Before there was the Minnesota Timberwolves, there were the Pillsbury Kings. But unlike the pro team that joined the NBA in the early 1990s, the Kings for nearly a decade ruled this state’s amateur basketball during the 1970s.
According to a local basketball magazine article dated March 1976, the Kings won six consecutive Minneapolis titles and five straight state titles, had a 33-0 season, and took the National Amateur Basketball Association title in 1974 as well as two national runners-up finishes (1973 and 1975). Only the Minnesota Lynx’s three WNBA titles in five years are comparable. Both runs are unparalleled in state hoops history.
“They are very good players,” wrote the late St. Paul Pioneer Press sportswriter Mike Augustin of the Kings after a National Amateur Basketball Association Tournament game played at the St. Paul Auditorium.
“We did pretty well,” recalls Frank White. “Everybody knew their role.”
The team was sponsored by then-locally owned Pillsbury. “Pillsbury really took care of us,” recalls White. “They paid expenses and bought us uniforms. Our uniforms were like college uniforms.”
Arvesta Kelly, Leroy Gardner, Al White, Mel Coleman and Al Nuness were the regular starters. Frank White, Dick Kelley (no relation to Arvesta), Alex Rowell and Tim Argabright were the reserves. Each player accordingly had mad skills that were unmatched at a time when their youth was still evident and their hair was black.
“We all got along. I can’t even remember anybody on that team got into an argument,” adds Arvesta Kelly, who starred at Lincoln (Missouri) University and also played in the American Basketball Association.
“Arvesta would light the team up. I never saw a shooter like Arvesta,” says Frank White. “He was the leader of our team. We had a lot of good players, but I think he was our best player.”
Frank White played against Gardner in high school as both grew up in St. Paul. “Playing with Leroy…was fun,” he remembers. “Leroy was like a whole other player when we played in these tournaments. He was always good, but Leroy never backed away and you didn’t talk stuff to Leroy.”
Coleman and Nuness, former college players, normally were the Kings’ top scorers, continues Frank White. “You couldn’t concentrate on any one or two guys. Dickie (Kelley) didn’t shoot much, but he was a passer. He loved to pass the ball.”
Al White (no relation to Frank) was a rebounding machine, “but he ended up scoring a little bit,” says Frank. “Alex Rowell played bigger than he was — a very good athlete.
“I could always shoot,” adds Frank White. “I’m pretty competitive, but I didn’t care how many minutes I played, I knew what my place was.”
“We had that camaraderie,” notes Arvesta Kelly, who now lives in Mississippi. “We got along off the court as well as we did on the court. We are still friends.”
“I think the blend of the personalities was a key ingredient to the success of the team, because nobody had an ego that impacted individual stats,” surmises Frank White, adding that time, work, and family responsibilities eventually led to the Kings’ breakup. “We were just older, and things changed. People were married and didn’t have much time to travel (for games on weekends). Priorities for us changed. We played 9-10 years together.”
White says the players have stayed close over the years. They rely more these days on their memories and scrapbooks.
“It was a great run, a wonderful time in life,” concludes Frank White of the Pillsbury Kings.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.