Friday, May 24, 2013

Don Finishes Out His College Basketball Career

We kind of take basketball for granted nowadays, but when Don played, the sport was relatively new. Basketball as a college sport started at Kansas University in 1898, where the originator of the game, James Naismith, became the first collegiate basketball coach. Naismith’s successor, Forrest “Phog” Allen, now considered the father of basketball coaches, was still the coach at KU when Don played. Under Allen the Jayhawks won 24 conference championships and three national titles. Since OU and KU were in the same conference, Don played against Kansas every year. At the same time, the coach at Oklahoma A & M, OU’s rival, was Henry “Hank” Iba, also no slouch. He was the first college basketball coach to win two national championships, and also the first coach to win two Olympic championships. Mike Krzyzewski was the second, but he did it with professional players.

Don alternated with Herman “Red” Nelson playing center his junior year. Red Nelson was from Norman Oklahoma, and when I attended college there, I roomed at his mother’s house. Here is a newspaper clipping and picture of Red from 1935.

Herman "Red" Nelson, 1935

Don played on the first string his sophomore, junior and senior years, and during that time the team got better, winning the conference championship his senior year, 1936-37. The reason he played guard part time was because he was  fast and good on defense. Don was the team captain his senior year, and he was a key to their championship. By that time he played center full time because of his height, and his ability to jump and to pass. When OU played Kansas State that last year, Don was the hero of the game, scoring the final basket clinch the victory. OU won the conference championship that year. Here’s a newspaper photo of him from 1935.
Don Gunning, 1935

The next year was Coach McDermott’s last year as OU’s coach. That was the year they changed the rule requiring a jump ball between scores. McDermott was against the rule change, but his fast break strategy continued to work, and earned his last team the nickname, “The Boy Scats.” Don was against the change too, in spite of ingrown toe nails and having to jump against centers three or four inches taller than him. I remember him grousing about it when I was little, saying that they would never be able to take away the advantage of the big man in basketball. He was right about that, but the jump ball was abused too. I read that in one game an especially tall center just tipped the ball to himself to run the clock out.   

Don graduated in 1937 so he wasn't on Coach McDermott's last team, but he did play in the alumna game. I still have Don’s Letter Blanket for basketball. He had one for track too. Wenonah used to put one of them on top of my bed covers on cold nights.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Don Makes the Team

Oklahoma University basketball squad, 1937
Don is third from the left in the back row.

Don had to overcome obstacles in his athletic career all along the way. I mentioned before that he broke his arm in high school and didn’t make the football team until his senior year. It seems like about half the notes in his sophomore year book, even the ones from girls, are consoling him because of his failure to make the team. But he did make the team his senior year, and was so good they tried to flunk him so that he could play for another year.  

Don’s college career didn’t start out much better. He went out for basketball instead of football in college, which made sense because he was really tall. 6 feet 4 inches doesn’t seem that tall now, but at the time he was the tallest man to go out for the team. In spite of his height though, he got no encouragement from Coach Hugh McDermott, who told him that he had no potential, and that he might as well stay at home. By his sophomore year he had made the team.
The game of basketball was different then. There was no shot clock in those days, so there was more passing, and players waited to shoot until they thought they had a sure thing. No one dunked the ball, and there were no extra points for shooting longer shots. Don said that a player would have been taken out of the game for attempting what’s now a three pointer. Scores were lower then. A winning score was often less than 50 points. 

Even without dunking, height was still important in the early days of basketball. Not only did it matter in shooting and guarding, but there was a jump ball after each point. Since Don played center it was up to him to get the ball for his team on the "tip." Even though Don was the tallest man on OU’s team, most of the centers at other schools were taller than him. He often played against men who were six feet seven or eight. It was also up to Don to jump for rebounds. He said that it took several years after he stopped playing basketball for his feet to heal, because his opponents would step on his toes to keep him from jumping.  

Basketball doesn't have the reputation for being as rough a sport as football does, but it can be rough, and it was in Don's day as well. He told me about a "hot shot" freshman rookie who charged up toward the basket during one of his first practices. Don taught him a lesson by raising his arm to block him. The boy was knocked off his feet by the collision and lost a tooth as well. Don said that another time they were playing at OSU and one of his team mates was hit as he jumped up for a rebound. He was knocked into the bleachers by the blow and as his body fell between the seats his scrotum was torn on a nail. 

Don's sophomore year, his first year on the team, was a tough year for him. OU's team was improving. That year they beat their arch rival, Oklahoma A and M, now known as Oklahoma State University. Don said the rivalry between the two Oklahoma schools was so bitter that when OU played at A & M, lettermen would stand along the sidelines of the basketball court, and if one of the OU players stepped out of bounds he would have to start swinging his fists to fight his way back onto the court. Luckily the game against A & M was at OU his first year. 

After the A & M game, the Sooners' winning streak continued in two back to back games against Missouri. The games were on Friday and Saturday night. Don fell on his right arm during the second Missouri game, and it was hurting and swollen the next Tuesday when the team played the first game of a double header against Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas. Don didn't know it yet, but his arm had been broken by the fall. He played the first game anyway. The afternoon before the second game he wrote a letter home to his parents. It was Jan 16, 1935:  

Hotel Eldridge
Lawrence, Kansas                                                     Wednesday
Dear Folks

          Well we played K U last night and they beat us 50 to 23. That is the worst O U has been beaten in a long time. They sure have a good team but they are pretty old and a lot bigger than we are. My man weighs 205# and is about 23 years old. Our team didn’t play near as good as usual. Browning only made one bucket. We play them again tonight and we’ll be in Norman at 8:30 in the morning.
          I fell on my right arm pretty hard in the Missouri game and it is swelled at the elbow about twice its normal size and it sure is sore and stiff. I got to play all but the last two minutes of the game last night but my arm was so sore I couldn’t do much. I made 1 basket, 1 personal foul, and 1 free shot, and I got the tip half the time. I couldn’t straighten my arm clear out or I would have got it all the time. I don=t know whether I’ll get to play any tonight or not, Browning says I can’t, but I think McDermott will let me play some. (“Browning” was Bud Browning, who was a year older than Don and was the star of the team that year. He was also from Enid High, so he and Don were friends. Hugh McDermott, the coach, didn’t let Don play in the next game. He sent him to the doctor as soon as they got back to Norman, and the doctor told Don that he had a broken arm.)
          Browning and I got a telegram from Miller, McCoy, Miss Morrow, and Miss Nellie Moore congratulating us on our Missouri games. They are all high school teachers. I guess that=s all now. I’ll let you know if my elbow gets any worse.

Love Don 

The broken arm put an end to Don’s basketball season, and after the cast was removed he couldn’t straighten out his arm. My uncle Jay said that Don carried a bucket of sand around  that winter to force his arm to straighten out. By springtime he was feeling well enough go out for track, and his arm was strong enough that he placed third in the javelin throw at the Big Six track meet in May.



Sunday, May 5, 2013

My Proudest Moment

My dad didn’t talk to me much about his sports career, and he never encouraged me to pursue any sport myself. It’s not that he wasn’t supportive. He would play catch with me, both with a baseball and a football. I already mentioned how amazed I was that he could throw a football, even without a thumb on his right hand. He built me a basketball goal on the garage and would play with me and show me how to shoot. As I got older and got interested in bowling and tennis, he’d go out and play those sports with me. I enjoyed watching him play. He moved with graceful, rapid movements, and could change directions quickly so you couldn’t anticipate which way he was turning, especially in basketball. 

Don never “exercised” though. He didn't walk or jog, lift weights or do sit ups. He would play golf or bowl with the people he worked with, and was always able to stay competitive with them, and with me, even as he got older, and he didn’t boast or seek any special status because of his accomplishments in sports. It didn’t seem important to him. It was as though it was something he had done in his youth, but was no longer relevant.   

Don did volunteer to “coach” my little league baseball team, halfheartedly. He would stand on the sidelines with the other coaches, and while the others would shout instructions to their sons, and push to get them in the starting lineup, Don just calmly watched the game. It’s not that I was all that competitive in sports myself. I realized that I wasn’t as strong, as coordinated, or as fast as most of my classmates, but I was intensely proud of my dad’s achievements, and I thought he should get more respect.  

There was one time that I got to gloat a little over Don’s prowess though. It was at a company picnic. I must have been 9 or 10 years old. He and Jim and I had eaten our picnic lunch and we were walking around the area, visiting with Don’s associates. The organizers of the picnic had set up some activities to entertain us, and I remember one that was simply a sledge hammer. Men would grip the sledge hammer at the end of the long handle, and try to raise the mallet end without lifting their hand from the ground. We stood there watching men try and fail, one after another. No one could do it. I begged Don to try, and finally he reached down and easily lifted the mallet.  

As we continued to walk around the park, we came upon some men playing softball. They were playing workup. That’s where you start with a group of batters, and a group of fielders. When one of the batters is put out, one of the fielders comes in to bat, and the other fielders work their way up through the positions until they get to bat too. Anyway we watched for a while, and I begged Don to play. I wanted to see him in action.   

Don said he wasn’t interested. I continued to beg though, and after a while I created enough commotion to get the attention of the men who were playing. They invited Don to play, but he turned them down, saying that he didn’t want to leave his family alone while he played softball. After that they conferred with each other, and then invited Don to bat without having to work his way up from the field, so he reluctantly agreed.  

I remember the experience as though it were yesterday. Jim and I were standing behind home plate as the pitcher pitched the ball to Don. Don swung on the first pitch. “Strike one!” The pitcher threw the ball again. “Strike two!” But the next time the pitcher threw the ball, Don didn’t swing. I think he had finally gotten serious. “Ball one.” Said the referee. Then the pitcher threw the ball right down the middle. Don swung the third time and connected.

The ball soared straight over the pitcher’s head, over the second baseman, over the center fielder, and landed in the bushes behind the playing field.  

Don didn’t run around the bases. He just calmly put down the bat, and walked back to join us.