Photo courtesy of Rick Stukes|
Rick Stukes (20), a senior guard, and head coach Joe Jones helped pace Austin to the 1973 Class 4A state championship. He scored 24 points in the title game when the BlackBears beat Wenonah 69-66 in overtime.
One of the Jones boys
34 years later, Stukes can’t forget influence his old Austin coach had upon his life
By Michael Wetzel
Rick Stukes isn’t so sure how good of a coach the legendary Joe Jones would be with today’s players.
Jones directed Stukes and his Austin High basketball teammates to the 1973 Class 4A state championship, beating Wenonah 69-66 in overtime in the finals. He coached high school hoops for 31 years, winning 606 contests at Danville, Austinville, Decatur and Austin.
“Coach Jones was a great disciplinarian,” said Stukes, a senior guard on that state title team. “Players today have earrings, tattoos, shorts down around their knees. I don’t know if Coach would go for that.
“He would have to have it his way or you wouldn’t be playing. I’m pretty sure Coach would tell those guys — regardless how good they were — to play somewhere else.”
But Stukes, an inductee into this year’s Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame, said Jones taught his players plenty about life.
“Coach Jones was hard on us and taught us the importance of being responsible for our actions,” Stukes said. “If Coach told us to be at school at 5 because the game bus was leaving then, you had better be there at 4:30. If you weren’t on the bus, you weren’t playing. We might not have understood some of the things at the time that Coach was telling us, but we all did later.
“It’s because of Coach Jones and my teammates I am getting into the Morgan County Hall of Fame.”
Stukes, who now owns a primary care medical clinic in Jasper, spent more than 25 years as a basketball coach or scout in the college and professional ranks before leaving the field 18 months ago.
“I have been fortunate and blessed to have had some success with my career in basketball,” Stukes said. “Coach Jones and the close-knit group of players we had on that 1973 Austin team have really played a positive impact on my life. ... Now that I am out of basketball, I miss the everyday comradery with the other coaches.”
Stukes vividly remembers what he calls his prep career highlight. It was the first game of the 1973 state basketball tournament against 28-0 and No. 1-ranked Carver in Tuscaloosa’s Memorial Coliseum.
“I made the last shot of the game from the baseline in the final seconds, and we won by one. The play wasn’t drawn up that way. I was just fortunate to end up with the ball to make that shot.”
His winning basket came with eight seconds left in a 68-67 victory.He finished with 28 points after making 11 of 14 from the field.
In the semifinals, Talladega keyed on Stukes and he scored only eight in a 76-59 win.
But in the finals, Stukes shined again.He had a team-high 24 points in the victory.
Stukes iced the game by making four straight free throws in the final two minutes of the three-minute overtime. That gave Austin a 69-64 lead with 29 seconds left, and a late Wenonah basket accounted for the final margin.
“The Decatur community supported us and gave us a lot,”Stukes said. “And for us to win the state championship, we were able to give something back. There’s never been a feeling like it.”
Stukes went on to play college ball at Alabama Christian Junior College and then Auburn-Montgomery. He later earned a master’s at North Alabama.
After a couple of years coaching high schools, Stukes became an assistant at UNA in 1980. That first year, the school won the Gulf South Conference crown and moved to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.
After stops at Columbus State and LSU, where he coached golf, he joined Auburn’s basketball staff in 1985. That team was loaded with the likes for future NBA stars Chris Morris and Chuck Person.
“Person was the hardest working basketball player I was ever around,” Stukes said. “He worked hard everyday in practice and in the games. He had that drive to be the best.”
After stops with Valdosta State, the UAB women and the Auburn women, Stukes joined the WNBA Orlando Miracle as an assistant coach.
He later moved to advance scout positions with the NBA’s Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards before leaving the profession in 2005.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out that great players make coaches look good,” Stukes said. “You can be the best coach in the world, but if you don’t have the talent on the floor, you are going to struggle to win.”
He pointed to the NBA coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson as classic examples.
“When those guys have players like Michael (Jordan), Magic (Johnson) and Shaq (O’Neal), it’s easier to win championships,” he said.
Stukes said the game has changed in his years as a coach and scout.
“No doubt, the guys are bigger, stronger, faster, and the television exposure and money now is incredible,” he said. “TV and Sports Centers have really disillusioned a lot of kids. They come into college thinking about getting to the NBA. The kids need to realize 99 percent of the players don’t even get invited to an NBA camp.”
He said he wouldn’t trade his memories for anything and hasn’t closed the door to going back into the basketball profession, but says the traveling he does now is with his wife, Beth.
“In three seasons as an NBA scout, I saw 340 games,” Stukes said. “That’s a lot of traveling, a lot of airports and a lot of time away from home.”
But he added that on all those trips to all those games, he realized it was his early introduction to basketball from his sixth-grade teacher at Gordon-Bibb Elementary, J.O. Mitchell, to Joe Jones and high school teammates like Billy Sandifer made it a successful career for him.
“Spending three years with Coach Jones and my teammates at Austin continues to pay off,” Stukes said. “Coach talked basketball with us, all the time and he made us all into successful individuals. He taught us a lot of lessons. Being successful gave us confidence to accomplish things in life. ”
Today, when Stukes isn’t spending time with his clinic or time with his wife, he tries to keep his golf game sharp. He won the 1979 Alabama State Left-Handed Golf Championship.
Carrying a 2-handicap card in his golf bag, Stukes said he follows Phil Mickelson’s game partially because he’s a lefty.
“It’s good to see Phil rival Tiger (Woods),” Stukes said. “But Tiger is the best out there right now, and before he’s finished, he may be the best of all time.”
Stukes will be inducted into the county sports hall of fame Saturday.
“It’s a great honor for me to even be mentioned in the same circles of some of the folks who are in that hall,” Stukes said.
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