The Best Basketball Team in Bama History

Bill Ivey
Bill Ivey

Today’s guest columnist is Bill Ivey.

Nate Oats is arguably the best college basketball coach in the country.

He recruits at a high level, understands how to create a structured but creative atmosphere, and knows he can win big at Alabama.

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

This Final Four “moment” for Alabama basketball seems to be a turning point, and the future is incredibly bright. Most Alabama fans agree that this year’s team was not the best Bama team ever, but it captured hearts and minds nationwide. Bama fans will always remember this Oats work of art and its accomplishments.

However, another group wants you to remember them. They are much older than the current coach at Alabama. They want us to remember them for their talent, character, sacrifices, achievements, and greatness. I’ll call them “The Pioneers.”

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 to 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 almost 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 recruiting 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.

Coach Bryant hired C.M. Newton in 1968. I can’t verify this, but he reportedly said he hired C.M. because he was the first basketball coach he’d ever met who wasn’t crazy. His Alabama career began inauspiciously: C.M.’s 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 modern game’s instant-gratification culture? Maybe not. Kentucky coach Adolf Rupp recommended him to Bryant, but C.M. had been coaching at tiny Transylvania College in Kentucky. I guess 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.

It’s important to remember that Coaches Sanderson and Bostick were the recruiters who helped build this powerhouse. They “beat the bushes” to find the best rural and Birmingham talent, spending many hours in beat-up gyms and humble homes.

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, Jimmy Hollon, and 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 foundation for a long run of great Alabama teams. Their 18-8 record (despite beginning the season 0-4) was the program’s best since 1956. They beat Auburn twice after losing seven in a row to their biggest rival. They beat the 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. They topped the 100 mark three times, twice against LSU and also 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 2023-’24 Bama team averaged 90.1.)

1972-73: Launching Pad to Greatness 

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

Senior leader Hudson was set to become an all-time great Bama star. I’ve never been around a 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. Because of his slender frame, this didn’t work so well for Wendell. Everything changed when they finally told him to “just go get the ball.”

The first time I saw Wendell play was in a freshman game against Kentucky. I think 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 signaled to many of us that things would 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, Raymond was the best point guard in the SEC–and up to that point–the best one in Alabama history. He broke the Alabama career assist record by over 100 in only two seasons! [Raymond was such a gifted athlete that, after leaving Alabama, he had a 10-year career playing cornerback in the Canadian Football League  (and 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, he 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 to pursue a college career in another sport. And Charles would become the first Bama basketball player to be named first-team All-SEC for three consecutive seasons. In my mind, almost 50 years later, I think of Charles as majestic. His posture was perfect, and he carried himself like a prince or a king.

Charles was the greatest long-range shooter I’d ever seen until Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and others recently emerged as such. Physically, he was superior to them and could easily shoot 30-foot jumpers. Unfortunately, in the pre-3-point shot era, such an incredible skill had no value.

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 turning 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 (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 people are always shocked when he describes that 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 and Kentucky again and finished one game out of first place in the conference (to Kentucky, of course). For the second year in a row, the Tide topped the 100-point mark three 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 received the invitation, 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 (which included two future NBA players and 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, finally helped launch Alabama basketball into the national spotlight. The talent level continued to grow to the extent that the program could absorb the loss of Hudson and two other seniors and improve 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, in my first year of working in the program, I had wandered into a new era of basketball history. A national story was emerging, but those involved in the program could not 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 reverberate through the program forever, whether folks had ever even heard of him. But how could C.M., Wimp, and Coach Bostick absorb Hudson’s loss and get even better? By faithfully continuing to build on the blueprint: Bring in the finest players, Black or White, from Birmingham and rural Alabama. Most of them just happened to be Black.

Veterans Cleveland, Odums, and Douglas were bolstered by two new starters who perfectly complemented each other and the team: 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 Hartselle 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 basketball history, 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 wasn’t afraid of taking the big shot. That season, he averaged over 9 points and 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 I.Q. 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 then. He remains 7th among career leaders–with everyone ahead of him having taken advantage of four years of eligibility versus Ray’s three. In my opinion, Ray is one of the most underrated players in Alabama basketball history (and should be in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame).

It was “plug and play” time again; the staff 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 were 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 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 bitter, but it showed how far the Bama program had come in a few years. Given 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 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 immediately had an impact as a starter. He averaged 11 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. McCord and McElveen filled out the valuable substitute 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 games. And they were very 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, ten 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 NCAA Tournament by 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 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. 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 NCAA Division I basketball history. 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 the 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 tallied 1,279 rebounds, a number eclipsed only by the SEC’s all-time leader (also from Alabama), the great Jerry Harper. 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-figure points per game. Douglas, King, Brown, and Dunn made up possibly the most formidable rebounding team in program history. 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. President David Matthews and Athletic Director Paul Bryant deserve 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 be the perfect coach to bring a national championship to Tuscaloosa.

However, it is very important that the greatness of the pioneers who blazed the Tide trail be recognized and remembered. I will forever be grateful to those Pioneers for the personal sacrifices they made 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 coached basketball and track for 25 years, including a 3-year stint as the women’s basketball coach at UAB. After retiring from the public school system, he founded a nonprofit that assisted young male basketball players who had graduated from high school but had “slipped through the cracks.” He also founded and ran the Birmingham Basketball Academy until 2020. He and his wife Cathy lead the Carolyn Pitts Class for Social Justice (Sunday School), which meets online every Sunday morning.

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).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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15 thoughts on “The Best Basketball Team in Bama History”

  1. It is totally inappropriate to have an article about a basketball team located outside the Birmingham area in a column that is supposed to be about Birmingham.

    1. Pat, really???

      I loved this history lesson from an insider. You don’t have to like basketball to appreciate Bill’s narrative.

      Thanks Bill for writing this. RTR!

    2. Pat, you are entitled to your opinion, but please note these three points: 1) The majority of these players were from Birmingham; 2) This city has always been a big basketball town (and had FOUR NCAA tournament teams to cheer for this year); 3) Birmingham has always been a big Bama basketball town.

    3. Fans are everywhere, especially Birmingham. I live in Indiana, follow Alabama and Birmingham (hometown) doings, and thoroughly enjoyed the article. For me, it fit perfectly with today’s city, especially when paired with the Krell article.

  2. To me the remarkable thing about what Bill Ivey has written is the example for high level achievement within the state, the closer context of Birmingham. What could be very helpful is how a similar version of improvement of Birmingham could be achieved with better Metro management. This could be how such management might find out how to ‘coach’ the citizens and leaders to advance Birmingham’s future to better heights, organizing how to work together.

    1. A good point, Roy. And the message conveyed from Coach Bryant to Coach Newton: Get the best players, period. No racial or political strings attached.

    2. A good point, Roy. And the message conveyed from Coach Bryant to Coach Newton: Get the best players, period. No racial or political strings attached.

  3. Such memories. I attended UA from 1968 to 1973, and remember most everything you mentioned. Because I have always loved basketball, I did not miss too many home games, and even made a couple of road trips. My grades suffered, but I did eventually graduate. Your description of so many of the players is on target, and I often wonder how well some of them would do in this modern era of basketball. A couple of memories I have is Garrett scoring on a last second shot to beat Auburn at Auburn and Ellis hitting 18 of 20 free throws against Ole Miss. Thanks for telling the story of the “pioneers”.

      1. Bill, figured you remembered those, and I’m sure there are plenty more. Something else you might recall is the high school class 4A basketball championship in 1969, might have been 1970. Believe it was Parker vs. Shades Valley. The game was changing, and this was an all black team vs. an all white team. Two totally different styles of play, and as good as Shades Valley was, they were simply not prepared for how Parker played.

        1. It was 1971, overtime in front of 15k in Tuscaloosa. My senior year @ Huffman. We played both teams, lost to both.

          SV actually had more D-1 players than Parker did, but Parker had Allen Murphy (I still he’s the best HS player in AL history). I don’t remember the exact details, but I think Parker hit a long shot to win in OT.

          1. Bill, your memory is better than mine, but I do remember Allen Murphy. One fantastic ball player. Another from a couple of years earlier was Alvin McGrew. Wish he had played college basketball, as Bama would have got him, most likely. But he took the baseball money, which made sense, but it would have been fun to watch him on the court. Those were the days.

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