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PVIL success prelude to greatness

Texas is football country and football is a state of mind in Port Arthur, Texas.

“This has always been a football community, and Lincoln has had some great, great football teams,” says Melvin Getwood, a former Lincoln high player, coach and principal.

“When you start talking about basketball in Port Arthur and great teams at Lincoln, that starts with James Gamble and what he built. He kind of changed the culture some, from a football-oriented community to one where basketball could exist within the community.

“He brought it to a new level. He brought basketball in Southeast Texas to an apex.”

That he did.

The honoree for this weekend’s James Gamble Classic basketball tournament at Memorial High coached Lincoln teams that won more than 600 basketball games in a little under three decades of work. More importantly, they won four University Interscholastic League state championships in one eight-year span.

But basketball existed at Lincoln before Gamble’s arrival in 1962.

After all, the school won its first state basketball championship in 1956, as a member of the Prairie View Interscholastic League.

That 76-64 win over Galveston Central for the PVIL 4A title came after title game losses in 1944 (to Galveston Central, 40-29) and in 1948 (to Houston Wheatley, 46-26).

“Lincoln might have won a bunch of state championships,” says historian Reggie Browne, “but it was in the same district with Houston Wheatley a majority of the time.”

Wheatley won six state PVIL hoops titles in a row before Lincoln’s 1956 breakthrough and the Wildcats were back on top in 1957, making it seven titles in eight years. After the integration of the UIL led to the closing of the PVIL in 1967, Wheatley won state UIL titles in 1968, 1969 and 1970.

“In order to win the district,” recalls 70-year-old Allen Isles, the leading scorer on the 1956 team, “you had to go to Houston and beat all of those teams — Wheatley, Yates and Washington, you had to go to Beaumont and beat all of those teams – Charlton-Pollard and Hebert — plus Galveston.”

The PVIL had been originally chartered as the Texas Interscholastic League of Colored Schools in 1920.

“When they first organized, they didn’t have playoffs,” said Browne, a Baytown resident who has spent two decades seeking to locate and preserve records from the PVIL. “Football teams would go 9-0 and say they were state champs, so they finally started having playoffs. They didn’t start having a state basketball tournament until 1940 and they were held every year at Prairie View though 1967.”

Isles, Roy Carruth, Thomas McClain and twins Edward and Edgar Frelow were the five senior starters on coach Harvey Bradshaw’s 26-2 state champions in 1956.

“We only lost two games that year,” Isles remembered. “St. Elizabeth, a private school out of Chicago, came to Port Arthur and beat us by one point in our first game of the year, and Jack Yates out of Houston beat us by two points in a district game.”

An all-stater, Isles was a 6-foot-4 forward. Edward Frelow was a 6-3 forward and Edgar Frelow a 6-1 guard. McClain, another guard for Bradshaw, was the quarterback on the football team. Carruth, the 6-foot-9 center, had only played basketball two years.

After claiming the state title, the Bumblebees played in a national tournament in Nashville, Tenn., losing in the semifinals. For McClain, spotlight games were old hat.

He had been a member of Lincoln’s 1955 state football champions, part of an amazing grid streak that saw Lincoln go unbeaten in 53 straight football games, including a win in the 1953 state championship.

“Yeah, Lincoln was noted for their football team mostly,” Isles says. “Basketball was secondary. The reason we had a good year in ‘56 was that most of us had played together since we were kids.”

Levi Adams has another theory.

“In 1956, coach Bradshaw sort of changed the whole style of basketball, to run and shoot. Prior to that, his defense would always go and set up in a zone,” said Adams, a member of Bee basketball teams in 1953-55 who got his state title in tennis in 1955.

“The fast break must have helped the team out. He went all the way.”

Isles recalls that Bradshaw came to Port Arthur after having played basketball for Huston-Tillotson College in Austin.

“He was a teacher at first, then they made him basketball coach. He must have coached for 10 to 15 years,” Isles said. “He was an outstanding coach. He didn’t believe in all that fancy stuff like dunking and dribbling behind the back. He believed in a lot of discipline.”

Aaron Brown was one of Bradshaw’s last players and one of distinction. The 6-5 two-sport star went on to win a Super Bowl ring as a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Gamble succeeded Bradshaw in 1962 and the former Prairie View all-American found the district to be as tough as advertised. In 1963, the Bees finished 22-5 overall, but only third in district.

That team included three top players in Harry Gunner, Archie Lofton and Percy Mays. Lawrence Bonton and Leonard King were other top Bee players as the PVIL Era in Texas sports came to an end.

 

Next: Gamble lays a foundation