FORT SMITH -- Longtime Arkansas fans will remember the turnaround jumper Ron Brewer hit over Kelly Tripucka to give Arkansas a 71-69 victory over Notre Dame in the third-place game of the NCAA Tournament in 1978.
It was a move Brewer developed long before he played at Arkansas or in the NBA for eight years. Brewer was a basketball prodigy who, as a third-grader, played on the sixth-grade team at Howard Elementary in Fort Smith and later starred at Northside High School, where he led the Grizzlies to a 30-0 record in 1974.
"That was my go-to move to get a bucket," Brewer said. "When I saw any part of (the defender's) body, I went the opposite direction. I was 6-4 and I could jump. When I elevated, they weren't affecting my shot. I either made it or I missed."
Brewer was an All-Southwest Conference player at Arkansas, where he became nationally known as one of the famed "Triplets" along with Marvin Delph of Conway and Sidney Moncrief of Little Rock Hall. He is at the top of the list of a long line of basketball talent from Fort Smith that includes Jim King, Tommy Boyer, Almer Lee, Keith Wilson, Eric Burnett and Isaiah Joe, who made the Freshman All-SEC team at Arkansas after leading the Grizzlies to two state championships.
Northside's rich tradition in basketball is currently reflected in Jaylin Williams, a 6-foot-10 center and Division I recruit who led the Grizzlies to their 11th state championship last spring.
"It's a great day to be a Grizzly," Burnett said before a cheering crowd that doubly celebrated boys and girls state championships at Northside last spring.
There's been many great days for the Grizzlies, who began to dominate in the 1950s at Fort Smith High School with stars like King, who later played at Tulsa and 10 years in the NBA with four different teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was teammates with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Boyer played at Arkansas, where he led the nation for two years in free-throw percentage.
King, a tough defender and proficient ball-handler, learned to play all the positions on the floor.
"He was tougher than a junkyard dog," Boyer said after his former high school teammate followed him into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame last spring. "He had those big hands. He was strong. Fundamentally, there wasn't any better basketball player."
Lee was the flashiest of the former Grizzlies and he dazzled Arkansas fans with his ability during an injury-shortened career with the Razorbacks. Lee was the first black player to letter in basketball for Arkansas during the 1969-70 season and he made it acceptable for other blacks to follow his path to Fayetteville.
Brewer said he idolized older stars like Lee while growing up in Fort Smith.
"For me, it was Almer Lee," Brewer said. "He got me excited about playing basketball. Almer Lee, Billy Joe Releford and Benny Shepherd took us young guys under their wings. They were getting in our ears and became our mentors. They were in our community and we became like one."
Jerry Jennings was a football and basketball standout in the mid-1960s when black students from Lincoln High School integrated with Northside. It was back in the day when athletes played different sports depending on the time of year instead of specializing in a year-round activity as some do today.
"We went from playing football one day to playing basketball the next day," said Jennings, who graduated from Northside in 1968 after entering the school the second semester of his sophomore year. "We lost to Horace Mann and Little Rock Central on Monday and Tuesday, then won 27 straight games to win the state championship in basketball. Sports was our thing. Everybody in our neighborhood played whether it was football, basketball, baseball, or running track. We loved to play and a lot of guys were really good at it."
Much of Northside's success came under legendary coach Gayle Kaundart, who spent 19 seasons at Northside and led the Grizzlies to five state championships. Kaundart left after Northside capped its 30-0 season with a 37-32 win over Conway and moved to what was Westark College, now the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, where Brewer followed and played for a year.
"I had some great coaches but the one who molded me was Gayle Kaundart," Brewer said. "You don't realize that until you leave. Halfway, three-quarters of the way wasn't good enough for him. I was the point guard, so I was an extension of him. We'd do things over and over and over until he got his point across, and we didn't think anything about it."
Kaudart had left when Burnett emerged as a star player for Northside. But the lessons he learned on the playoffs and boys clubs in Fort Smith were a springboard to his success at Arkansas Tech, where Burnett still ranks among the school's all-time leading scorers. He was named an NAIA All-American in 1993.
"There were a lot of guys but, for me, it was Keith Wilson who had the biggest impact on me," Burnett said of Wilson, who was an ace defender for Nolan Richardson's teams in the 1990s. "I knew he played for the Razorbacks and I looked up to him as a kid. He pushed me to be the best I could be. I would play one-on-one against him starting when I was probably in the seventh or eighth grade and I finally beat him when I was in the 11th grade. That's when I knew I could do something because he was a great defender and competitor."
From Boyer to Lee to Brewer to Wilson and others, Northside continues to be a feeder school for the Arkansas basketball program. Joe is a star player who has gotten the attention of NBA scouts with his smooth stroke from the 3-point line. He's been greatly influenced by the Razorbacks who came before him, including those from his hometown.
"Definitely growing up in Fort Smith, I grew up an Arkansas Razorbacks fan watching Ronnie Brewer, Michael Qualls, and even recently Daryl Macon, Dusty Hannahs, Jaylen Barford," said Joe, who led the Grizzlies to two state championships. "You have Ron Brewer Sr., who actually played at my high school. He's come up there to multiple practices and things like that, just giving tips. Corliss Williamson and Sidney Moncrief were in the past. Being able to play in the same state as them and being from here, I have my friends and family able to watch me in person. It's just great having that feeling, you know, that culture behind you."
Northside has a Hall of Fame room inside Kaudart Grizzly Fieldhouse, where portraits of former stars hang on the wall. The pictures and profiles are there for any young player to see, but Burnett said most of them already know the rich tradition of Northside basketball.
"When you're talking Northside basketball, you're talking the best in the state," Burnett said. "The kids, they know the tradition and what's expected of them. They know it because their dads played here. Isaiah Joe knows it from his dad. Jaylin Williams knows it from his dad, as well."
All eyes will be on Northside again and Williams, especially, as the Grizzlies attempt to reach the state finals for the fourth consecutive year. Arkansas would love to get its hands on Williams, a 6-10 center and 4-star recruit.
Williams earned MVP honors in the championship game after he scored 20 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and blocked three shots in a 44-41 win over Bryant. It was the 11th state championship for the boys and Northside displayed its basketball power when the Lady Bears under coach Rickey Smith also returned home from Hot Springs with a championship plaque.
Voters in Fort Smith approved a millage last year that will lead to renovations at Northside and Fort Smith Southside. The improvements will include new basketball arenas, but Kaundart Grizzly Fieldhouse will remain standing and host the ninth-grade basketball teams.
A new 2,500-seat arena will be built on what is now a parking lot next to the legendary red-bricked Mayo-Thompson football stadium at Northside. That facility will undoubtedly host future championship teams and stand a short distance from the gym where legends were made.
For Burnett, he came full circle back to Northside after earning his degree at Arkansas Tech and beginning his coaching career at Southside and Springdale Har-Ber, where he was the Wildcats' first coach. It was a special day for Burnett in April, 2010 when he was announced to replace Johnny Mason, his former junior high coach who coached varsity for 15 seasons at Northside.
"Growing up in Fort Smith, I used to dream about being the head coach at Northside," Burnett said. "It's always been like that for me. That's why I wanted to come back here and continue the great tradition at Northside High School."
Preps Sports on 11/03/2019
Print Headline: The Northside Way