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The funniest man in basketball is Abe Lemons, the coach at Oklahoma City University. Lemons is lanky, naturally folksy and garrulous. He prefaces a reference to almost everybody with "ol," but he never talks about himself in the third person—"ol' Abe"—the way other cracker-barrel sages do. In fact, Lemons is genuine enough to still be wearing galluses ("Remember, we was always sayin': you got your galluses crossed") like all the barefoot boys used to back in Walters, Okla., in Cotton County, down by the Red River. It was the Depression when A. E. Lemons Jr. grew up in Walters, so he really is by Will Rogers out of The Grapes of Wrath. But there is a strain of Park Avenue hillbilly here, too.
Lemons wears sharp clothes and a diamond ring, and when he walks he often jinglejangles the loose change in his pocket. He has arranged a schedule for his team (and himself) that is as classy as anyone's. This year it includes Hawaii, Miami and New Orleans, with other big-city stops in between. When Lemons first contracted to play Miami he suggested to Coach Bruce Hale: "Let's play a home-and-home series, but let's play 'em both at your place."
"This is my metropolitan schedule," Lemons says. "I ain't much for them little-bitty places you got to swap planes to get to. And I couldn't be in no conference. Why, there are places you just don't want to come back to."
Wherever they are playing, however, Lemons' teams are unpredictably exciting. They throw up a cursory defense, but shoot often and from all over. They are also invariably chock-full of colorful characters. One was even voted campus queen with the slogan, "Ain't he sexy, ain't he nice?/Don't vote once, you vote twice." The current team is typical, featuring a 7-footer who sometimes plays guard, a full-blooded Delaware Indian, a line-drive shooter named Charley "Big Game" Hunter and one player Lemons signed up when he saw him literally jump right out of his shoes at a high school practice. The freshman team includes someone called Poor Devil and three players from Rocky, Okla. (pop. 350), where Lemons has already uncovered two All-Americas (Bud Koper and Gary Hill).
Lemons' teams are almost entirely made up of small-town players that nobody else wanted—or even knew about. Many of them are attracted by Lemons' own experience as a rural and indigent youth. The team is called the Chiefs and at least one Indian is usually around. (Lemons himself is one-eighth Cherokee.) "These Endins fouled up our whole program," Lemons explained once. "We had this course in basket-weavin' that we enrolled our players in, but these two Endins got the curve up so high, the others were flunkin' out."
Last year's starting lineup was without a redskin but was the tallest team in collegiate basketball history, averaging 6 feet 7[2/5]. This year Lemons can start a crew averaging 6 feet 8[2/5], and he claims he has the tallest bench. He likes height, and he once just missed getting a 7-foot-3 player. The boy's name was Lem, and Ed Nall, the OCU sports information director, found him picking cotton somewhere back in the sticks. Nall called up Lemons—who immediately named the boy "Lem the Stem"—and then Lem was spirited off to Oklahoma City. Lem did not look too bright, so for openers Lemons asked Nall if Lem could read and write. Nall said he was pretty sure, because Lem had looked at a newspaper in the car. "Did he say anything?" Lemons asked. Nall said yes, Lem had, in fact, spoken once. Apparently referring to the price of potatoes, Lem had said, "Ain't 'taters high?" That was all. The next day, mercifully, Lem's mother called up and told Lemons: "Lem says he don't want to go to no school."
Lemons' most successful recruiting coup was the landing of Hub Reed, his first of three All-Americas. "Farm boys git all embarrassed by this recruitin' fuss," Abe says. "Why, I recruited Hub just fishin' and with orange slush. I still think you cain't do no better than a grape sody and a hamburger. See, hamburgers was a real treat back in Walters. If you had the meat, you didn't have no buns, so they wasn't real hamburgers. Anyway, Hub dropped by to see me one day after he graduated from high school, and I'm up at the gym. "Shore I'll go fishin', Hub,' I said, though I ain't much for fishin'. I cain't stand myself that long. Well, when we come back, the gym has burned down. That sorta took the edge off thangs.
"But Hub never changed his mind about comin' to OCU. That's the way it was in the country. A man's word was ever'thin'. Why, my daddy paid for a dead cow once 'cause he had agreed to buy that ol' cow before it died so quick. Before the NCAA made me sign all these contracts, the only agreement I had with a boy was a handshake. Some of them thought they was smart to get it written out and shore I give it to 'em. 'Course, they didn't know they was better off with just a handshake. To me, a handshake was a four-year obligation. A contract was written just for one.
"A lot of these big schools don't bother with these ol' farm boys. But these squirrels from the small towns, they ain't had no competition. You don't know how good they are. And they been playing varsity all along. In the cities, some ganglin' ol' boy with potential don't get a chance 'cause some boy more mature just gets there ahead of him. He's stronger, but he ain't goin' to get no better.
"Luckiest thang ever happened to me was I failed eighth grade. I grew late, and the only year I played was when I was 19, that extra year. If I hadn't of failed eighth grade, I never would of played on the team, and I'd be back sweepin' the streets in Walters now." Lemons has not forgotten Walters, nor that possibility. His student manager is invariably from there, on a basketball scholarship, and he is usually the son of an old friend.