The state title North Little Rock High School won on Saturday in Little Rock was a long time in coming.
Forty-two years in coming, to be exact. But after firmly wiping away any worries of a late-season collapse with a 64-52 win over Fayetteville High in the state finals, the only question remaining for the 2013 7A champion Charging Wildcats is whether its 28-1 season will ultimately mark the start of a dynasty.
The city of North Little Rock has already produced a few superb runs in prep basketball. From 1964 through 1971, North Little Rock High won four state titles in the Arkansas Activities Association’s largest classification. And in 1948-1952, the city’s all-black Scipio A. Jones High School won four state titles in the Arkansas State Athletic Association, the organizing body for the state’s African-American prep athletes before it joined the all-white AAA in 1967.
But the most dominant stretch of all eras belonged to the Scipio Jones teams that played from the 1955-1956 through 1958-59 seasons. These squads won four consecutive state titles, beat some of the best teams from Texas, Illinois, Tennessee and Oklahoma and annually represented Arkansas at the National Negro high school tournament in Nashville, Tenn. There, Jones finished second in 1959.
Ron Ingram, Sr., former head basketball coach at North Little Rock High, is familiar with the best players of that era and the modern one. He believes the late ‘50s Jones teams were “head and shoulders above a lot of these teams coming out” today.
They shot better than today’s players, he said, and perhaps no shooter in any era of the state’s largest classification was more prolific than Jones’ do-it-all star Eddie Miles. “He could drop 50 on you whenever he wanted,” Pine Bluff Merrill High’s Clifton Roaf told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2001. “Sidney Moncrief was good, but he was no Eddie Miles.”
Roaf is no stranger to sports. He starred at Michigan State as a football player and he’s the father of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Roaf.
As a 6-4 freshman in 1955-56, Miles averaged 21 points a game and helped lead the Dragons to a 58-56 win over Pine Bluff Merrill for the state title. He accompanied junior standout Charles Thompson, a 6-3 center with an ambidextrous hook shot, in a complementary role similarly filled this year by North Little Rock High’s 6-3 shooting guard Kevaughn Allen.
In 1956-57, Jones went 30-4 as Miles and Thompson both averaged more than 25 points a game. Other starters included captain John Wesley Smith, Norman Handy and Michael Carpenter. Again, Jones beat Merrill in the finals, this time 54-52. In the national tournament, Jones beat Bluefield, W. Va. 53-43 before a 64-51 quarterfinal loss to Middleton High of Tampa Bay, Fla.
In the next two seasons, Jones didn’t lose a game to an in-state opponent. It knocked off defending Negro national champion St. Elizabeth of Chicago, 40-34, at its home gym in January 1958. William McCraw, who played on the Jones varsity 1956-58, said the gym — a small, rickety structure known as “The Barn” — gave an unusual advantage to the home team. “The rafters hung sort of low and sometimes if you threw [the ball] too high it would hit the rafters,” McCraw said. He added while the Dragons were used to this quirk, their opponents weren’t.
Head coach Albert Booker Calvin, who went by “A.B.,” was a far more important reason for Jones’ success. The epitome of old school, Booker was a take-charge disciplinarian who firmly insisted on rigorous practice of the game’s fundamentals. “I used to call him Coach ABC,” McCraw said.
Eddie Miles added, “You couldn’t make Coach Calvin’s team if you couldn’t play defense.” Miles, who works as a as a private basketball coach and math tutor in Seattle, added “The main thing that made us so effective was that we played defense.” Miles, age 72, has made Washington his longtime home after a successful career at Seattle University in which he earned All-America honors his senior season.
As a junior in high school, Miles kept winning with new running mates — including McCraw (an all-state selection as a senior), playmaker James Nash and 6-3 big man Eugene Ross. Miles averaged more than 30 points that season. Jones capped it by beating Miller High of Helena 45-32 in the state tournament at what’s now the University of Arkanss at Pine Bluff before beating Monticello 90-55 in the finals. In the nationals, the Dragons edged a team from Suffolk, Va. before losing to Pearl High of Nashville, Tenn., 82-68, in the quarterfinals.
Senior year was more of the same; Jones beat every in-state opponent while Miles topped more than 32 points a game. He had one of his worst games in the state finals against Central of Lake Village but Nash stepped up to score 32 points for an 82-79 overtime win.
Miles came back with a vengeance in the national tournament where he averaged 41.75 points as Jones roared through opening rounds, past teams from Scotlandville, La., Atlanta, Ga. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Nashville’s Pearl High, though, again proved to be a thorn in the side during the finals. This time Jones lost 76-72 in overtime; Miles and Nash were afterward named All-Americans.
Miles and McCraw stay in touch with other Jones alumni, but don’t feel any special connection to North Little Rock High, which absorbed Jones’ students after the high school closed in 1970. Still, they enjoy hearing news about the Charging Wildcats’ success, even if they can’t make it to the games.
They well know, after all, this most recent championship by a North Little Rock program is only part of a legacy reaching back decades. “I hope they have many more,” Miles said. “They probably will.”