one lone Oklahoman. The Oklahoman was a small point guard from Tulsa that no major colleges recruited. He may have been the most important recruit in Seminole Junior College basketball history though, and his name was Winfred Case.
“There’s a party goin’ on right here. A celebration to last throughout the years.”
If ever a song personified our four years at Seminole, it’s this Kool and the Gang classic that hit #1 in February of 1981 just weeks before the first SJC state championship. Any of you that have visited this site in the past know this site is also a partial dedication to the music of the 80’s, and the early 80’s R&B scene was vibrant and cool and I loved it. After practice I remember the players hanging around in the SJC gym getting a little more work in, and there was usually a big boombox sitting on the baseline blasting out the latest hits. I’m sure this one was in heavy rotation in 1981. It was for me.
I was able to see Kool and the Gang in concert one time back in 2012 and I thought they were fantastic. Still do. Thanks for reading.
Coming next: Part 2: Just “Win”
The man responsible for opening the Jacksonville, Florida connection for my dad: Rodney “(still looking) Slim” Jones and his family.