All Claude English wanted was to play basketball at Madison Square Garden.
The glitz, the glamor, the fame, it looked like heaven compared to the sandlots outside his home in Phenix City’s Frederick Douglas apartment complex.
“At that time, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, that area was the Mecca of basketball,” English said. “I always had this dream of getting to play in Madison Square Garden. I thought about that all the time.”
That dream eventually carried English to the famed arena, and it didn’t stop there. It took him from Phenix City to Dallas, from Rhode Island to Rwanda, and most recently, into this year’s Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame induction class, which will be honored tonight at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center.
The rest of the 2011 class includes Wendell Barr, Joe Harrell, Dr. Champ Baker Jr. and Ron Yarbrough.
English spent many long days as a child watching older boys play sports around the neighborhood. It was there that he said he first developed his competitive streak.
“I think the key thing was the older players,” English, now 64, said. “I saw how hard they played. You couldn’t afford to mess around because, if you lost your first game, you may not get to go back out on the court again for an hour or two. It made you want to learn how to really play, and I learned how to enjoy competing in anything and everything.”
He began playing on his first team as a sixth-grader at Susie E. Allen Elementary, and after a very brief stop at Carver in which he and other young players were cut from the team minutes into tryouts, he spent the rest of his high school career playing at South Girard.
English saw significant playing time as a freshman, and was an experienced, starting 6-foot-4 center nicknamed Snowflake for how softly he came down from the basket by his sophomore season.
“We had a fairly mature senior team in Claude’s sophomore year, but they learned he had a lot of abilities and pushed him to the limits, and he always responded,” former South Girard coach James Patrick said. “As he matured, his leadership grew through his junior and senior years. He became a person who just took charge and made you feel that nothing was impossible in regards to where we could go or our win-loss record.”
English led South Girard to the state semifinals as a junior, and he pushed a talented group of seniors every harder the following year, winning the 1966 Alabama Interscholastic Athletic Association Class AA state championship for black schools and earning a berth in a black high school national tournament.
“If you played tiddlywinks, Claude wanted to win,” Amos Herren, a member of the South Girard title team, said. “Every practice session, even when Coach Patrick wasn’t around, the practice went on as though Coach was there because Claude was such a good leader. He was the driving force behind that team.”
The 1966 team finished 49-4, and that senior class produced several other college players in Herren (Alabama A&M), Sammy Sims (Villanova), David Whittaker (Albany State) and Eugene White (Alabama A&M), and junior starter Otis Ray went on to play for Lincoln University.
Even among that lineup, English was often the star.
“I think Claude was probably the best high school player I have ever seen or ever played against,” Patrick said. “I’d surmise that if you asked many of the players at that time, they will still say they haven’t seen anyone come through Columbus yet who could play at the level Claude was at in high school.”
While Patrick said the potential of English and his 1965-66 teammates felt unlimited, that was not the case at the next level as the racial attitudes of the time limited where they could play in college.
During English’s recruitment, there had never been a black player in the Southeastern Conference. That wouldn’t happen until the 1966-67 season when Perry Wallace played at Vanderbilt.
“Unfortunately, we were not in the era where all the big colleges were recruiting black athletes,” Patrick said. “If we did, Claude would have had a chance to go where ever he desired because he played to the level of the most sought-after athletes in the country.”
English decided he would have to travel. And if reaching Madison Square Garden meant leaving the Southeast, then he made his mind up that it was what he would do.
“We lived in the time of segregation, and so I knew that if I wanted to play Division I basketball, I was going to have to leave the area,” English said. “Now I look back on it and I’m a little envious of the guys at Auburn, Alabama and Georgia. They get to play for SEC programs, but that just wasn’t the case in ’66.”
English signed with North Texas State, then a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, with hopes of playing basketball and football. But the team asked him to first play two seasons of basketball at Christian College of the Southwest just outside of Dallas.
By the time English was done there, averaging 21 points and 22 rebounds a game as a sophomore, he once again had the East Coast in his sights and signed with Rhode Island.
“If you wanted to make it in basketball at the time, I had it in my mind that you had to be there,” English said.
From RIU to the NBA
With Rhode Island, English finally made it to Madison Square Garden. It was a memorable experience, but a bit underwhelming.
“Well, let’s put it this way: it wasn’t like as a child growing up when you’d see boxing matches there and it’s smoke-filled,” English said.
“It was a little bit different being there and actually playing, but still something very fun.”
English excelled at Rhode Island, averaging 13 points and 12 rebounds a game while battling a broken wrist as a sophomore and 19.5 points and 13 rebounds as as senior to earn all-conference, all-East and all-New England honors.
The expansion Portland Trail Blazers took English in the seventh round of the 1970 draft, and he played for only one season. English had suffered a knee injury during his senior season at Rhode Island and required an operation that put him at a disadvantage and forced him to sit out rookie camp.
“Reconstructive surgery in basketball was a death sentence at that time,” English said.
“But somehow I managed to get drafted when I thought I probably wouldn’t, and in six months was with the team. That was unheard of in that day to recover that quickly.”
But English was never back at full speed, and the Trailblazers cut him one year into his three-year contract. The Philadelphia 76ers picked him up off of waivers, though he never played in the NBA again.
By then, Rhode Island was calling again.
Start of a coaching career
English’s leadership abilities and his close relationships with his coaches, particularly Patrick and Rhode Island men’s basketball coach Jack Craft, left him with little doubt as to where his career would eventually take him.
“I knew I was going to coach,” English said. “I didn’t know whether it would be at Rhode Island or some other place, but I knew that was what I wanted to do because the way people touched me and what basketball did for me.”
Craft took on English as an assistant with the agreement that English could continue playing for the nearby Hartford Capitals of the Eastern Basketball Association.
“They let me get the playing out of my system,” said English, who played with Hartford for four years. “Most of (Rhode Island’s) games didn’t conflict with my playing, and so it worked out pretty well for everybody.”
For eight seasons English coached under Craft, eventually earning the role of associate head coach. Craft suffered a heart attack after the first game of the 1980-81 season, and English took over as interim head coach.
English led Rhode Island to a top-25 finish, a share of the conference championship and a berth in the NIT to earn Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year honors that year and the position as head coach.
Southern University men’s basketball coach Rob Spivery said English displayed the same tenacity as a coach he had when the two were teammates at South Girard.
“What made Claude such a good coach was his knowledge of the game, his understanding of the game and his dedication,” Spivery said. “He demanded a good work ethic, and he wanted everyone to be the kind of hard-working player he was at Rhode Island.”
Spivery, then a Southern Illinois assistant, met up with English at the 1981 NIT tournament and a few months later was an assistant at Rhode Island.
“I ended up being there only one year, but I learned a lot from Claude,” Spivery said.
“He knew how to conduct meetings, he knew how to deal with players and certain situations and he knew how get what he wanted out of people.”
Including his 28 games as the interim coach, English spent four seasons a the helm at Rhode Island, accumulating a 45-66 record before he said it felt like time to move on.
“I left Rhode Island, got married and moved to Baltimore,” English said. “I was out of basketball and looking for different things to do with my life.”
Parked at Park
It didn’t take English long to find something new, this time in Rwanda. He had planned to work with the country’s national team coaches but instead ended up working closely with the players and spending eight weeks in the sub-Saharan African republic.
“That experience really just gave me a different perspective on a lot of things,” English said. “I started to think differently about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.”
For at least a few years after that, English was able to stay away from coaching. He took a job as the director of educational services with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, promoting the newspaper as learning tools at schools. And a few friends got him involved in an ownership and executive role with the World Basketball Association’s Memphis Rockets, but he didn’t touch the court.
By 1992, he was again a head coach, this time at Park University in Parkville, Mo. He held that title for 13 seasons before retiring following the 2005 season and reached the 1997-98 NAIA Division I semifinals. He spent a decade of that time also serving as Park’s athletic director, a position he still holds and approaches with the same zeal he had on the court.
“I’m just a coach who coaches the coaches,” English said. “That’s the way I always see my job. “I want to motivate other people the way I’m motivated.”
Chris White, 706-571-8571