By Trey Williams
Leroy Fisher’s bitter-ending basketball career at East Tennessee State started with a Sweet 16.
Fisher, who died on April 11, was a senior co-captain on the ETSU team that beat Dave Cowens-led Florida State to advance to the Sweet 16 in 1968.
Less than eight years later, in late January, he resigned – effective at season’s end – as the Buccaneers’ third-year head coach.
Science Hill Hall of Famer Charlie Stuart scored 1,217 points at ETSU. He was a freshman during Fisher’s first season.
“Even though we were only about 12 or 13 years difference, he was like the dad I never had,” Stuart said Monday night. “From the time I walked in as a freshman at ETSU, he welcomed me. He sat me down and he talked to me and he mentored me all through that (freshman season in college).”
Stuart talked to Fisher, who was living in Killeen, Texas, in early March.
“We had a long conversation and he sounded like he had a cold or something,” Stuart said. “We always kept in touch. He was my bouncing board. Whenever I had issues he would listen to my joys and pains. Coach probably saved me a lot of money in therapy. I trusted him. He was very loyal. He was the best friend I’ve ever had. Coach was always there for me. He always returned my calls, always called to check on me.
“It was weird because we usually had conversations that’d last 10-15 minutes to catch up, and this last conversation we had we talked for over an hour. And I felt like he wanted to talk more, but I had to go because I had to do some work. I feel bad about that now. I wish I had extended that. But he didn’t mention anything to me about being sick.”
ETSU’s Sweet 16 team had two starters from Dobyns-Bennett – the 6-foot-5 Fisher (13.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and 6-foot-4 lead guard Richard Arnold (9.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) – as well as athletic, long-armed 6-foot-7 sixth man Worley Ward (4.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg), a menace in a zone defense. Fisher was an excellent defender too, often guarding opponents’ top guard while at ETSU.
D-B finished third in the state under first-year coach Bob DeVault in 1963 when Earl Lovelace and Ward were seniors and Fisher and Arnold were juniors. The Indians got beat in the state tournament in the Sweet 16 in ’64 with Arnold and Fisher. Both tournaments were at Vanderbilt.
Highlights of 1962-63 season included ending Steve Spurrier’s basketball career at Science Hill. Spurrier was first team All-State that season. Lovelace was third team All-State. But the Indians eliminated Elvin Little’s Hilltoppers (32-30), who had swept D-B during the regular season.
“We beat them in the regional to go to the state tournament,” Fisher said. “Elvin remembers that. Steve remembers that. Choo Tipton, I think it was, intercepted a pass and went down and was gonna lay it in and Richard came from behind and blocked it off the board. It was probably goal-tending the way he did it, but they didn’t call it back then. That would’ve been a big play.”
A 1-3-1 zone helped the Indians against Spurrier.
“I believe Steve hit his first two shots,” Fisher said. “They were setting back-screens on the wings. They picked me once. And Worley was on the other side. He picked Worley and Steve came off that thing and shot and hit it – two points. And then came down and back-picked me and he took, like, two dribbles off that back-pick and hit another one.
“And he came down and they did it on me again – and I saw it coming and I turned on the inside – I knew Steve was gonna shoot it – and I just turned knocked it up in the stands. They took it out and went to the other side and did the same thing, and Worley blocked it. And Steve didn’t do much more the rest of the game.
“Steve was a great high school player. Now, he wasn’t quick, he couldn’t jump, he wasn’t fast – just like he was in football. But he was so smart and a good shooter. He would’ve been a good college player, I think.”
Fisher was switched to small forward at ETSU with the arrival of Harley “Skeeter” Swift, who was a year behind Fisher. Swift and Fisher weren’t best buddies, a relationship that probably wasn’t aided by Fisher getting decked by Murray State big man Dick Cunningham after Swift bloodied Don Funneman’s nose.
“They had a guard, Don Funneman, who’d been in the Marine Corps,” said Mike Kretzer, ETSU’s second-leading scorer in ’68. “And I tell you what, Sweeter plunked him dead in the mouth. Right at the open, they throw him the ball, he goes up to shoot and Skeeter hit him right dead in the mouth – in the first seconds of the game. Skeeter whacked him right in the face.
“Apparently the year before this guy was so intense – he was like 6-2, 195 and he was very strong, just had no fat on him, you know, a tough guy from the Marine Corps, and they said he gave Skeeter a whipping. That ball went up and bam, that guy was bleeding. Skeeterjust popped him.”
Cunningham, who went on to back up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee, was called on to retaliate by Murray State coach Cal Luther, and Fisher was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Funneman comes running down the floor on a fast break and Skeeter tried to take a charge and tackled him,” Arnold said years later. “And they went rolling. Luther went crazy. He calls timeout and he gets over there and he grabs Cunningham – in those days we sat under the basket, so we were right next to each other and you could hear each other talking. And Luther’s over there screaming at Cunningham: ‘Dick, you gonna let ‘em get away with that? You gonna let ‘em get away with that? You get out there and do something!’ And poor Leroy took the next shot and Cunningham put him in the stands.”
Added Fisher: “On a fly.”
Fisher was bounced about as unceremoniously at ETSU, where being the second-youngest coach in the country and playing schedules that included multiple games with Nos. 5 and 9 North Carolina (Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak) and schedules that included No. 2 Maryland (Brad Davis, John Lucas), Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida helped cause him to compile a 23-52 record while succeeding his mentor, Madison Brooks.
Stuart said Fisher, along with assistant Ernie Sims, another on that ETSU Sweet 16 team, could’ve righted the Buccaneers ship.
“Leroy and Ernie weren’t looking for high praise,” Stuart said. “They weren’t looking for press. They weren’t looking to get another job or go somewhere else. They were looking to work at their alma mater and make it the best it could be. … They played some tough schedules, and the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) was tough.”
Fisher was a success, Stuart said, regardless of what his win-loss record might suggest.
“Leroy was more than a basketball player,” Stuart said. “He was more than a teacher, coach. He was way more than that. He was an honest-to-God decent man.”