- Bill Walton, NBA analyst
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Editor's Note: Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach Lionel Hollins and ESPN analyst Bill Walton played together on the Trail Blazers, winning the 1977 NBA championship.
When the golden road to unlimited devotion converges with Gideon's Rainbow on the horizon, you finally realize that the circle of life is now complete. Such is the case today as we sit and ponder the wonders of a man's journey. Monday night, in Hutchinson, Kansas, Lionel Hollins is being recognized and acknowledged for his remarkable achievements with his enshrinement in the National Junior College Hall of Fame.
And while this 50-year odyssey is now being memorialized, this deserving honor was never a foregone conclusion.
It was a half century ago that Lionel was born into this glorious land to a young, beaming but ultimately flawed couple: Rhuben and Barbara Hollins. Lionel was the oldest of three children. The family quickly fled the limitations of Ark City, Kansas -- a small, windswept town on the Arkansas River, one hour south of Wichita on the Oklahoma/Kansas border.
Times were tough on the American Plains in those days as the nation struggled to emerge from the Depression and the Dust Bowl and come to grips with a changing world of new realities and hopes following World War II. Even more so for a young African-American couple fighting mightily to keep things together.
Rhuben moved the family to Los Angeles almost immediately after Lionel was born, but even the arrival of Lionel's baby sisters (Yolanda and Marva) coupled with the newly won freedoms of California were not enough to stabilize the troubled young couple. Divorcing when Lionel was just 3 years old, Barbara moved the toddlers to Las Vegas, which ultimately became the family home despite the sporadic times spent jumping back and forth to Oakland, Calif.
Las Vegas was a much different city in the 1950s and '60s than it is today. And when Barbara and her mother, Margaret, were finally able to secure an acre of land in what is now North Las Vegas, Lionel, Yolanda and Marva (who never even made it to adulthood) finally had the home that every family craves. It was hot, dusty, desolate and dry -- this was not the Bellagio Hotel.
The home was more a family farm than anything else. They had hogs, turkeys, chickens, an occasional calf and a year-round garden. Lionel loved nothing more than to take the dogs on long walks through the sprawling desert wilderness. The smoke house in the back preserved the little bit left over from the meager harvest, and to this day Lionel cannot stand smoked meat.
But it was a good and happy home, held together by Lionel's grandmother, Margaret. Lionel's own mom was in a devastating health spiral and eventually passed away when he was just 13, leaving the four remaining family members on the edge of life -- sinking in the shifting desert sands.
The public schools of Las Vegas were where Lionel next tried to create a life for himself. Not overly fond of academics, he found his place in organized sports, eventually playing them all. He was the first baseman on the diamond, the quarterback and defensive back on the gridiron, and a hurdler and quarter-miler on the track. Baseball was his real love and best sport. Yet even though the radio gave him a steady dose of Vin Scully and the Dodgers, Lionel was a San Francisco Giants fan all the way. The Giants of Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal are his favorite team to this day.
Lionel was small as a young boy, so basketball had little appeal. But with blazing quickness and remarkable hand-eye coordination, he soon discovered that he was a very good baseball player. But then he started to grow. Only 5-foot-3 in the eighth grade, Lionel was still just 5-6 in his last year of junior high. When he initially enrolled in Las Vegas' Rancho High School (the same school that later produced Greg Anthony), Lionel had burst like a sunflower to a mighty 6-1, with not really enough meat on his bones to deflect the wind.
Life's cruel realities were already taking their toll on Lionel, who had to go to work as early as he can remember so that he could help support his family. And with that work, everything else started to suffer. He had to gradually stop playing sports because there was no time. Baseball was the first to go. By the time he was a senior at Rancho, basketball was the only thing left in his life other than menial labor for a few scant pennies.
Despite the growing responsibilities for taking care of his grandmother and younger sisters, Lionel was starting to fall in love with basketball. Adjusting the radio dial a little, he switched from Vin Scully to Chick Hearn, the Lakers and Jerry West. But like so many young boys of those days, Lionel was ultimately drawn to the Celtics and their larger-than-life hero: Bill Russell.
Lionel grew up in a world without a fatherly presence. He found direction, guidance and discipline in the sporting arena. Coaches who gave up their lives so that other people's dreams could come true are as responsible for the successes of Lionel Hollins as anyone else, other than his grandmother.
At the very beginning it was James Pughsley, who taught Lionel the fine art of shooting -- no easy task for a left-hander like Lionel. Then it was the local legend, William Evans, who literally had a hand in the development of everyone in Las Vegas who was ever able to use sports as a pathway to a better life. William Evans was the local elementary school teacher and principal. He also ran the downtown public-recreation center in Las Vegas, the venerable Dula Rec, which is still in use today.
With the civil rights struggles of the '60s came the notion of busing school children all over town to foster integration. The problem for someone like Lionel -- and the thousands of others like him -- was if they wanted to stay after school to play ball, there was no way home. William Evans then began driving kids all over town himself. This great mentor who constantly challenged everyone to always do the right thing has now come full circle himself. They have recently renamed the old elementary school in his honor.
Lionel was plodding his way through Rancho High School with no real aspirations -- he was planning on quitting school so that he could work full time. There was simply no money to be had. But then, while he was a junior, Rancho elected to change basketball coaches and nothing was ever the same again. With the arrival of Lloyd Booth, Lionel was exposed to a whole new world -- one with hope, dreams and a future. Lloyd Booth challenged all his young disciples. "Make something of yourself, go to college, train your mind" -- these were were words that Lionel had never heard before.
And then the recruiters came. Creighton and Eddie Sutton. Utah with Jack Gardener and Bill Foster . Utah State with LaDell Anderson and Dale Brown. And Weber State with Phil Johnson. Lionel was extremely reluctant -- he had so much responsibility at home. But Lloyd Booth kept after him, finally convincing Lionel by explaining to him that "if you don't go, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."
Well, Lionel went all right, just not to one of the big schools. He chose Dixie College in Saint George, Utah -- a few hundred miles east across the desert and starting the climb up the Colorado plateau. Saint George was a big change for Lionel. Saint George was 99.9% Mormon and 100% white. Lionel was the only African-American in town. There had been a few others at one time but they had packed up and moved on.
Lionel would have done the same were it not for the coach at Dixie, Doug Allred and his wife, Elaine. The Allreds became Lionel's new family. When his teeth hurt, they took him to the dentist. When his throat was so sore that he couldn't stand it any longer, they took him to the hospital for an emergency tonsillectomy. And when the townsfolk would have no part of this "foreigner," coach Allred took Lionel down to the Rotary Club meeting and forced his community to accept his new son.
A two-year school, Dixie won their league in Lionel's second season in Saint George, and he made the Junior College All-America Team. By now everybody wanted him. But Lionel had never been on an airplane. He'd never been further away than Kansas. And his grandmother was concerned. She had two rules for Lionel and the recruiting process: no East Coast and no South.
Lionel chose Arizona State as his next step, and it was the perfect place. The desert, the sun, close to Margaret and the Allreds and coached by Ned Wulk. The Sun Devil style -- fast break and pressure defense -- played to Lionel's strengths. In 1974-75, his second (and senior) year at ASU, Lionel was a first team All-American (along with John Lucas), his team won their conference and they were ranked No. 5 nationally. In the NCAA Tournament, Arizona State beat Alabama and UNLV before losing to UCLA and John Wooden, in what turned out to be Wooden's last team and final championship. That NCAA regional final was played in Portland, Oregon, where I sat mesmerized in the stands of the old Memorial Coliseum.
The NBA draft was next, and Lionel was the sixth pick overall by the Portland Trail Blazers -- and the first point guard taken. David Thompson, Dave Meyers, Marvin Webster and early entrants Alvin Adams and Darryl Dawkins were the only ones taken ahead of Lionel that year. Portland had the good fortune of Adams and Dawkins being allowed to join the draft early after Spencer Haywood's recent legal challenge of the NBA's eligibility requirements.
Things did not go well early for Lionel in Portland. Lenny Wilkens was the coach then, and some of the more vocal fans regularly expressed their views that both Lenny and Lionel would do a much better job if they had a different skin color. And that there were plenty of other guys with the "right" skin color to do the job. But after Lionel found Sam Loprinzi's weight-training facility on SE 41st and Division and then displayed the game, work ethic and dignity of a true world champion, the Blazermaniacs slowly started to believe.
It didn't hurt the night John Havlicek tried to take a charge on the break and Lionel simply jumped over the top of him to throw it down. Or that Lionel consistently dunked in Kareem's face. Nor was it a bad thing when Lionel would single-handedly destroy our chief rivals -- particularly the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. The clincher was when people eventually realized that there was no chance of ever catching Lionel from behind and that he was one of the two fastest men alive -- the other was Johnny Davis. Together they formed the starting backcourt of the youngest team in history to ever win the NBA championship. Lionel finally had a home for life.
And what a life it's been. Ten years as a player in the NBA: four in Portland, three in Philadelphia, then one year each with the San Diego Clippers, Detroit and Houston. Legendary coaches and more father figures: Lenny, Jack Ramsay, Billy Cunningham, Chuck Daly and Bill Fitch. As a player, who could ask for more: All-Rookie, All-Star, All-Defense and world champion.
But at 31, it was suddenly all over. The legs and hands just ground up, and he still has the worst-looking deformities to his hands from basketball that I have ever witnessed. But what was there left now for a man who didn't have a college degree. No one would hire him -- not even his alma mater, Arizona State -- because he was not a college graduate. So he went back to school, paid his own way at ASU and got that degree while volunteering as an assistant to the assistant basketball coaches.
Then in 1987, Lionel got the chance of a lifetime when he was hired by the Phoenix Suns to be an assistant coach to Cotton Fitzsimmons. The Suns were a franchise in complete disarray in those days, but Lionel's arrival, along with Paul Westphal and Tom Chambers, marked the beginning of a new dawn. The Suns became regulars in the Western Conference finals. Then Charles Barkley showed up and they were in the NBA Finals. Then two straight years of losing deep in the playoffs to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets after being up 3-1 both times. And they blamed and ultimately fired the assistant coach -- Lionel Hollins.
Out on the street all alone again, Lionel was fortunate that the NBA was in hyper-expansion mode at the time with teams spouting everywhere -- including Vancouver, British Columbia, where Lionel tried to recreate the magic for the next five years. Even the best can only do so much, and when the Grizzlies headed south forever, Lionel was once again left behind.
In a desperate search for the warm glow of the NBA, Lionel found himself in the netherworld of professional basketball -- the minor leagues. A month in the USBL and St. Louis. A terribly brief stint as a TV commentator for Arizona State basketball games. A seemingly endless and mind-numbing tour with the Globetrotters and Bernie Bickerstaff. And finally, a year with the Las Vegas Bandits of the IBL. Lionel looked up from his notes at one of the Bandits' games and there was William Evans, who had come by to check one more time to make sure that Lionel was still all right.
So after four NBA Finals, a world championship and three All-Star Games, it had come to this for Lionel: There was nowhere to go but just to hang around.
Nowhere to go, that is, until Jerry West -- Lionel's first basketball idol -- decided that retirement and the Lakers were no longer any fun. West, one of the game's all-time talent scouts and historians, made Lionel one of his first hires in Memphis, where Lionel is an assistant on head coach Hubie Brown's staff.
And now, Lionel is living back in the middle of America in yet another river city on the state line an hour south of somewhere. Only this time, it's not Ark City, Kansas. Today, Lionel and Angie -- his wife of 25 years -- along with their four children (Lamont, Anthony, Jackie and Austin) live in a beautiful mansion in the nicest section of Memphis where all their dreams are coming true once again. The same dream that seemingly began so long ago, but with tonight's Hall of Fame celebration, is really just getting started...
The journey of Grizzlies assistant and ex-Blazer Lionel Hollins has taken him to the National Junior College Hall of Fame.