We often lose the significance of a historic moment in time. We can recall the moment. We know it was important, but we lose context because the clock sweeps that away with each tick.
Jerry Lee Wells and Charles “Big Game” Hunter altered the landscape of college basketball when they signed to play basketball with Oklahoma City University in 1962.
Wells was the elder of the two and had opted to join Abe Lemons’ squad, which played a quick-paced game unlike many other college teams in the nation.
Wells and Hunter helped break the color barrier in Oklahoma City and joined two other black men in establishing a trend in college basketball. Before that, the two led Ralph Bunche High School to the Kentucky high school state tournament.
The school itself was named for the first black man to play basketball at UCLA and the first black person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. (I have often wondered who came up with the name for the high school. That’s a story I would like to hear.)
Wells died Monday. His visitation begins at 6 p.m. Thursday at Watts and Purcell Funeral Home and the funeral service is 11 a.m. Friday at Oak Grove Baptist Church.
The 6-2, 190-pound basketball star graduated from high school prior to integration of the Glasgow Independent Schools District. The Blue Hawks’ brisk brand of basketball drew crowds to the school on Bunche Avenue that included community members of all races and from all walks. In 1961 – Wells’ senior year – Bunche won the Fifth Region Tournament and advanced to the state tournament. Longtime observers of basketball and history in Glasgow have told me the Bunche success made integrating schools much easier than what was experienced in other southern communities. The Blue Hawks drew fans from across the community.
“We had a lot of white fans that came and watched us play at Bunche,” Hunter said by phone Wednesday. “It was a stepping stone that helped make the transition when they integrated in 1965.”
Joel Wilson said the style of basketball and the atmosphere at the all-black school was “electric.”
“They were something special that year,” he said Wednesday.
Wilson spent 50 years at the Glasgow Daily Times. He began his career in 1956 as a sports writer and was still in that role when Bunche got on a roll in 1961.
“We started covering Bunche when I became the sports editor,” Wilson said. “We might have a score every once in a while before then, but we never covered the games or had photos in the newspaper.”
He said the Blue Hawks had perfect chemistry in their championship year. Combine that with the ability of the cheer squad to motivate fans, and the environment at the small gym was legendary.
Between the time Bunche won the regional tournament and went to the state tournament, Wilson said the late Ochell Tuck led an effort to raise money to buy blazers and slacks for the players. Tuck was the director of the Glasgow Parks and Recreation Department and an avid supporter of youth sports in the community.
Hunter said school principal Luska J. Twyman went to, he believed, the old National Store on the square and bought blazers and pants that weren’t exactly the school colors, but did give the team a uniform appearance.
Either way, Wilson recalled, “They looked cool walking into the gym.”
It was a visual example of the community support the players and school had.
In his first year after high school, Wells continued to play basketball in an independent league, Hunter said.
While playing together at Bunche, Hunter carried the scoring load and with his size, that garnered him much attention from college coaches. He said he and Wells visited the University of Louisville, but the coaches there said they could not offer Wells an opportunity to play for the Cardinals.
“Lemons was recruiting me really heavy,” Hunter said of the OCU head coach. “Lemons and Paul Hanson, the freshman coach, came to Glasgow to recruit me and Jerry came to work out and Hanson was impressed.”
Hunter explained he and Wells participated in a pick-up game that the coaches monitored and Wells had a good day demonstrating his skills.
Asked to compare Wells to any basketball player that people would know, he said the guard had a game like Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the National Basketball Association.
“He could shoot from outside and take it to the basket,” Hunter said.
Lemons’ thoughts on Wells were recorded in the book “Abe Lemons: Court Magician” by Bob Burke and Kenny Franks.
“Abe was big on Jerry Lee Wells, who had finished high school at 17 and laid out a year before going to college. Abe described Wells as ‘for his size, as good a player as I’ve had in 10 years at OCU.’ Abe called Wells the complete player, ‘with a fine sense of balance, hits inside or out and can play 40 minutes without relief.’”
Wells was picked in the second round of the 1966 NBA draft by the Cincinnati Royals. He had played his senior year at OCU on a bad knee. That was discovered when Wells was drafted into the Army and the service declared him unfit for duty because of the injury.
“The Army tried to recruit him, which disrupted his time at rookie camp” with the Royals, Hunter said.
That team also already had hall-of-fame guard Oscar Robertson.
Hunter said Wells had told him that he and Big “O” weren’t friends. “It wasn’t just about what you could do. There was a lot of politics at that time,” he said.
When Wells tried to return to Cincinnati, the roster was set.
“I thought he would have a good opportunity to play,” Hunter said. “Jerry told me either the coach or the general manager, I don’t remember which, really liked him.”
Wells did not get another crack at the highest level of professional basketball. He did play about five years in the Continental Basketball Association in Michigan.
“It was my lifetime dream to play in the NBA,” Wells told Wilson in an interview in 2005. “But it just didn’t work out.”
Wells may not have fulfilled his dream, but he set a path by which others could pursue theirs.
Wells, 70, died Monday at T.J. Sampson Community Hospital.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Catherine and Lawrence Wells.
He is survived by his wife, Cecilia Wells of Glasgow; a son, Jerrord Wells of Glasgow; a brother Eugene Wells of Indianapolis, Ind.; a nephew, Kennedy Wells (Denise), Indianapolis, Ind.; two nieces, Michelle Mosby (Will) of Louisville, and Natalie Gibson (Joe) of Lexington.