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Memory Lane: Letha Kyker Grogg was a star in Lamar community

Bill Lane • Nov 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Name: Letha Kyker Grogg

Born: Oct. 20, 1932

Where: Lamar

Residence: Johnson City

High School/College: Lamar/ East Tennessee State

Then: The favorite pastime of Lamar community residents in the late 1940s and early 1950s was gathering to watch the Lady Cherokees play basketball.

Hundreds would pack into the high school’s small gym. People stood along the walls and on the corners of the court during games.

The featured player was 5-foot-5 forward Letha Kyker. Put a ball in her hands and she could score from almost any angle. She had a number of releases — over-the-head two-handers, two-hand push shots, one-handers, hooks and layups. She even did the center jump.

In those days, the game wasn’t like it is now. A team’s lineup consisted of six players, with three stationed on each end of the floor. The guards played defense, the forwards did all of the shooting.

In her four varsity seasons at Lamar, Kyker scored 1,270 points for an 18.6 average. She was chosen to the All-District 2 tournament team all four years.

Kyker was quick and she could beat taller opponents to rebounds. She spent her first two seasons essentially feeding the ball to her cousin, Peggy Treadway, who had averages of 26.3 and 20.1 points.

Against Church Hill, Kyker fired in a school-record 47 points.

“It was one of those nights,’’ she said. “It didn’t seem like I missed a shot. Everything fell in.’’

Several times she scored 30 or more points. As a junior she averaged 22 points and followed that with a 24.7-point clip in her final season. She played alongside her sister, Betty, in both seasons.

Kyker was making headlines but didn’t realize it until a neighbor started bringing newspaper clippings to her.

“We couldn’t afford a newspaper,’’ she said.

She didn’t let the publicity go to her head. “I considered everybody on our team a star. There were no jealousies.’’

What made the game a challenge was the limited dribbling rule. A ball-handler was allowed just one dribble. Midway through Kyker’s career, it was changed to two dribbles.

Scoring in double figures often meant being able to hit from long range. One of Kyker’s favorite shots was from the circle — a distance by today’s standards that would count as a 3-point goal.

Letha was the eighth of 10 children born to Hugh and Adalee Kyker. Farm chores always came first for them.

The first basketball young Kyker saw was in physical education class. She and one of her sisters made a sock ball and took shots against a smokehouse wall at home.

“To score,’’ she said, “we had to hit a certain plank with it.’’

She fell in love with the game. “I couldn’t wait to get to school to play. There wasn’t anything about it I didn’t like.’’

Lamar won the district championship and qualified for the East Tennessee regional at Loudon in 1949 when she was a sophomore. Kyker provided the winning impetus with a 24-point performance in a 45-38 championship win over Boones Creek.

“I was so thrilled I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,’’ she said. “I’d never been out of Jonesborough.’’

At Loudon, Kyker got 18 points but Lamar lost to Midway 54-33.

The Kykers had no telephone and communicating with school officials wasn’t easy. When school was out because of snow, she wasn’t aware the district tournament was still being played at Johnson City. Bud Britton, who coached her as a freshman and sophomore, braved a slippery road to the Kyker home — located 7 miles from the school — and drove her to the Science Hill gym.

She got a lot of teasing after that for not knowing about the tournament.

There were six girls in the family. Three played basketball and one was a cheerleader. Two of their brothers were in the military service and it was up to the girls to take care of the homefront.

Raymond Williams, her coach as a junior and senior, offered to pursue a scholarship for Kyker but she chose to stay close home.

An outstanding student, she entered East Tennessee State upon graduation in 1951 and was selected as a walk-on to play for the Lady Buccaneers. She was there just one quarter. Before the team’s first game, her father suffered a broken hip while hanging tobacco in the barn. She left college to help out at home.

Kyker was an outstanding softball pitcher. Lamar didn’t have a program but she hooked up with various community teams and was one of Washington County’s outstanding fast-pitch performers. She threw one no-hitter and also was a long-ball hitter.

Kyker took up golf at the age of 33. “I started on a par-3 course in Johnson City. At the time, I thought it was a stupid sport. But the more I played, the more I liked it. I was self-taught.’’

Through the years, she has raised some eyebrows with her driving, chipping and putting. Some of her scores would put male golfers to shame.

When she was in her 40s, Letha carded a 71 on a par-75 course. In her early 70s, she was still shooting in the high 70s and low 80s. She’s had five holes-in-one.

Letha won the women’s club championship five times at Johnson City Country Club. She also was club champion at Pine Oaks and The Crossings.

Now: The recent illness and death of Letha’s husband, Sam Grogg, took a toll on her golf game. The scores are up considerably but she still gets in a couple rounds each week at The Crossings.

The roomful of trophies and medals in Letha’s home are a testament to her achievements.

“I’ve met a lot of nice people through golf,’’ she said.

Letha has two stepsons and one stepdaughter.

She’s active in church work at Clark Street Baptist in Johnson City.

Bill Lane is a Times-News sports writer. E-mail him at blane@timesnews.net.

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