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Memory Lane: Bruce Wilder a well-rounded player for Dobyns-Bennett

Bill Lane • May 16, 2010 at 10:24 AM

Name: Bruce Wilder

Born: March 13, 1937

Where: Calvin, Ky.

Residence: Kingsport

High School/Colleges: Dobyns-Bennett/Georgia Tech, Davidson

Then: When Bruce Wilder’s father moved the family from Kentucky to Kingsport, he opened a barber shop near Brooks Circle.

At age 13, Bruce became interested in basketball. He spent countless hours playing pickup games at Borden Mill Park with other youngsters, including Stan Johnson. The two would eventually be together in a high-profile Dobyns-Bennett lineup.

Sprankle Gymnasium was packed with fans on Tuesday and Friday nights. Those who couldn’t attend listened to Martin Karant’s broadcasts on WKPT.

The 6-foot-5 Johnson, one of the best players in the South, and coach Guy B. Crawford helped Wilder improve.

“Coach Crawford was almost a second father to me,’’ Wilder said. “I knew what was expected and he never got in my face over anything. He taught me how to talk, walk, dribble and chew gum. In fact, he always brought an ample supply of Juicy Fruit gum to practice. Each player got a stick and could have more if he asked.’’

Crawford told them: “This will keep you from being distracted.’’

Crawford’s basic philosophy was tight defense with a lot of running and passing. “When we got a rebound, we threw an outlet pass, filled the lanes immediately and worked the ball to the middle of the floor for fast breaks.’’

Defense got Crawford’s attention better than anything else.

“He wanted us working with our feet, being assertive and talking to the opponents,’’ Wilder said. ‘’I took that to heart. Defense was very important to me.’’

Over two seasons, the player Wilder guarded when D-B was in man-to-man coverage averaged only 1.2 field goals.

Wilder was a well-rounded player. At 6-5, 190 pounds, he rebounded with authority. Crawford was very much in favor of two-handed set shots and Wilder had a deadly one. He also could hit jump shots from 15 to 20 feet with either hand.

The 1953-54 lineup consisted of Wilder and 6-4 Jim Taylor at forwards, Johnson at center and 5-11 Carl Bell and 6-2 Bill Greene at guards. Taylor became academically ineligible after the first semester and sixth man Chuck Ross took his place. The team was fairly successful with a 23-10 record but the Indians lost three times to Science Hill, twice to Tennessee High and once each to Unicoi County and Elizabethton.

Come tournament time, Crawford had his team ready. The Tribe placed third in the state tourney. It was there that Wilder made a name for himself.

Linden, though a small school, was a state power for many years. D-B defeated Linden at Vanderbilt University on a last-second shot by Wilder.

The score was tied with eight seconds to go. Johnson seldom missed his patented hook shot, but this time he did. Wilder grabbed the rebound and put it in at the buzzer.

A Nashville sportswriter entered the D-B dressing room and set up a special photo of Johnson rewarding Wilder by shampooing his hair in the shower.

University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp also visited the dressing room and talked with Wilder, making sure he’d be prepared for college and gave him some academic pointers.

With Taylor back, D-B had the same lineup for the 1954-55 season and won 27 of 30 games. The only losses were to Roanoke Jefferson, Holston Valley and Linden.

When Wilder played against Linden as a senior, he had a terrible night. “I couldn’t buy a basket,’’ he said. This time Linden won by four points.

Wilder turned down offers from Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and East Tennessee State to sign with Georgia Tech.

While Wilder was a freshman at Georgia Tech, former D-B player George Peters sold him on the idea of transferring to Davidson. “When are you going to go to a real college?’’ Peters asked.

It was a Presbyterian-affiliated college and Wilder was interested in becoming a medical missionary. He did transfer but the ministry would have to wait. Wilder graduated from Davidson in 1959. Coming out of the ROTC program, he entered the Army as a second lieutenant and made a career of it. After 28 years, he retired as a full colonel.

He guarded West Virginia’s Jerry West in the Southern Conference tournament at Richmond.

“West was up so high, all I saw were the soles of his shoes,’’ Wilder said. “We thought when ‘Hot Rod’ Hundley graduated, we’d have it made. Then West came along.’’

Wilder served one tour of duty in Korea and two in Vietnam. A decorated helicopter pilot, he survived three crashes. Twice, his chopper was shot out of the air by hostile fire. Another time an overloaded helicopter he was flying went down.

He flew some 500 combat missions and earned 23 air medals.

In September 2004, Wilder suffered near-fatal head injuries in a head-on automobile accident near Jacksonville, Fla. It took him five months to recover.

“When I wake up every morning, I thank God,’’ he said. “By rights, I should not be here.’’

He pastored Lutheran churches in Haymarket, Va., and St. Petersburg, Fla., before retiring.

Now: “Basketball can open more doors in your life than you could ever imagine,’’ he said. “It led me to a college education. The discipline was beneficial to my military career. I learned early on what team work was all about.’’

Wilder met his wife, Patti, in Kansas. Together they have eight sons, all of whom were athletes. Six of them participated in collegiate athletics. “She raised five jocks and I raised three,’’ he said.

Wilder has had many enjoyable conversations with former Rogersville star Gerald Winstead, his brother-in-law.

“Gerald thinks Rogersville could have beaten us,’’ he said. “I don’t think so. Greeneville cleaned the floor with Rogersville and we cleaned the floor with Greeneville.’’

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

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