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story.lead_photo.caption Oliver Elders, who retired in 1993 as the winningest active high school basketball coach in the state of Arkansas with 656 victories, will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Friday. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

On a Saturday morning in the mid-1940s, two boys approached a large building with a key to the door.

They walked with blissful nonchalance: Oliver Elders Jr., the son of a black bookkeeper, and William Rasco Jr., the son of a white doctor.

William led the way, twisted the key in the door's lock, and Oliver saw what was inside for the first time.

The wooden floor panels glistened. Goals hung from the ceiling. Nets were draped around the rims.

Oliver had played basketball only on dirt courts, and the door William just opened to the DeWitt High School gymnasium might as well have been the pearly gates.

"We went in there, and we played and we played and we played and we played," Elders, 86, recalled. "We used to go in that thing, man, and boy let me tell you, I had a smile on my face when we came out."

Elders eventually coached high school basketball in Arkansas for 36 years, winning four state championships and breaking racial barriers in the middle of nationwide desegregation.

On Friday, Elders will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Even on that Saturday morning as a boy, Elders brushed a social issue without really considering it: Black people did not play basketball at DeWitt High.

Elders attended the all-black Immanuel High in Almyra before he moved to Pine Bluff with his father, Oliver Boone Elders Sr., to start his sophomore year at J.C. Corbin High in 1946.

J.C. Corbin, which was on the corner of Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), won the 1949 state championship over North Little Rock's Scipio Jones High School.

In the championship photograph, Elders grins, a few shoulders away from head coach Samuel Banks.

"I tell you he was one of the coolest, smartest, slickest dudes," Elders said. "I wanted to be just like him. Everybody was in love with him, and he was a heck of a coach."

Drawing collegiate interest but no scholarship offers, Elders continued to play basketball "from dusk to dawn" on a dirt court near AM&N. The three-on-three games were interrupted only by a quick meal of gravy sandwiches and a bottle of Big Red, which a father of Elders' friends would serve.

One day, Elders said, AM&N's men's basketball coach approached the court and asked Elders whether his parents would let him accept a scholarship to play there.

He went home immediately and returned with his answer.

"I told him, 'I'll take one,' " he said.

By the time Elders graduated in 1954, the Harlem Globetrotters found themselves in a contract dispute. Two players, Marques Haynes and Goose Tatum, left the Globetrotters to help create the Harlem Magicians. Pine Bluff native Boid Buie, a Globetrotter who had lost his left arm in a car accident when he was 13, joined Haynes and Tatum.

Elders said when one of the Magician's guards hurt an ankle, Buie reached out to him, and Elders traveled with the team for a year.

The Magicians had an exhibition game in Pine Bluff, and the right rear tire of their car busted, barrelling the car off the road. Everyone was unharmed except Junius Kellogg, a former center for Manhattan College who was the whistle-blower for the City College of New York point shaving scandal of 1951.

Kellogg was paralyzed.

Elders returned home after an emotional hospital visit.

Elders mother, Leona, who was an elementary school teacher in DeWitt, said: "You ain't playing another game, and I mean it."

Leona sent Elders to live with his uncle, Pete Elders, in Chicago, where Elders cleaned out apartments after residents checked out.

Elders worked there until he was drafted into the army, where he served for two years.

"I was going to stay there and make a retirement thing out of that," said Elders, whose mother worried that he would be sent out to fight a war. "My mother had a meltdown. I told her I wasn't going to have a job, and that I could just stay there and retire. I'd have some money in my pocket."

Elders said his mother spoke with the superintendent in DeWitt, who called Elders and told him he was going to be the head basketball coach at Immanuel High.

"So that's how that all happened," Elders said.

According to The Company We Keep: 50 Years of Arkansans, a historical book by Ruth Shepherd, Immanuel had no gym, so the team had to practice outside on the dirt until Elders convinced the principal to allow him to set up a goal in the auditorium.

Elders coached for one season at Immanuel, and he said his team was made up of members of his own family. The team played in a tournament at Scipio Jones High, where "they borrowed socks and shoes," according to Shepherd, "and won three games in one day to qualify for the championship game."

They lost to Jones High in the title game by two points.

The next year, in 1956, Elders was hired to be the head coach at the brand-new Horace Mann High School.

When he was the coach at Horace Mann, Elders said his superintendent mandated that all his players had to go through a medical physical. Elders called the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville medical school, and he said he was surprised that the school sent a woman, Joycelyn Jones.

"Not only was I surprised [the physician was a woman]," Elders said, "I was surprised how pretty she was."

Two months later, according to Shepherd, Elders and Joycelyn were married.

They still live together in Little Rock.

Elders was the only high school basketball coach for Horace Mann, which was converted into a middle school after the 1971 season due to desegregation mandates.

Wadie Moore, who covered high school sports from 1968 through the late 1980s for the Arkansas Gazette, said Elders did a lot to ease racial tensions.

By 1971, Elders said, high school athletic leagues had been integrated, but many schools had not yet been integrated.

Mann remained an all-black school, and in 1971 it was ranked No. 1 in the state and faced an all-white El Dorado High School team in the first round of the playoffs.

Mann had won the regular-season meeting, but El Dorado upset Mann in the playoffs.

Moore said "tensions were really high in the city at the time," and that Elders "spoke out against racial tension."

"He calmed everyone down," Moore said.

Elders denies there was any tension after that game.

"We just got our butts beat," he said.

Elders, who said he befriended many of the white high school coaches in Little Rock, routinely scheduled scrimmages with all-white schools when he "wasn't supposed to."

"I scrimmaged against Catholic High," he said. "I scrimmaged against Central when I wasn't supposed to. I scrimmaged against North Little Rock when I wasn't supposed to."

Elders said he was relocated to Little Rock Hall High School after the 1971 season, where he won all four of his state championships.

Sidney Moncrief, a former Arkansas Razorback and five-time All-NBA guard, played for Elders from 1973-1975.

"With Coach Elders, it was about being a better person, a better man," said Moncrief, who Elders called Super Sid. "Beyond basketball, the principles were sustainable outside the basketball court."

Elders retired in 1993 as the winningest active coach in Arkansas with a 656-305 record. He moved to Washington D.C. with Joycelyn, who served as surgeon general for President Bill Clinton. Elders served as director of the intern program at the U.S. Department of Education.

Elders was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1997, and in 1999, he was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Now, he will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

"I think it's a beautiful thing," said Elders, who now manages rental properties in Little Rock. "Hey, it wasn't easy. Let me tell you. Life wasn't no bowl of cherries."

Photo by Thomas Metthe
Former Little Rock Hall coach Oliver Elders, who won 656 games and four state championships, will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Friday.

Sports on 04/03/2018

Oliver Elders glance

TEAM Immanuel High; Horace Mann High; Little Rock Hall High

JOB Head coach

AGE 86

FAMILY Wife, Joycelyn; sons, Eric and Kevin

NOTEWORTHY Named Coach of the Decade for the 1980s by the sportswriters of Arkansas. … Inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1997. … Inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. … Retired in 1993 as the winningest active coach in the state with a 656-305 record. … Eighty-five of his players received college scholarships. … Won four state championships.

Print Headline: Basketball a staple during Elders' life

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