DECATUR — Nine of the most recognizable names from the last 25 years of Decatur basketball gathered at Skybox Sports Connection on
Friday to talk a little of the town’s basketball past, present and future, but mostly share a lot of laughs.
The group had just finished a two-hour practice in preparation for Saturday’s ESPN Decatur Legends Night in the Sky game at SkyWalker International Sports Complex. Eight of the nine played NCAA Division I basketball, and the other — Monty Wilson Jr. — is coming off a NAIA Division I National Championship at Georgetown, Ky.
The following is part one of the “Legend’s Roundtable,” focusing on memories of Decatur basketball from the mid-1980s to late-90s. Part 2 will feature the legends’ take on the basketball scene in Decatur today.
For more on the Legends Roundtable, check out Hugh Sullivan’s videos on hrpreps.com.
Rodney Walker (St. Teresa, Class of 1991/New Mexico): What made us good coming up in the ’90s and late ’80s is that every park in Decatur was jam-packed.
I’m talking about hundreds of people with the parking lots full. The park was full and it wasn’t only basketball. You had lunch at noon, crafts at 1 and a 3 o’clock snack — making boondoggles and eating peanut butter sandwiches.
Felipe Phillips (MacArthur, Class of 1990/Tennesee-Martin): There were cats like Louis Jones, Kip Jones. They wanted to kill us.
Walker: It was gritty. We were playing against grown men — guys who were seven and eight years older than us. We didn’t play against guys our own age.
Felipe Phillips: And they would give you no breaks. You had to earn everything. It got to the point where the older guys wouldn’t allow us on the court, so we would get mad and go get some bricks and bust them on the court. They’d get mad and chase us. Then we had their respect. They’d be like, ‘OK, let me see you play now.’
Monty Wilson Sr. (Eisenhower, Springfield Calvary, Class of 1992/Tennessee State): There was always a game somewhere, though.
Walker: What you’d try to do is find a court where no one was at and sneak over there to work out. But as soon as someone would find out, it was jam-packed. We used to go buy nets and hang them up. Then when the game was over, we’d take them down.
Felipe Phillips: Plus, we used to have the wars in the back yards.
Wilson Sr.: That’s what I miss right there. I miss going on the other side of town and running somebody else’s court. That was a challenge. You’d take a crew and go on the other side of town and play a bunch of guys and take over their court.
Michael Wilder (Stephen Decatur, Class of 1998/Louisiana Tech): They don’t do that no more.
Walker: I went out west one time, and they didn’t have any concrete — it was nothing but dirt. But it was packed — it looked like there were 30,000 people back there. The whole out west was back there.
Walker: I remember going to Johns Hill in an all-white flight suit. It was ’89 and Jordan had came out with this all-white flight suit — I had it on and white Js on. I walked around the park because the grass was kind of wet and I had those white Js on. I get to the court and I have to match up with Louis Jones — the strongest man I’ve ever met in my life. You got different types of strength — you got weight room strength and you got natural strength and you got crazy strength. He had all three of them wrapped up into one. I went to the rack in my all white — pretty, finesse, looking good. He put me straight in the dirt. You know how Johns Hill had all that dirt on the side? That was about a $250 fit back then. Straight up — I went home muddy.
Wilson Sr.: I think Louis (Jones) was one of the best people as far as basketball players I saw growing up. … When you went from Louis, Kip and Kita Jones, playing in eighth grade before my freshman year against those guys who were at a professional level for one whole summer, ninth grade year I got in and high school was nothing. I didn’t even play freshman basketball. I played maybe two freshman games, got 30 or 40 in both of them, and I was on varsity.
Walker: I wanted to get better, so I would go get Louis Jones and make him play me one-on-one. I felt like if I could get by Louis … because his recovery was unbelievable. I’d play with the ball, hit him with something and smile, cross him over … and he shifts back into the frame that quick.
Wilson Sr.: And he did it with sandals on. He used to wear sandals up at the park. He’d come block your shot with sandals. Listen, Louis Jones, he was the rarest creature on Earth. If he would have had everything right, or somebody with some kind of leadership always on him, there’s no way he wouldn’t have been an All-Star in the NBA. He was so strong and so good. He was fast, he could shoot the ball from 30, he could dribble, he could pull up, he could run you over, dunk on you … I’ve never seen a guy like this. And at 6-3. He was one of the biggest, strongest dude I ever played basketball with.
Carrying on the tradition
Cortez Bond (MacArthur, Class of 1996/Northeastern): We came in right behind these cats (nodding toward Walker and Felipe Phillips), so we were playing with them.
John Cliff (MacArthur, Class of 1996/Marquette): Park ball was still alive every day, and we’d be out there until the lights came in. We were out there every day going at it.
Felipe Phillips: I can remember playing at the old Y and me and Monty were playing one-on-one, and John came around and was like, ‘Man, you all are too physical.’
Wilson Sr.: (Laughs) And you know what, the era before our era was even tougher. Then each generation kind of died down with the physicality.
Wilder: Oh yeah, when we played against you all, it made us much tougher. Banging with him (nodding at Wilson Sr.), little as I am, having to hold Louis … then when we played against kids, it made it sweet. I mean, Louis wouldn’t give you a break. He’d ride you the whole way.
Michael Phillips (MacArthur, Class of 1997/Wichita State): (Our era) was the same thing as you guys went through. We got beat up by you guys and the parks were always packed. And growing up, me and Tarise (Bryson) were never on the same team. We were always going at it — one-on-one, different teams, whatever. He’d call me up and we’d play all day long — 10 o’clock in the morning until 9 or 10 at night, we were playing ball.
Walker: We had to kick (Bryson) off the court at the old YMCA. There used to be old men there that wanted to whoop him. I had to keep this old man, Al Bond, off Tarise. He wanted to kick his (butt).
Tarise Bryson (Stephen Decatur, Class of 1997/Illinois State): To this day, he don’t speak to me. Yeah, he don’t like me.
Walker: Tarise didn’t want to get off the court. You had to kick him off the court. His favorite spot at the Y, I remember he was a shorty, his favorite spot was the corners. He wouldn’t shoot no where else. He’d run corner to corner and wouldn’t miss. I said, ‘This guy is going to be all right.’ It’s 90 degrees, and he’s in the gym without his buddies shooting that ball. He’d shoot for hours. Then he’d sit there and cheer and watch me and Monty play one-on-one. He’d just sit there and laugh. Then he’d go back and shoot.
Felipe Phillips: (Nodding to Walker and Wilson Sr.) I was older than them. I ran both of them back in high school. They was real skinny back then. They could jump out the gym and they both could shoot it. I just had a little more of this on me (points to his chest).
Walker: He’s lying when he says a little more. He was that size in seventh grade.
Wilson Sr.: He blew a hamstring every week, though.
Walker: He went to Thomas Jefferson with a full beard. I thought he was one of the teachers. Then he was on the basketball team dunking in eighth grade, I said, ‘Man, you need to check his birth certificate.’ This dude is grown. His hamstrings were like Ben Johnson’s, and he was fast.
Wilder: I’m going to be honest — this dude (pointing at Bryson) made the game so easy for me.
Bryson: You didn’t make it easy for me, though.
Wilder: No, real talk. We laugh and we joke, but you used to make the game easy. I’m being real serious. You made the game easy for me. You spread the court. Because, they couldn’t leave him open. I don’t care what defense you were playing, you can’t leave him open.
Bryson: I didn’t need no teammate. They was in my way.
Michael Phillips: The game that sticks out to me is 101-97 MacArthur over Stephen Decatur (Dec. 8, 1995 at Stephen Decatur). Seven players with 20 points and above. It was probably the best high school game people will ever see around here — period. Nobody will see a game like that again.
Bryson: You had to get your ticket for that game on Tuesday. You weren’t going to get a ticket on Friday. If you hadn’t come by lunch time, you weren’t getting a ticket.
Playing Ronnie Fields
Felipe Phillips: I’ll tell you one of the best performances I’ve seen was when I came down from college and I coached these guys (Michael Phillips, Bond and Cliff) at Parkland (in a summer tournament) and we played Ronnie Fields. Everyone was hyping Ronnie Fields, and he was a monster. When he came in that day and faced MacArthur at Parkland, he probably had about eight points. John and Mike took turns checking him.
Michael Phillips: Ronnie took off from about the free-throw line, and ’Tez jumped up from the dots and met him.
Bond: We gave it to them that day.
Felipe Phillips: They kicked Farragut’s behind that day.