The story behind the greatest Bama basketball team ever

Bill Ivey
Bill Ivey

Today’s guest columnist is Bill Ivey.

For all the right reasons, University of Alabama basketball is currently a hot topic.

Coach Nate Oats has it figured out: He recruits at a high level, he understands how to create a structured atmosphere that allows for creativity, and he knows that he can win big at Alabama.

It seems that Coach Oats is building a foundation that could lead to a national championship.

As the 2021 team kept winning big, there was quite a bit of buzz (even at the national level) that this team might be Alabama’s best ever. With all due respect, that group, with all its incredible accomplishments, wasn’t even close to being the best team in the modern era. Let’s go back about fifty years (when modern Bama Basketball was born) and take a look.

I had the good fortune to work as a manager in the Alabama program from 1972-1974. I was already in school there, had decided I wanted to be a coach, and thought it would be great if I could just be around Coach C.M. Newton’s rising program. My dad had played for Bama (1949-52) against Coach Newton’s Kentucky teams, so I was able to “secure” an insider’s seat in the program for two pivotal years. Like most everyone involved, I couldn’t appreciate that we were insiders to a revolution.

Wendell Hudson’s signing out of Birmingham’s Parker High School in the spring of 1969 (the first Black athlete on scholarship at the University) opened the floodgates to the recruitment of Black athletes. As Dylan had said, the times they were a-changin’. And fast. Bama’s five-year run that began in 1971 was astonishing.

C.M. Newton had been hired by Coach Bryant in 1968. I can’t verify this, but Coach Bryant reportedly said that he hired C.M. because he was the first basketball coach he’d ever met who wasn’t crazy. His Alabama career began inauspiciously: His first three teams were 4-20 (1968-‘69), 8-18, and 10-16. That third season might have been better, but Hudson, a sophomore, broke his wrist just as things seemed to be coming together.

Would C.M. have survived in the instant-gratification culture of the modern game? Maybe not. He’d been recommended by Coach Adolph Rupp, but had come from little Transylvania College in Kentucky. My guess is that Bear Bryant knew exactly what he had and would have protected Coach Newton. C.M. did survive. And ultimately thrived.

By 1973 Coach Newton, Wimp Sanderson, and John Bostick had transformed the program from a doormat into an SEC power, and by 1975 into a national power. Alabama’s combined record in C.M.’s first three seasons was 22-54. From 1971 to 1976, it was a spectacular 107-30.

1971-72: The Turnaround

The Tide turned dramatically in C.M.’s fourth year (‘71-’72). Hudson stayed healthy, averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds per game, and was named SEC Player of the Year. Senior veterans Alan House and Jimmy Hollon, along with juniors Glenn Garrett and Paul Ellis, provided great stability. And Raymond Odums, Bama’s second Black starter (signed in 1970 out of Carver High School in Birmingham), emerged as an exceptional point guard. One of the fastest players in the history of the SEC, Raymond averaged 15 points and 6 assists per game in his first year as a starter.

That team established several milestones and built the real foundation for a long run of great Alabama teams. Their 18-8 record (in spite of beginning the season 0-4) was the programs best since 1956. They beat Auburn twice after having lost seven in a row to their biggest rival. They beat superior-talented Tennessee and Kentucky teams in back-to-back games in February. Prior to the win over Kentucky, the Wildcats had won 13 of the last 14 games in the series. And they topped the 100 mark three times, twice against LSU and against Georgia. C.M. was SEC Coach of the Year. And they averaged 87.6 points per game without a 3-point shot or a shot clock! (The high-flying 2020-21 Bama team averaged 79.7!)

1972-73: Launching Pad to Greatness

At several levels, this season may have been the most important one in Alabama basketball history. The growth of the program that year was, in retrospect, astonishing. C.M. coached the same way; he never changed. The talent level, combining the best Black players from Birmingham and rural Alabama, was increasing every year. The state talent well was deep–and the Alabama staff was finally keeping them from leaving the state.

Hudson, as the senior leader, was set to become an all-time great Bama star. I’ve never been around another player like Wendell. He was easygoing, kind, and so laid back that you couldn’t understand his greatness by just watching him practice.

Wendell, who topped out at about 6’6”, 185, wasn’t physically suited to play down low. Or so you would think.

Coach Newton loved to tell the story that they almost ruined Wendell by forcing him to “block out” on rebounds. It didn’t work so well for Wendell because of his slender frame. Everything changed when they finally told him to “just go get the ball.”

The first time I ever saw Wendell play was in a freshman game against Kentucky. I’m pretty sure he was 6’5” and about 165 pounds then. Kentucky’s 6’11”, 260-pound Jim Andrews shot a jump hook from the right block–and Wendell pinned it at the top of the square. Goaltending. But it didn’t matter, because that stunning moment had signaled to many of us that things were going to be different in Tuscaloosa.

Wendell Hudson was the greatest big-game player I’ve ever been around. His leaping ability was scary. Basketball geeks will tell you that most rebounds are secured below the rim, but I swear I saw Wendell snatch ‘em at around 11 feet among the big trees of the Kentuckys and Tennessees. Not only could he fly higher than the others, but he wanted it so much more. Wendell had an unfathomable fire in his gut that only emerged when the stakes were the highest. However, his contrasting personal humility made him the perfect Pioneer. Amazing.

Junior Ray Odums, back to run the show that year, was named 3rd Team All-SEC. He averaged 13 points and 6 assists per game. By the end of that season you could have argued that Raymond was the best point guard in the SEC–and I believe, up to that point–the best one in Alabama history. In only two seasons he had broken the Alabama career assist record–by more than 100! [Raymond was such a gifted athlete that he eventually had a 10-year career playing cornerback in the CFL (a 3-time all-star).]

Charles Cleveland, a 6’5” 210-pound freak of nature, had signed in 1971 out of Brent, Alabama, and as a sophomore averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds a game. Possibly the greatest athlete to ever put on a basketball uniform at Alabama, Charles was Bo before there was a Bo. He was a national football recruit and, like Bo would do in 1982, turned down an offer from a major league baseball team in order to pursue a college career in another sport. And Charles would become the first Bama basketball player ever to be named first-team All-SEC for 3 consecutive seasons. In my mind almost 50 years later I think of Charles as majestic. His posture was so perfect and he carried himself like a prince or a king.

Until Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and others recently emerged as incredible long-range shooters, Charles was the greatest I’d ever seen. Physically, he was superior to them–and he could literally shoot 30-foot jumpers with ease. In the pre-3 point shot era, sadly, there was no value in such an incredible skill.

To top off the talent influx of 1972, big Leon Douglas was in town and expected to contribute immediately. Beginning that year freshmen were finally eligible. Leon, a 6’10”, 230 pounder from Leighton, Alabama, was (and still is) one of the highest-profile recruits in program history. “Grandpa,” as he was tagged by one of his teammates, quickly established himself as a starter. Despite having turned 18 only in August, Leon became a powerful force in the lane–sometimes as a scorer but always as a rebounder and shot-blocker–and was the perfect complement to Wendell Hudson. He averaged 13 points and over 10 rebounds per game.

As a true freshman, “Grandpa” showed flashes of the great scorer he would become. I’ll never forget the 34 he scored on Kentucky in Tuscaloosa. Leon proved that a freshman could survive and thrive in the SEC. He was an exceptional young man who, in my opinion, is the greatest player in Bama Basketball history. With Cleveland and Douglas (both pioneers in their own right because they were national-caliber recruits), the Tide now had two high school All-Americans in their lineup.

The roster wasn’t deep; for the most part, Coach Newton depended on a six-man rotation. Glenn Garrett and Paul Ellis, White seniors from the Selma, Alabama area, filled out the short rotation. Garrett, 6’9”, averaged 8 points and eight rebounds per game, but–more importantly–became the team’s defensive stopper. Glenn effectively guarded the best scorer for each opponent, from 6’2” guards to players his size. And Ellis, only 5’10”, was Mr. Clutch and a super-sub. He played extremely hard, was a fierce competitor, an excellent outside shooter, and the best free throw shooter on the team. Glenn and Paul were, to use a modern term, the “glue guys.” (And, for what it’s worth, that team was huge: 6’2” point guard, 6’5” shooting guard, 6’6” small forward, 6’9” power forward, and 6’10” center. Hudson says that people are always shocked when he describes that 50+-year-old lineup to them…)

This 1972-73 team finished 22-8 (an all-time record for wins), ranked as high as 6th in the AP poll, produced 3 All-SEC players, and Hudson was again named SEC Player of the Year. C.M. was named SEC Coach of the Year. They beat Auburn twice, Kentucky again, and finished one game out of first place in the conference (to Kentucky, of course). And, for the second year in a row, the Tide topped the 100-point mark 3 times. They improved tremendously on defense, yet still averaged over 82 points per game–again, with no 3-point shot and no shot clock!

With only 25 teams allowed to play in the NCAA tournament, Kentucky was invited and Alabama went to the NIT. According to C.M., “At that stage of our program it probably meant more for us to go to New York and play the NIT than it would have to have gone to Nashville and played in the NCAA.” (source: Clyde Bolton’s The Basketball Tide; 1977) And this was Alabama’s first postseason tournament invitation ever.

The Tide beat the local team, an outstanding team from Manhattan, in the opener on a crazy last-second shot by Glenn “Goober” Garrett, who rarely took an outside shot. They then upset a super-talented Minnesota team (included 2 future NBA players along with future baseball Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield) before losing on a last-second shot to Allen Bristow and VPI (Virginia Tech) in the semifinals.

Great recruiting, especially of Black players, had finally helped launch Alabama basketball into the national spotlight. The talent level continued to grow to an extent that the program could absorb the loss of Hudson and 2 other seniors, and be better in the following season.

The racial pendulum had swung dramatically: From 1913 through 1970, no Black player had ever played on a varsity basketball team at the University. In 1972-1973 four Black players had started at Alabama and played at an extremely high level. And the number of individual and team records broken that season is too long to list here.

Thanks to my dad’s life-changing experience as a Bama player, I’d grown up hearing “old school” stories, meeting many of his former teammates over the years, and attending home games as long as I could remember. Now I had wandered into a new era of basketball history in my first year of working in the program. A national story was emerging, but none of us could then grasp its significance.

1973-74: The Beginning of the Run

The Wendell Hudson era was over, but echoes of his personal and historical greatness would, whether folks have ever even heard of him, reverberate through the program forever. But how could C.M., Wimp, and Coach Bostick absorb the loss of Hudson and get even better? By faithfully continuing to build on the blueprint: Bring in the finest players, Black or White, in Birmingham and rural Alabama. Most of them just happened to be Black.

Veterans Cleveland, Odums and Douglas were bolstered by 2 new starters who complemented each other, and the team, perfectly: Boonie Russell and T.R. Dunn.

Charles “Boonie” Russell was a great athlete and charismatic player who was, as far as I know, the only junior college player (originally from Morgan County High School) ever signed by C.M. Boonie was a fine mid-range scorer, but most notably was a great athlete and an incredible leaper. As Coach Newton had done with Glenn Garrett, he convinced Boonie that his most valuable role would be as a defensive stopper. Boonie “bought in” and became one of the best defensive players I’ve ever seen. He averaged 11 points and 6 rebounds per game.

T.R. Dunn was a Parade All American forward/guard from Birmingham’s West End High School. T.R. would evolve into one of the greatest defensive and rebounding guards in the history of basketball, not just Alabama basketball. Coach Bostick once used T.R.–probably a week or so into preseason practice–to demonstrate how to properly execute the old “zig-zag” defensive drill to the entire team. He could guard a ball handler like no one else, but he could also defend every other position on the floor. And, for T.R., scoring wasn’t a huge priority, but he also wasn’t afraid of taking the big shot. That season he averaged over 9 points and exactly 8 rebounds per game.

Cleveland, Douglas and Dunn made up a trio of Parade All-Americans in the starting lineup. And Alabama was starting the first all-Black lineup in SEC basketball history.

With freshman 6’8” Rickey Brown (from Gadsden, AL) added to the rotation that season, the top 6 players were Black. Rickey was Herb Jones-like skinny, but he possessed guard skills and had a huge wingspan. Off the bench he contributed 7 points and 6 rebounds per game. Johnny Dill, a versatile 6’4” junior (from Deshler High School in Tuscumbia, Alabama), filled out the 7-man rotation. Johnny, another high basketball-IQ player, averaged 5 points and 2 rebounds a game. He had a strong midrange game and could play either wing position, or–if needed in short stretches–the 4-spot. Johnny also happened to be the only White player in the regular rotation.

That memorable 1973-’74 team began a run of 3 straight SEC titles, the only program in SEC history other than Kentucky to have done so. They finished 22-4 (best record in the SEC) with a 15-3 conference record–tied with one of the best Vanderbilt teams in school history. Unfortunately: 1) Vanderbilt won the NCAA bid on a tiebreaker, and 2) Due to a crazy NCAA rule, Alabama couldn’t participate in the NIT because they were hosting one of four NCAA regional tournaments (then called the Mideast). So, that great team had to sit at home while four big-time programs traveled to play in Tuscaloosa in the regional.

Cleveland, Douglas, and Odums made the 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-team All-SEC teams, respectively. The team ranked as high as #7 in the AP Poll (in late February), led the SEC in scoring margin (13.9), continued to improve on defense (just under 70 points per game), and still averaged almost 82 points per game.

This Tide team beat Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky twice each (in Tuscaloosa: Tennessee by 19 and Kentucky by 23) and had 9- and 6-game winning streaks. Their Kryptonite was that Vandy team, which beat them by one in Nashville and by two in Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately, as with countless outstanding teams of that era, we’ll never know how far that team could have advanced in a modern NCAA tournament setting.

1974-75: NCAA Tournament Bound

The Tide returned everyone in their top seven except Odums, who finished his career with 399 assists, easily the Bama record at the time. He remains 7th among career leaders–with everyone ahead of him having taken advantage of four years of eligibility versus Ray’s three. Ray, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated players in Alabama basketball history.

It was “plug and play” time again; the staff simply used The Formula to replace Ray: They signed another top Black Birmingham prospect, Anthony Murray, an extraordinarily athletic 6’3” guard out of Glenn High School. Murray, T.R. Dunn, and Boonie Russell established themselves as likely the best defensive trio on one team in Alabama history. Murray moved directly into a starting role, and Rickey Brown and Johnny Dill were now very experienced reserves.

The Tide again finished 15-3 in the SEC, tying Kentucky for first. That Kentucky team was one of Coach Joe Hall’s best, making it all the way to the national championship game where they were defeated by UCLA. Bama, meanwhile, finished with a 22-4 overall record–including two close losses to Kentucky. They finished 10th in the final AP Poll and were ranked as high as 5th. Cleveland and Douglas were named first-team All-SEC.

This year ended differently, though, in positive and negative ways. With the tournament finally expanded to 32 teams, Alabama received an at-large bid–the first state school to ever play in the NCAA tournament. The bad news was that they had to travel 2000 miles to play one of Arizona State’s all-time best teams. That team included three future NBA players, including Lionel Hollins.

The Tide fell behind 55-36 by halftime, mounted a tremendous second-half comeback, and finally lost 97-94. Bama lost at the free throw line: They were 14-29 and ASU was 19-25. And, like Hudson before him, Douglas was special when the lights were brightest, with 27 points and 21 rebounds in the last game of his junior year.

The loss was a bitter one that showed how far the Bama program had come in a few years. With the program’s history, who could have predicted in 1970 that a 22-5 record would be somewhat disappointing?

1975-76: The All-Time Best Tide Team (And the Big One that Got Away)

After the 1974-75 season Bama had to replace three key seniors: Charles Cleveland, Boonie Russell, and Johnny Dill. As usual, the staff pulled it off. They signed three outstanding freshmen, 6’6” Reggie “Mule” King out of Birmingham’s Jackson-Olin High School; another Birmingham West End High School leaper, 6’7” Keith McCord, and a 6’4” White guard out of Broadmoor High School in Baton Rouge, Greg McElveen (outside the formula!). Those three combined with the four returning starters to play in all 28 games that season.

King was a tremendous physical specimen (6’6”, 230) who had an immediate impact as a starter, averaging 11 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. McCord and McElveen filled out the valuable sub roles that year.

This ‘75-’76 group was the best team in the history of Alabama basketball. It was a young team, with Douglas as the only senior and three freshmen in the regular rotation. All five starters averaged double-figure scoring. They finished 22-4 in the regular season and were ranked sixth in the final regular season AP Poll. And for the third straight year the Tide was 15-3 in SEC play; this time, however, they won the regular season crown by one game over Tennessee. They had winning streaks of four, six, and eight. And they were oh so close to a 26-0 regular season: The four losses were by two, one, six, and five.

On February 28 they beat Tennessee 93-90 in a game that surely has to be one of the greatest in SEC history. In those days, the Alabama-Tennessee basketball rivalry equaled football’s “The Third Saturday in October.” And this was UT’s greatest era, fueled by the Ernie (Grunfeld) and Bernie (Bernard King) Show. Due to foul trouble, 10 players played–and played well. Junior forward Rickey Brown led the Tide with 26 points; Douglas and King each had 18 and McElveen scored 12 off the bench. And Ernie, Bernie, and Mike Jackson combined for 77 points! Too many current fans of SEC basketball don’t realize how strong the 10-team SEC was back then.

The Tide completed the regular season ranked 6th in the AP Poll. But the big story that year was the NCAA tournament. The great news was that they received their first automatic bid by winning the SEC, but the bad news was that Bama had to open the tournament playing North Carolina in Dayton, Ohio. Here’s an unreal fact about that Carolina team: Their top five players would not only make their way onto NBA rosters, but each one of them would play in the NBA for at least three years. (Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchack, Walter Davis, Tom LaGarde, and John Kuester)

The Tide shocked the “experts” by punishing the Tar Heels 79-64 (halftime score was 40-28). Douglas dominated the North Carolina front line with 35 points and 17 rebounds. Murray scored 13 points and shut down Phil Ford, one of UNC’s greatest point guards. Dunn limited Davis to 16 points. And freshman Reggie King had 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Unfortunately, in the next round they had to face Bobby Knight’s greatest Indiana team. The Hoosiers were number one in every AP poll that year and finished 32-0–the last undefeated team in the history of NCAA Division I basketball. And has a college team ever had a better starting five? All five starters eventually played at least five years in the NBA. Here they are, along with their ‘76 draft positions: Scott May (2), Quinn Buckner (7), Bobby Wilkerson (11), Tom Abernethy (43), and Kent Benson (1 overall in ‘77).

Bama got off to a slow start in the big game and was down 9-0 early. They were behind 37-29 at the half and trailed by as many as twelve (54-42) in the second half. Refusing to be intimidated or to give in to that great team, the Tide fought back to take a lead (69-68) at the 3:58 mark. IU took its final lead (70-69) when Scott May scored at the 2:02 mark. Old-timers will tell you that the underdogs were on the wrong side of a couple of very questionable calls down the stretch. Final score: 75-69. According to Clyde Bolton (The Basketball Tide; 1977), Coach Knight visited the Alabama locker room after the game to compliment them for their effort. He later said that this Bama team was the best one he’d seen all year.

Douglas was named first team All SEC and Murray made the third team. In his four-year career, Leon hauled down 1,279 rebounds, a number eclipsed only by the SEC’s all-time leader (also from Alabama), the great Jerry Harper. And he also finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer. In 1976, Douglas became the first Crimson Tide player to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, going fourth overall to the Detroit Pistons.

All five ‘75-’76 starters averaged double-figures in points per game. Douglas, King, Brown, and Dunn made up what is possibly the most formidable rebounding team in program history. And Douglas, King, and Dunn would each have long, productive NBA careers.

From Hudson to Odums to Cleveland to Douglas: The greatest era in Bama basketball history was in the books. C.M. Newton and his staff had forever raised the bar for the program. And Athletic Director Paul Bryant deserves credit for a courageous and, ultimately, a great head-coach choice.

Alabama fans are justifiably fired up about a program that has rapidly moved into national prominence. And, as I’ve said, Nate Oats may turn out to be the perfect coach to bring a national championship to Tuscaloosa. It is very important, however, that the greatness of the ones who blazed the Tide trail be recognized and remembered. And I will forever be grateful to those Pioneers for the personal sacrifices they made in order to “stay home” and build something special for our state.

Bill Ivey is a retired coach and History/Government/Economics teacher who has a BS in Business from the University of Alabama and a Master’s degree in History from UAB. He recently closed his Birmingham Basketball Academy (due to the pandemic) and is now fully retired after 45 years of working with young people. He and his wife Cathy founded the Carolyn Pitts Class for Social Justice (Sunday School) at First United Methodist Church downtown, which has continued to meet virtually since March 2020.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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6 thoughts on “The story behind the greatest Bama basketball team ever”

  1. Loved this travel through Tide BBall history. thank you. As I remember that game against Indiana, Keith mcCord put us ahead 69-68, IU missed its next shot, and Leon Douglas had an easy 13-foot jumper that was just a bit too strong. Had he made it, we would have been up by 3, and who knows? Thank you Bill!

  2. Great story to let people know Alabama basketball has a rich history and the fans will never forget us.

  3. I remember those teams quite well, so your recap was fun so as to re-live those games. One game I remember well, other than the opponent, was when Paul Ellis kept being fouled, and he made 18 of 20 free throws. It was a shame that the NCAA tournament was so much smaller and restrictive, as Bama would have, in all likelihood, done quite well if the opportunities had been there.

    1. Robert, you’re right about the lack of spots for good, even great, teams. And very few games were televised, so the exposure was very limited. I wrote this to honor those Bama guys.

      And I also remember Paul hitting all those free throws!

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