Jon Teitel's Interview Series: Maryland-Eastern Shore Legend Talvin Skinner
In the most recent installment of his series of interviews on players who are among the best pros to come out of their particular schools, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with UMES great Talvin Skinner. Skinner was the leader of a UMES squad in 1974 that led the nation in scoring with an average of 96.7 points per game without the benefit of a three-point shot, and they also became the first HBCU to take part in the NIT.
Jon Teitel: In the spring of 1973 you played for the USA (with Marvin Barnes and Coach Bob Cousy) in a series of games against Russia (including Alexsander Belov, who made the game-winning shot in Russia's famous upset of the USA in the 1972 Olympic gold-medal game). What was it like to play against Russia/Belov, and what was it like to play for Cousy?
Talvin Skinner: The team that we played was the Russian touring team. They put myself and Marvin Webster on the team when they came to Baltimore for attendance purposes, but neither of us got to play. It was kind of disappointing because we lost that Baltimore game.
JT: In 1974 your team went 27-2 and you were named conference tournament MVP. How were you able to play your best when it mattered the most?
TS: Now you are starting to get serious, because the team that we played for the championship was Morgan State, which was Marvin Webster's team (which is kind of touching, because we lost Marvin in 2009). They had beaten us earlier in the year when we were 20-0, and had just became nationally ranked as the #20 team in the AP poll as a Division II school. We played a hard road through North Carolina, DC and back to Baltimore (four games in five days), which is something that I do not think that many basketball analysts or fans are not aware of.
When we played that game against North Carolina Central (coached by former Celtic Sam Jones), we were down by three points with about 30 seconds remaining; they were all celebrating. I stole the ball and scored but the referee disallowed the basket. I went to the free throw line and make the first one. I looked at Rubin [Collins] and we had a connection so I missed the second, and he got the rebounds and laid it in. We go into overtime and win the game. The next game (North Carolina A&T) was supposed to be on campus but because around 10,000 people wanted to see it they moved the game to Greensboro Coliseum.
The game was even moved from 7 PM to 4 PM; all of a sudden we were dealing with unfamiliar surroundings on short notice. From there we drove the bus up from North Carolina to DC to take on Howard. A seven-hour trip all day on Sunday with the game on Monday night. The AP poll came out Monday morning along with the UCLAs, North Carolinas and Notre Dames. In fact, some of the Morgan State players were in the crowd scouting us; they were pretty much lying in wait for us. That game (Tuesday night) was moved off campus to the Baltimore Civic Center and 12,000 people showed up.
Basketball history, baby; I do not know if that has ever happened before. The game at the end of that stretch was Morgan State and we lost by just two points. As a team, we were determined that they would pay and pay dearly. We beat them twice in 2 weeks by convincing margins, and took the championship. It was not just me; our team does not get the credit that it deserves. We did something that may never be done again in any level of basketball (leading the nation in scoring with 96.7 PPG despite no three-point shot), and they did not even give us an invite to the NCAA tourney. I guess to answer your question: my teammates needed me to play my best.
JT: You played for Coach John Bates, who was the first coach to take a Historically Black College to the NIT. What was it like to play for Bates, and how big a deal was it to go to the NIT?
TS: Going to the NIT was okay by me as a senior, as well as for the other five seniors on the team. Our eyes were on the BIG dance; we had already proved that we belonged by playing in the then-64 team NAIA tourney in Kansas City and going to the 1973 national championship game against Guilford College (who had World B. Free & ML Carr: you know their legacies). Although we lost by three points, we felt that we could play with anyone in the country, and our records spoke for themselves. Rubin Collins, who was one of our top scorers on that team, played the Tournament with a broken foot (suffered in the MEAC Tournament) and still made the All-Tournament Team (he and Joe Pace). The next year he and Joe both were NAIA All-Americans. Also, I set an NAIA record as the eighth all-time best rebounding average of 15.6 rebounds per game in the tournament (led that tournament in rebounding). Dennis Rodman came along and shattered all of those records.
As far as Coach Bates is concerned, I have nothing but respect for him as a man and as a person, because he understood talent and he trusted us. He did not try to restrain that "something special" that he knew we had; as a matter of fact he pushed the envelope. However, I can honestly say that he loved us as people: we were not some meal ticket to him who he was trying to exploit for his future. The funny thing is that it just worked out that way for him: it could not have happened to a better person. He is genuinely a good and honest human being, and we all love him.
JT: What are your memories of the 1974 NIT (your beat Manhattan by three points in the first round before losing to Jacksonville [featuring four future NBA players] by two points in the quarterfinals)?
TS: Well that is pretty easy. The Manhattan game was nationally televised, and I think that everyone on the East Coast was watching. We were pitted on TV against NC State, who was playing in the NCAA Tournament at the same time. In fact, on that very same day David Thompson went up for a alley oop and came down, hitting his head on the backboard then taking a tumble. We said to one another before we took the floor that no matter what, we were going to WIN that day. The first three or four shots they took, Joe Pace and I blocked each of them. From there I think they realized that "these guys can play". Even if we did not win another game, we felt that we were playing for all the historically Black colleges around the country.
It was a bitter pill to swallow; the NCAA basically told us that we had to be perfect in order to be selected. The NCAA Tournament at the time was 32 teams and UCLA was the only team that was undefeated. Guess what you have now: the NCAA, with all those schools being accepted on the Division I level, and our team played a major role in that. As far as losing to Jacksonville, that hurt, but the fact that we had given the Black community something that they had been longing for was okay. The thing that I really remember is that there were about 11,000 fans at Madison Square Garden, and I was told that two-thirds of the people at that game came from HARLEM just to watch us play. They took notice after that first game and came out to support us. Also, Morgan State had won a different tournament in Evansville (NCAA Division II championship) and then showed up at the Garden to cheer for us. I thought it was very classy of Nat Frazier (Morgan State head coach) to do that. Even though we lost, when you get New York City to notice, you know you have arrived.
JT: In the summer of 1974 you were drafted in the 3rd round of the NBA Draft by Seattle (4 spots behind George Gervin) and in the 4th round of the ABA draft by New York. Did you ever consider going to the ABA, or was your heart set on playing in the NBA?
TS: It was really a tough choice and I was torn because of the choice between Bill Russell (coach in Seattle) or Dr. J (star player in NY): talk about decisions! I had the chance to play in NYC on a nightly basis, but Spencer Haywood (another of my all-time favorite people) played for Seattle; it was quite a struggle for me to decide. When it came down to making the call, it was about security, and the Sonics offered me a signing bonus that was twice as much as the Nets' offer. In the long run, the Sonics really offered me a better deal, and the NBA was a more stable league to play in.
JT: You had two teammates drafted in 1974 as well (Rubin Collins in the 2nd round to Portland and William Gordon in the 4th round to Seattle). Did you see that as a validation of what a great team you played on at UMES?
TS: The truth of the matter is that I still do not think that our team as a whole received all of the credit that we deserved. Four of our five starters were drafted into the pros (in addition to myself/Collins/Gordon, Joe Pace transferred from UMES to Coppin State and ended up winning a title with the Bullets in 1978). Had Tommy Nelson not gotten into trouble just before the NIT, believe me, he also would have been drafted. We were the only historically black college basketball team ever to be ranked in the Top 20 in Division I (there should be a banner hanging in the school gym for that, as well as for playing in the NAIA Tournament- runner-up banner for 1972-73). That NAIA Tournament is a great tournament and a tough one as well. There have also been some great players to come through it; the likes of Zelmo Beatty, Travis Grant, Wrold B. Free, Dennis Rodman etc.
I think that because of what we achieved, they are now inviting the smaller colleges/universities to play in the Division I tourney. We paved the way for that change, and we should have been invited to that tourney. We led the nation in scoring (97.6 PPG) before the existence of a three-point line (and no dunking), and our record over two seasons was 53-7. We had proven that we belonged: we lost the NAIA championship to Guilford the year before (who featured World B. Free & ML Carr). Then-Kansas City Chiefs WR Otis Taylor was at the Slippery Rock game the night before and took us to his restaurant afterward. He was expressing his appreciation and then took us out to Arrowhead Stadium. I thought that was incredible. I still think that it would make for a great movie; maybe I should contact Spike Lee or Tyler Perry about "The Greatest Team You Never Heard Of"!?
JT: From 1974-76 you played two years for Seattle and made the playoffs each year. What is your favorite memory from your NBA career?
TS: My most favorite memory is kind of weird. We were in Milwaukee playing against Kareem, the ball went into the post, and he beat Tommy Burleson to the hoop. There was only me between Kareem and the basket, so of course I was not going to just let him dunk the ball without trying to stop him. I went up and tried to block it, and got as high as I could. When I could not block it, I just grabbed both of Kareem's wrists. I never knew how strong the big men in basketball really were, but he just gently took me and the ball and went over to the rim with me hanging onto him and laid it in the basket.
Everyone in the arena was laughing; I felt so helpless. When we got into the locker room, my teammate Slick Watts was like "Man, you are really crazy to even attempt to get into his way", but Fred Brown and Leonard Gray came over to me and said "You did the right thing". At least I tried to block it rather than just letting him score, because Burleson just let him go. That let me know that no matter what else happened, I always tried to play the game the way that it is supposed to be played.
In a game at Boston Garden I'm guarding John Havlicek and they call the "3" play, which was supposed to result in him getting a jumpshot behind a double screen. He runs around Dave Cowens and Paul Silas. Me being a rookie, I'm thinking I'm going to shoot the gap and run between them; I've never been hit so hard in my life. The both put an elbow in my ribs and shook their heads as if to say, "no rookie, go around". They were laughing and asked me afterward if I was OK; it was pretty much my initiation to the NBA.
JT: Slick Watts told a story in his book "Tales from the Seattle Supersonics" about how Coach Bill Russell called you gutless after one practice and almost made you cry, only to insert you into the starting lineup that night and watch you record a double-double. What was it like to play for Russell, and what did you think about his motivational techniques?
TS: That is not exactly how it happened. What really happened was that just before a game against Milwaukee in 1976, Russell came into the locker room and was giving his pre-game speech. We had just lost four games in a row, and as he was making his speech, he singled me out and said that with the way that I had been playing, I would be lucky if I ever got to play again this season. Of course, it kind of shocked me and got me rattled, so when we were going through warm-ups my mind was only half into it because I was still focusing on what did I do and what I had done to cause him to say that.
When we went to the bench I was talking to one of my teammates, and they started introducing the starters and called my name. I was not even paying attention, so I did not even hear my name called. About 10-15 seconds went by and everyone was looking at me as if to say "What are you waiting for? Go ahead; they called your name!" I looked over at Russell, and he had a huge grin on his face, and the whole bench was just cracking up. I turned around and just felt so silly but it motivated me, and of course I went out and had one of the best games of my career. As a matter of fact he left me in the starting lineup for the rest of the year (Leonard had torn his ACL).
JT: After attending every Seattle Storm home game since their inaugural season in 2000, you were hired in 2003 to aid in player development. How do you enjoy your job, and how does female player development compare to male player development?
TS: It is funny that you should ask because when VP Billy McKinney asked me to do it, I was just coming off of Achilles tendon surgery. I had been asking him to give me a chance for about a year, and he was doing the TV commentary for the Sonics and pulling double duty as general manager with the Storm. He was unable to always be there for the players that were coming in early, so one day I received a phone message from him asking me if I was still interested in working with the team, and that is how it all got started.
We became best friends; it was a position that he created. At that time I don't know if any other WNBA team had ever done it before, and because of it we won a title. The difference between the two genders is the physical ability of the players. The men can dunk and most of the women cannot, but other than that the women are much better because they have to rely on their intelligence to game-plan assignments. They actually think about the game, whereas the men rely on their physical ability.
JT: When people look back on your career, what do you want them to remember the most?
TS: That no matter where you come from, or what school you attend, if you put in the time and hard work it will eventually pay off because the NBA will find you if you have the talent.
Talvin is also on my list of best pro players in MEAC history
Bethune-Cookman: Carl Fuller (1971)
Coppin State: Larry Stewart (1992)
Delaware State: Emanual Davis (1997)
Florida A&M: Clemon Johnson (1979)
Hampton: Rick Mahorn (1981)
Howard: Larry Spriggs (1982)
Maryland Eastern Shore: Talvin Skinner (1975)
Morgan State: Marvin Webster (1976)
Norfolk State: Bob Dandridge (1970)
North Carolina A&T: Warren Davis (1968)
South Carolina State: Frank Card (1969)