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Frank Deford
March 07, 1988
Nolan Richardson of Arkansas has seen a career of triumph nearly toppled by tragedy
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March 07, 1988

Got To Do Some Coachin'

Nolan Richardson of Arkansas has seen a career of triumph nearly toppled by tragedy

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Old Momma

(The curtain opens; the stage is dark. We hear only the sounds of basketball: fans cheering, a ball bouncing, sneakers scuffling, a player shouting to his teammates. A spotlight comes up on Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, seated on the Razor-back bench. He is wearing an open double-breasted white blazer, red polka-dot shirt, rusk slacks, reptile-skin boots and a gold watch. He is an imposing man—6'2�", more than 200 pounds of muscle—dark, the color of mahogany. He is leaning forward and watching the action intently, his big legs spread far apart, his hands clasped together. A whistle blows, and, furious, he springs to his feet, paces a step left, hitches up his pants and then paces right and makes the hand signal for a T: timeout. He freezes in this position; a spotlight remains on him.

Across the stage, another spotlight comes up on his grandmother, Rose Richardson—Old Momma. She is carrying a paper bag, which she puts down on a table. She begins to remove pieces of fried chicken from the bag and arrange them on a plate. In a heavy Southern black accent, she speaks to the audience.)

OLD MOMMA: There was always something so very special about Nolan. I'm not surprised he'd turn out to be the first so many times. Why, soon as they desegregated, he was the first Negro to go to Bowie High—that's here in El Paso, and that was 1955, when Nolan was only 13. Then he was one of the first, uh, black players at Texas Western University, and then Nolan came back to Bowie and was the first black man to coach at a desegregated school in Texas. And then he went over yonder to Snyder, Texas—to Western Texas J.C.—and he was the first black coach at a desegregated junior college in Texas. And then he went to Tulsa, and he was the first black coach at a major college in Oklahoma. And now he's at Arkansas—the first black man to be a head coach in the whole Southwest Conference. And still the only one. (She grins.) I always knew that boy was gonna be somethin'.

(Old Momma sits at the table and pours from a pitcher. She looks across stage; Nolan comes back to life. He whips off his blazer, and his players begin to gather about him. Andy Stoglin, a huge man with a big mustache and mutton-chop sideburns, joins the group. He is Richardson's longtime friend and assistant. Richardson berates Ron Huery.)

NOLAN: That's just a dumb, freshman thing to do, Huery, and you're not a freshman anymore. (He whirls toward Andrew Lang.) And if you can't keep your man off the boards, then....

(Nolan stops cold. A beautiful 15-year-old, his daughter Yvonne, wearing a red sweatshirt that reads HAWGBALL, emerges from the dark and stands behind the huddle. Because she is an apparition, none of the others can see her; they freeze.)

NOLAN: Yvonne! What in the world are you doing here? We're in the middle of a game. (He steps through the huddle to Yvonne.)

YVONNE: YOU always said I'd be a part of every team of yours, Daddy.

NOLAN: Yes, but....

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