, Port Arthur, Texas


March 23, 2013

West column: NCAA tournament an embarrassment for Texas basketball

PORT ARTHUR — Even for a football state, the goose egg Texas schools produced on NCAA selection Sunday was about as embarrassing as it gets. To have 16 Division 1 teams playing in seven conferences with automatic bids and come up empty is a terrible indictment of Lone Star basketball programs. Russia and China put as many teams in the tournament as Texas. Montana, Idaho and South Dakota had more. If you are wondering, it was the first time since 1977 there was not a team from Texas in the NCAAs . . . You probably couldn’t find 10 people in Southeast Texas who know the nickname of North Carolina A&T sports teams, but the Aggies opening round NCAA victory over Liberty was warmly received in one Groves household. A&T’s athletic director Earl Hilton III, you see, is the son of Estelle and Earl Hilton Jr. Hilton III, who played center on Doug Ethridge’s 1981-82 PN-G football teams, and earned a degree in Political Science from Lamar, is in his second year as the Aggies’ athletic director . . . Another proud local dad during the NCAA tourney was Lamar athletics coordinator Tic Price. Tic, who came to LU as part of Steve Roccaforte’s staff, got to watch his son’s Southern University team nearly make history by being the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No.1 (Gonzaga). Ryan Price is a 28-year-old assistant at Southern who is already building a reputation as a hotshot recruiter. He played for his dad when Tic was head coach at McNeese State.

Don’t think I’ve ever seen a better, more compelling documentary that ESPN’s 30 for 30  examination of the totally improbable run to the 1983 NCAA championship by Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State team. Titled Survive and Advance, it’s built around a reunion of the 1983 team, and highlights of one down-to-the wire victory after another, culminated by a 54-52 victory over Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the seemingly unbeatable Houston Cougars. Before toppling Phi Slamma Jamma, in a title game that’s long been cited as the reason UH coach Guy Lewis is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame, N.C. State took out Michael Jordan and North Carolina and College Player of the Year Ralph Sampson and Virginia.  Valvano, of course, would later be stricken with cancer and his fight is also part of the documentary. If you haven’t seen it, several more airings are scheduled. The guy with the mustache next to Valvano in many of the game scenes, by the way, is former Lamar coach Tom Abatemarco . . . Another must-see as far as I’m concerned is the movie “42”, which is Hollywood’s latest effort to spell out what Jackie Robinson went through to break the color barrier in major league baseball. Due out April 12, with relatively unknown actor Chadwick Boseman playing Robinson, and Harrison Ford in the Branch Rickey role, it’s been getting terrific reviews. Kids today, who have no idea of the degradation Robinson endured, need to see this movie. So do a lot of parents who probably need to be reminded how disgusting things really were in America not all that long ago. At the very least, it will reinforce what an amazing guy Jackie Robinson was.

Last week’s lead column item was about an intensive letter-writing effort by former players on behalf of the late Buckshot Underwood getting the former TJ coach voted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor, with induction set for July 31 in Fort Worth. That led me to check out how many former head coaches at Port Arthur high schools have been so honored. The list is impressively long, starting with legendary Yellow Jacket boss Tom Dennis. The other TJ coach on the list is Doug Ethridge, although he comes with a bit of an asterisk. Ethridge coached at TJ for only one year, before going on to have great success at Port Neches-Groves. Lincoln honorees are football’s Joe Washington and basketball’s James Gamble. Two SFA football coaches — John Blocker and Richard Marler — are also inductes . . . Houston’s Astrodome, which is silently rotting in the shadow of Reliant Stadium, was long known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Less than 50 years later, the cost of making it disappear is probably the Ninth Wonder of the World. The latest estimate is $29 million to demolish and build a 1,600-space parking lot to be used for Texans’ games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. While that figure is staggering, it’s down considerably from a 2012 study that put out a $64 million price tag to bring down the Dome and replace it with a plaza. Bear in mind that the entire cost for Judge Roy Hofheinz’s out-of-this-world facility in 1965 was a “mere”  $30 million. Ironically, that’s how much Houston taxpayers still owe on a late 1980s renovation done to keep then-owner Bud Adams from moving the Oilers to Jacksonville. It worked until Tennessee bought the owner and the Oilers.

Lamar fans, as I feared given the paralyzing apathy created by Pat Knight’s 3-28 Cardinals, didn’t step up in Southland Conference online voting for the League’s Greatest Basketball Moment. Northwestern State’s “Demons of Destiny” got the necessary fan support for its 2005-06 team that, as a No. 14 seed, knocked out No. 3 Iowa on a buzzer beater in the first round of the NCAA. For that to top Lamar’s 1979-83 NCAA heroics under Billy Tubbs and Pat Foster, with four first round wins, and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 1980 sparked by a win over No. 2 seed Oregon State, is sickening. But it says everything you need to know about what has always been a very narrow fan base . . . If you watched CBS’ NCAA selection show, you are familiar with the various cutaways to teams gathered in restaurants and meeting rooms to see who and where they were going to play. No team found out about its assignment in a more unique way than St. Louis. The Billikens, after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn, had planned to watch the show on televisions at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. New York traffic, however, foiled the plan . A quick-thinking member of the travel party, not wanting the team to miss the selections, ordered the bus driver to pull into a Best Buy in Seacacus, N.J., figuring the players could assemble where the store’s TV to sell  were on display. A Best Buy store manager quickly sized up the situation and put the team in its “Magnolia Room.” That’s where they learned they would be playing New Mexico State in San Jose, Calif.

Lots of public relations value for the Texans in signing one of the NFL’s all-time great safeties, Ed Reed, as a free agent. With fans moaning and mumbling and grumbling about how many significant contributors  — Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Eric Winston, Connor Barwin, James Casey and Glover Quinn — have left due to salary cap constraints the past couple of years, bringing in somebody like Reed changes the vibe a bit. As a player whose skills are declining, Reed’s strongest selling points are his leadership and experience. Hopefully, he still has the inner fire to make the move pay off for Houston. Troubling, though, is the lack of interest in him from other teams . . . Most of the attention for Texas A&M’s resurgent football program has centered on QB Johnny Manziel and the explosive Aggie offense that laid waste to the likes of Alabama and Oklahoma. At least one NFL team, however, is interested in some of A&M’s defensive thinking. Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy, in anticipation of seeing more of the college-style plays Seattle’s Russell Wilson, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Washington’s Robert Griffin III unleashed last year, is sending his defensive coaches to A&M’s spring practice. Their assignment is to study the schemes the Aggies use against spread offenses . . . Chris Stroud’s Southeast Texas followers will be disappointed when they see he shot 74 Saturday at Bay Hill and dropped 28 places in the standings. Stroud, though, showed impressive resilience after hitting his opening tee shot out of bounds and taking a triple bogey 7 on the first hole. He rebounded with back-to-back birdies and got to even par with a third birdie at 10, before making bogeys at 14 and 15. Chris is still in position to pick up a nice check with a good finish on Sunday, and whatever happens is gravy. As of last Monday, he was the sixth alternate, didn’t fly to Orlando until Wednesday and didn’t know he was in the field until Thursday morning.

Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at

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