Jon Teitel's Interview Series: Loyola-Chicago Legend Les "Big Game" Hunter
Butler's run to the national title game early this month wasn't the first time that a member of the (now) Horizon League made a run on the game's biggest stage. The 1963 Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers were trendsetters long before we dealt with terms such as "BCS" and "mid-major". George Ireland's team was the first with a predominantly African-American starting lineup to win a national title, ending Cincinnati's reign in 1963. One of the stars for Loyola was Les "Big Game" Hunter, who CHN writer Jon Teitel interviewed a short time back.
Jon Teitel: How did you get the nickname "Big Game"?
Les Hunter: It started in the ABA, when Mel Daniels and Sam Smith started calling me that.
JT: Your Pearl High School basketball team won 54 straight games, led by yourself and future Loyola teammate Vic Rouse. How were you and Rouse able to dominate in high school, and why did you both decided to attend Loyola?
LH: We were fortunate to be on the best high school team in the country, bar none. Vic was born and raised in Nashville, later moved to East St. Louis, then transferred back to Nashville for high school in order to be in a safer neighborhood. Our school had a great history of success, as it won 22 black state titles over a 30-year span. Integration had not started yet, so all of the southern black schools came together for a national black basketball tournament (which we won 3 times in my 4 years of high school). We had 2-3 other guys who were really good, including Ronny Lawson (who went to UCLA and set a bunch of freshman records that were later broken by Kareem).
However, Ronny got caught up in a scandal in 1961 when he failed to report an attempt by a gambler to bribe him, and he ended up quitting school. When Loyola coach George Ireland (who in 1961 became the 1st coach of a major college program to start 5 African-American players) was originally recruiting Ronny, he saw that Vic and I were tall, so he decided to recruit us as well. I was actually planning to join Ronny at UCLA, but Vic and I decided to stay together and remain a good nucleus. I graduated high school at 6'4", but I grew 3 inches the following summer. Vic hurt his leg during senior year and several schools shied away from him, but I had relatives in Chicago and Vic's dad was still in East St. Louis, so we ended up together at Loyola.
JT: What are your memories of the 1962 NIT (you beat Temple in the quarterfinals, lost to eventual champion Dayton in the semifinals, and then beat Duquesne in the 3rd place game)?
LH: The significance of the NIT was that Coach Ireland really cost us the title. He had recruited Jerry Harkness (who became a 2-time All-American) and other New York players via a pipeline from New York set up by a playground coach named Walter November, who steered a lot of his players to certain schools. Ireland wanted to impress Mr. November, so he started 1 of November's guys named Ronny Miller at forward, despite the fact that Miller was only 6'2". Dayton had 6'10" Bill Chmielewski (who was name NIT MVP that year) and 6'6" Garry Roggenburk, so they just blew us out. Even though I had a good game, I ended up fouling out, and we were out of it after the 1st 5 minutes.
JT: In 1963 Loyola was the highest-scoring team in the nation (91.8 PPG), but after losing Pablo Robertson and Billy Smith to academic ineligibility, you and the other 4 starters became known as the 5 "Iron Men" because Coach Ireland rarely took you out. How were you able to score so many points without any help from the bench, and was there any point in the season when everyone just seemed exhausted?
LH: Pablo and Billy missed their eligibility by a tenth of a percentage point. We were in excellent shape, and we pressed all game every game. Harkness was a champion middle-distance runner at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and we were quicker than most other teams.
JT: During a trip to New Orleans that season, you and 3 of your African-American teammates (Harkness/Miller/Rouse) were not allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as your white teammates. What effect did that have on your team, and how did you guys deal with the situation?
LH: We used to refer to Coach Ireland as "The Man", but it was a relief to get away from him, as he was a bit of a tyrant. We had fun staying with a family, not having a curfew, etc. Since we were young, we did not really understand why we had to go through all of that, but it really solidified us on the floor against the "Loyola of the South" in New Orleans. Even though we were separated from our white teammates, we really came together as a team on the floor. Coach Ireland had a mean streak, and this was his chance to get back at the all-white teams that had beaten his teams in the past: he just wanted to pour it on.
On the 1963 national title run:
JT: You scored 17 PTS (6-8 FG) in a 111-42 win over Tennessee Tech (the 69-point margin of victory is still a tourney record). Were you just that much better a team than your opponent, or did you guys specifically try to embarrass them?
LH: We were ready to turn it up a notch at tourney time. Tennessee Tech had not played anyone great in the OVC, and we were clicking on all cylinders and jumped out to a big lead. We did not have any subs to play during garbage time: it was hard to even get 10 guys on the court to practice. We probably played the perfect game.
JT: You scored 12 points and had 10 rebounds in a win over Mississippi State (who had never played in the NCAA tourney before because the school refused to compete against teams with African-American players, but coach Babe McCarthy defied both public opinion and a court injunction in order to play the game). How big a deal was it to play against Mississippi State, and what was the reaction like from the general public?
LH: It was a big deal to me and Vic, coming from the south and getting to play against an all-white team. I knew how much better our high school team was compared to the white state champs in Tennessee, and it was great incentive to show that we were better than the white guys and make a statement. A local newspaper editor came to talk at Loyola about how big a game it was, and then he went back and wrote a big article about it, which I remember because nobody wrote big stories back then when a black school won a state title.
JT: You scored 12 points and had 15 rebounds in a win over Illinois. Did you start to get the sense that your team was going to go all the way?
LH: I actually sensed that we would win it all during the regular season. After we started 20-0, I wrote a letter to my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) saying that we were going to win it all. We played doubleheaders at that time, and I got to see Cincinnati play before 1 of our games, and I wrote that we were on a collision course with them and that I thought we could take them.
JT: You scored a game-high 29 points and had 18 rebounds in a win over Duke (Art Heyman had 29 points and was later named tourney MOP despite not even making the title game). How on earth was Heyman named MOP despite not making the title game?
LH: The writers claimed that they had to submit their votes for the all-tourney team with 5 minutes left in the title game, and at that point in the game it looked like Cincinnati would win it, so the writers put three guys from Cincinnati on the all-tourney team. The powers that be wanted it that way because Heyman became the 1st overall pick of the Knicks in the 1963 draft. I also heard rumors that the Jewish media picked Heyman because he was Jewish himself, even though he had a poor shooting night against us (11-30 FG).
JT: You scored 16 points and had 11 rebounds in a two-point overtime win over two-time defending champion and top-ranked Cincinnati to win the NCAA title (your team missed 13 of 14 shots to start the game, and were down by 15 PTS with 14 minutes to play). How were you able to fight all the way back, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?
LH: It was just crazy in the locker room. We had a horrible shooting night (27.4 FG%), but were able to get back in the game by playing flawless in all other aspects (defense, hustle, etc.). When Cincinnati tried to slow the game down and hold onto the ball, we just kept plugging along. Every game that season featured a stretch where we just had a flurry of points and would outscore teams with a big run, so I kept thinking to myself "When is our run going to come?" As soon as we made our run in the 2nd half, Cincinnati became very flustered.
JT: Harkness made a 15-foot jumper with four seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime, and Rouse tipped in your own missed jumper with one second left in overtime to win the game. Was it the most exciting game you have ever been a part of, and did you ever think that your team was going to lose?
LH: I always felt positive and expected us to make a run, and then Cincinnati missed a crucial FT late in regulation. I remember thinking how the ebb and flow of that game was crazy. At the end of OT I hurried up a shot that I thought was going in, but Rouse was there like he always was. I think he would have set the school all-time rebounding record if he had remained healthy.
JT: It was the first title game to feature a majority of starters who were African-American. How big a deal was that, and what was the reaction like from the general public?
LH: All of black Chicago was rooting us on. We generated a lot of interest, as we were a bunch of tall black guys on a campus that was 99% white. It started during our freshman year when we started beating the varsity. Our crowds got bigger and bigger, so we ended up moving from Alumni Gym to Chicago Stadium. We served as a source of pride for black fans that got to see black players on the court. A lot of hopes rode on our shoulders. DePaul had not started winning a lot of games yet, but ironically we mostly hung around with DePaul players, and we would go to each other's games.
JT: You were the only Loyola player named to the all-tourney team. Were you surprised that none of your teammates made the all-tourney team, and how did your own selection compare to winning the title?
LH: Winning the title was much more important, but I regret not being named tourney MVP, because that is a little immortality that I would have been able to share with my kids and talk about with my friends. I did not think about it for almost 25 years, but now that I see how big that college basketball has become, and to know that my name could have been in that little group, it would have been nice, but I do not dwell on it.
JT: In 1964 you set a school record with 427 rebounds in a season. How were you able to still compete at a high level after winning it all the year before without getting complacent?
LH: I developed a little bit more over the summer, and I was relied on more because Harkness graduated. A lot of the offense was geared around my play, and I knew that I would have to rebound in order for us to win. We still had some quickness, but we lost a lot of endurance with Harkness gone. I think that if we had Robertson (who later played for the Harlem Globetrotters) or Smith eligible, we would have beaten UCLA and won it all that year, but we had not groomed anyone to replace Harkness.
On the 1964 NCAA Tournament:
JT: You scored 13 points and had a school tournament record 22 rebounds in a win over Murray St. Did you make a concerted effort to focus on rebounding, or were you just bigger than everyone else?
LH: When you look at my pro career, I always had better stats in the playoffs than in the regular season. You have to bring your "A" game if you want to win it all.
JT: You scored 25 points (11-18 FG) in a four-point loss to Michigan (Cazzie Russell had 21 points) after they switched to a zone defense at halftime. How stunned were you to lose after winning it all the previous season, and could you tell at the time that Cazzie Russell was going to become a star?
LH: I already knew Cazzie from high school in Chicago: I think he won the high school state title the same night in 1963 that we won the NCAA title. The game was even closer than the score indicated, as it was tied up late, but we got called for a travel and a double-dribble that I thought were bad calls.
JT: You scored 27 points and had 18 rebounds in a nine-point win over Kentucky. Did you consider your run in the tourney to be a success (due to your individual stats) or a failure (due to not winning it all)?
LH: I considered it a failure because we did not win it all. Dating back to high school, Vic and I had won every tourney we ever played in (besides the 1962 NIT). I was all about winning tournaments (regional, interregional, state, national, etc.): we won multiple national high school titles, and I was used to winning.
JT: You finished your college career with an average of 18.9 PPG and 13.3 RPG in eight NCAA Tournament games (7-1 record). Do you consider yourself 1 of the best players in NCAA tourney history, and how were you able to play at such a high level when it counted the most?
LH: I thought that I was a good tourney player, and I did a lot of things that did not show up in the box score. I was a really good leaper with good timing, so I blocked a lot of shots. Points and rebounds do not always tell the whole story of how good a player you are.
JT: You are 1 of only 2 players in Loyola history with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds (along with LaRue Martin). Did you realize at the time how prolific a player you were?
LH: I thought I was pretty good, and I had a real good senior season. I never played well in front of New York crowds for some reason. I played well against tall guys who were slower than me, but some of the shorter/quicker guys gave me trouble.
JT:. In the summer of 1964 you were drafted 9th overall by Detroit (1 spot ahead of Paul Silas). Did you see that as a validation of your college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA?
LH: I thought I would have a good career, but did not realize how tough it would be to play the pivot and look up at all these tall guys. In those days they would not wait for you to develop: you either had to produce as a rookie or you would be sent packing.
JT: After being traded to Baltimore, you played only 24 games in the NBA: why did you have such a short NBA career, and how did it compare to college basketball?
LH: Baltimore had their own 1st round pick in Gary Bradds, who had starred at Ohio State, and neither of us got a lot of playing time during Baltimore's playoff push. When Baltimore cut me after previously giving me a no-cut contract, it was actually nice because I got to go back to school and still have an income. I also got to play in a league in Michigan where I worked on my skills. In the summer of 1965, I even tried out for the Chicago Bears as a tight end, after they traded future Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka to Dallas because he held out of camp due to a contract dispute!
JT: From 1967-1973 you played 6 years in the ABA, averaging 12.8 PPG and 7.1 RPG, and were a 3-time All-Star. How did the ABA compare to the NBA, and why was it a much better fit for you?
LH: The ABA was a better fit for me because there were a lot of jobs available. When I graduated college, there were only 10 professional teams in the world, who each had a roster of 9-10 players, so there were only about 100 such jobs available. If the coaches figured you were not going to play, then they would fill the bench with their drinking buddies; seriously.
JT: In 1971 your Kentucky Colonels (led by rookie Dan Issel's 41 points) lost Game 7 of the ABA Finals to Utah (led by Zelmo Beaty's 36 points and 16 rebounds), followed by Utah's fans storming the court for 20 minutes. Did you consider your playoff run to be a success (due to getting so close) or a failure (due to not winning it all)?
LH: I considered it a failure because we did not win it all. We kind of overachieved that year because Issel was an undersized rookie center. I think Zelmo frustrated Issel a bit, even though he scored 41 in Game 7, and the home team won each game during that series. I was more disappointed the following year when future Hall-of-Famer Artis Gilmore joined our team as a center and Issel moved to forward, but we lost to Rick Barry and the Nets in the 1st round of the playoffs. We had blown through everybody in the regular season with a record of 68-16 (the best regular season record in ABA history), but were not able to even get out of the 1st round of the playoffs.
JT: What have you done since retiring?
LH: I am an instructor in Kansas City, MO in the "credit retrieval" program, which allows students under age 21 who did not finish high school to take online classes at their own pace. I also owned a restaurant for 10 years, and worked in the restaurant industry for another 5 years.
Big Ten's Best Pros by school
Illinois: Johnny Kerr (1955)
Indiana: Walt Bellamy (1962)
Iowa: Fred Brown (1972)
Michigan: Chris Webber (1994)
Michigan State: Magic Johnson (1980)
Minnesota: Lou Hudson (1967)
Northwestern: Don Adams (1971)
Ohio State: John Havlicek (1963)
Penn State: Frank Brickowski (1985)
Purdue: Glenn Robinson (1995)
Wisconsin: Michael Finley (1996)