MUTKA: State honors to Flournoy, Artis long overdue
When I was notified that Gary’s Harry Flournoy and Orsten Artis have recently been nominated for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, my knee-jerk reaction was “it’s about time.”
That they weren’t inducted years ago is typically neglectful of Hoosier basketball pundits, who routinely pretend this corner of the state doesn’t exist unless it’s to reinforce negative stereotypes.
From a purely historical standpoint, the former Texas Western standouts should have been installed years ago for their role in the Miners’ staggering 72-65 victory over Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA championship.
Being part of a racial milestone should have been enough to punch their HOF ticket, but the dramatic impact of being the first all-black starting five to win the title should make it a no-brainer.
The No. 1 Wildcats were coached by Adolph Rupp, who was notorious for refusing to recruit African-Americans. Their all-white lineup included future NBA coaching great Pat Riley and Indianapolis native Louie Dampier, who later starred for the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA.
The once-beaten Miners, ranked No.3 in the country, beat Kansas in overtime to earn their shot at “The Baron’s” Kentuckians.
In doing so, they shattered the myth that black players could not play disciplined basketball and lacked leadership qualities. Before disappearing from the national landscape, Texas Western — now UTEP — impressed southern schools enough to start recruiting black players.
Coming out of Emerson, Flournoy was Texas Western’s team captain and their leader on the boards (8.3 points, 10.7 rebounds). In the title game he twisted his knee and only played six minutes, but Sports Illustrated’s cover featured him snatching a rebound from Riley.
Flournoy often talked about his early years in Gary, which took a turn for the worse when his mother moved him from an all-black school to a predominantly white one. Being spat upon and called derogatory names at age 7 was traumatic, prompting his low opinion of whites.
Because his teachers were also less than supportive, Flournoy was emotionally impacted. He developed a severe speech impediment, but blossomed after making the freshman basketball team.
Eventually Texas Western’s Don Haskins showed up on his doorstep. The courageous color-blind coach bucked the odds, thumbing his nose at racial stereotypes and defying social convention. He changed Flournoy’s life.
“He was a great man,” said Flournoy, speaking as a panelist addressing racism in a forum years ago. “He did what we all should do. He looked past our exteriors.”
Artis came out of Froebel to join Flournoy in making history. The retired police detective rewarded Haskins’ confidence with 15 points and eight rebounds in the title game, which was attended by former Gary mayor George Chacharis.
“He came up and shook my hand and Orsten’s hand,” Flournoy recalled.
Still, the road to glory was a minefield of prejudice. The experience was clouded by social pressure building in a racially divided country. Simmering hatred made it rough to deal with for two kids from Gary who just wanted to play basketball.
Their inspiring, but neglected, story was resurrected in 2007 when Texas Western became the sixth team to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
That attention-getting ceremony and the movie “Glory Road,” which won the ESPY award for best sports movie, focused the spotlight on the Miners.
They could draw inspiration from Loyola’s 1963 championship team, which dealt with those issues because four African-Americans started for coach George Ireland in a memorable upset of Cincinnati.
Hawkins keeps rolling
Reinvented as a closer by the Mets, Gary native LaTroy Hawkins seems to be indestructible. Now pushing 41, and with 19 major league seasons behind him, he recently announced plans to return in 2014.
His personal arms race reached an unsuspected peak this season, which included 702/3 innings, his highest total since 2004, and 13 saves, more than he chalked up in the previous seven seasons combined.
Hawkins was moved from setup man to reluctant closer when Bobby Parnell went down with a season-ending injury. Unscored on in his last 10 outings, he collected six saves in September and whittled his ERA to 2.93.
Three months ago Hawkins was seriously considering retirement, but his 11-year-old daughter encouraged him to return when his velocity improved.
“She loves baseball,” Hawkins told MLB. “She told me the other day, ‘Dad, you’ve got gas again.’ ”
Physically, Hawkins has barely changed over the years because of his strong workout ethic and strict near-vegan diet. Though he’s also a cattle rancher in Texas, he told me during an earlier visit to Chicago that he hardly ever eats steak.
Where the nomadic reliever surfaces next year remains to be seen, but history indicates it won’t be with the Mets, the 10nth team he’s played for.
Hawkins can build on some impressive numbers. He’s 57 appearances away from a 1,000-game career.
Remember when interleague baseball was a special interlude during the regular season? Now it’s just part of the schedule, spread out during the entire season.
Why should the Tigers be playing Miami in the final series of the season instead of a division team? Beats me. It’s another blow to the integrity of the game and needs to be scrapped.
Chalk it up as another strike against Commissioner Bud Selig. For those with short memories he’s the guy who canceled the 1994 season in August, thus scratching the World Series. He also ignored growing drug problems in the locker room for years until the Feds forced his hand.
That’s how I’ll remember the spineless leader. He’s retiring in 2015, but I’d be happier if he moved up the date of his departure.