A twist of Lemons at his best: Legendary coach has aged, but his humor is still solid

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Abe Lemons

 

BY JOHN ROHDE
(The Oklahoman – December 19, 1999)

 

You walk into a Braum’s on North May Avenue and spot an Oklahoma treasure.

Abe Lemons is sitting alone in the corner, putting the finishing touches on a half-eaten order of burger and fries. He is wearing a black pullover jacket from a recent Vince Gill celebrity golf tournament and a blue GOLF Inc. cap. No one seems to recognize him, which is good and somewhat sad at the same time.

Within minutes, your side aches from laughter. You get lockjaw from smiling. For two hours, this elderly gentleman spins yarn of folklore and acumen. You can’t escape his web. Then again, who would want to?

Lemons recently said: “I got fired from the University of Texas. I didn’t deserve that. Now I’ve got Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t deserve that, either.”

Eleven years ago, Lemons was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a chronic disorder associated with tremors of the hands and rigidity of muscles. “I’m not scared,” Lemons said of dying. “It’s kinda like I hated it before a ball game, the thought of getting beat.”

Parkinson’s is slowly robbing Lemons of his voice. His hands shake. His taste buds are shot. His lower lip droops. His gait is slow. His humor, however, is rock-solid.

Last month brought Lemons’ 77th birthday. Last August, he celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary with wife Betty Jo. Earlier this month, Lemons felt strong enough to play a round of golf at Cedar Valley – sort of. He finished 17 holes, and mulligans were the order of the day.

“He hit about 200 shots, and I probably picked up 108 of ‘em,” joked Lemons’ cart partner and best friend, longtime Oklahoman columnist Frank Boggs.

“My golf game has just gone to hell,” Lemons admitted.

Lemons watches a lot of basketball on television. “It’s hard to watch three games at once,” he said. “You only have one recall button.”

Lemons’ friends stay in touch, probably as much for their well-being as his. “I hear from people all the time, especially players. Even the ones who didn’t play,” Lemons said. “The main thing I’ve had to explain to people my whole life is there’s only five guys who can start, and you’re not one of ’em.”

Each year, Lemons visits Indiana coach Bob Knight and plans to again this season. “I worry about my friends like Knight,” Lemons said. “You can only stay around so long. Can’t stay forever. But you need people like Knight to brag about when you beat ’em. Beat somebody named Charlie Jones and it’s nothin’ to brag about.”

On Jan. 27, opening ceremonies are scheduled at the $11.2-million Freede Wellness and Activities Center on the Oklahoma City University campus. The facility will include Abe Lemons Arena. “By the time it gets built, I think they’ll name a pay toilet after me,” Lemons said. “Toilet No. 4, best toilet paper in town.”

Eventually, Lemons’ fatigue begins to show. His voice gets softer, his words begin to slur a bit. You thank him, and he apologizes for not saying much.

“Wish you would have warned me about all these questions. I would have studied harder,” Lemons said.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ABE

How do you begin to describe Abe Lemons? Tougher yet, how do you stop?

The book, “You Scored One More Point Than a Dead Man,” a conglomeration of Abe-isms, was published in 1978. After a bit of background information, pages 13-302 were all Abe, vintage Abe, priceless Abe.

Perhaps there is no better way to describe the man. Just turn on a tape recorder, ask a few questions and stay the heck out of the way. With that, we give you one-on-one with Abe at Braum’s:

  • On postgame news conferences: “It’s a bunch of guys asking questions. I feel like telling them, ‘Didn’t you see the game? Weren’t you there? Did you not see what the hell happened? I saw the same thing you did. Just put that in there (your story). What do you want me to say? Just put it in there and I’ll say I said it.’ ”
  • On television and radio announcers: “These announcers all think they’re Einstein analyzing things. It’s just a play, not brain surgery.”
  • On Dick Vitale: “If he could lose his voice, it’d be the best thing that ever happened.”
  • On the NBA: “You’re going to have a lot more kids going pro straight out of high school. It’s going to be sorry. It’s a sorry enough game now. The pros have just gone to hell. They ought to make the dunk one point. That’d change things.”
  • Former Texas baseball coach Cliff Gustafson has filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas, the same school that fired Lemons: “He’s got no chance. They’ve got lawyers who could get Hilter off. Plus, they’ve got those lawyers paid for, and you’ve got to pay for yours.”
  • On the rash of assistant coaches: “It’s amazing. You look at a bench and all you see is coats and ties. You can’t even see the team. What do you do with all them coaches? For the life of me, I can’t understand why you need five coaches. It’d drive you crazy just to have a (staff) meeting. I like to watch the bench. Those guys are up and hollerin’, but not until they get ahead.”
  • On the rash of upsets in college basketball: “Basketball’s a funny game. Lots of ups and downs. Look at Duke (last year). They get beat in the finals (by UConn), then had four guys drafted in the pros. They’’re supposed to have the best coach in the world (Mike Krzyzewski). If that’s the case, nobody’s got a chance, but they did. Now you’ve got teams living off their reputation, like Valpo. Everybody thinks they’re Notre Dame, and Notre Dame doesn’t even know who they are.”
  • On Parkinson’s affecting his voice: “It’s getting to where I go to a drive-through and have to (cup both hands around my mouth and scream) ‘Get me a hamburger.’ The more I talk, the quieter it gets. It’s got no volume to it. That’s the reason I never got a lot of technicals. My voice never did carry. They (officials) could see my gyrations, but they couldn’t tell what I was saying.”
  • On being a successful coach: “I knew how to go against a certain person; knew what to do; knew what the weakness was and tried to prey upon it. I knew the game, but the game is predicated on people.”
  • Recalling a news conference en route to winning the NIT in 1978: “I didn’t want to say anything about the game. They’d say, ‘I understand you only zone (on defense).’ I say, ‘That’s right.’ ‘How come you don’t play man-to-man?’ ‘Don’t want to.’ ‘What happens if you get behind?’ ‘We get beat. We got no way of catchin’ up, so we plan on getting ahead.’ Didn’t work, though. They just kept asking all these dumb questions.”
  • On referees: “They can turn the game right around on you, if they so desire. I see it all the time. A lot of times you (complain to them) so your players don’t think something was their fault. You pass the blame along (to the officials). Hell, they’re getting paid for it. There’s some good ones (officials) and some bad ones, just like players and coaches.”

On his awards and notoriety: “I don’t understand how I got in all these things (halls of fame). I haven’t really done anything. There’s (East Central coach Wayne) Cobb. He’s won 600 games and barely got his name in the paper.”

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