Austin won state title, broke ground in '73
School will honor champion-
ship squad Friday night
By Mark Edwards
email@example.com · 340-2461
Ask Austin High graduate Billy "Dog" Sandifer about helping the Black Bears win a state basketball championship in 1973, and one of his most enduring memories doesn't involve a ball or a court.
Instead, it involves his friend and teammate Butch Watterson. After practice most days, Watterson would give Sandifer a ride home.
"Butch lived about five or six blocks from me," said Sandifer, now an operations manager and vice president for a trucking company in Statesboro, Ga. "He didn't have to take me home every day, but he did."
Back in 1973, that meant something, because Watterson is white and Sandifer is black. Austin hadn't integrated until the late 1960s. In fact, Sandifer was destined to stay at Lakeside School until desegregation placed him at Austin at the start of his 10th-grade year.
Now, 34 years later, Sandifer uses his friendship with Watterson as an example of what that Austin team was like and the role it played in a community adjusting to blacks and whites going to the same schools.
"The way people accepted that basketball team had a lot to do with the community coming together," Sandifer said. "It wasn't black against white. We won as a group.
"And after we won, blacks and whites came together as one. That team brought the school together."
Sandifer will return to Austin on Friday night along with most of the 1973 team as the school honors their state championship run.
At halftime of the Black Bears' boys game against Tanner High, the 1973 team will be introduced to the crowd.
Maybe it's appropriate that the person who has spearheaded this reunion is current Austin boys varsity coach Demond Garth, the first black to hold that position.
"Their team had a bunch of great players, so we'll see all those guys back in Joe Jones Gym with their pictures on the wall," Garth said. "That will mean something to me, and I can show that to my players."
Garth wasn't born until four years after that team beat Wenonah in the state finals to win its championship. But Garth heard stories about the team from his father, who used to work with Mark McClanahan, a member of the 1973 squad.
So when Garth wanted to recognize the team, he went to McClanahan, who lives in Atlanta. McClanahan helped organize the reunion, and he said a large majority of the players will return.
"Demond wanted to bring back the loyalty of Austin basketball and the history of the state championships," said McClanahan, who played baseball at Auburn. "It was his suggestion, and our guys love to do it."
McClanahan said that, like Sandifer, he vividly recalls how the team might've affected the racial issues of the time.
"All the racial problems the rest of the school might've had, we didn't have on that team," McClanahan said. "We broke down a lot of color barriers."
McClanahan said Donald Ray Booker deserves credit for that. Booker, a senior and a starting forward on the 1973 team, was one of the first blacks to attend Austin High.
McClanahan said that the basketball squad was all-white until Booker joined.
"Donald Ray Booker taught us how to treat black people," McClanahan said. "Lakeside, where Billy Sandifer came from, closed in 1969, but Donald came from Cedar Lake in 1968.
"The things we said — we didn't know how to act. But Donald would correct us. He had a maturity that was beyond his years. He was the catalyst that helped that team win the state championship, regardless of what his stats might've been."
McClanahan said he can't forget how Booker helped his white teammates when Austin played all-black schools.
"He was always the one who would take up for all of us," McClanahan said. "Then afterward, we would go to a restaurant, and we couldn't eat there because they wouldn't serve Donald. Then it was our turn to take up for him."
But the racial balance of that Austin team wasn't all that made it unusual. The squad also was unusually short, which led to opponents sometimes wondering if the Black Bears really were that good.
Sandifer played center at 6-foot-2. He was the tallest starter on the team. Watterson, a starting forward, was 6-1.
"Teams tried to intimidate us," McClanahan said. "They would laugh at us. At the state tournament, Class 2A teams were asking if we really belonged there."
Back then, the state tournament included eight teams in each class, which meant the champion had to win three games. Austin beat Birmingham powerhouse Carver, Talladega and Wenonah to take its title.
Watterson recalled the height difference as well.
"I think the shortest guy I guarded was 6-5," said Watterson, who later played baseball at North Alabama and will come to the reunion from his home in Houston.
"When we played those teams, it was kind of like David and Goliath."
But maybe the biggest example of height not always making the difference came in the semifinal win over Talladega. Sandifer faced off against Kenneth "Pepto" Bolden, a 6-7 center who later led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding at Auburn.
Bolden had 15 points and eight rebounds. Meanwhile, Sandifer had 43 points and 22 rebounds. Sandifer set a state tournament record that day with his points, and the mark still stands.
After graduation, the team spread apart. They've had two mini-reunions since then, but they didn't include everyone.
McClanahan said that in that late 1970s, players joined their coach Joe Jones in the Austin cafeteria for his birthday and watched the old game films. Also, in 1988, several players participated in an Austin charity basketball game at Calhoun Community College.
But some haven't seen each other since high school.
"It's very much worth coming all the way from Houston to see everybody," said Watterson, whose wife, the former Melanie Copeland, was an Austin cheerleader.
Added Sandifer: "Being in the same gym with everybody again will bring chills to me. ... I just want to see them all, give them all a hug and tell them what they meant to me."
But Sandifer said there's one drawback.
"The sad part is that Coach Jones won't be there," he said, referring to his old coach, who died in 1985. "I wish he could be there."
Daily Sports Writer Josh Cooper contributed to this report.
Austin 1973 state champions
What: Austin High School will honor its 1973 state basketball championship squad at halftime of Friday's boys home game against Tanner.
Accomplishments: Won the state championship in Class 4A, which was the largest classification at the time, beating Wenonah in the finals 69-66 in overtime. Also won the Morgan County, Tennessee Valley Conference and Region 8 championships.
The coach: Hall of Fame inductee Joe Jones coached the squad to the third of his three state championships. He remains the only coach in state history to win state championships in three different classifications.
The rest of the squad: According to the roster posted in Joe Jones Gymnasium at Austin High, Roger Mathis served as an assistant coach. The players included Donald Ray Booker, Rickie Stukes, Billy "Dog" Sandifer, Mark McClanahan, Butch Watterson, Marvin Sales, Murphy Brown, Mike Cagle, Mike Moses, Steve Jones, Tim Long and Blake Temple. The team's managers were Jimmy Smith, Randy Baggett, Mack Wilson and Dickie Stukes.
Save $84.50 a year off our newsstand price:
Subscribe today for only 38 cents a day!