Rene Pulley inspired this year’s series of Black history columns.
While watching a boys’ basketball scrimmage back in November, Pulley was talking to a bunch of us, telling hoop stories. Those recollections gave me the idea to do a time-honored barbershop tradition: debating who the “best ever” is in some sports.
Since we are in the middle of basketball season, I recently sat with Pulley, the noted godfather of Twin Cities urban prep and pro-am basketball, at his newly-opened High Performance Academy in Eagan. “Sometimes [people] figure that [if] you go the furthest that you’re the best, but that’s not necessarily true,” he philosophized as this columnist nodded in agreement. “A lot of breaks, a lot of opportunities and luck plays a lot into this.”
With this as his starting point, Pulley reminisced on local hoopsters he’s seen over the years. “When you talk about greats around here, as a little kid I remember Leroy Hardeman. He was Mr. Everything.” Later, as Pulley grew up, “Al Frost probably was the best player when I was in junior high school. Al could flat-out play.”
After Frost, who is now Roosevelt’s athletic director, “Ronnie ‘Bull’ Henderson was really the first point guard ahead of his time. He was small and never had a great jump shot, but [he] developed it later on [and] he was unstoppable,” continued Pulley.
The Twin Cities over the years had its share of debatable “best evers,” but Pulley, who played basketball at North (1963-66), listed by decades his “cream of the crop”:
Clarence Burton in the 1950s
Leroy Gardner and Frost in the 1960s
Henderson and Andre “Big Money Griff” Griffin in the 1970s
Ben Coleman and Brett McNeil in the 1980s
Khalid El-Amin in the 1990s
“Overall, he probably was the best Minnesota player we ever had because of what he was able to do,” proclaimed Pulley of El-Amin, who helped North win three straight state championships and later won a national championship at Connecticut.
“He wasn’t the fastest or the biggest or the tallest. He wasn’t the highest jumper or any of that, but he had what a lot of us didn’t have — he was born with the game of basketball in his head. He knew exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
“He knew at age 10 what we learned with time and experience as we got older and better,” noted Pulley. “Khalid won at the high school level, the college level, and if he had stayed long enough would have won at the NBA level. But he won at the championship level in the European league. Khalid is somebody special.”
Among the women hoopsters’ “best evers,” Pulley pointed out Tracy Henderson, who “was ahead of her time,” Tamara Moore and Mauri Horton.
On the best-ever local teams, “I guess Roosevelt in the ’50s had outstanding teams, but I was a little kid then,” he recalled. “Minneapolis Central and St. Paul Central had dominant teams, and then everything transferred over to North High in the mid-’70s. Then North became dominant.”
High Performance Academy is the new home of Howard Pulley Pro-Am Summer League and the Howard Pulley Panthers prep program. The 61,000-plus square foot facility has one NBA-length court and six other full-length basketball and volleyball courts, as well as classrooms and meeting rooms.
It “wasn’t a dream of mine,” admitted the Minneapolis native Pulley. He credits longtime friends Richard Coffey and Reggie Perkins connecting him with Kathy Marinello in making it happen.
He started his Howard Pulley Panthers prep program back in the mid-1990s. “I got involved because a lot of kids, especially Black kids, and even some White kids didn’t have the opportunity to go as far as we could for whatever reason,” Pulley explained.
“I was one of those guys — I played along with a lot of folk like me. I’d seen it hurt a lot of friends of mine and destroyed a lot of friends of mine, to where you couldn’t have the opportunity to realize your dreams.
“That’s why I got involved [in summer youth hoops],” said Pulley. “Now kids are going to schools that even those outstanding players didn’t get a chance to go to.”
Literally, “1,000-plus” young men have participated in his Panthers program since he started it. Pulley says proudly, “That’s a tribute [to] the best ever in Minnesota who paved the way for kids [today] to have that opportunity.”
Because “there are so many” top players these days, Pulley refused to name this century’s best evers. That’s a debate “to be continued,” he concluded.
Next week: Others share their “best-evers.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com, or read his “Another View” blog on challman.wordpress.com.