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Undersized and underestimated, 1959-60 Bulldogs finish on top

Jamie Combs • Mar 21, 2020 at 12:00 PM

Like Popsicle sales in the Arctic Circle, Hampton’s effort in the 1960 state basketball tournament wasn’t expected to yield much success.

Nevertheless, by the end of the six-day event inside Vanderbilt University’s Memorial Gym, the Bulldogs had a title trophy to call their own.

“I feel like we were really blessed to accomplish what we did,” said Carl Roberson, one of the squad’s primary figures. “There was a lot of excitement coming home.”

It’s now been 60 years since coaching great Buck Van Huss’ team, compensating for less-than-ideal stature with a tenacious press, finished its season-long climb to the summit.

“There was only one Coach Van Huss,” said Wes Forbes, who occupied the starting center’s job with a 6-foot-1 frame. “He loved the players and wanted them to be the best they could be. That’s what won the state tournament for us.”

Producing a 44-4 record, the Bulldogs walked away with the crown by winning five state tournament games — an unprecedented TSSAA-era feat duplicated by only one other school (Murfreesboro, 1965).

Competing in an 18-team field, the Bulldogs were assigned to one of two first-round contests — in which they escaped Lexington, 46-45.

“It was like we were run to death,” Roberson said about that game. “I don’t know whether the floor was bigger or not — I’m not sure — but we’d come to the bench and you just had cotton in your mouth. You couldn’t spit, it would be (like) cotton. But those other teams, they had oxygen. And the next game, Coach Van Huss had oxygen (for us). We’d come to the bench and take about two good breaths of it. It would give you more pep or something or the other.”

Following its 51-43 win over Dover, Hampton stymied Treadwell 50-38 to secure a spot in the semifinal round.

Commendably, the ’Dogs had gone far. But with a pair of unbeatens — tournament favorites Union City and Murfreesboro — still in the picture, Hampton had not escaped its unfriendly odds.

No matter.

Gaining their title shot by prevailing 44-40 over No. 2-ranked Murfreesboro (31-1), Hampton then foiled the top-rated Golden Tornadoes (31-1), who also played five games in the tournament, 49-42 before a crowd of 7,300-plus fans.

Hampton’s tallest player at about 6-2, sophomore Jerry White stepped off the bench to net 19 points in the semifinal victory — which occurred with the Bulldogs wearing Vandy jerseys due to a conflict in uniform colors.

“When you’re the underdog, sometimes they overlook you,” White said.

In the championship tilt, Forbes tossed in 15 points, Cotton Nave totaled 10 and the Bulldogs never surrendered the lead after going on a 12-0 first-half run to break away from a 5-5 tie. Not known for foul-shooting excellence, the two players combined to go 13 of 17 (Forbes 7-9, Nave 6-8) from the stripe — from where Hampton totaled all 13 of its fourth-quarter points.

“At the time (of the tournament), we just wanted to stay down there,” Forbes said, “and then the last night we realized these guys from Union City hadn’t lost a game. It just seemed to me like they thought they had it won before they got on the floor.”

First-team all-tournament recognition was afforded all-state guard Willie Malone, who amassed a Hampton-high 53 points during his Music City stay. Roberson, having victimized Dover with a 16-point, 18-rebound performance, landed on the second team while Forbes, White and Arnold Hughes were honorable mentions.

The Bulldogs got to Nashville despite dropping the District 1 final to Dobyns-Bennett. Van Huss’ pack snapped back to post a four-game regional sweep.

“We were too small and somebody said we didn’t even win the district,” said Roberson, referring to Hampton’s state prospects. “Some games you don’t do well on ... and others, you’ve just got to put them all together at one time, I guess.”

Going unscathed (12-0 mark) in Watauga Conference play, the ’59-60 ’Dogs also established a school record that’s practically guaranteed to never be matched or broken: most single-season wins. That, allowed Forbes, can be attributed to Van Huss installing a 3-1-1 press.

“He found that two of us (Forbes, Roberson) were slow,” Forbes said, “and three of the members were extremely fast — Willie Malone, Cotton Nave and Arnold Hughes. So he put (the fast players) in front and every time the other team threw the ball in, they would try to push (the ballhandlers) to the sidelines to where they would make a diagonal pass.

“Every player on the team played better with the understanding of exactly what their accountability was, where they were supposed to be on the floor and what to look for at that time. It enabled us to win 44 games … and lose four.”

While seniors Malone, Roberson and Forbes gave Hampton three all-conference players, Nave and Hughes complemented them in terrific fashion. White was considered the top sub, Jimmy Jones and promising sophomore Richard Hyder often supplied valuable minutes, and Wayne Ellis played in more than half the team’s games.

Glenn Hayes, Bobby Stout, Ray Greene and Ed Holtsclaw also contributed to what remains the lone state championship in Hampton’s team sports history.

“It’s one of those things in your lifetime you just can’t forget,” said White, who wound up coaching HHS to a pair of Class A state finals (1981, ’83). “It didn’t dawn on you till later what we had actually done.

“I have to say one thing: they were great, great teammates. Nobody on there was jealous, they all pulled for each other. We were just a close-knit group. Of course, we had one of the best coaches in the United States. It all went together.”

MISSING WILLIE

Given the recent death of Malone, talking about old times proved bittersweet for White, Forbes and Roberson. They all spoke highly of their former teammate, a local hardwood king who led the state champs in season scoring (17.8 per-game average), became a standout at East Tennessee State and led a rich, purpose-filled life.

“He was our spark plug,” White said. “He was the team leader. He never would fuss at you, but he would always encourage you.”

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