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Obituaries

Abe Lemons, 79; Basketball Coach Beloved for His Humor

September 03, 2002|ROBYN NORWOOD and JIM BARRERO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Abe Lemons, the Oklahoma-bred college basketball coach who became as famous for his homespun wit as his 599 victories, died Monday after a long illness.

He was 79.

Lemons, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died at home in Oklahoma City. His declining health was accelerated after he broke his hip in July.

He won the 1978 National Invitation Tournament title while at Texas and took eight teams to the NCAA tournament--seven from Oklahoma City University and one from Texas--but Lemons' words will live on longer than the on-court highlights.

John Wooden, the former UCLA coach, on Monday called Lemons "the most humorous coach I've ever known."

Even illness didn't easily dull Lemons' wit.

"I remember his hands used to shake, but he would say, 'I don't have Parkinson's, all I have is rhythm,' " Wooden said. "Oh, I just enjoyed him so very much."

Born in Walters, Okla., on Nov. 21, 1922, Lemons played basketball at Southwestern Oklahoma State in Weatherford as well as at Oklahoma City before he began his career as a head coach at Oklahoma City in 1955.

He stayed 18 years before leaving to coach at Texas Pan American for three seasons, where he joked he would rather become a football coach:

"That way you can lose only 11 games a season," he said. "I lost 11 games in December alone."

Lemons took over at Texas in 1976, revitalizing the Longhorn program with his teams' hell-bent running game and a 110-63 record in six seasons.

But when DeLoss Dodds became athletic director, he and Lemons soon clashed.

Lemons charged into the stands to challenge some heckling Arkansas fans in 1982, and he was fired at season's end, embittering him for many years.

Still, he returned to coach for seven more seasons at Oklahoma City, where the basketball arena bears his name.

When Lemons finally retired in 1990 at 67--ending a 34-year career as a head coach with a 599-343 record--he acknowledged he might be out of touch at last.

"When you look at the media guide and see a guy's favorite music is Heavy D, well ... who? That's a telltale sign I've lost it," he said.

Much admired by fellow coaches, Lemons was a friend of former Indiana coach Bob Knight, and made the trip to Lubbock, Texas, last fall for Knight's debut as Texas Tech coach.

Lemons was honored by some of the biggest names in coaching during a banquet at a recent NCAA Final Four tournament, pulling out his notes with shaking hands.

"I had some notes, but with all this shaking, they've come out in Spanish," he said. "And I can't read Spanish."

His one-liners weren't always about basketball.

Lemons liked to say he once came within two strokes of winning a car in a golf tournament.

"It was a hole-in-one contest--and I had a three," he'd say.

Track and field, he said, was the easiest sport to coach.

"All you have to do is just tell them to stay to the left and hurry back."

Though his teams were successful, his attitude about rules was decidedly unorthodox.

"If I make a set of rules, then a guy goes out and steals an airplane," Lemons would say. "He comes back and says, 'It wasn't on the list of rules.' "

Curfews? He didn't have them.

"When you have a curfew, it's always your star who gets caught."

Still, he joked that whenever his teams played in Abilene, Texas, he punished them by not allowing them in their rooms before 10 p.m.

"I'd be doing them a favor by letting them come in earlier," he said.

Lemons was crazy like a fox, though.

"One day of practice is like one day of clean living. It doesn't do you any good," he used to say.

And he employed cagey strategy even in scheduling his opponents.

"I'll give a lecture in a clinic and look for the guy who's taking notes. That's the guy I want to schedule a game with next year," he said.

Or this: "Coaches who shoot par in the summer are the guys I want on my schedule in the winter."

Whatever the prevailing wisdom was, Lemons reexamined it.

"What's an education? It's good for the average guy, but if somebody hands a poor kid $2 million to go around half-naked, bouncing a ball, then he'd better take it.

"Then, if he wants a diploma, he can always buy a college and put his name on it. Like Oral Roberts did."

Still, his most imitated line came after he chastised his center for grabbing only one rebound in the first half of a game.

"That's one more than a dead guy," Lemons said.

Variations of that line--for any player who has only one rebound or one basket or one block--are part of basketball lore, and will live on.

"Anyone that didn't like Abe Lemons, there had to be something wrong with them," Wooden said.

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