Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).
Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.
This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).
In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.
A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.
Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.
`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘
Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.
The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad. It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.
Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).
In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.
Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.
My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.
It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.
More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.
The above is Part 2 of a series about Chicago and Arkansas sports ties.
Is it in the least surprising that a city known for its wind should have so many interesting people floating in and out of it, seemingly carried aloft by the currents of fate?
When I heard Nolan Richardson was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this August, one of my first thoughts drifted northward to that great city on a lake. Ten years ago, Richardson’s reputation in Arkansas was marred after an ugly firing from, and lawsuit of, the university with whom he’ll always be linked. The idea of enshrining Richardson seemed far-fetched in that period.
In the last five years, though, we’ve seen a whole-scale rehabilitation of Richardson’s image in the state and nationwide. Much of this, of course, has to do with the passage of time. It also helps Richardson that none of his successors have achieved anything near the same level of success he did in Fayetteville. An ESPN documentary, released in 2012, also helped Richardson by essentially canonizing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style among the great strategies in basketball history.
But I think one of the most important reasons for Richardson’s resurgence into the public’s goodwill has been his biography, written by Chicagoan Rus Bradburd. Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” published in 2010, is a must-read for all fans of college basketball and students of the race relations in the South. It goes back to Richardson’s west Texas background to explain the complicated roots of his anger, and it lays bare the knarled relationship between he and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. It shows, in a way no mere article or documentary could, the extent to which the passion that led to the 1994 championship and the frustration that led to the 2002 meltdown were two sides of the coin.
I’ve talked to Bradburd in person and over the phone a few times about Richardson, Arkansas sports, the craft of writing and more. He’s a fascinating person in his own right, a creative writing professor who’s also spent a year coaching professional basketball in Ireland while learning how to play the fiddle. Oh, and this: He was also a Division I assistant coach who “discovered” a largely unknown point guard named Tim Hardaway in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.
In the early 1980s, while a teenage Hardaway walked to courts to hone his craft, there would have been at some point a large, 6-7 heavyset older man driving a cab by those same courts. Perhaps, they knew of each other. Likely they didn’t. The man’s name was Nat Clifton. He is one of the most significant figures in NBA history, a man who will posthumously be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Richardson.
And he grew up in Arkansas…
Click here for Part 2 of this series.
Big nationally televised game tonight in Brooklyn.
The NBA’s third and fourth most winning teams since the New Year – Brooklyn and Houston – are squaring off. The Nets, led by recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week Joe Johnson, have won 13 games in a row at home and could win a franchise record 14 tonight.
Unfortunately, my TNT game feed is inexplicably en Espanol tonight.
Fortunately, the funniest GIF of the night doesn’t need a translation:
— Evin Demirel (@evindemirel) April 2, 2014
— Evin Demirel (@evindemirel) April 2, 2014
Arkansas freshman big man Bobby Portis earned a pair of SEC postseason honors on Tuesday, as the Little Rock native was named to the All-SEC second team and the SEC All-Freshman team..
According to the UA sports information department, the Hogs have landed 15 players on the SEC All-Freshman team while Portis is just the sixth freshman in program history to earn All-SEC honors. During his standout rookie campaign, Portis also collected three SEC Player of the Week accolades, which equaled the record previously set by current Houston Rocket Patrick Beverley in 2007.
One of Portis’ weekly honors came on the heels of breaking the Arkansas freshman scoring record with 35 points against Alabama on Feb. 5 at Bud Walton Arena, dethroning current Director of Student-Athlete Development Scotty Thurman. The 35-point night was the most by a Razorback since 2002, and the third-most points scored by an SEC player this season. Portis accounted for 29 of the team’s first 35 points, while also adding nine rebounds and a season-best six blocks.
Portis enters the SEC Tournament averaging 12.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, ranking second and first on the team, respectively. The 6-foot-10 forward has reached double figures in 20 games with a team-best three doubles and is the only Razorback to start all 31 games. Portis ranks 10th in the SEC in rebounding and tied for fifth in blocks (1.6), while also showcasing his all-round skill with 46 assists and 35 steals.
The first Arkansas signee since 2004, and the 13th overall, to play in the McDonald’s All-American game, Portis has lived up to the hype and has a chance to become the first freshman in program history to lead the team in scoring and rebounding in the same season. Portis also needs just 12 rebounds to break the freshman record of 211 set by Marshawn Powell in 2010.
Fifth-seeded Arkansas (21-10) will begin play at the SEC Tournament on Thursday, taking on the winner of Auburn/South Carolina in a 2:30 p.m. CT game on SEC TV. The Razorbacks earned a first round bye and head to Atlanta with wins in eight of their last 10 games.
So when and where will Portis end up going in the NBA Draft?
NBA Draft Express has him at #19 in the 2015 Draft, one behind Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson. Curiously, NBA Draftnet doesn’t have him listed at all. But at least one member of the drafterati – Dean Demakis – in February made a strong case for Portis one day being worth high first round consideration. Especially when compared to SEC Freshman of the Year Julius Randle, an apparently surefire Top 10 pick this year.
They are both skilled 5 star freshman PF’s who play in the SEC. Their tools are not far apart, as Portis has more length (7’1.5″ vs 6’11″ wingspan), Randle has more strength, and their athleticism and mobility appear to be similar (although perhaps Randle’s spryness would stand out if he trimmed down). Their offensive ratings adjusted for SOS and usage is close with Randle having a slim 1.8 point advantage. In a world that interprets draft related information with reasonable efficiency, a Portis vs. Randle debate would be raging right now….
Portis has superior defensive awareness and his length enables him to make more plays. I believe he clearly projects to be better on this end in spite of inferior rebounding. Offensively, Randle is a superior offensive rebounder and gets to the line far more, but Portis has a considerably lower turnover rate.
I just got off the phone with Razorback signee Anton Beard’s dad and he gave a little of the back story to Anton’s one-on-one game against future Hall of Famer Chris Paul in the summer of 2012. It happened at one of the CP3 Youth Camps in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Beard had to win an in-house tournament involving about 15-20 high schoolers to earn the right to challenge Paul, Floyd Beard told me.
In the video below (shot by Beard’s mother) you will see Beard give Paul a good challenge. Granted, Paul isn’t playing 100% - or anything near – but there are nonetheless promising signs: Beard’s strong frame helps hold Paul to 3 of 9 shooting, and he causes two turnovers. Beard ends up losing 3-2, after being up 2-0, but you can’t realistically hope for more from a rising high school junior against the best point guard in the world.
Beard admits he was a bit nervous playing against Paul, but it’s hard to tell from the clip. He adds that Paul is one of his basketball role models and indeed originally committed to Missouri because an assistant there – Tim Fuller – was Paul’s high school coach.
Beard has a long way to go before legit comparisons to Paul can be made – especially on the defensive side of the ball – but physically they are not far apart if we compare them as high schoolers. Paul is slightly taller and quicker (with much quicker hands), but Beard is stronger and has a more refined three point shot. Look for Beard to be given as big of an opportunity to star for the Hogs next season as Paul had for Wake Forest as a freshman.
The Hogs, after all, desperately need a prolific combo guard who can penetrate the lane and finish or kick out to marksmen like Ky Madden or Anthlon Bell.
Joe Johnson now has more All-Star appearances than Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. Is this a travesty? In the well-researched blog below, David Brown makes the case that it is.
I do agree Joe has a strong case this season for being the least deserving All-Star in NBA history – from a statistical standpoint. But David fails to mention two factors that played into his selection this year. First, the Nets are one of the league’s best teams since January 1. They very well may end up storming into the Playoffs and contend in the East – just as was originally forecasted. A big reason for that turnaround will have been Joe’s stellar play over a dozen-game period in January when he hit two game winners. Overall, his season hasn’t been All-Star worthy, but the coaches are likely voting for him because of this first-team All-NBA stretch he had.
Another factor to consider: Joe’s intangibles. He’s a better leader and team unifier than many NBA fans give him credit for. Consider what his presence did for the careers of Josh Smith , Al Horford and even Marvin Williams towards the end of his time in Atlanta. He’s steady, and you can count on him from an emotional standpoint – in this way, he’s similar to Tim Duncan. That kind of consistency is huge in a locker room culture where high pressure and outsized egos are often combustible combinations. My feeling is that some coaches voted for Joe less for his streaky three-point shooting and more the respect they have developed for who he is as a consummate team player.
Yes, rewarding someone for team play is not the purpose of an All-Star selection. But you’ll never convince those silly coaches of that.
Originally posted on NBA Observer:
Kyle Lowry, Arron Aflalo, Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson each had a better case to make the All-Star Game than Joe Johnson, who was voted in as a reserve this week by NBA coaches. His inclusion must go down as the most baffling in modern All-Star memory.
At this stage in Johnson’s career, he is a one-dimensional scorer who is not particularly good at that one dimension. At 15.7 points per game, he is 53rd on the league’s leading scorers list – just slightly ahead of Gerald Henderson, Carlos Boozer and Dion Waiters – and ranks just 141st in PER.
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When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.
That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake. The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.
Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are all-timers. Here are eight more:
10. Hawaii (college football)
1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)
1999: 9-4 (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)
Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.
When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.
“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor. “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”
9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)
1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)
2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)
In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.
*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.
8. New England Patriots (pro football)
2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)
2001: 11-5 (23.2 points per game / 17.0 points against per game)
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
On Monday night, Joe Johnson had a quarter for the ages. In one twelve-minute span, the Brooklyn Net scored 29 points including eight three-pointers. That’s historic stuff – tying an NBA record for most threes in a quarter and four points away from the record for most points in a quarter.
But Johnson’s spectacular play in the third quarter didn’t extend to the rest of the game. In the first half, he scored eight points and declined an opportunity to play in the fourth. He ended up totaling 37 points – only the 11th highest scoring game of his career.
Johnson’s third-quarter explosion was noteworthy because he’s never been a supremely explosive scorer. Although he was a main scoring option in Atlanta for years, his career high is 42 points. Where does this career high rank all-time among NBA Arkansans?
Wonder no more. Below are all instances of an NBA Arkansan scoring 40 or more points, ranked in order of highest scoring games.
1. Joe Barry Carroll
Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 24-224 1983-03-05 GSW UTA W 22 32 .688 22 0 8 13 .615 52 2 22-211 1981-02-20 GSW SDC L 17 17 0 12 17 .706 46 3 28-192 1987-02-01 GSW NJN W 1 55 15 37 .405 15 37 .405 0 0 13 18 .722 43 4 24-196 1983-02-05 GSW SAS W 14 26 .538 14 0 12 14 .857 40 Age = XX-YYY; XX=Years Old, YYY=Days Old
2. Scottie Pippen
Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 31-146 1997-02-18 CHI DEN W 1 41 19 27 .704 17 22 .773 2 5 .400 7 7 1.000 47 2 25-151 1991-02-23 CHI CHH W 1 31 16 17 .941 16 17 .941 0 0 11 15 .733 43 3 26-156 1992-02-28 CHI MIL W 1 42 17 24 .708 17 23 .739 0 1 .000 7 7 1.000 41 4 30-146 1996-02-18 CHI IND W 1 44 14 26 .538 10 19 .526 4 7 .571 8 10 .800 40 5 29-167 1995-03-11 CHI LAL L 1 40 16 26 .615 12 19 .632 4 7 .571 4 5 .800 40
3. Ron Brewer
Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 26-055 1981-11-10 SAS LAL W 19 19 0 6 7 .857 44 2 26-052 1981-11-07 SAS NYK W 16 16 0 8 8 1.000 40
4. Sidney Moncrief
Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 26-059 1983-11-19 MIL DEN L 13 17 .765 13 0 17 19 .895 43 2 25-156 1983-02-24 MIL HOU W 14 24 .583 14 0 14 14 1.000 42
5. Joe Johnson
Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 24-251 2006-03-07 ATL GSW W 1 48 14 27 .519 10 17 .588 4 10 .400 10 10 1.000 42 2 27-181 2008-12-27 ATL CHI W 1 44 16 31 .516 12 25 .480 4 6 .667 5 6 .833 41 3 28-173 2009-12-19 ATL CHI L 1 48 16 32 .500 11 25 .440 5 7 .714 3 4 .750 40 4 24-263 2006-03-19 ATL ORL W 1 48 17 24 .708 12 19 .632 5 5 1.000 1 2 .500 40 5 24-240 2006-02-24 ATL IND W 1 47 16 24 .667 11 19 .579 5 5 1.000 3 3 1.000 40 6 24-213 2006-01-28 ATL CHI L 1 46 16 25 .640 12 21 .571 4 4 1.000 4 4 1.000 40
6. Alvin Robertson
Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 23-152 1985-12-21 SAS DEN W 1 43 14 19 .737 13 18 .722 1 1 1.000 12 14 .857 41 2 25-272 1988-04-19 SAS LAL L 1 44 17 28 .607 16 25 .640 1 3 .333 5 6 .833 40 7. Todd Day Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 25-349 1995-12-22 BOS MIN W 0 38 11 18 .611 6 10 .600 5 8 .625 14 16 .875 41 8. Corliss Williamson Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 24-090 1998-03-04 SAC DET W 1 40 16 23 .696 16 23 .696 0 0 8 9 .889 40 9. Archie Clark Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 30-134 1971-11-26 BAL ATL W 15 10 11 .909 40 O.K. Hard as I might try, I just can't slam the door on folks who nearly scored 40 points but fell a shade short. Here are members of the 39-Point Club: Eddie Miles Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 27-251 1968-03-12 DET SEA W 18 3 3 1.000 39 Darrell Walker Rk Age Date Tm Opp GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS 1 26-014 1987-03-23 DEN UTA L 1 36 13 18 .722 13 18 .722 0 0 13 16 .813 39 2 26-002 1987-03-11 DEN UTA W 1 40 14 21 .667 14 21 .667 0 0 11 14 .786 39
In 29 years as NBA commissioner, David Stern has led his league to unprecedented heights by opening its doors to nearly every corner of the world.
He expects its next generation of stars, some of whom are playing on their franchises’ summer teams, to continue fueling growth through diversity and global expansion. A quick scan at the statistical leaders for the NBA Summer League, which wrapped Monday in Las Vegas, seems to indicate everything is on track.
There are foreigners like Candian Kelly Olynyk, Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunus and German Dennis Shroeder. There is an American, Jeremy Tyler, who played abroad after skipping college altogether. Other Americans, like C.J. McCollum of Lehigh University, starred at the mid-major collegiate level. This fall, McCollum will start his career in Portland beside NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, who played at Weber State University. Mid major, high major, when it comes to predicting future NBA stars, the difference seems increasingly minor.
But the path has not widened for all.
The NBA player who hails from a small college has all but disappeared. In past decades, the NAIA and schools from what is now NCAA Division II and III produced All-Stars like Earl Monroe, Dick Barnett, Jerry Sloan, Walt Frazier, Nate Archibald and Willis Reed. Later, Terry Porter, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen came from these ranks.
But in the 21st century, the well has gone dry. There has not been a player from DII, DIII or NAIA to make a substantial splash in the NBA since Flip Murray, Devean George and Ben Wallace nearly a decade ago. As those players have retired, it appears nobody will step in to carry the small college banner into the next era.
Indeed, small college alumni are having a harder time than ever even making an NBA squad: of the ten such players in Las Vegas, only two off them – Glen Dandridge of the now-defunct Lambuth University and Othyus Jeffers of Robert Morris University – averaged more than 10 minutes a game. Jeffers led the pack with 8.3 points a game for Minnesota but none of these ten players – including John Stockton’s son Michael Stockton – appear to be a favorite to make a final roster.
How did this happen?
An influx of foreign players in the last 30 years is a big reason, says John McCarthy, director of the NAIA’s Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship. Perhaps the most important reason, though, is the NCAA Tournament has become enormously profitable in recent years and more and more small colleges have elbowed into Division I to get a piece of the pie. Many of the historically black colleges which produced Reed, Monroe, Frazier et al have migrated to the lower fringes of Division I – which now swells at about 340 program and more than 5,000 players.
The elevated cachet of Division I, due to boosted financial dividends and exponentially increased media attention, have at the same time downgraded the appeal of the lower divisions and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. More high school and summer league coaches believe the only route to the pros is Division I, and they pass those convictions to their players.
Which means, recruits often choose to play in Division I even when it’s not in their best interests. “I think that there are times where a Division II program may actually be a better fit for a player,” wrote McCarthy, who runs this small college basketball blog. “A good Division II program may be a better fit for a player (academically, class-size, geographically, need for his position, coach, etc.), but a player will often choose the Division I program because of the label.” The player often finds the level play at the top DII schools is higher than than the lower tier DI program he might have left.
As a tribute to the NBA’s small college legacy - which unfortunately seems to be shrinking – below are the Top 16 small college NBA/ABA players of all time. I’ve limited the list to only players who played at schools that are still DII, DIII or NAIA today. That’s why you won’t see greats like Jerry Sloan, Dick Barnett and Maurice Stokes, Willis Reed and Bob Love, whose programs have since joined DI.
Since I’m ranking players based on performances during college and pro careers, you also won’t find scoring phenomenon Bevo Francis, who averaged more than 48 points a game for Rio Grande College in the 1950s. He chose not to play in the NBA.
16. Devean George
College: Augsburg (Minneapolis, Minn.)
NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 23rd by Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Playing Career: 1999-2010
All-Star Appearances: 0
Career High Averages (for one season)
Points per game: 7.4
Rebounds per game: 4.0
Assists per game: 1.4
Steals per game: 1.0
Blocks per game: 0.5
43.2 % FG
39.0 % 3PT
George was a dominant scorer in Division III, averaging 27.5 ppg as a senior, but will forever be remembered as a sort-of-vital glue guy bench player during the Lakers’ 2000-02 threepeat. His career apex came in 2003-04, when he started 48 games and played nearly 24 minutes a game.
Continuing on our countdown from last week’s Top 10 list of the best NBA (and ABA) players who played for a Division II, III or NAIA school. And, yes, I fully admit it: I cheated by actually cramming in eleven players.
5. Caldwell Jones
College: Albany State (Georgia)
NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 32 by Philadelphia 76ers
ABA Playing Career: 1973-76
NBA Playing Career: 1976-90
All-Star Appearances: 1 as ABA All-Star
Career High Averages
Points per game: 19.5
Rebounds per game: 10.0
Assists per game: 2.1
Steals per game: 1.1
Blocks per game: 4.0
50.7 % FG
83.7 % FT
One of six brothers from McGehee, Arkansas to play at Albany State, “CJ” left with his family’s highest career rebounding average at 20.3 rpg. Even before his first pro game, the 6-11 post man made quite an impression on his rookie head coach, 37-year-old Wilt Chamberlain.
Chamberlain, then 7-1 and approaching 300 pounds, was “Godzilla in sweat pants and Converse All-Stars,” with “nostrils flaring, chest heaving, grinning a grin that had some evil in it,” as former San Diego Union sports reporter Joe Hamelin put it.
On the Conquistadors’ first day of drills, Wilt the Stilt lined up his new players to test their manhood. They “stood in a row until summoned, one by one, to dribble down the lane to their doom, to where Chamberlain was waiting like a Mayan god demanding sacrifice,” Hamelin wrote.
With little apparent effort he rejected their pitifully human layups, fly-swatting them to various distant parts of the USD gym. Contempt was etched into his face. Whap! Whap! Wilt was letting them know who was boss.
And then came CaIdwell Jones.
The rest had tried to go around Chamberlain. Jones, 6-11, built like a fence post and full of flight, chose to go over him!
Launching himself into the air like some enormous bony bird, Jones went up over Chamberlain till his waist was even with the big fellow’s unbelieving eyes. Then he brought the ball down with all the youthful exuberance in him, slamming it through the cords so hard it struck Chamberlain solidly on the shoulder and bounded 10 feet in the air. From the look on Wilt’s face, you’d have thought he’d been shot.
Caldwell Jones put up his biggest numbers in the ABA and went on to serve as a defensive anchor for the Dr. J-led 76er conference champion teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s.