- Jeff Miller
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Inclusion of Texas high school basketball among the nation's elite is a relatively new development. This is a state where basketball once was mostly a way to spend time between football and spring football.
Two of the past five teams recognized as national champions were from Texas: Lincoln (Dallas) in 2004 and Duncanville in 2007. The first time a Texas high school product was chosen No. 1 in the NBA draft was 1991, when the Charlotte Hornets selected Larry Johnson of Skyline (Dallas). Johnson was followed a year later by Shaquille O'Neal of Cole (San Antonio) -- he played there his last two years -- and in 2000 by Kenyon Martin of Bryan Adams (Dallas).
The decision in the mid-1980s to finally allow high school players to participate in summer leagues certainly moved Texas ball up in class. And well before that, the integration of public schools in the late '60s and early '70s put the game on its feet.
Robert Hughes Sr. saw it and lived it. He coached for 47 seasons in Fort Worth, first in the league for black schools at I.M. Terrell and then for 31 years with his Flying Wildcats of Dunbar. He retired in 2005 with 1,333 victories, more than any other high school basketball coach in the country.
"Texas high school basketball was beat over the head with a short stick for years, but it never died," said Hughes, 80 years old and still a lithe 6-foot-6. "All the publicity was football. Well, that's changed now without a doubt. These teams can play with anybody."
Dunbar won a Class 5A title in 1993 and a 4A crown in 2003, and Hughes' Terrell teams won three titles in the largest division of the old Prairie View Interscholastic League. Terrell was closed in 1973, and Hughes moved to Dunbar.
He took 12 Dunbar teams to the state tournament in Austin, and four teams lost in the final. In 1987, before interstate high school games became commonplace, Dunbar defeated Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), ending that school's 55-game winning streak.
Hughes developed something of a farm system at Terrell, which was a combination junior-senior high, by steering all the "tall skinnies" in the seventh grade into a physical education class in which he taught basketball fundamentals. None of Hughes' Terrell or Dunbar players became NBA names, unless you count James Cash. He now is a part owner of the Boston Celtics, having recently retired from the faculty of the Harvard Business School, many years after becoming the first black basketball player in the old Southwest Conference at TCU.
"Except for two teams," Hughes said, "the tallest guy on the Dunbar bench was me!"
His teams were built on speed and discipline. Most of the schools in the PVIL played up-tempo, although Hughes recalled a more blunt description used back then.
"Colored ball," he said. "But the kids from the all-white schools used to get a bus and come watch us play. In the PVIL, we used to say, 'If you can't score 85, don't come.'"
One of Hughes' most recent Dunbar products, former Georgia Tech captain Jeremis Smith, reflected on the coach's hard line.
"You did exactly what he said, or you'd have a seat on the bench," said Smith, the MVP of the 2003 state tournament for 4A. "It didn't matter how many points you averaged, if you were a superstar, if somebody from a college was there to recruit you. You'd be sitting on the end of the bench."
Hughes' creative summation of his most important rule: "If you can't make a layup, can't shoot a free throw, you can't beat your grandmother if she has on spiked heels and an Easter bonnet -- if you can do one thing, do what the hell I tell you to."
Early in his career, Hughes' firm words and stern looks were supported by a wooden paddle known as the board of education.
"Boardology is a master teacher," he said with a grin. "When we removed that, we removed a lot from our education system."
Smith, who now plays in France, also recalled the comradery of the team being an important factor.
"We were friends before anything," he said. "There are guys from years before me that I'm still close to. Still a Dunbar family."
Family still plays a role in Hughes' activities. He was succeeded by his son, Robert Jr., and often scouts for the Wildcats.
"I do everything now that I did when I was hired except I don't get paid," he said. "But I also don't have to go to those faculty meetings and separate kids for fighting in the hallway.
"I was probably too intense when I coached. If I had it to do over again I probably wouldn't change a thing."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.
Basketball in Texas used to be a way to kill time between football season and spring football. Thanks to pioneers like former Dunbar coach Robert Hughes Sr., the Lone Star State can claim a place in our country's hoops history.