“Let’s Groove Tonight”

“Share the spice of life.” – Earth, Wind and Fire

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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!  Previous: Part 1: Trojan! Power!

Part 2: Just “Win”

1981-82

By the summer of 1981, we had moved from our duplex into our new house directly across the street from Northwood Elementary School at 1206 Carson Drive. We also welcomed Win Case, a 5’10”, 150 pound lightly recruited point guard out of Tulsa Hale High School who’d spent the majority of his career considered undersized. Hale Coach Robert Sprague kept encouraging the young Case (who averaged 13 points and 10 assists per game for Coach Sprague), and eventually my dad came calling.  

“I was playing in the Tulsa All-star game at Booker T Washington (Tulsa) as a senior, and your dad was the first coach that came up to me after the game and asked if I had any interest in playing at Seminole.  I didn’t even take a recruiting visit. He was a great coach, but an even better recruiter,” Case said laughing.

Case was actually the MVP of that all-star game, but basketball in Tulsa in the late 70’s and in the 80’s was no joke, and Win was still lightly recruited at best following that game. Case was surrounded by great players in Tulsa during those days like Johnny Craven (Tulsa McClain), Tulsa Washington’s Tisdale brothers (William and younger brother Wayman, who were back to back Tulsa City players of the year in 1981 and 82), Creason Hay (Tulsa Washington), Anthony Bowie of Tulsa East Central, and Win’s teammate at Tulsa Hale, Willie Irons. Not to mention, there were two other pretty good point guards in the state during this time named Steve Hale (Jenks) and Mark Price (Enid) who shared player of the year honors with Wayman Tisdale in 1982. But in the summer of 1981, Case showed up at Seminole with little fanfare and even less money in his pockets wearing the only pair of pants he owned.  

“I think God put us together.  My parents were both alcoholics so it was tough upbringing and your dad became a second father to me.  I couldn’t really go home over the holidays or during the summer so he took care of me.  I had one pair of pants when I got to Seminole and they were shorts.  I didn’t have any money, but he made sure the people of Seminole took care of me.  He also made sure I took care of my grades and he coached me.”

The 1981-82 SJC Trojans. Back row (L-R): my dad, Greg Hicks, Richard Casey, Joseph Boutte, Willie Maree, Kenneth Bullard, Anthony Satcher, Henry Wright. Front row (L-R): Charles “Chuckie” Givens, Kelvin Wright, Adam Frank, James Allen, Kevin Ross, Winfred Case

Win Case and “Deac” Wright made up the Trojans’ starting backcourt while Greg Hicks (our lone returning starting) was joined on the frontline by returning sophomore Willie Maree and New Orleans native Anthony Satcher. My dad was a two-time All-American basketball player at Tulane University back in the early 60’s and still maintained some connections in “The Big Easy” that helped him land Satcher, and fellow incoming freshmen – guard Adam Frank, forward James Allen, and 6’7″ center Joseph Boutte.

Wright recalled: “After our first season, Greg Hicks and I walked into your dad’s office and I said ‘Coach, we’re probably going to be ranked in the top 10 next season! He said, hell, we ought to win the whole damn thing!’ Once I heard that I came back to Jacksonville for the summer and worked out. I knew this man was expecting greatness and I worked out so hard before that season started.”

My dad did expect greatness and he expected full effort in practice as well.

“They were some of the toughest practices I’ll ever go through.  But it’s why we had so much success.  He (Coach Kerwin) knew how to push and push and push.  He was very competitive and made sure you were going to be the best player you could be,” recalled Case.  

But the practices weren’t without their share of fun. After practice, my dad would challenge player after player to beat him shooting free throws. Most tried and most failed.

“I think (Anthony) Bowie tried every single day to beat him shooting free throws.  I told him, don’t ever try to beat coach,” said Case.   

Joseph Boutte remembers games of H-O-R-S-E after practices on occasion as well:

“Coach Kerwin, you, and I would play a game of horse after practice. I would try my best to beat Coach, but Coach would not have that. I finally understood that he was spending extra time with me teaching me and helping me build my confidence as a basketball player and as a person. He took a chance on me as a player and to this day I have learned values from his coaching style that still allow me to expect nothing but the best of myself. And for that I am thankful to him.”

My dad always had other thoughts or ideas in how to properly “motivate” his players. Bonnie Ritchie, who was referred to as “Miss Bonnie” by the players, was the Director of the Student Union at SJC during those days. Her main job was to oversee the cafeteria and the snack bar, and she recalls one such idea early in my dad’s tenure:

“When your dad first came to Seminole, and I don’t remember which player, but he came to me to take away his meals as punishment! I looked at him and said ‘Coach, I cannot pretend to tell you how to coach but please do not use the cafeteria as punishment! They don’t like the cafeteria as it is, and it will be worse if you use us for punishment!’ He looked at me and said ‘Bonnie, you are right,’ and he never mentioned it again! We were always good friends!”

“Miss Bonnie” and her husband, Herman, representing for Seminole at the 1999 juco baseball college world series

Full of cafeteria and snack bar food and practice-tested, all the hard work was paying off as the Trojans broke from the gates and started the season with win after win. Through 16 games, we were 16-0, and were indeed that top 10 team that “Deac” had predicted. The SJC Trojans were ranked 10th in the country and were a well-balanced team offensively. “Deac” was averaging 17 points per game, Willie Maree had become an offensive force inside averaging 16.8 ppg, Hicks was at 14.7 ppg, Satcher at 10 ppg and Case was manning the show at point guard and averaging 7.5 ppg. Sixth man Adam Frank was an offensive spark plug off the bench averaging 11 ppg.

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Lean in! Noisy crowds and gyms made listening to my dad in the huddle tough sometimes.

By the time January 14th of 1982 rolled around, there was no doubt that Seminole was on the national junior college radar as the Trojans were sitting at 19-0, and had moved up to #5 in the nation. It’s also when the defending national champion and rival Westark Lions came to town. I was just 11 years old, but I didn’t think our team would ever lose again. I just knew we had Westark’s number this time.

The meeting was the first of two regular season meetings with the Lions who were on a streak of their own. They came into town with three starters off of their national championship team and were led by last year’s national tournament MVP DeWayne Shepard. They too were undefeated at 15-0, ranked #3 in the country, and sports writers and editors across the state took notice.

I love that she sat on the bench because the place was too packed to find a seat elsewhere!

We were playing too good. Even though Shephard had 20 points for Westark, we defeated the Lions 65-58 for our 20th win in a row.

The win streak came to an end just 21 miles down the road a few weeks later in Shawnee when St. Gregory’s College and Coach Don Sumner (my alma mater and coach from 1989-1991) ended the Trojans’ 24 game win streak.

Shawnee history: It happened in March
Longtime St. Gregory’s coach Don Sumner

Coach Don Sumner: “We (my dad and he) had a good relationship. We only had one problem in a game where he said one of my players kicked one of his players. And then there was one game where Joe Thomas was refereeing. We both had been given technicals that night and I’m still on Joe about something, and here he comes over and he was going to put his whistle around my neck, but he didn’t. If I had to do it again I would have taken that whistle and given him a technical!”

My dad recalled the incident too: “I was standing by my bench and Don just looked at me and put his hands up in the air. I yelled at him that he should take over for the next 20 or 30 minutes!”

“(Seminole) used to beat the crap out of my teams, and I still don’t like him for that,” said Sumner. “You can tell him that too. (But that game in 1982) we were playing at OBU (Oklahoma Baptist University) that night because our new field house was being built, and Chad Scott (a second team NJCAA All-American for St. Greg’s) hit about a 40 footer at the buzzer and we won.”

And in our locker room, “Deac” Wright recalled the losing end of a hard fought game:

“We played terrible. Your dad was mad. I remember being in the locker room after the game and the trainer bringing in drinks for us and coach slung those drinks all over us!” Wright said laughing.

The 1981-82 season was also the first season featuring (in my own mind) the All-American ball boy team of myself and my best friend Brandon Buss. Ballboys are responsible for things like providing water and towels to the players or rebounding shots for them when they’re warming up. Brandon and his family had just moved to Seminole and lived just a few houses away from ours across the street from the elementary school. We spent many afternoons on the playground playing tag, shooting baskets, hitting golf balls, and riding our bikes through the woods behind the school. But the weeknight games at Seminole JC were special.

“I remember thinking how big-time we were and just having a great time. I remember going back into the old weight room a lot I think taking cokes to the officials at halftime. You and I also had these red, white, and blue wristbands that we used to wear, and I thought they were so cool,” recalled Buss. “I also remember the bus ride to the national tournament (in ’83) and how cool it was that Win Case was talking to us. I remember your dad and the players cutting down nets after championships too.”

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Big Willie Maree going to work against NEO.

After finishing the regular season at 27-3, the Trojans were the heavy favorites again heading into the state tournament at Fredrickson Fieldhouse on the campus of OCU, and the NEO Golden Norsemen awaited the Trojans in the finals that year.

Thanks to a three-point play by Willie Maree, we went into the locker room up 37-35 at the half. We maintained a pretty steady lead most of the second half until NEO’s Kelvin Upshaw brought the Norsemen to within 67-65 with three minutes remaining. Tournament MVP Greg Hicks scored the next two buckets. “Deac” added a basket and Win Case hit a free throw for a 7-0 run that essentially ended NEO’s chances. Frank and Wright each hit a pair of free throws in the final seconds to secure the 78-71 win. We also held a 34-21 rebounding advantage that night. Frank and Wright joined Hicks on the All-Tournament team.

State champs again. All-American ballboys Kyle Kerwin and Brandon Buss front and center in our official SJC Ballboy shirts and cool wrist bands. Greg Hicks can be seen right behind us holding up his tournament MVP trophy.

Once again the Trojans squared off with Westark in a best-of-three series with a berth in the national tournament on the line. The two split the first two games just like 1981 setting up a winner-take-all game three held on a neutral floor at Connors State College in Warner, Oklahoma.

Recalled Wright: “I remember in game three (against Westark) at Connors (neutral floor) we were killing them, but then the rubber came apart under the backboard and they held up the game while it was being fixed. It’s no excuse but I remember it taking quite a while and for some reason after that we lost the momentum we had.”

Indeed, a 14-2 run over the last eight minutes of the first half and a quick start to the second half by Westark put the Trojans in a hole they could never completely climb out of.

Willie Maree scored 19 and Greg Hicks had 18, but just like the previous season, Westark once again prevailed two games to one, and off to Hutch they went while our season ended at 31-5.

This time the 12th ranked Lions’ season ended after a one-point loss in the first round to Midland College (Midland, TX). Midland went on to win the national championship with a roster of only eight players but was led by All-Americans Puntus Wilson and future NBA slam dunk champion, 5’7″ Anthony “Spud” Webb.

Our original Jacksonville trio all went on to play basketball at other schools. Greg Hicks would sign a letter of intent to play basketball at the University of Hawaii. Bi-State all-conference teammate Willie Maree signed with Hardin-Simmons, and “Deac” Wright was off to play ball at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK.

Another state championship, but another loss in the Region II championship to Westark. After two very successful seasons, it was becoming frustratingly obvious that we were still just a little short when it came to winning the big game that would propel us onward to Hutch. And now, we were losing three key components to our success with the loss of Hicks, Maree, and Wright.

Would we ever beat Westark when it counted? Were we going to be able to keep the winning going?

Well our point guard and leader on the floor, Win Case, was on the recruiting trail along with my dad, and it took them back to Win Case’s hometown of Tulsa and the signing of two very important players.

“Let this groove set in your shoes. So stand up (alright) alright.”

In early 1982 just before our second state championship, Earth, Wind, and Fire were hitting it big with the lead single from their album “Raise!” The song, “Let’s Groove,” still remains probably my favorite Earth, Wind, and Fire song ever and this video is straight fire. It hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 early in 1982 and spent 8 weeks atop the Hot Singles chart as well. The SJC Trojans did some grooving during the ’81-’82 season to the tune of 24 straight wins, and a second straight Oklahoma state championship.

Thanks for reading

sincerely,

the 80’s

Next up: Part 3: The ABC Gang

Bonus photos of Pastor Dr. Henry “Deac” Wright Jr.

Preach on Pastor “Deac!” NEW MT. CALVARY MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH

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2 Responses to “Let’s Groove Tonight”

  1. Pingback: “There’s a Party Tonight, You’re in a Red Light Zone” | sincerely, the 80's

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