By approaching the game so simply and plying the press with quips, Tubbs obscures his own coaching gifts. "Sometimes when he fusses at us in practice we just have to laugh," says Wayman.
In many ways Tubbs suggests another Oklahoman, Abe Lemons, the former coach at Texas, who also tried to use wit and the fast break to succeed on a football campus. But Tubbs's wit is more gregarious than Lemons', his humor more Socratic. Lemons never needs a straight man; life is his straight man. But Tubbs is at his best with a foil. When his wife, Pat, suggested that he loved basketball more than he loved her, Tubbs said, "Well, I love you more than track." When told at the press conference announcing his hiring that Georgetown's John Thompson had been offered the job first, he said, "I was my wife's second choice, too. I've been with her 25 years and it's worked out pretty good." (Their daughter, Taylor, is in high school; Tommy is a six-foot junior guard at Oklahoma.)
Tubbs had a boyhood that was equal parts Tex and The Grapes of Wrath. Two years after he was born, in St. Louis during the depths of the Depression, his father, Oscar, died and his mother, Bessie, moved with her two boys to Fort Smith, Ark. While she supported them as best she could—sewing and housecleaning at first, and later working au pair in a farmhouse—Billy romped around Fort Smith with brother Wayne, eight years his senior, whom he called Buzz.
Buzz and his friends would go swimming in the "strip pits," precipitous holes from which coal had been mined, and goad little Billy into jumping in. They would play baseball in a cow pasture adjacent to Route 22, an artery that, in the days shortly before World War II, was swollen with military traffic running between town and Fort Chaffee. Buzz always tied Billy to a fence post to keep him from wandering out onto the highway. When Bessie had scrimped enough to buy Buzz a used bicycle, it served as the family car. There would always be a place for Buzz's kid brother atop the rear fender.
One summer day in 1941 Buzz wanted to go home, but Billy evidently didn't and simply jumped off the back of the bike after Buzz put him on. Buzz retrieved him, mounted him on the handlebars, where he could be held, and set off again. As they coasted down a long hill, Billy got his foot tangled in the spokes of the front wheel. There was a bad fall, and Buzz still remembers seeing Billy's right ankle bone through the torn, bloodied skin. "Maybe I just resent authority," says Billy. "That's why I'm ornery with officials today. I like sticking my foot in their spokes."
"I was scared to death he'd lose that foot," says Wayne, who works as a production control manager for American Airlines in Tulsa and who last week stood vigil by his brother's bedside. He spent that summer nursing Billy, changing bandages and shooing flies away. Bessie got a job at the local cleaners, and in 1945 the Army sent Buzz to the Philippines. When Bessie's boss had to close down his establishment in Fort Smith, he made her night manager of his laundry in Tulsa. Billy sometimes slept in a bin of clothes while she worked. But Bessie had a heart problem she refused to acknowledge, and in 1949, when Billy was in the eighth grade, she collapsed and died.
"Suddenly everything changed in his life," says Wayne, who by then was also living in Tulsa and supporting his own wife and two kids on 80¢ an hour. "He didn't know what to do. That's when I grew up." Billy, spurning the offer of Bessie's landlord to adopt and raise him as his own, moved in with Buzz. At the time Billy's only trousers were a pair of jeans. Years later he would tell his wife that, if nothing else, he would always have plenty of clothes because basketball coaches dress well.
"Getting involved in athletics was the best thing to happen to him," Wayne says. "I'd heard stories about him hanging out with the store-porch loafers in Arkansas. He was kind of a street kid, never a bad boy, but he came up tough, and a kid like that can go either way." Today Billy says, only half-jokingly, he'd probably have ended up a gangster if he'd stayed in St. Louis.
He fit in well as a guard on the Tulsa Central High team, a running bunch called the Firehouse Five. For Billy's final varsity season, after he'd moved with Wayne's family just over the city line, Buzz forged rent receipts showing Bessie's old address so Billy could play his senior year at Central. The dreaded alternative was attending the local school, where the coach was a walk-it-up Hank Iba disciple from Oklahoma State.
Meeting the cost of college was out of the question. But Shelby Metcalf, a friend from Tulsa who now coaches at Texas A&M, wrote Billy a letter urging him to look into a two-year school in Jacksonville, Texas. Lon Morris Junior College played a 45-game schedule, Metcalf wrote, and the coach there, O.P. Adams, knew running basketball cold. So Billy brazenly wrote Adams that he could make his team. Adams decided he had to see a kid with that kind of gall.