This is the third in a series of profiles of the members of the Class of 2010 for the Chattahoochee Valley Hall of Fame. Coming Friday: Ben Hardaway III.
Dan Kirkland Jr. would walk through his yard to the property line and scale his neighbors’ fence to get in their back yard, where he would play basketball with a childhood friend. The two would play for hours, pounding to dust the grass around the basket. It was the 1950s, and there wasn’t much else for a boy to do in Columbus.
When he was older, he would head to nearby parks, but the rims there did not have the nets. That meant there was no swoosh with each successful bucket, a sound that gave snipers such as Kirkland so much satisfaction. So it was on to the YMCA, where his youth rec-league teams ruled the state for three years.
And in that neighborhood surrounding Jordan High where Kirkland lived was a legion of other competitive boys, each giving the other a go at whatever sport happened to be in season that day, every day, year-round.
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Kirkland would go on to be the most prolific of them on the basketball court, posting 2,236 points in 104 games as a four-year starter at Columbus High to become the Bi-City’s all-time leading scorer and a Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City selection as a basketball and baseball player.
Dan Trotter, Kirkland’s friend since childhood, said the prep star’s success was particularly meaningful as Columbus’ high schools were full of college-level talent in that era, and their neighborhood was chocked full of skilled players in every sport.
“One thing Dan would attest to is that at that age he had an opportunity in our neighborhood and in school to compete against some very good athletes every day,” Trotter said. “Dan was obviously the finest athlete to come out of the area at the time, but at the same time we weren’t chopped liver, either, so that tells you something.”
More than four decades after he last played for Columbus, several knee surgeries since his days as an Auburn player and 20 years since he last coached high school basketball, Kirkland, 59, is being honored by the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame. He is among five people being inducted Saturday.
Desegregation had rolled through the area in 1964, but it was not until Kirkland’s junior season in 1968 that the county’s traditionally black schools, Spencer and Carver, played the traditionally white schools, such as Columbus.
Kirkland said those games, which were often played in front of as many as 3,000 people at what was the Municipal Auditorium, where the Columbus Civic Center now stands, were the most important of his athletic career. The racial tensions led to conflicts between fans, but the players enjoyed a great epiphany on the court.
“We were kids, so all we really cared about was sports,” Kirkland said. “When we could play Carver and Spencer, it opened up the talent in the area. There were so many good players we could never play against before that. It just made everything so much more competitive, and that just made everyone play harder, too.
“It was the highest point talent-wise in basketball in Columbus’ history.”
It was during that junior season that Kirkland said he played the greatest game of his career. He scored 37 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in a region semifinal game against Carver. The Blue Devils lost, but Kirkland said he could not recall a game where there was more athletic prowess on display.
“That was one of those games you remember,” Kirkland said. “It was as intense as any I ever played in.”
High school star
There were plenty of other games where Kirkland left his mark while at Columbus from 1965-69.
He started four years for the basketball team, averaged 16.4 points per game as a sophomore, 24.9 as a junior when he became Columbus’ all-time leading scorer and posted 33 points per game as a senior.
Kirkland described Joe Sparks, his coach at Columbus, as one of the few in town willing to play a run-and-gun style of basketball at a time when Auburn’s methodical style, dubbed the Auburn Shuffle, was popular with high school coaches throughout the area. With the liberty to shoot when he wanted, the 6-foot-4 center had games of 40, 41, 42, 43, 47, 57 and 61 points as a senior — all before the 3-point line existed.
Columbus had plenty of other scorers in those years, but few could steal the show or seal a game the way Kirkland could, Columbus teammate Speedy Gilstrap said.
“I remember one night I scored 33 points and I was just ecstatic,” Gilstrap said. “Then I realize Dan outscored me by 24 and had 57 points.”
Trotter, a former Jordan player a year ahead of Kirkland, said going up against those Kirkland-led Columbus teams was “no picnic.” Trotter went on to coach junior college basketball at Martin Methodist College in Tennessee for eight years and at Cleveland State in Ohio for three years. On all the recruiting trips he made, no other high school athlete quite compared to his old teammate.
“I saw a lot of great players, but there wasn’t another Dan Kirkland,” Trotter said. “He was as good a high school basketball player as I’d ever seen.”
Gilstrap, who spent a combined 17 years as a basketball coach at Brookstone and Spencer after graduating from Alabama as a college tennis star, said Kirkland’s feats were still unparalleled.
“For 44 years I’ve been involved in Columbus and Bi-City basketball, and I’ve been fortunate enough to coach three Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City Players of the Year,” Gilstrap said. “But I’ve never seen anyone who could run, jump and rebound in those 44 years like Dan could. He just ate up baskets.
“There’s never been another male basketball player whose done what he could do around here.”
If it weren’t for his basketball career, Kirkland might well be known in the area for the way he played baseball. He pitched and played infield for Columbus, and he was a three-time Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City selection.
Kirkland was 5-3 pitching and batted .368 for Columbus as a senior, when he added 20 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. As a junior, he was 4-2 and pitched a one-hitter against Avondale that put Columbus into the state final against eventual champion Therrell.
College career cut short
As entertaining as Kirkland was even to his teammates, it was sometimes difficult to grasp just how good he was compared to other high school players across the country. Gilstrap said he realized just how big Kirkland’s fame was getting when he was invited to join Kirkland and Sparks on a recruiting trip to Auburn, which was hosting LSU and “Pistol” Pete Maravich that night.
“There we were watching Pistol Pete score 50-some points that night,” Gilstrap said. “We were sitting at halfcourt, right behind the cheerleaders with coach Sparks. I guess we knew Dan was special, but he was just my buddy. We played ball on Tuesdays and Fridays and hung out on Saturdays. We didn’t think it was any great thing. He was just a good basketball player.”
But plenty of others thought Kirkland was something far out of the ordinary. He was recruited by Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU. The Atlanta Journal rated him as the No. 4 player in the state as a junior and the top player as a senior, and he was one of the 15 Parade Magazine All-American selections in 1969.
Things were all but set for Kirkland to go to Georgia, where his father had been a star basketball and baseball player. But when Kirkland’s father, also named Dan, couldn’t afford to pay for his son to make a visit to Georgia and the school refused to front the money rather than reimburse the family, the Kirklands soured on the Bulldogs. And just about that time, everyone else pounced, including an Auburn assistant named Larry Chapman, who is now the head coach at Auburn-Montgomery.
“I really liked Larry a lot,” Kirkland said. “I became very good friends with him, and really I ended up going to school there because of him.”
Auburn’s slow style of play did not immediately seem like a good fit for Kirkland’s shoot-first style, but he averaged 23 points and was named a freshman All-American while playing for the all-freshman Baby Tigers. Then Kirkland tore the ACL in his left knee that season and had surgery that limited much of his abilities.
He scored fewer points but was even more efficient as a sophomore, averaging about 13 points on seven shots per game, and he never could find the same scoring touch he had as a freshman, even through his senior season. He wasn’t alone in his plight, either.
Many of Kirkland’s teammates suffered similar injuries, something they commonly attributed to playing on a polyurethane court at Auburn. The surface was too rubbery, Kirkland said, and the injuries were rampant.
“The Auburn experience was very disappointing — for them and me,” Kirkland said. “We had a top-five recruiting class the year I went in, and every one of us had some kind of knee problem by the time we were done.”
As he did in Columbus, Kirkland also played baseball at Auburn, but his performance was limited by his knee injury. He lettered two years but never was fit enough to play in a regular-season game.
Coaching at home
Kirkland had no shortage of inspiration at home. His parents were star athletes in high school. His father had so much ambition and found so much success that Kirkland’s cousin, Larry Kirkland, has feverishly lobbied the Hall of Fame for his induction.
Kirkland’s father won the 1937 Southeastern Amateur Golf Tournament at age 15; was a Columbus High basketball star in his own right; was the University of Georgia’s first scholarship basketball player and was the captain of the basketball and baseball teams there; was a professional basketball player in the Professional Basketball League and a minor league baseball player in the Yankees’ organization; and at the age of 21 became the principal and basketball coach at Hogansville High School. It was at Hogansville that he met his future wife, Freddy, who also was an accomplished high school basketball player. In 2008, she was inducted into the Hogansville High School Sports Hall of Fame along with her twin sister, Betty Smith.
“My daddy was a coach at school and a coach at home,” Kirkland said. “He made sure I was playing to my best at whatever I was doing. He wasn’t going to let me do something halfway.”
Another coach, Dan Trotter Sr., made an equally big impression on the young Kirkland. The elder Trotter coached the YMCA team Kirkland and his own son played on, taking the group of 8-, 9- and 10-year-old basketball players to three straight state championships.
“(Trotter) was my first basketball coach, and he was also my best,” Kirkland said. “He really taught us the fundamentals: how to shoot, how to rebound, how to pass the ball right. We were 8, and he made sure we were playing the game right.”
With the impact coaches made on Kirkland, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to get into it himself. He coached at what was then Chevala High School in Russell County and then Glenwood, spending just a few years at each before he retired in the early 1990s. While he enjoyed the coaching, he found being a teacher less suited to his talents, and he decided he had spent enough time on basketball.
“I’d just been running basketball teams since I was 8 years old,” Kirkland said. “To tell you the truth, I just got tired of it.”
The back nine
After his retirement from coaching, Kirkland mostly stepped away from prep sports. He said he hasn’t been to a high school basketball game in about 20 years.
He lives and works on a farm in Seale, Ala., once owned by his uncle Tobe. He and his wife of 34 years, Twila, have three grown children. Each of them, daughters Sally and Annie and son Dan, have had their athletic successes that include a golf scholarship to Vanderbilt for Annie and an individual state golf title won by Dan while he was a student at Glenwood.
Kirkland stays busy tending to the cattle, but he always finds time to play golf.
Gilstrap is one of his regular partners on the area’s courses, and Kirkland is often on the links, chasing the course records his father owned decades ago.
His competitive nature and sharp wit have given him a popular if not sometimes infamous reputation in the clubhouses.
“We used to go have games at Bull Creek, and there would be 15 or 20 or 25 guys who would show up to play golf, and I’ve seen guys leave because they couldn’t get into Dan’s group,” Gilstrap said. “And then I’ve seen guys leave because they didn’t want to be paired with him because Dan could bring the needle out and get on someone as well as anybody.
“… That’s just Dan — if he can’t beat you, he’ll at least have some fun with you.”