Bighouse induction into Basketball Hall of Fame
CIAA Tournament, Bighouse and Ms. John McLendon
The many faces of Bighouse
Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe
Bighouse, Spencer Haywood, Butch Wilson, Gary Williams
Bighouse Gaines 1st Community Service Award recipient
On Monday April 18, 2005 college basketball lost one of its true “Giants.” Winston-Salem State University’s Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines died at the age of eighty-one. “Bighouse” won more games (828) than any other black college coach in the history of college basketball. The 2006 CIAA Tournament being held in Charlotte, N.C. would pay tribute to his memory.
When “Bighouse” retired in 1993 at the age of seventy-one he was the number one winning active coach black or white in the country. Despite the nay sayers “Bighouse” could have easily coached well into his seventies if the talent pool was still available. In 2006 Joe Paterno of Penn State won the “Big Ten Championship” at age 80.
The athletic talent pool at Black Historical Colleges has been depleted and diverted with money under the table by Division I Colleges. The promises of television exposure, million dollar pro contracts and a blonde in every classroom has been offered to the black athlete for well over three decades. Black Historical Colleges have not been able to match the package so they have followed the old adage “If you can’t beat them join them.” They have done so without financial success or a Final Four or Rose Bowl appearance.
The losers are Black History and Black Historical Colleges. For example, the once vibrant CIAA Tournament is almost down to a “Skeleton Crew” as schools jump to Division One. The anticipated move by Winston-Salem made ‘Bighouse’ sad. He was big on black history. The CIAA Tournament has moved from city to city like a gypsy caravan chasing the almighty dollar.
Despite the raids conducted by Division One schools for the black athlete “Bighouse” has left a legacy of a winner on and off the court. He touched and won thousands of student/athletes’ hearts and minds with “Tuff love” during his forty-seven years on the Winston-Salem campus.
He left behind two families, first, his one of a kind wife Clara, a daughter Lisa and a son Clarence Jr. The second family was the athletes and students who called him “Daddy” on campus. There were hundreds more he touched on other Black Historical colleges around the country. He was like a rock star during games and at the CIAA Tournament, many of his players thought they were the stars, but “Bighouse” usually stole the show. It seemed like everyone wanted to talk with or touch him in those two settings.
I met Coach Gaines through an introduction by my high school Coach Dave Brown. ‘Bighouse’ was no stranger to the Nation’s Capitol. He was a graduate of Morgan State University in nearby Baltimore, Maryland. He was nobody’s dummy, his major was chemistry.
He coached in the first ever CIAA Tournament in D. C. held at old Turner’s Arena. My introduction took place during the summer of 1958 in a pool hall across the street from my Spingarn High School campus during one of his recruiting trips. Coach Brown was the legendary D.C. high school coach who led NBA Hall of Fame player Elgin Baylor by the hand until he finally graduated from high school. The rest is NBA history.
Along with my three siblings I was the product of a single parent home. I was on my own after my mother had been institutionalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1958. My bed was where ever I could find a vacant car.
My Brown Middle School Principal William B. Stinson had predicted to my mother that I would not live to get out of high school. In 1958 it looked as though I was going to hell in a hurry and I would make Mr. Stinson look like a prophet.
I left Spingarn High School in the middle of my senior year under a dark cloud. I had questioned my basketball coach William Roundtree’s decision to bench me for putting myself before the team. The following day in anger I punched one of my teammates in a pick up game during gym class. I then defiantly made a decision to transfer to rival Eastern High School. The teammate I punched Charlie Mayo (later my roommate at Winston-Salem) said, “You are a dam fool to leave Spingarn.”
It looked as though I was uncoachable and unteachable. I had been kicked off the baseball team in a similar situation by Coach Leo Hill and coach Brown had locked me on the school bus during halftime of a football game for discipline reasons. Things got so bad when people would see me coming they would say, “Here comes trouble.” “Trouble” would become my middle name.
As I was preparing to join the Eastern High school basketball team, Spingarn lodged an official protest with the Superintendent barring me from playing. Now mad at the world I returned to the streets and the poolroom on Benning Rd. in North East D.C. I called home.
Enter, Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines, I will never forget that summer day in 1958 when he walked through the pool room door like he owned it and asked, “which one of you guys is Harold Bell?’ I took a minute before I responded I was not sure if he was a cop or a Bounty Hunter, but I thought to myself “I had never seen a cop or Bounty Hunter that big.” After I identified myself he sat down in a chair and waited until I finished my game.
His first question to me, “Son are you really interested in going to college?” My response was ‘yes sir.’ His next words were ‘I am Clarence Gaines and I am the coach at Winston-Salem Teachers College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If you interested in going to college you must first graduate from high school. Check with Coach Brown when you do.’ He got up and left the poolroom without another word. I was left thinking, ‘Where in the hell is Winston-Salem Teachers College?’
The visit from Bighouse would turn out to be a lifesaver. The life he would save would be my own. Bighouse and Winston-Salem for almost five decades would be the “Life Line” in the East Coast corridor (Boston, New York, New Jersey, Phila. and D.C.) for many lost souls like me.
The following school year Coach Brown made it possible for me to attend neighboring Fairmont Heights High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland. It was here that I would be eligible to play another year of athletics. He knew being able to plays sports would be the hook to get me back into school. It took me four years but I finally graduated. My proudest moment came when I looked out into the audience and saw that Coach Brown and my mother were in attendance for my graduation. Winston-Salem here I come.
My arrival on campus in August 1959 was an eye opening experience. I discovered “Southern Hospitality” really existed. The people in Winston-Salem were so friendly it actually scared me it took me a while to adjust to the people and the city. I kept looking for someone to pick my pocket or pull a pistol and rob me every time someone said “hello or have a nice day.” Meeting nice people everyday was a new experience. Growing up in the streets of the inner-city had bankrupted me culturally.
My first run in with “Bighouse” came as a result of my telling him in no uncertain terms I expected to be a starter at the wide receiver position on the football team. He looked at me like I was crazy, “Bighouse” had a unwritten rule that freshman were to be seen and not heard during their first year on campus.
When the season started Elwood “Mickey” Robinson and track star Robert Jackson were the opening game starters. There was little doubt Mickey Robinson my “Homie” (Armstrong HS in DC) was the greatest college wide receiver I had ever seen on the college level bar none. Robert Jackson could not catch a cold if he was standing naked in Chicago during a winter storm, but he could run like the wind and outweighed me by fifty pounds. There was really no need for Jackson to catch anything due to the fact the greatest college running back during that era was Nelson Guthrie. When Nelson was not running the ball, Mickey was catching it.
The 1959 Winston-Salem Rams football team was the greatest and most talented team in the history of the school. The talent and characters on that team were unbelievable. We lost the CIAA title to rival North Carolina A & T on a controversial punt return for a touchdown in the closing minutes in our final season game. It was a great year despite the lost.
I spent most of the year on the bench with the exception of playing time Head Coach William “Puffy” Conrad found for me during the games already decided in the third or fourth quarter. Coach Conrad and “Bighouse” had been teammates at Morgan. He was a great coach and a wonderful human being, but “Bighouse” had the last word as Athletic Director. Coach Conrad was the calm during my stormy relationship with “Bighouse.” He would often say, “Kid be patient your time is coming, just keep catching the ball.”
“Bighouse” was a control freak. He made sure knuckleheads like me knew he was in charge and called the shots in athletics and campus politics. For example, I remember my younger brother Earl hitchhiked from D. C. for homecoming to see me play. We beat St. Pauls College 56-0 and every body played but me. I got the message.
After the football season “Bighouse” turned all his attention to his first love, Winston-Salem basketball. I was looking forward to the season. Since I was from D.C. and played basketball at Spingarn High School “The House” that NBA legend Elgin Baylor built. My credentials were undeniable, or so I thought. I considered myself to be a pretty good basketball player, but “Bighouse” had other plans for me in that arena.
When I showed up for practice he called me into his office and said, “Son you need to hit the books, your grades are not up to my standards.” I knew in my heart he was right, but I was defiant anyway. He finally said, “I have only one basketball and that ball belongs to Cleo Hill, so get the hell out my office.”
I would be forced to take my basketball skills to the college campus’ Intra-mural league program under the banner of “The D.C. Five.” The team consisted of all Washingtonians and we easily won the league championship, but “Bighouse” was not impressed. In the meantime, Cleo Hill and the Rams’ basketball team were taking names and kicking ass. Cleo was one of the best players in the country and his basketball skills were the talk of the state of North Carolina.
Our home games were played on campus and were all sellouts. If Ram students were not careful and did not arrive at the games early their seat would be taken. White folks traveled from around the state to see Cleo Hill. He had an arsenal of shots that included a two-handed set, left hook, right hook, and a jump shot. He was also a deadly foul shooter once he got on the line.
Cleo stood only 6’2 or 6’3 but he could jump out of the gym and he was the team’s top defender. In times of need he could become the ball handle and break any press. The native of Newark, New Jersey was the complete basketball package. Cleo Hill was Michael Jordan in the state of North Carolina long before Michael Jordan.
The burning question for decades has been “Who was the best Cleo Hill or Earl Monroe?” Cleo was the most complete, Earl, the most electrifying. They both were worth the price of admission.
There was the school tradition of the Alumni playing the varsity before the regular season kicked off. Jack DeFares was a New York City playground legend and Winston-Salem basketball legend in the 50’s. He had returned to campus to finished work on his degree. I am still not sure but I think “Bighouse” gave Jack instructions to take me under his wing.
The Alumni was a few bodies short for their game against the varsity my freshman year and Jack convinced “Bighouse” to let me suit up. I started the game and scored twenty-six points in a losing effort. “Bighouse” looked at me frowned and said, “You still ain’t playing.”
Finally, my junior year I was allowed to suit up thanks to my roommate Barney Hood and Jack DeFares. Barney was another in a long line of great jump shooters “Bighouse” had recruited out of Chicago. During card games on road trips he would badger “Bighouse” to give me an opportunity to play. Barney would later laugh about winning my position on the team in a poker game with three (3) kings “Bighouse” had three (3) jacks.
On Sunday mornings Wake Forrest players Billy Packard (National College Basketball television analyst), All-American Leonard Chappell and their white teammates would travel from across town and play pick games in our gym. When graduation and the NBA draft rolled around Cleo was the Number One pick of the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks. Cleo was destined for the NBA Hall of Fame, but racism, envy and jealousy by his white teammates led by Bob Petti, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovelette chased him out of the league in two years.
My freshman year rebellion cost me dearly I flunked out of school. I remember “Bighouse” coming to the dormitory room one morning and making it official. He didn’t come there gloating with “I told you so.” He seemed disappointed that I was too hard headed to listen. He said, “You have let Coach Brown and your mother down.” I also remember him saying ‘We don’t have money for summer school for athletes who flunk out.’ The conversation was much like the one in the poolroom when we first met. He got up and quietly left the room without another word.
There were several more weeks left in the school year and so I stayed around to wait for a ride back to DC. There was this empty feeling about going back home to nothing. My mother was still institutionalized and my three brothers were scattered around the city living with relatives and friends. A few days before heading home “Bighouse” paid me another visit. He was knocking on the dorm door like he was pissed off. I didn’t know what to do he had been promising to stick his size 13 shoes in my butt if I didn’t straighten up.
My teammate the late Dr. Arnold McKnight (Chairman DC Boxing Commissioner) reminded me on the ride down to Winston-Salem how he vividly remembered “Bighouse” and I had stood on campus on opposite corners one Sunday after church and exchanged words. He then pointed to his foot and gestured to me to come on over to the other side of the street. Needless to say, I kept my distance.
The knock at my dorm door made me think that maybe he was coming to satisfy the urge before I left for D.C. “Bighouse” then shouted, “I know you are in there and I got a key, so open this dam door.” I held my breath and opened the door. He entered with a demand for me to sit down and that was a relief. I was expecting to be knocked down after all the “Wolf tickets” I had sold him during the school year. He didn’t beat around the bush he got straight to point and said “Coach Brown has send money for you to attend summer school, now we have got to find you a place to live and a job.” He got up and left the room and I sit down on the bed and cried.
It was hard for me to believe that someone really cared about me. The friendly environment of Winston-Salem residents, students, and teachers had won me over. Now the man we called “Big Nasty” only behind his back had reached out to give me a second chance in “The Game Called Life.”
My new residence would be 2015 East End Boulevard the home of Clarence and Clara Gaines. I remember one morning a week later after taking up residence on East End Boulevard “Bighouse” woke me up and told me he had found me a job and a place to live in the city. My week in their home was another lesson in responsibility. I earned my keep by cutting the grass. The landscape of their home was like the side of a mountain, all up hill. The summer heat made it an unforgettable task and a new place to live and a job away from “Bighouse” and East End Boulevard was music to my ears.
My new home was with a wonderful lady whose name escapes me and my new job was at the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. They were the number one employers in the city. My job on the tobacco assembly line during that summer was almost as hard as mowing the grass. “Bighouse” got me through summer school and my first summer away from D.C. The rest is community and media history.
My life’s work with at-risk children in the streets of the inner-city “Bighouse” also deserves an assist. During the summer months I would often try to give the inner-city youth I worked with camping experiences out of town. Dave Bing a Spingarn alumnus and NBA Hall of Fame player provided them with their first camping experience in 1969.
The experience took place in the Ponkonos Mountains in Pennsylvania. Here they would meet Detroit Piston NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier and the late John Brisker. There were camps run by NBA pioneer Spencer Haywood in New Jersey, the John Chaney/Sonny Hill camps in Philadelphia it was here they met NBA legends like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Bill Bradley. Last but not least was the “Bighouse” Gaines camp on the Winston-Salem campus in North Carolina.
This was the camp that made the biggest impression on the young men. With the exception of Brisker and Haywood all the NBA players they met were all voted among the Fifty (50) Greatest to ever play in the NBA. The man they remembered most never played in the NBA—-“Bighouse.”
The Sent A Kid to Basketball Camp and my annual Christmas Toy Parties for Needy Children have been copied by every community involved organization in the country (pro sports and media included). In 1973 the original Inside Sports became the format for what you see and hear on sports talk radio and on television today.
My National impact in the community and in sports talk radio and television shows I owe to two men, Coach Dave Brown and the man they called “Bighouse.”
My last face to face confrontation or debate with “Bighouse” was in a hotel hospitality suite in Chicago. The occasion was, the Winston-Salem Alumni Association hosting Unity Day on June 25, 2004 at the Palmer House Hilton. The program headliner was the First Annual Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines Scholarship Award for Unsung Heroes.
I was one of fourteen recipients honored, receiving the award for community service. In the hospitality suite before the reception “Bighouse and I were debating the Winston-Salem State University Sports Hall of Fame and the selection process. I questioned how could there be such a hall of fame on campus without Nelson Guthrie and Mickey Robinson two of the greatest football players of his era? My next question was how could Mary Garber a white sports writer for The Winston-Salem Journal been inducted into the Hall of Fame before a black sports writer Luix Overbea? Mr. Overbea covered sports on the Ram campus and kept us in the spotlight when there was no coverage in the local paper.
Our discussion then switched to one of our on going yearly debates, Georgetown’s John Thompson. I considered John a fraud and Fat Rat, “Bighouse” saw him as a Fat Cat! The debate was a standoff because he couldn’t or wouldn’t decide which was worst. He finally threw up his hands and said “Harold for your information Nelson will be inducted this year, at least you are consistent.”
“Bighouse” and I were born on the same day and month May 21st under the sign of Taurus the Bull. We shared several birthdays together here in D.C. during our forty-five year relationship. It has been said, “They are like two Bulls in a China closet.” Others have described our relationship as one of “Love and Hate.” I loved him and he hated me or he loved me and I hated him, but loved was always the common denominator.
He reminded me of three other sports icon friends of mine Muhammad Ali (Boxing), Red Auerbach (NBA) and Jim Brown (NFL). Ali, Auerbach and Brown just by their presence in a room made other men feel small and insignificant. “Bighouse” had that same kind of effect by just being himself.
“Bighouse” and I didn’t get a chance to have one of our face to face discussions at the last homecoming because of his health.
I missed Tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina the next year. It would be in Raleigh, where “Bighouse” would receive his last living tribute. The CIAA honored its All-Time greatest team, three of the ten players honored played for him, Cleo Hill, Earl Monroe and Carlos Terry. He was also honored and named one of two coaches on the All-Time greatest team. He was still stealing the spotlight even as he made his exit.
When I heard of “Bighouse” passing I had mixed emotions about attending the Memorial Services in Winston-Salem. I could not sleep during the night leading up to the services wondering if he died mad at me. But I knew I had to attend the services out of my respect for Mrs. Gaines, Coach Brown, my mother, my wife Hattie T and myself.
Standing in the receiving line before the Memorial Services I was emotionally drained and apprehensive as I approached Ms. Gaines. She looked up at me, smiled and said, “I was hoping you could make it.” I wanted to cry but too many people were watching and I could feel the stare of “Bighouse” checking me out from above.
No matter how mad you got at Coach Gaines, your anger would dissipate whenever the First Lady was in the house. Lionel Richie’s vocal classic “Three Times a Lady” best describes Mrs. Gaines’ contribution to the “Bighouse” basketball legacy. His daughter Lisa and son Clarence Jr. were definitely ‘Daddy’s babies and mommy’s maybe.’ They were living proof that an apple does not fall to far from the tree.
Despite our shortcomings and imperfections I am thankful that I had an opportunity to go one on one with him and take a couple of jump shots—Up Close & Personal.