By Matt Vines for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association
NATCHITOCHES – The 2020 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductees competed on the biggest stages under the brightest lights across the country and around the world, but a recurring theme underlined Thursday’s press conference and welcome reception at the hall of fame museum.
Five of the seven competitive inductees cut their teeth in small towns, on dirt courts or in grass fields chiseled from the rural Louisiana landscape.
All four of the other honorees either grew up in small towns or were shaped by rural Louisiana on their way to wildly successful careers.
Thursday’s opening press conference kicks off a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction weekend that will enshrine competitive inductees like basketball’s Kerry Kittles, Angela Turner Johnson and “Sweet Lou” Dunbar, legendary football coach Mackie Freeze, noted NFL cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, world famous bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman and quarterback turned famed outdoorsman Phil Robertson.
The hall will also honor its first Louisiana Sports Ambassador Award recipient Tim Brando along with Joan Cronan (Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award) and Robin Fambrough and Kent Lowe, this year’s Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism recipients.
Saturday night’s Hall of Fame ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center caps a weekend full of festivities to honor Louisiana’s greatest athletes.
“Sweet Lou” Dunbar perfected his game on a dirt basketball court in Minden.
Before he made his name at the all-black Webster High, starting his high school and college battle with future NBA Hall of Famer Robert Parish, Dunbar had to outsmart his neighbor Mr. Odom’s bulldog if the basketball went over the fence from his dirt court.
“We had to trick the dog as one of us distracted him from the front so another guy could jump the fence and get our ball back,” Dunbar said with his wide grin that would eventually be seen across the world as a Harlem Globetrotter.
After winning Mr. Basketball and a state title as a senior in 1971 (scoring 49 points in the state championship game), the 6-foot-9 point guard ahead of his time excelled at the University of Houston, averaging 22 points and nearly eight rebounds in his career.
But instead of playing in the NBA, Dunbar competed three seasons in Switzerland before a 27-year playing career with the Harlem Globetrotters and is still serving as a coach and director of player development.
Dunbar’s record is of course unbeaten as a Globetrotter, traveling to more than 90 countries and meeting dignitaries like the pope.
“My childhood heroes were guys like Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, ‘Tex’ Harrison and Marques Haynes,” said Dunbar’s, whose No. 41 is the last of eight retired Globetrotter jerseys, except for when his son “Sweet Lou II” is on the court. “Beating the Harlem Globetrotters would be like shooting Santa Claus, and nobody wants to see that.”
Minden seems small to most, unless you’re a native of Shady Grove like Angela Turner Johnson and graduated with a class of 17 from Shady Grove High.
Louisiana Tech women’s basketball coach Sonja Hogg donned a white mink coat as she stepped into an overflowing Shady Grove High gym to recruit Turner, a two-time state MVP who scored 3,780 points in high school and averaged 31 points and 15 rebounds on a state championship team as a senior.
Turner continued her winning ways as she helped turned Louisiana Tech into a national power, capturing the final AIAW national title in 1982 before taking the first NCAA women’s championship in 1983.
Tech made four Final Fours in her Turner’s tenure, and the mid-range specialist was the Final Four MVP in 1981.
“We might have been a little town and a little school, but we had big hearts,” Turner said of Shady Grove, which helped form a personality being comfortable out of the spotlight with stud Louisiana Tech teammates. “I’m joining three players from those Louisiana Tech teams (Pam Kelly, Kim Mulkey and Janice Lawrence-Braxton) and both of my coaches (Hogg and Leon Barmore) in this hall of fame, and at that time, we just didn’t know the impact we would have on women’s basketball.
“But we did think we could win a title. Pam and I told our coaches and (President F. Jay Taylor) that we were going to win a national championship. We won two.”
Joan Cronan wanted to play baseball with the boys in her hometown of Opelousas, an opportunity denied that fueled her to open a floodgate of opportunities for future girls and women.
The impactful administrator helped shape Tennessee women’s basketball into the preeminent national program with coach Pat Summit after guiding College of Charleston women’s athletics to new heights.
“I was a little girl who wanted to play ball and didn’t have a chance, but it’s so much fun to see the television and radio stations broadcasting women’s sports like they are now – I dreamed of that,” said Cronan, who served as Tennessee’s women’s athletics director for nearly three decades before becoming UT’s overall athletics director. “Being in the hall of fame representing women who have made such a journey is truly an honor.”
Cronan, an LSU graduate, is also in her alma mater’s Hall of Distinction.
“I get asked what sport I played to make it in that group, and I say that I was an intermural ping pong and tennis champion because it’s all they had,” Cronan said. “I’ve always said I’m a Cajun with orange blood, but my heart is in Louisiana.”
New Orleans native Kerry Kittles may not have been molded by Louisiana’s fields and streams, but he did choose a school with an intimate setting like Villanova on the edge of a major city in Philadelphia.
Kittles, a St. Augustine standout who led the Purple Knights to a 66-5 mark that culminated in a Class 5A state title, thrived as a Wildcat, too.
He set 15 career records, including 2,243 career points on his way to Big East Player of the Year and the program’s first Big East Tournament crown.
“New Orleans felt small compared to major East Coast city like Philadelphia, but Villanova checked all the boxes – small school in a major city in a great conference with immediate playing time because they had four seniors leaving,” said Kittles, who blossomed as an NBA player that averaged 14 points over eight seasons, including two NBA Finals appearances with the New Jersey Nets. “When you get to the NBA, you’re playing against your heroes like Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller and Clyde Drexler, and you can’t believe that you have try to go against them.
“But it’s fun to play against those guys and compete, and then make two NBA Finals. We just happened to go up against Shaq’s and Kobe’s Lakers one year and Tim Duncan’s and David Robinson’s Spurs the next year. But it’s a great experience to look back on.”
Charles Tillman knows about facing greatness on a sport’s biggest stage.
The 13-year NFL cornerback helped the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers reach Super Bowls in 2006 and 2015 – falling to fellow Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos) both times.
“If we could, can we kick (Manning) out of the Hall of the Fame?” said Tillman, who recorded 38 interceptions with eight returned for touchdowns to go with 44 forced fumbles (sixth in NFL history). “He got me twice – we need to get rid of him.
“But it’s such an honor to be part of a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame with so many great athletes.”
The Chicago native and Texas resident came to Louisiana via UL Lafayette despite what he recalled a “terrible” recruiting trip.
“They were serving crawfish and shrimp etouffee, and I didn’t eat crawfish or shrimp,” recalled Tillman, an eventual second-round draft pick who earned the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. “But the coaches took me to a steakhouse the next night and let me order anything I wanted since I was a Texas guy, and I’ve grown to love Louisiana culture.”
Tillman said he had a detailed plan since high school of his path to the NFL, but bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman had to be persuaded to travel his Hall of Fame path.
The law enforcement officer in Arlington, Texas, was using a scant weight set at the police station to continue his love of lifting, but it took more than a push to get into bodybuilding.
“One of the guys on the force took me to Metroflex Gym, and owner Brian Dobson asked if I’d ever thought about bodybuilding,” Coleman said. “Definitely not. My diet consisted of pizza, hamburgers and fried chicken, and I didn’t want to take the drugs that I’d heard those guys had to do.
“He offered me a free gym membership if I’d go compete in this upcoming show, and I told him that he should have started with that.”
Coleman won his first couple of shows and placed third at a huge amateur show nationwide.
The next year, Coleman won the world championships as an amateur, which turned into a record eight “Mr. Olympia” honors, a record for that sport that earned him the nickname “The King” and drew comparisons to Michael Jordan as a dominant force in his own sport.
Coleman’s love of weightlifting developed as a young boy in Bastrop, which eventually led him to play football for legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson.
Mackie Freeze didn’t have a set career plan when he arrived on Grambling’s campus after serving a year-and-a-half in World War II.
A self-described “good old country boy,” Freeze was a basketball player and a baseball second baseman before meeting Robinson and RWE Jones, the school’s president and baseball coach.
“I learned how to curve a softball from my Daddy, and Coach Jones told me I’m not a second baseman, I’m a pitcher,” said Freeze, who ended up in Brooklyn Dodgers camp with Jackie Robinson. “But then I was catching a football, and Coach Robinson asked me if I’d ever seen a football game.
“I hadn’t. I told him I was a basketball player. He said, ‘No, you’re a football player.”
Freeze never lost a game as a Grambling pitcher and did make a few football appearances as an offensive guard, but neither Robinson or Jones predicted what would put Freeze in the Hall of Fame.
Freeze eventually became the head football coach at Richwood High School, starting the program with $350 and a lot of help and equipment donations from the Richwood/Monroe/West Monroe community.
His Rams posted a 116-23 record that included a 56-game winning streak and four consecutive titles from 1961-64 before Freeze accepted an assistant principal position.
The 94-year-old is oldest living honoree to be inducted.
Acclaimed sports broadcaster Tim Brando isn’t 94, but he started his 50-year media career at age 14 by becoming the color analyst for the Neville Tigers.
His father Hub Brando convinced the Fair Park High School administration in Shreveport to let Tim out on noon on football Fridays so he could catch a bus to Monroe and call Neville games with his dad.
That started an obsession with sports broadcasting that led Brando to a national career with ESPN, CBS and Fox Sports among others, including being a leading voice of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament while at CBS.
“I wanted to do play-by-play, that was my goal,” Brando said. “Neville, a state contending program with Charlie Brown and Bill Ruple as icons, needed a radio crew, but my Dad said he’d only do it if he could pick his second banana.
“He knew he would pick his 14-year-old son just to get me reps. I wanted to be the next Curt Gowdy or Jim Simpson or Keith Jackson.”
Kent Lowe was Brando’s statistics man on the radio crew when the pair were in graduate school at LSU.
Lowe forged his career first as the Louisiana Downs public relations director before a 34-year career at LSU that is still ongoing.
He’s promoted the likes of Dale Brown and Shaquille O’Neal as the men’s basketball contact among other sports.
“Brando told me that we were going to make it big together, but somewhere along the way our paths diverged,” joked Lowe, who is an acclaimed bowling writer along with being an average bowler. “I was in graduate school when Dale Brown made the Final Four, so we had already established a relationship when I went back to LSU in 1988.
“Shaq was already getting a personality while at LSU, and even though he didn’t always want to do interviews, he had a lot of fun once we got him there.”
Robin Fambrough made her name at The Baton Rouge Advocate in her 30-plus year career, but it wasn’t for covering LSU sports.
Fambrough writes stories about the high school athletes who would go on to play at LSU and other colleges.
The Kentucky native grew up in gyms and on fields, just not as a player.
“I was a member of my high schools first girls basketball team, but that didn’t last long,” Fambrough said. “I wrote about my program’s first win – two years later when I was a reporter for the newspaper.
“This is really an honor of a lifetime. It’s amazing to watch people you covered in high school grow and become who they are today.”
— Featured photo courtesy of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum