College basketball in Texas is gaining a foothold

College basketball in Texas is gaining a foothold

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AUSTIN – He has amassed a memory bank so extravagant that the stories seem to overflow as he tells them by phone while riding westbound on Interstate 10 through the reticent parts of Louisiana. He tells of the vivid Abe Lemons, the vivid Al McGuire, the vivid Red Auerbach in a convertible with a clogged ashtray and cigar smoke so thick that one might cough decades later just from listening. He tells of moving from Rhode Island to Texas in April 1988 for a weird pursuit coaching Longhorns at – get this – basketball.

Tom Penders spent the gaping span of 1971-2010 head-coaching Tufts, Columbia, Fordham, Rhode Island, Texas, George Washington and Houston. By mid-October 2021, he heads from home in Miami Beach toward Austin because the University of Texas will induct him into its Hall of Honor. He heads by car – wait, there’s Exit 87, for Church Point and Rayne – because he’s recovering from a surgery at 76. His wife, Susie, drives him the 1,300-odd miles because love remains the utmost dynasty. He rides along jesting about how, in 1988, “I basically walked around campus with one of those lunch boards on. You know: ‘Free tickets! Come see the Running Horns! ‘ ”

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Of Texas games, he jokes, “They were like closed screenings.”

He says, “I never saw any fans in any films.”

He says, “I didn’t realize, you know, how passive and how little basketball was in the state of Texas.”

“So that’s what I walked into…,” he says merrily, and he tells how his shoe sponsors in Rhode Island told him, “We’ll give you a deal at Texas, but it won’t be as much.”

Somehow now in 2021, Penders rolls toward a state becoming a Constantinople of – get this – men’s college basketball. Of the 136 Final Four berths from 1985 to 2018, big ol ‘populous Texas got one: the 2003 Longhorns. Now the state – Texas? Texas! – has hogged three of the last eight Final Four berths, half the last four national finalists and the reigning national champion in Baylor. It’s one game-tying, frantic-but-cool, three-point shot by Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter from boasting two straight national champions.

“Football is [still] number one in Texas, ”said Mike Kunstadt, longtime owner of a basketball operating and scouting service and a former high school coach who helped pioneer crucial changes. “But basketball is 1-A.”

“This was a time bomb just waiting to explode,” said Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, just off the 2021 Final Four.

“I remember when I first got here [in 2003]everybody said, ‘Texas has great athletes, but they don’t have the skill set or the feel for the game,’ ”Baylor Coach Scott Drew said, soon adding,“ You don’t hear that anymore. ”

“I guess in some small way, I think we were all a part of the history,” said Chris Beard, who played Texas high school ball in those last restrictive days of the 1980s, coached Texas Tech to the verge of the 2019 national title and moved loudly this offseason to his alma mater, Texas, where he began as a bustling student manager for Penders.

So at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin on a Friday late afternoon in mid-October, Penders arrives for a Longhorns practice. He chats with security guards. “Oh, my gosh, this is nostalgic,” he says, navigating the hallways with a temporary walker.

He enters the court. One of his multitudinous former charges in town to reunite and fete Penders, former NBA player Travis Mays, rises from his seat to hug the man who once coached Mays and mates to the 1990 Elite Eight. Says Mays: “I could walk out here [onto the court] during a game [early in his career], I could say hello to my family, they could say hello to me, and we could hear each other. By the time I finished my career, you had no idea where your family was sitting, because it was loud and it was full. ”

Penders sits courtside. He studies Beard’s practice with that kind of fascination that shows how a puzzle such as basketball can transfix some human brains forever. Coaches come over to greet him. Beard bustles up and says: “That’s my man right here. I’d take a bullet for him. ”

On court practice seven Texans out of the 15 Longhorns, for a program ranked No. 5 nationally this preseason (with Baylor No. 8, Houston No. 15 and Texas Tech receiving votes). At one point Beard halts the meticulous proceedings, points over to Penders and says: “Everybody see that man over there? He invented the jump-stop. ” (Players applaud.) By evening, Susie texts, “Tom was the last to leave practice.”

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What happened to men’s basketball in Texas? Everyone answers similarly as if it’s entrenched in dialect. High school players operated most of last century under onerous summertime restrictions: no AAU participation, no varsity camps, no collaboration with high school coaches, limits on games per summer. Those restrictions may or may not have lingered because football honchos wanted to stockpile the primo athletes.

“That was the perception the basketball coaches had,” Kunstadt said. “We felt like [it was], ‘Just keep basketball a little bit underneath the handle of the football programs.’ “So they would appeal” really to no avail, “he said, until the slow loosening of constraints creaked into motion in 1984, when Kunstadt and fellow coaches coaxed mild concessions. “We were just happy to get anything,” Kunstadt said.

One of Kunstadt’s players from those musty 1980s, Beard, stated his love for football and said, “Just kind of the way it was,” and, “We didn’t know any better,” and, “We really didn’t understand why at the time, ”and,“ Sometimes I do think back, man, this would have been cool, could have played in the Great American Shootout. We could have played Peach Jam. ”

By nowadays, Beard said, “I’m happy for the players.”

“I can’t hammer this home enough,” Sampson said. “The difference here is the AAU programs.” He said, “I’ll give you an example: There was an event in Dallas this summer. There were over 100 AAU teams, and they were all from Texas. ” He spoke of sitting amid a bountiful radius of “40 or 50 miles” with enough players to fill a conference. “You’ve got players north, south, east and west,” he said, “and we don’t have to get on a plane.” We just drive. ”

As prep coaches worked more around the calendar with prep players and players worked more with coaches, both players and coaches improved. Who knew? “There were good coaches 20, 30 years ago,” Kunstadt said, “but not the quality and the quantity. ”

That happiest coach of late, Baylor’s Drew, echoed the part about the grass roots but cited also the stars. It had to help, he said that fresh and impressionable generations saw the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets hoard eight NBA championships.

“I think there’s a pride amongst coaches, with how good basketball is in the state,” Drew said, and so, “First and foremost, it keeps you growing and improving as a coach, because the coaching is so good in the state. Iron sharpens iron. ”

And then far down the road from Texas, eastbound along Interstate 10 in the Florida Panhandle in late October, there rode a man with stories, just by Exit 192 for US 90, Quincy, Midway and Tallahassee.

The son of a beloved youth coach in Connecticut, Jim Penders, can tell of ushering at football games while playing basketball and baseball at U-Conn., Of coaching at Tufts and, “Hell, I was a dorm counselor,” of five straight NIT berths at Fordham (1980s).

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He can tell of many, many rounds of golf with Darrell Royal, who would react to Penders hunting lost balls with, “Tom, we’ve got plenty of balls but very little time!” He can tell of the shining Texas-LSU game in Houston in January 1990, when LSU won, 124-113; Chris Jackson scored 51 points; Shaquille O’Neal went 16-19-10 (blocks); Lance Blanks scored 32; Mays scored 30. He can tell of the time Texas played Temple at the Alamodome and John Chaney hadn’t showed and Penders checked his watch and Chaney hurried in late and said: “I always had this dream that I got locked out from the gym ! I just lived that dream! ” And he can tell of teaching Southwest Conference referees how to read the jump-stop.

Yet of all the stories, the weekend in Austin just gone by had just clambered up to darned-near top-of-the-pile. His players had reconvened in the capital of the basketball state of Texas. “I was unable to speak for the first time in my life,” Penders said of his induction. They introduced him at the football game – “goosebump time” – and, “the football stadium people on the Texas side, nobody was booing me.” He laughed. He reveled in seeing a player he coached at Texas, Sonny Alvarado, a bulwark from Compton, Calif., Who once flustered Tim Duncan to 13 points and used to tell the referees when Penders would yell, “’Coach’ is just trying to make you a better referee. ”

He laughed again along a Florida highway, his own long path an emblem of Texas basketball among all else. And as Team Penders aimed for the endless summer of Miami Beach, his old student manager prepped for a hot winter as a fantastic coach among fantastic coaches in a football-basketball state ready for a fresh season of sharpened iron.

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