Friday, February 22, 2008
College basketball's all-time scorer lives in obscurity
By Mary Buckheit ESPN.com
Question: Who is the men's college basketball career scoring leader?
Need a hint? Julius Erving was selected 12th in the 1972 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. The answer is the 6-foot-8 forward drafted right after Dr. J., by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Travis Grant, with the Lapchick Trophy, was the most prolific scorer in college basketball history.
The answer is Travis Grant, who scored 4,045 points during his career at Kentucky State University, the all-time all-division NCAA record.
Growing up in Alabama, Grant first received some attention while playing at little Barbour County High School in Clayton. His senior year he was offered an opportunity to change schools, but he stayed put -- a decision he still remembers vividly.
"That was the only year we could go to a white school if we wanted to," Grant explained recently from his home in Atlanta. "Otherwise, we didn't have that choice. My high school was all black, just about. Some people encouraged me to go to the white school my last year but I ended up staying at Barbour County High. I'm glad I did, we were a small school, but we made it to the state tournament."
Despite offers from several other universities, Grant decided to attend Kentucky State -- a historically black, small teaching college and a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. KSU, located in the Bluegrass State's capital city of Frankfort, opened in 1887 as the State Normal School for Colored Persons. In 1926 it changed its name to the Kentucky State Industrial College for Colored Persons. In '38, it became Kentucky State College for Negroes. And in 1952 its name was finally abbreviated to Kentucky State.
The school desegregated in 1954, but it's still recognized as a member of the tight-knit group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
"You can gain a lot by going to those black institutions," Grant said. "It's not just the education you receive there, it's more than that. It's also about learning to grow up and learning values and respect. Leaders come out of there. I don't think that you have to go to those colleges, but they have value that is worth preserving. I had to consider basketball in my decision, and John Chaney said, sometimes you pick your college because of the man. The person that is going to be coaching you is probably the most important thing."
For Grant, Kentucky State's coach, Lucias Mitchell, was the most important thing.
Mitchell had been in touch with Grant since the 10th grade, and Grant says he decided on Kentucky State mainly because of his desire to play for Mitchell. The decision paid off. Grant led the team in scoring in 1969, his freshman season. And after that, Mitchell and Grant led the Thorobreds to three consecutive NAIA Division I men's basketball titles.
For Grant, it was an unprecedented back-to-back-to-back national title run, to go along with two NAIA Chuck Taylor Most Valuable Player awards. He also became the first small-college player to be awarded the Lapchick Trophy, awarded to the Sporting News College Basketball Player of the Year.
"Sidney Wicks [UCLA] won it in 1971 and I won it in 1972," Grant said. "I'm real proud of the Lapchick Trophy."
With his shoot-the-lights-out style, Grant set, and still holds, numerous NAIA tournament records, including: most career points (518); highest points-per-game average (34.5); most points in a single tournament (213, in 1972); and most points in a single game (60, against Minot State (N.D.) in 1972).
So why does this scoring machine -- "The Machine," as he was aptly dubbed in college -- still live in relative anonymity? Why don't his unparalleled statistics warrant induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, or at least the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Kansas City -- where Grant amassed all those NAIA tournament records?
"I don't know," Grant said, "I think it's pretty strange.
"Back in that era, the NAIA tournament was very well-respected," Grant recalled. "It would sell out every year and there were always top NBA draft choices playing for the title. It wasn't like it is now. It was recognized as some of the best competition going."
Consider the very respectable old guard of NAIA alumni, including Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois), Willis Reed (Grambling), Dick Barnett (Tennessee State), Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem), Bob Love (Southern-Baton Rouge), Lucious Jackson (Pan American) and Nate Archibald (Alcorn State). More recent stars like Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas) and Dennis Rodman (Southeastern Oklahoma State) hailed from the NAIA, too.
Grant upped the credibility of his three-time national champion Thorobreds by calling them "the best basketball team in Kentucky" in the early '70s. Grant alleges he and his crew could play with any team in the state, including the University of Kentucky. And they frequently did.
"Sometimes, on Sundays, we'd make the trip over to Lexington to play some pickup games there in their rec center. There was no question that we were the better team," he said.
While pickup games don't count for much in the record books, there was perhaps one litmus test that proved the strength of his small school. His senior year, Grant was invited to Dayton, Ohio, to play in the college basketball all-star game. "They selected me to go play with the best players from the so-called big schools," he said "And the team that I was on, we won the game. And I led the team in scoring."
But maybe you still believe that a collegiate hot shot does not a basketball legend make. Well, consider the highlights of Grant's stints in the NBA and the ABA after being selected by the Lakers in the '78 draft. Grant played one full season in Los Angeles before opting to follow his hero and then-teammate, Wilt Chamberlain, south to San Diego, where Chamberlain was going to serve as a player/coach with the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors.
Grant's professional career was short, but he still put up some impressive numbers.
"I went to the Q's because I wanted to play with Wilt, he was supposed to play," explained Grant. "That could have been great -- to be on a team with him."
League contract issues ultimately prevented Chamberlain from ever suiting up for San Diego, but he did coach the Q's for a year. "He was a fair coach," Grant said. "Maybe he wasn't into the X's and O's as much as some coaches, but he understood the game and he would look at the stat sheet and if you weren't doing the things he wanted you to be doing -- especially rebounds, he was big on rebounds -- if you weren't doing that, then you might not start the second half."
Just as the Q's started to come together with Chamberlain at the helm and players like Caldwell Jones, Flynn Robinson and Bo Lamar hitting their stride, Grant was injured. "I broke my foot during that first season, but we went to the playoffs and the team was doing some great things."
Despite injuries (the broken foot, and a knee injury the following season), Grant still managed to put on some outstanding performances in America's Finest City. He posted a career 53.6 field goal percentage from 1973 to '75 with the Conquistadors, sinking 934 of the 1,743 shots he took while wearing a San Diego jersey. In the '74-75 season, Grant averaged 25.2 points per game for the Q's. And in a game in Nov. 1974, he lit up the San Diego Sports Arena, draining 17 of 23 field goal attempts and tacking on 11 free throws against the visiting Nets. He still has the San Diego newspaper clipping which describes that masterpiece.
"Sometimes you get in that zone and you just didn't miss shots. I was the second-leading scorer in the ABA that year, just behind George McGinnis," Grant said proudly.
But longevity was not to be for Grant, or the San Diego Q's. Chamberlain walked away from the franchise after one season. The team's new coach was Alex Groza, and the Conquistadors became the San Diego Sails for the '75-76 season, the team's final one.
"The Q's started going downhill and the league began to fold," Grant said. "I went to the Kentucky Colonels for a bit. Then I left Kentucky and went to the Indiana Pacers, spent a year there, and that was it. That was my last year playing basketball."
Grant actually prepared for an additional season, hoping to get a call back from the Pacers for the '76-77 campaign. But after some contract negotiations couldn't quite be resolved, Grant never returned to Indiana. "I was real disappointed," he said. "I worked hard all summer to get ready to play. The coach in there was Bob Hopkins, the guy from Grambling whose record I had broken, so I thought that was going to be a good situation for me. But he told me that he had received a message that said they didn't want me to return to camp the next year. That was Lenny Wilkens, he was the general manager then, and that still bothers me to this day. We couldn't come to terms -- I wasn't asking for a lot of guaranteed money but I was just trying to get some, which makes sense -- and he didn't bring me to camp after I had worked out. That was probably one of the toughest things I've been through. And that's when I turned to education."
And education has been Grant's life work ever since. While he still remembers his playing days fondly, he says his time teaching and coaching has also been very rewarding. It is that fulfillment that fuels him today as an assistant principal and athletic director at Stephenson High School in Atlanta, where he went after 20 years at Walker High School (now McNair High School), also in DeKalb County.
At age 58, Travis Grant looks forward to retirement and values life's priorities, like his health and his family. When asked if he is upset about big-time basketball's slight regard for his accomplishments, he said simply, "Not anymore."
While he believes that his school and his coach still haven't received appropriate recognition for their achievements, he is personally thankful for the respect he receives daily. He is proud of his induction into the Kentucky State University Hall of Fame, and grateful for various recognitions he has received from his Atlanta community.
"People are aware of what I've accomplished, in my family and in my community. And I'm part of the NBA Retired Players Association and when we meet it's not like I'm a stranger. Those guys know what I've done."
When asked if there is anything the NBA or the NCAA could do now to recognize him, Grant considers the question carefully. "Well," he said after a long pause, "it has to be something they want to do. I wouldn't want to ask them to do anything. It has to come from them and they have to believe it is deserved."
That statement makes it clear that Travis Grant certainly learned life lessons of character and value at that small college in Frankfort, Ky.
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.