"We're the last four guys in Jurassic Park," says Hughes.
Almost a year ago, when Fort Worth businessmen Tom Rogers and Rick Whitehurst first broached the idea of assembling the legends' tournament, Tasker, 76, was the reluctant one. He's still the chronically shy West Virginian who couldn't bring himself to apply for his first job, at Sulphur Springs (Ohio) High in 1941; he was only hired because, unbeknownst to him, his girlfriend, Margaret, who would soon become his wife, tilled out the application. But Tasker relented and agreed to come to Fort Worth when it was pointed out what an experience the trip would be "for the boys."
Tasker says "for the boys" so often, you could mistake him for Bette Midler. He won his first New Mexico state championship 46 years ago at Lovington High. But after one season, peeved that his bosses wouldn't let him keep the gym open after hours for kids who wanted to work on their games, he took a pay cut to jump to a bigger school, Hobbs, where they promised him the key to the gym. Watch the Eagles play and you can tell that the gym—now officially Ralph Tasker Arena—keeps the hours of a Quik-Stop. At Hobbs, an oil-and-gas outpost a few stray tumbleweeds from the Texas line, Tasker has won 11 state championships, gone unbeaten twice and, like Minnie Minoso in a sport coat, won state titles in five decades.
When you're stuck out on the prairie, you don't get accustomed to measuring yourself against others elsewhere. Thus it matters little to Tasker that outsiders question the Eagles' competition and call into doubt the national-record 114.6 points per game his team averaged in 1970 and the 176 points the Eagles scored in one 32-minute contest in '78. No matter that the pros judged 12 Eagles—including 13-year NBA veteran Bill Bridges—skilled enough to be drafted. For the honor of most pro draftees per capita, can any place on earth match Hobbs, population 30,000?
The great constant in Hobbs's success has been a full-court press that Tasker has hardly called off since 1955. He credits the defense to a player named Kim Nash, who made the original suggestion that the Eagles use pressure from tap to buzzer, end line to end line.
"No team is in good enough shape to do that," Tasker reputedly said.
"So," Nash replied, "get us in shape."
Today Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who faced Tasker while at El Paso's Bowie High during the late '60s, credits Tasker with inspiring the 40 Minutes of Hell defense that Richardson's Razorbacks use. Pressure basketball has become so much a way of life in Hobbs that when Tasker got a notion back in the '60s that he ought to be changing with the times and once ordered his team into a delay, Eagle fans took all of two minutes to file out of the gym in protest.
Since the death of Margaret four years ago and his third hip-replacement operation, Tasker leaves home for little more, than games and practices. Players come by to crack open a soda and hear stories out of a past that, frankly, Tasker is more comfortable with than he is with the present. All the to-do over high school ball these days—the USA Today Super 25, the national cablecasts, the hopscotching across the country to play in this or that tournament—leaves him unsettled. "Kids get to thinking the world owes 'em a living, and that scares me," says Tasker. "That's not the way life is."
Krueger was as eager to participate in last week's tournament as Tasker was reluctant. Although at 60 Krueger is the youngest of the four, the Clear Lake coach had actually intended to retire after last season, to repair with his wife, Martha, the recently retired registrar at Clear Lake, to their ranch in the Texas hill country. But the prospect of joining Hughes, Tasker and Wootten in Fort Worth last week led him to postpone his retirement for one more season.