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.