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Original Issue

Lanky Preacher from Athens

His text was basketball and, though he never got past the eighth grade, he knew the whole book word for word

Like its namesake in Greece, the town of Athens, in the pine woods and dirt of East Texas, has produced a number of citizens who think very big. So it was proper that when Athens decided to get itself a good high school basketball team 40 years ago, its high-thinking citizens went out and got the best.

In Grenado, Texas they discovered Doc Sumner, later to become an All-Southwest Conference forward at Texas Christian University. In Pine Bluff, in the neighboring state of Arkansas, they found Buster Brannon, who has recently retired from a basketball coaching career at Rice and TCU with six Southwest Conference championships to his name. But it was in the nearby hamlet of Brownsboro that the recruiters hit their bonanza—the Tompkins brothers, Freddie and Dennie, later All-Atlantic Coast players at the University of South Carolina, and their tall, uncommonly gifted cousin, Preacher Tompkins, who was, in the opinion of Buster Brannon, as fine a natural phenomenon on the basketball court as this country ever saw.

When Brannon met him, Preacher Tompkins was in the eighth grade and, at 6'4", could not get his knees under the desk. Preacher endured the eighth grade for four years at Athens until he finally got bored and ambled out of town.

Meanwhile, though, Athens was winning about 30 games a year, which was all Coach Jimmie Kitts could manage to book. Athens went against college freshmen teams, athletic club teams from the cities, other high schools, anybody with five players and a ball that would bounce. An Athens citizen, Ike La Rue, bought Kitts two new Model A Fords and the team took off on a barnstorming tour through Missouri and Illinois to earn expenses. Once in Chicago, where 38 states had sent teams to the national championship, Preacher Tompkins was touched with fame.

"The crowds and the newspapermen fell in love with him," Brannon recalls. "We told Preacher if he looked good in the first two or three games, he'd be picked for the All-America team. He used all the fancy moves, color and shots, but still you could see he was just a lanky country boy.

"We'd go into a French restaurant and Preacher would peer at the menu, even though he had enough trouble reading English, and then he'd order scrambled eggs and sausage. Preacher enjoyed the tournament. He'd never read a book on basketball or listened to much coaching, but he knew instinctively that on a fast break you dribble high for speed and in a tight place you dribble low for control. He had more basketball savvy than anyone I ever saw. He knew every situation on the court and every shot. He really liked to go into a low dribble, put on the brakes and trip his defensive man. He loved seeing them fall."

In the finals Athens played Classen High of Oklahoma City, coached by Hank Iba. A Classen guard named Andy Beck, later three times All-Big Six, shot six times in the first half without missing, and Athens was behind 12-11 at intermission. Kitts told his team not to worry, Beck would cool off. "Listen, Buddy," said Preacher, who solved the problem of remembering names by calling everybody the same one, "that guy ain't gonna cool off. There's only one way to stop him. I'll play him man-for-man in the second half and the rest of you fellers play a zone." The strategy that Preacher proposed was radical for an era when the regular zone was the accepted manner of play, but Coach Kitts was wise enough to agree. Athens won the championship handily and Preacher was named the Most Valuable Player and rewarded with a gold watch.

The other Athens players were somewhat jealous of Preacher's notoriety. They kidded him about the watch. To top them, he would shove his watch into a teammate's face and innocently say, "I can't read this tew good, Buddy. Whut time do it be?" The team traveled back to Athens in the two Model A's and arrived after an absence of three weeks. Kitts was given a house and the two Fords. The citizens put a barrel in the town square in front of the drug store and filled it with $6,000 in bills and loose change for Kitts. Sumner and Brannon moved on to TCU, where Buster became a left-handed quarterback under the famous Francis Schmidt as well as a guard on the basketball team. In 1930 Athens again won the national high school championship, beating Gena, Louisiana in the finals. That was the last year of the tournament, which was dropped because participating teams were missing too much school.

After the 1930 tournament, Kitts was promised a job coaching at the University of South Carolina. He sent Freddie and Dennie Tompkins and two other players ahead of him and then somehow failed to get the job after all. But the Athens boys won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship as sophomores. With his old friends gone, Preacher eventually wandered some 75 miles to the northwest to play for the Dallas Athletic Club. But Dallas was too big for him. Preacher began a letter to Kitts requesting advice. Stumped, he walked into a room where two teammates were playing cards and asked, "How do you spell Buddy?"

"B-U-D-Y," one replied.

"Naw, it's B-U-D-D-E-Y," said the other.

After waiting a while to see who won the argument, Preacher went back to his room. He soon left Dallas. He drifted into the oil fields as a laborer and was killed in a car accident. "If Preacher had ever gone to college, people would be talking about him today as one of basketball's immortals," Brannon says. "But he simply wasn't so inclined. It's a pit)." However, they remember him that way in Athens, the only town in the country ever to have won two consecutive national high school basketball championships and certainly the only one to have done so with an eighth-grade star.