Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Series: Alabama's Leon Douglas

June 19th, 2011
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer spent some time with Alabama great Leon Douglas. After a storied career in Tuscaloosa (Douglas still ranks in the Top 5 all-time in points, rebounds and blocked shots) Douglas played in both the NBA and Europe. Douglas is currently the head basketball coach at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Jon Teitel: In 1971 you scored a career-high 57 points for Colbert County (AL) HS in a game against Muscle Shoals. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone"? 

Leon Douglas: A young man in the area had scored 53 or 54 points earlier that week and my coach asked me if I wanted to break the record.  It was a hard game, but they kept passing me the ball and I just kept shooting. 

JT: One of your high school basketball teammates was Ozzie Newsome, who also followed you to Alabama before becoming an NFL Hall of Fame tight end. How good an athlete was he back in the day, and how close are the two of you? 

LD: We are like brothers: we hung out together when we were young and would always discuss where to go to college.  He chose to go to Alabama basically because of our friendship.  Coach Bear Bryant spoke at my high school banquet, as he was trying to get both of us to go there. 

JT: One of your teammates at Alabama was Wendell Hudson, the first black athlete to play for the Tide. How big a factor was Hudson on your decision to attend Alabama, and how were you treated by white fans and classmates when you got to campus? 

LD: Nobody at my high school wanted me to go to Alabama due to the racial climate down there. They wanted me to go to somewhere like UCLA or Dayton.  After signing with Alabama, I stayed out of town for a couple of days because so many people were upset. 

JT: You played for Hall of Fame coach CM Newton. What made him such a great coach, and what was the most important thing you ever learned from him? 

LD: He taught me humility. He was a gentleman who never raised his voice.  I try to surround myself today with players who are good men of high moral fiber.  He was one of those guys who you wanted to give your all for because he was supportive of you both on and off the court. 

JT: You were a four-time All-SEC performer. How were you able to come in and contribute as a freshman, and how were you able to remain consistent throughout the rest of your college career? 

LD: Alabama did not have many big guys to play in the paint, so I knew that if I worked hard I would probably achieve a lot of my goals.  Coach John Bostick worked with me for one hour before our two-hour practice each day, and the effort I put in helped me to become motivated. 

JT: You were a two-time All-American and two-time SEC POY. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors, and did you feel like you were one of the best players in the country? 

LD: My goal each summer was to work hard enough to be mentioned in the same breath as other great players around the country (Bill Walton, Robert Parish and John Shumate).  To be one of the best, you have to be mentally tough.  My roommate at the Dapper Dan Classic (now the McDonald's All-American Game) was future NBA ROY Alvan Adams.  He was a nice guy but very quiet; he only said about five words to me during the entire three days!

1973 NIT Tournament

JT: Glenn Garrett made a 22-foot shot at the buzzer to give you a one-point win over Manhattan. Where does Garrett's shot rank among the most clutch you have ever seen? 

LD: I think it ranks right at the top.  We were a program on the rise, but that shot really put Alabama basketball on the map.  He was the last person that was supposed to take that shot, so when it went in we went crazy!   

JT: Your team had a 16-0 second half run en route to a four-point win over Minnesota. Did you feel like you had the momentum to go all the way? 

LD: That was a real personal game for me, as I had been recruited by Minnesota coach Bill Musselman.  He told me that I would have to sit for two years, which offended me.  Future MLB Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was a guard on that team despite standing 6'6". 

JT: Allan Bristow scored 29 points in a one-point win by eventual champion Virginia Tech. How close did you come to winning that game, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards? 

LD: We thought we would win it all, so that was a big letdown.  Bristow was a lefty and just did whatever he wanted to that night.  It motivated me and the other guys coming back the following year to establish a real program. 

JT: What are your memories of the 1975 NCAA Tournament (Douglas scored 29 points and had an Alabama tournament-record 21 rebounds and seven blocks in a three-point loss to Arizona State)? 

LD: It was another big letdown.  We had to go across the country to play Arizona State instead of playing them at home.  It took us an entire half to get focused, and we were down by almost 20 points at halftime. 

JT: In the summer of 1975 you were a member of Team USA that won a gold medal at the Pan American Games. What did it mean to you to win the gold medal, and which of your teammates impressed you the most (Otis Birdsong, Ernie Grunfeld, Robert Parish, Tree Rollins or another player)? 

LD: Birdsong and Johnny Davis impressed me a lot, and Grunfeld also played great. We have all remained close friends.  We were a guard-driven team thanks to Coach Marv Harshman.  We made a commitment to go to the Olympics in 1976, but both Parish and I got hurt.  We asked USA Basketball to insure us in case we got hurt in the Olympics, but they refused to commit to doing that.  That Pan Am team was basically the foundation of the Olympic team.  Coach Dean Smith was in charge of the Olympic team, and we would talk daily leading up to the Olympics about whether or not I would join the team.  Looking back, I regret the fact that I did not join the guys as part of the squad. 

1976 NCAA Tournament

JT: You scored 35 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a win over North Carolina. Where does that rank among the best games you have ever played, and how big a deal was it to beat Coach Smith in the tourney? 

LD: Beating Coach Smith was big because he was one of the three best coaches in college at the time (along with John Wooden and Bobby Knight).  Playing against guys like Mitch Kupchak and Tom LaGarde on national TV was very special. 

JT: You scored 12 points (5-16 FG) in a five-point loss to Bobby Knight and eventual national champion Indiana. Where does that unbeaten Indiana team rank among the best you have ever faced, and could you tell that they were going to win the title? 

LD: That was our national championship game; we thought we could beat them and were leading towards the end of the game.  I think that was the first time all year that Knight played a 2-3 zone defense. He had played man-to-man all year, but that zone allowed him to protect Kent Benson. 

JT: In the summer of 1976 you were drafted fourth overall by Detroit, ahead of several future Hall-of-Famers (Parish, Adrian Dantley, Alex English and Dennis Johnson). Did you see that as a validation of your college career or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA?  

LD: It was a big moment, but my greatest accomplishment was getting my college degree.  I thought about going pro as a hardship case after my sophomore year, but my mom convinced me to stay in school.  I graduated in three and a half years, so getting to the NBA was just icing on the cake.  After being named All-American as a junior, I started to realize that I just might be picked in the first round after all.  It was a reward for my hard work, but that was never really my focus.  I did not want to get drafted by Detroit because they already had an established player at my position (Bob Lanier).  I had four different coaches in four years with the Pistons (Herb Brown, Bob Kauffman, Dick Vitale and Richie Adubato).  Vitale was a good coach/motivator and definitely knew the game but he tried to push some of the older guys, who in turn became a bit rebellious. 

JT: After retiring from the NBA you spent almost a decade playing in Italy. Why did you decide to go abroad, and how did it compare to the NBA? 

LD: I went to Italy because I was frustrated in the NBA.  I went to Kansas City to play for Cotton Fitzsimmons, but they already had an established center (Sam Lacey).  It was uncomfortable for me because several of the players resented me trying to take Sam's spot on the court.  When I had the opportunity to go to Europe, I jumped at it and landed in Venice.  I tried to turn around in Rome and go back home, but they took my bags and refused to let me leave!  I played for Coach Aca Nikolic, who was the John Wooden of Yugoslavian basketball and later inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Playing for him rejuvenated my game, and some of the conditioning drills I use as a coach today I learned from him.  The reason I played so long is because it became a game again after being a business for a long time.  I also got to spend time with my family, so it became a home for me. 

JT: Your 360-pound nephew Dante Ellington followed in your footsteps by going to Alabama and later played in the NFL. Did he credit at least some of his success to genetics? 

LD: He did not live up to his expectations because he was not able to control his weight. The motivation was just not there. 

JT: Your younger brother John was an All-American at Kansas before playing two years in the NBA, and is currently the head coach at Fort Valley State. Which of you was the best player, and which of you is the best coach? 

LD: He would probably tell you that I was the better player.  I heard him speak several months ago at a banquet, and it was breathtaking to hear him talk about how I was a role model who helped him accomplish various things.  For his size, he was probably the best player in the family.  He scored 46 points in a game at Kansas, and could really shoot the ball...but he never beat me 1-on-1!  I am the best coach, as I have beaten him both times that our teams have faced off.

JT: You are currently the head men's basketball coach at Tuskegee. How do you like coaching, and what do you hope to do in the future? 

LD: When I look at how my life has evolved, I feel that I was destined to be a coach.  Ozzie and I used to say that we would return to Alabama together. He would coach football and I would coach basketball.  Through a lot of different experiences and getting to work with young people, I was really prepared to be a coach.  I try to help my players become good citizens and become whatever they are capable of being.  We have won a couple of conference titles in the past six years.  I love trying to develop young minds.  There are a lot of broken families where young men have to raise themselves, so I try to be a mentor to them as well.
Douglas is also on Jon's list of best fantasy players in SEC history.

Alabama: Leon Douglas (1976) 1909 PTS (#3), 1279 REB (#2), 235 BLK (#3), 2-time All-American, 2-time conference POY
Arkansas: Sidney Moncrief (1979) 2066 PTS (#2), 1015 REB (#2), 60.6 FG% (#2), 2-time All-American
Auburn: Chuck Person (1986) 2311 PTS (#1), 940 REB (#3), 2-time All-American
Florida: Ronnie Williams (1984) 2090 PTS (#1), 954 REB (#4), 58.5 FG% (#5)
Georgia: Dominique Wilkins (1982) 1688 PTS (#4), 2-time All-American, conference POY
Kentucky: Dan Issel (1970) 2138 PTS (#1), 1078 REB (#1), 2-time All-American
LSU: Pete Maravich (1970) 3667 PTS (#1), 425 AST (#4), 3-time All-American, 3-time conference POY, 2-time national POY
Mississippi: John Stroud (1980) 2328 PTS (#1), 826 REB (#4), 2-time All-American
Mississippi State: Bailey Howell (1959) 2030 PTS (#2), 1277 REB (#1), 2-time All-American
South Carolina: Alex English (1976) 1972 PTS (#2), 1064 REB (#3), 230 BLK (#3), All-American
Tennessee: Allan Houston (1993) 2801 PTS (#1), 346 3PM (#2), 42.4 3P% (#2), 84.9 FT% (#2), 2-time All-American
Vanderbilt: Shan Foster (2008) 2011 PTS (#1), 367 3PM (#1), All-American, conference POY