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College Basketball's Abe Lemons Dies at 79

Sept 3, 2002

By OWEN CANFIELD
AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Abe Lemons, the folksy college basketball coach who won 599 games and seemed to have a one-liner for any occasion, died at 79.

He died Monday at his home after a long illness, said his wife, Betty. Lemons had Parkinson's disease for several years and his health worsened after he fell and broke his hip in July.

Lemons was as well known for his humor as his coaching. He coached for 34 years in stops at Texas, Oklahoma City (twice) and Pan American. He retired in 1990, slowed by health problems.

"It wasn't the same," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I don't know whether you change or the game changes. They all want to play, but they don't want to put the effort into what you want to do."

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said his respect for Lemons grew as he watched him battle Parkinson's the last three or four years.

"I've never met anybody with a sense of humor like his," he said. "And I hate to sound like a cliche here, but as great a coach as he was, he was even a better person."

Texas Tech's Bob Knight remembered Lemons for his innovations and said Lemons was always worth listening to.

"All he said was, 'You got to give them the corner.' That was it," Knight recalled. "But if you think about it, there are numerous implications to that. The corner is the most difficult spot on the floor to escape. It's the most difficult shot on the floor, and it's the easiest place to trap the ball. He wasn't saying, 'Let them shoot it from the corner.' He was saying, 'Force the ball to the corner.' In just a few words, he made a very telling observation."

Lemons grew up in the southwestern Oklahoma town of Walters and was never at a loss for a wisecrack. After his center grabbed only one rebound in the first half of a game, Lemons told him, "That's one more rebound than a dead guy."

While at Oklahoma City, Lemons tried to recruit Johnny Bench, who was from the Oklahoma town of Binger.

"I told Bench once, `If you had come with me, you could be the principal of a high school by now."'

He once told broadcaster Howard Cosell, "You may be big in New York, but in Walters, Oklahoma, you're nobody."

Lemons' personality and up-tempo style of play revitalized basketball at Texas in the late 1970s. As interest soared, the Longhorns went 110-63 in six seasons, winning a share of two Southwest Conference titles. His firing as Longhorns' coach in 1982 stung Lemons for many years.

He finished his career by returning to Oklahoma City in 1983. He retired after the 1989-90 season with a record of 599-343. He lost by one point in his bid for victory No. 600.

Lemons was born Nov. 21, 1922. He played basketball at Southwestern Oklahoma State and at Oklahoma City before getting into coaching.

He enjoyed great success at Oklahoma City, where he began his career in 1955. Using a wide-open offense, he won more than 300 games in 18 seasons before moving to Pan American.

"On the court, he was all business," said Bud Koper, a star for Lemons in the early 1960s. "I think he was a man ahead of his time. They talk about people scoring a lot of points, but he was doing that years before the Billy Tubbses or any of them came along."

Lemons said he never had very many rules, and used a story about Koper to illustrate why.

On a road trip to SMU, Koper didn't show for the pregame meal. Lemons didn't say anything about it, and Koper scored 44 points in a victory.

"I asked Koper after the game why he didn't show up to eat and he told me he wasn't hungry," Lemons recalled. "If I had a rule that said you couldn't start or couldn't play if you missed the pregame meal, then we would have lost the game. Sometimes it's better not to have that many rules."

Lemons is survived by his wife, Betty Jo, daughters Dana and Jan and four grandchildren.

Services in Oklahoma City are pending.