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The snake that bit Buck Van Huss

Douglas Fritz • Mar 23, 2020 at 4:30 PM

Buck Van Huss will always be remembered as one of high school basketball’s best coaches.

Anywhere.

What his team accomplished in 1960 was the stuff of legends, leading tiny Hampton to the state title before classification was a thing. The improbable run to the championship eventually opened the door for Van Huss to take over at Dobyns-Bennett. Van Huss eventually won 1,021 games in his illustrious career.

But what happened to Van Huss and the Indians in 1973 seemed to be the first bite of the snake that kept him from reaching that lofty goal a second time. While practicing on the day before the state tournament, D-B’s star player, Skip Brown, hurt his ankle.

Brown played through the state tournament but wasn’t quite his dominant self. Van Huss later lamented the unfortunate ankle injury probably cost his team a title.

Injuries may have derailed the Indians again in 1981 — including a knee that knocked Mike McGinnis out for the season — on a team that finished 36-1 after a semifinal upset loss to eventual champion Nashville Pearl. And in 1989, Van Huss’ last trip to the state tournament, the Indians lost a dominant post player at midseason because of an academic suspension. D-B made it to the state before losing to Shelbyville by four points. Shelbyville lost to Franklin by two points, and Franklin upset Whites Creek 43-42 in the finals.

But it all started in …

1973

Some pertinent things that year included:

• “The Godfather” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

• Pocket calculators became common.

• Secretariat became the first Triple Crown-winning horse since 1948.

• The Sears Tower opened in Chicago, becoming the tallest building in the world.

The sports year was ushered in by the Miami Dolphins defeating the Washington Redskins 14-7 to win the Super Bowl, finishing what is still the only undefeated season in NFL history. It was a tough day for me because I had become a Redskins’ fan that season.

It would not take long for me to get a second tough sports day.

I was already a big fan of Dobyns-Bennett basketball, attending a few games as an 8-year-old boy growing up in Green Acres (the Kingsport version, not the get-allergic- smelling-hay one). When I couldn’t get to the D-B Dome, as it was called then, I often listened on the radio and kept score. Yep, I was already practicing to be a sportswriter, I suppose.

The Indians had their problems with Science Hill that season, losing a pair of games on last-second shots by Gordon Simpson and Ralph Kiser. Those were D-B’s only losses of the season before the state tournament, and the Indians took care of business against the Hilltoppers in the Region 1 title game.

Both D-B and Science Hill were among the state’s best, and they proved it with each earning berths in the Large School tournament, which was played in Stokely Athletic Center in Knoxville — a few months before the “Bernie and Ernie Show” was in its beginning stages for the Tennessee men’s basketball program.

D-B had a good run in the 1972 state tournament, beating Memphis Manassas and Bolivar before tumbling against eventual state champion Chattanooga Riverside in the semifinals.

But this year was different. The Indians seemed to have what it took to overcome Chattanooga powers Riverside — with Anthony Roberts — and No. 1-ranked Howard. D-B whipped Howard and defeated Riverside in a Christmas tournament on back-to-back nights at the D-B Dome.

My mom and dad had tickets to those sold-out contests. My brother Donnie and I were not amused to be left at home. But then again, we had Gramma Good pinch-

hitting as a babysitter and honestly, it didn’t get any better than that. She cooked meals that doctors would forbid these days, and oh, how she loved to laugh.

But I digress.

It was the first year of the split into two classifications, Large and Small, so only eight teams were in the Large Class after a 16- team all-classification state event for most years dating all the way back to 1921.

The Indians handled Memphis North Side 60-49 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, March 14. On Thursday, Science Hill shocked some folks with a 57-56 quarterfinal win over Howard.

An All-Upper East Tennessee (as it was called in those days) state championship game looked like a real possibility.

On Friday, the Indians took care of their business with Carter Johnson racking up 22 points and 10 rebounds in a 68-53 win over Riverside. Unfortunately for area fans, Science Hill couldn’t close the deal against Gallatin. The Hilltoppers lost in the final seconds.

Was this an open door for the Indians to win their first state title since 1945?

I remember listening to the championship game on the radio. D-B came out in a full-court press, exploding to a 12-0 lead. I remember thinking at that moment, “D-B is going to win the state.” It was my first experience with understanding how basketball games can so easily change. Momentum is indeed a fickle beast.

Foul trouble haunted the Indians, and a 13-2 run put Gallatin ahead 37-34 with 6:24 left in the contest. D-B fought back to lead in the final minute, but Gallatin scored with 30 seconds left for a 45-44 advantage. In the closing seconds, Brown’s 20-foot jumper caught front iron and Gallatin rebounded. And two free throws sealed the deal.

Contact Douglas Fritz via email at [email protected]