REX NELSON: Those basketball fans

Posted: March 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

If you turn to the Sports section of today's edition, you'll find stories about the high school basketball state tournament games that were played Saturday. State tournaments took place last week at seven locations across the state. This week, 14 championship games--seven for girls and seven for boys--will be played at Hot Springs. There will be four games Thursday, four games Friday, and six games Saturday. I usually attend as many of the title games as possible.

I've loved this time of year since I was a boy. My father, a sporting goods dealer who called on high schools, would take me to state tournaments with him. I recently ran across a letter postmarked March 17, 1980, that reminded me again how long I've been watching, broadcasting and writing about state tournament games.

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, Bill Clinton was in his first term as governor, and I was a sophomore at Ouachita Baptist University. In addition to carrying a full load in college, I had two full-time jobs: sports editor of Arkadelphia's Daily Siftings Herald and sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL.

Among the most highly recruited high school players in the country that year was Ricky Norton from tiny Okolona High School. He was one of the few Arkansas players that the University of Kentucky had ever come after in a big way. Basketball Weekly had Norton on its list of the top 25 prep prospects in the country.

We decided to broadcast all of Okolona's post-season games on KVRC. I would be the play-by-play announcer. I was in the small gymnasium at Emmet describing a district tournament game when L.D. Hoover broke in from the studio to say: "Rex, there has probably never been a hockey score given on this station, but you might be interested to know that the United States just defeated the Soviet Union in the Olympics." Most of the country was interested in the Miracle on Ice that day. I was more interested in making sure I had Norton's stats right.

At the Class B state tournament (there's no longer a Class B and no longer an Okolona High School), Clinton showed up unexpectedly for the semifinal game between Okolona and Wilmar. He was with Eddie Sutton, the University of Arkansas head coach who was recruiting Norton. After the game, I was approached by an angry Nelson Catalina, who was an assistant for Marvin Adams at Arkansas State University.

Catalina, who hailed from Turrell in the Arkansas Delta, had played college basketball for the legendary Bill Vining at Ouachita and was my favorite college player when I was growing up. He graduated from Ouachita in 1972 and was an assistant for Vining before joining Adams at ASU. Catalina later would serve as ASU's head coach from 1984-95, compiling a 188-139 record.

Catalina had known Norton since the Okolona product was a junior high student attending basketball camps at Ouachita each summer. Catalina thought he had a chance to sign Norton and was furious that Clinton had gone to the dressing room with Sutton. His face red, Catalina said to me: "The last time I checked, he was the governor of the entire state. We're also a state school. The governor has no business taking sides." I assured Catalina that I would blast Clinton in a column. After all, I thought to myself, the governor will never see a column written by a 20-year-old sports editor in Arkadelphia.

My column the following Monday was headlined "Guv Bill is out of his field." It started like this: "Once again, Okolona High School's Ricky Norton drew the major college basketball coaches to The Pit on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello for the Class B state tournament. In the quarterfinals on Wednesday, the list of VICs (very important coaches) included Joe B. Hall of Kentucky (the B. stands for basketball when he's winning and for something else when he's losing), Marvin Adams of Arkansas State along with assistants from Arkansas, Memphis State and elsewhere. Minutes before the start of Friday night's semifinal game against Wilmar, the list suddenly became even more impressive. In walked head Hog Eddie Sutton followed by a group of assistants and friends. And among that group was none other than the governor of the state of Arkansas."

The column concluded: "Just as it's best for people like Lou Holtz and Sutton to stay out of politics, Clinton should make it a point to stay out of athletic recruiting. . . . I have lost a lot of respect for our governor after his intrusion into the recruiting war. He owes an immediate and sincere apology to all other coaches in this state."

Several days later, a handwritten note arrived at our office addressed simply to "Rex Nelson, Sports Editor, Siftings Herald, Arkadelphia, Ark." No address was needed. The note on governor's office stationery began: "I know this may be impossible for you to believe, but I came to Monticello to watch a basketball game, not to recruit Ricky Norton for the U of A. By coincidence, I was talking to Eddie Sutton about other matters, learned he was flying down and asked if I could go because (a) I hadn't been out since my daughter was born; (b) I love high school basketball and want to support it; (c) we needed to complete our discussion of unrelated matters."

Clinton would lose to Republican Frank White that fall in perhaps the greatest upset in Arkansas political history. Our paths would cross countless times in the years that followed since I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette during Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and his first term as president.

Norton, meanwhile, wound up signing with Arkansas. The Razorbacks won two Southwest Conference regular-season championships and one Southwest Conference tournament championship during his four years as a Hog. Arkansas made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of those four seasons and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1981 and 1983.

Maybe I should see if Clinton wants to accompany me to some state title games in Hot Springs one March. As you can see, we both love high school basketball.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 03/04/2018