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Recalling the good times of covering state basketball tourneys

By Steve Williams

When I see yellow daffodils and forsythia bushes blooming in early spring it always reminds me that it’s time for the TSSAA state high school basketball tournaments.

It’s that time now.

It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

For 15 years or so in the 1970s and 1980s, I had the privilege of getting to cover girls’ and boys’ state tournaments for The Knoxville Journal when it was a daily newspaper.

It was probably my favorite assignment as The Journal’s prep editor. Assignment? A labor of love would be a better way to describe it.

I was 22 years old when I covered my first boys’ state tourney in 1974. It was held all the way across the state in Memphis. The TSSAA had just went to a classification system the year before. Based on enrollments, there were then divisions for Class Large and Class Small schools, and that included public and private schools. (We now have five classifications – Division I AAA, AA and A for public school teams and Division II AA and A for private school teams).

I still have memories of the ‘74 tourney. Knoxville Catholic High, led by a red-headed guard by the name of Chris Gettlefinger and coached by the personable Bill Deatherage, finished runner-up in Class Small, losing to Happy Valley 44-42.

Memphis Melrose, one of the best, if not the best high school team I’ve ever seen, smashed Haywood (I believe that team was from Brownsville) 66-30 in the Class Large title game to finish with a 33-0 record. John Gunn was a powerful post player for Melrose. If I’m not mistaken, he went on to play at Memphis State but died much too young, in December of 1976, due to a medical condition.

The boys’ state tourney moved to Murphy Center in Murfreesboro in 1975, and all the remaining tourneys I covered were either there or at Vanderbilt in Nashville.

One of the things I enjoyed about going to the mid-state area every spring was the trip itself. If I had time, I would get off I-40 West at the Harriman-Rockwood exit and get on scenic U.S. Highway 70. I discovered Ozone, a little community before you get to Crab Orchard. Ozone has a waterfall that I liked to stop and see.

It probably took me longer to get there, but I still liked the journey. It enabled me to see little towns and the countryside that our beautiful state has. Riding atop the plateau in Cumberland County, crossing into the Central time zone, you knew you weren’t in East Tennessee anymore. Coming back, you hoped your brakes wouldn’t fail as you came down Rockwood Mountain. Soon you are back in the valley, almost home.

When I would get to Murfreesboro, I would always enjoy the sight of Murphy Center in the distance. Inside, I would see familiar faces of tourney staff workers and TSSAA directors like Gil Gideon, Bob Baldridge, Ronnie Carter and Gene Beck. They were always very accommodating and seemed pleased to see me, too.

I would also usually get to see some of my sportswriter pals from other parts of the state, like Bill Lane from Kingsport, Larry Flemming from Chattanooga, Larry Taft and Harold Huggins of Nashville, Larry Rhea of Memphis and the late Aaron Keen, who had worked at newspapers in Oak Ridge, Murfreesboro and Mt. Juliet. I’d also see a lot of my competition there, the late Bill Luther of The Knoxville News-Sentinel. We would compete for stories, but we respected each other.

Some nights, after all the fans had went home or back to their motels, and workers were cleaning up Murphy Center, the home of the MTSU Blue Raiders by the way, some of us writers, after our stories had been filed, would be provided a basketball, and we would go out on the court and shoot. We had the spacious blue-splashed arena all to ourselves.

The sportswriting business was different back then. There would be portable typewriters on press row, not laptops. Stories were sent back to the office via a telecopier, and then would have to be retyped into the newspaper’s system by one of the sportswriters back in the office.

Game statistics would roll off a mimeograph machine back in the arena’s press room, the master sheet filled out by hand. The mimeograph copies would be in blue ink, with that distinctive smell.

The TSSAA provided food and drinks for us media workers at the tourney site, but once a day I would get away to eat out. Hey, The Journal was paying my expenses – I might as well take advantage of it. One can’t live on hot dogs and sandwiches alone.

I had a favorite steak house in Murfreesboro and there was a small country restaurant, with homecookin’, on the courthouse square I liked. I usually had breakfast at Waffle House, then would return to Murphy Center for six more games. Sometimes my day would end at the Waffle House.

Since 1988, I haven’t been to the state tourney many times. One year, my alma mater, the Clinton Dragons, coached by Don Lockard, made it to the state and I went as a fan.

Every year I get the urge to go back.

This season would be a good year to go. Several local teams are state bound – Gibbs, Fulton and Grace Christian Academy plus Oak Ridge, Maryville and Wartburg.

If you’re going down to support your team, I suggest taking Highway 70, and stopping and seeing the waterfall in Ozone.

We always hear coaches say their teams should enjoy the journey. Well, so should fans.

If I go, there’s at least three things I’m gonna try and do. One, get a press pass. Two, see if that country restaurant is still there. And three, check with Gibbs Coach Tim Meade, who is only 27 years old, to see if he really got some gray hairs, like he told me, from all those close games his team had this season.

I might also stop and smell the flowers. The yellow ones.

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