OKLAHOMA CITY – The Gophers were holding a practice late Friday afternoon at Ann Lacy Stadium, the home for Oklahoma City University’s powerful NAIA softball program. Across the street, there was a campus building that housed the basketball arena.
The media corps in attendance included a Twin Cities TV crew and young, energetic reporters from the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. Only a journalist as aged as the sports writer representing the Star Tribune could find the significance in the name of that gym:
Abe Lemons Arena.
Lemons (1922-2002) was the coach who turned basketball into a huge wintertime deal — once the Sooners’ Orange Bowl appearance was over — in Oklahoma City a half-century before the Seattle Supersonics became the OKC Thunder in 2008.
The Oklahoma City U. Chiefs had four consecutive appearances as an independent in the NCAA’s compact tournament bracket from 1952 to 1955 with Doyle Parrack as coach. Parrack moved 20 miles south to Norman to coach the Sooners and Lemons took over for the 1955-56 season.
Abe was a proud, bull-slingin’ country boy from Walters, Okla., and immediately took the Chiefs to consecutive regional finals, losing to SMU and Jim Krebs in 1956 and Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in 1957.
Lemons was featured inside the Jan. 4, 1965, edition of Sports Illustrated, in a piece written by 27-year-old Frank Deford and carrying the headline: “Abe Lemons and His Poor Ol’ Hongry Farm Boys.”
The first few words were indisputable: “Abe Lemons is the funniest man in basketball …”
The high-scoring Chiefs were in the midst of four straight NCAA appearances and were popular throughout the country. Lemons had games scheduled in Hawaii, New Orleans and Miami that winter.
“I ain’t much for them little-bitty places you got to swap planes to get to,’’ Lemons told Deford.
Lemons went to Pan American for a raise in 1973, then was hired at Texas in 1976. When fired in 1982, Abe said, “They finally got me.”
He returned to OCU in 1983 for seven seasons, during which it became an NAIA athletic program. The nickname is now the Stars and they are potent nationally and in the Sooner Athletic Conference.
Infamous Abe Lemons quotes:
• On scheduling:“Went to Hawaii and they made us honorary Hawaiians. Went to Alaska and they made us honorary Alaskans. We’re going to the Virgin Islands this year.”
• To Howard Cosell: “You may be a big deal in New York, but in Walters, Oklahoma, you’re nobody.”
• On coaches: “I don’t understand these new coaches that don’t drink. What do they do when they get beat?”
Read Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick.