For Southern University Carl Stewart, it was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the right time.
For Lionel Garrett, it could not have worked out better.
“It’s really a good story, what actually happened,” Garrett said with a laugh. “Coach Stewart, rest his soul, came to Ohio and was looking for Colonel White to visit with Robert Patterson.
“But he ended up at Fairview – it was the wrong school, but it was my high school. And as the principal and the guidance counselor were leading him through the halls, telling him how to get to Colonel White, he saw me and said:
“’Well, who’s that kid?’
“And they were like ‘You don’t know him?’”
Garrett – then 6-foot-7 and on his way to 6-9 – was the senior star of the Fairview team, averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds a game in that 1974-75 season.
“They called me into the office to meet Coach Stewart and that’s when I told him about Frankie Sanders over at Stivers and how he was playing in the state championship game,” Garrett said. “He was there for Uncle Bob, that’s what we called Patterson, but he ended up getting all three of us to come down for a visit.
“I’d moved to Dayton from California before my sophomore year (his dad was in the Air Force) and I didn’t know anything about HBCUs (Historically Black College & University). But Southern had a beautiful campus. It was the largest black school in the nation. They were moving to Division I and had a new arena and … they had all those beautiful girls!”
Before he left for the school in Baton Rouge, La., Garrett said a friend who later become his agent gave him some advice:
“He said ‘You’re a rebounder. If you go there and really rebound, you’ll be seen. You’ll go places.’”
The guy was right and today the 62-year-old Garret is in his 45th year of a hoops odyssey that landed him in the NCAA record books and the Southern Hall of Fame.
It took him to the San Diego Clippers of the NBA and a pro team in Spain.
He travelled the world as a Harlem Globetrotter, living a month of the year in London, becoming friends with the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman and being featured in the New York Times.
After his playing days – which also included a stint with the Ohio Mixers of the Continental Basketball Association – he embarked on a coaching career that took him to Miles College and Talladega College, both HBCUs, then to various pro teams in the Word Basketball Association and American Basketball Association.
He coached teams in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Cyprus, started his own personal training program for players from high school through the pro ranks (www.rebounddr.net) and this March the Varsity Club here in Dayton is honoring him and other Fairview athletes as part of its ongoing monthly venture to celebrate the successes of athletes and others from the Dayton Public Schools.
For the past three years Garrett has coached at Wilberforce University, the past two years as an assistant to Derek Williams with the women’s team.
At practices, while Garrett towers over the Bulldogs players, few of them know the lofty heights he has attained in his career.
“Naah, to them that doesn’t matter,” Garrett laughed. “I’m just the older guy who coaches them.”
That’s not quite true said 5-foot-3 guard Nia McCormick, the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons:
“I know he played basketball, with the Globetrotters I think. I think he was pretty good.”
Garrett became a rebounding machine at Southern. In his senior season, he averaged 15.5 boards a game, third best in the nation behind Monti Davis of Tennessee State (16.2) and San Francisco’s Bill Cartwright (15.7). Indiana State’s Larry Bird finished behind him at 14.9.
The Clippers drafted Garrett in the fourth round in 1979 and it looked as if he’d make the team until it became evident that Bill Walton, whom the team had acquired from Portland for several veterans, would be sidelined by ongoing foot injures.
“Gene Shue was the coach and said he had to get some veteran players in there, so they brought in guys like Marvin Barnes and Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad,” Garrett said.
As they were releasing him, he said they told him not to worry, that he’d have a job, but he didn’t listen: “I was hurt and just wanted to go home.”
When he returned to Dayton, he said his dad – Lionel Sr. – had an urgent message when he picked him up at the Dayton airport:
“He said ‘Here’s 25 cents, call your coach (Stewart) right now,” Garret remembered. “Coach told me to get ahold of my agent and when I did he told me to come back to Los Angeles immediately. He said I was going to be a Harlem Globetrotter.
Garrett initially balked: “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about spinning the ball on my head.’ And my agent said ‘You don’t have to. Everybody has a role and they want you to rebound.”
Surviving a tryout where 60 players competed for five spots, Garrett joined the national team which he said toured all the larger cities in North America and the major cities in Europe. The international team played smaller towns and South America.
While surrounded by showmen like Curly Neal an Geese Ausbie, Garret was – as the New York Times headline his tale – “The Youngest Globetrotter.”
“I’d play the second and third quarters and just go at it on the court with the (Washington) Generals as Geese put on a show in the stands,” he said.
“I had one show piece – it was called the Dipsey Doo – and it would end the third quarter. They’d be doing the weave and then one player would go in for what looked like a layup, but he’d toss the ball up in the air. A second and a third guy would follow and tip it up more and then I’d fly in from anywhere and dunk it.”
As for his friendship with Wyman, they appeared on a radio show together and soon after the Rolling Stones bassist was sending a car to pick Garrett up after games and taking him to functions with Stephen Stills and others.
Garrett was embraced while coaching in Saudi Arabia, as well, but in quite a different manner.
“Single women and single men cannot mingle together there, so if the women couldn’t come to our games, the guys didn’t either,” he said. “We played in a big arena, but might only have 20 people in the stands.
“But when Magic Dorsey (the lone American on the roster) and I went to the grocery store or any place else, even the women would whisper, ’Hello Coach. Hello Magic. ‘
“We couldn’t figure it out until we realized all the games were being televised and everybody knew who we were.”
‘Love of the game’
He returned to the Dayton area a few years ago and was able to spend time with his father, who died last March at age 82.
Although Wilberforce has a small enrollment and a limited budget, his job with the Bulldogs taps into some of the same things that drove him when he was playing professionally in places like Madison Square Garden and the Wembley Stadium arena.
“The size of the gym or the crowd doesn’t matter as much as the love of the game,” he said. “And now I hope I can share some of my experiences,, some of the things I’ve learned, with our team.”
Last season – with Williams’ leadership and Garrett’s help – the Wilberforce women qualified for their first ever NAIA postseason tournament. This season the 9-7 Bulldogs are fourth among NAIA independents and the top three get bids.
Like Williams, Garrett thinks thy have a good chance: “The big thing with them was to get them to understand that you can dream and you can become your dreams.”
After last season, he said they understand that.
Once again Lionel Garrett seems to be in the right place at the right time.
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