Thursday, May 30, 2024

The amazing story of basketball legend Henry Lee Logan

By Jim Hughes

If there were any justice, Henry Lee Logan would already be in the National Basketball Hall of Fame. As it is, he’ll have to wait a while longer to take his rightful place in the pantheon of the game’s greatest players.

There are three main reasons Henry Logan deserves this honor. First, the North Carolina native’s performance on the court. Second, his role in breaking the chains of Jim Crow and opening the doors for generations of African American players. Third, for what he overcame after he left the game behind.

Henry Logan’s on-court performance is worthy of the Hall of Fame. To this day he is the only college player with career totals of more than 3,200 points and 1,000 assists. He averaged more than 36 points a game his senior year, more than 30 during his four-year career at Western Carolina in Cullowhee. He was a four-time NAIA All-American and started on the gold medal-winning team at the 1967 Pan-American Games. He was the fifth pick in the 1968 American Basketball Association draft and helped the Oakland Oaks win the 1969 ABA championship.

Logan was destined for a long career of professional stardom. But early in his second season he blew out his knee and never played another game.

He was known as “The Little Guy Who Could Fly.” Barely 6 feet tall, Logan possessed unearthly jumping ability. He could perform a 360-degree dunk from a standing start. He was a transcendent talent with all the tools – a prolific scorer, passer and ballhandler. NBA great Rick Barry – his teammate on the Oakland Oaks – attests for his legendary ballhandling skills.

“Henry Logan was the best ballhandler I ever played with,” Barry says. “He and I did a clinic for some Bay Area junior high kids, and Henry took out a blindfold, put it on, and proceeded to dribble up and down the court, at full speed, going behind his back and between his legs. I never saw anything like it, before or since.”

What really set him apart was the way he played the game. He was an original, a good 10 years ahead of his time. He was doing things in 1964 that had not been seen before, at least not in the world most white people knew about. He was like a precursive version of Dr. J or David Thompson. His style was a mixture of speed, power and grace. He was the master of the no-look pass, the cross-over dribble, the drop-step dunk. There was a sense of anticipation every time he touched the ball. You knew something extraordinary was about to happen, you just didn’t know what. A lot of times he didn’t either. He’d just make it up on the fly, using his otherworldly hang time, body control and court vision.

By itself, Henry Logan’s play is more than enough justification for the Hall of Fame. But of equal importance was the role he played in bringing down Jim Crow and changing the whole face of the game. He was the Jackie Robinson of college basketball in the South, the first black player to earn a scholarship to a previously segregated Southern college. He led the march for the generation of black players who followed him, freeing coaches across the South from the absurd strictures of Jim Crow and giving them license to integrate their previously all-white programs.

The year after Henry came to Western, two more North Carolina colleges recruited black players — Dwight Durante at Catawba College and Gene Littles at High Point College. A year after that, Dean Smith brought Charles Scott to UNC Chapel Hill. After that, the door swung wide open – David Thompson, Phil Ford, Walter Davis, James Worthy, Gilbert McGregor, Cedric Maxwell, Lloyd Free, M.L. Carr and more. By 1982, when Michael Jordan arrived at Chapel Hill, Jim Crow was down for the count. And it all began with Henry Logan.

The third reason Henry Logan deserves a place in the Hall of Fame is the inspiring story of how he overcame the challenges he faced after he left the game. No one was more unequipped for life after basketball. To start with, Logan had managed to go through high school and college without ever learning how to read. He did a good job of faking it, but it was always his secret shame.

On top of that, he had developed a serious drinking problem, especially after the knee injury that sidelined him for good. When the guaranteed money ran out in 1971, he came back to his hometown of Asheville to look for a job. He wanted to coach. But without a college degree, that was out of the question. Everywhere he applied, the answer was the same. Without basketball, he was an illiterate man with a drinking problem.

Finally, on June 6, 1978, Logan had enough. He went to the liquor store in Black Mountain that morning and bought two fifths of scotch. Not the cheap stuff either. Johnny Walker Black. He didn’t see the need to economize. He drove to his drug dealer’s house and got a dozen Red Devils and an assortment of other downers. He went back to his little rental house at the foot of Black Mountain, ate the downers, guzzled the scotch and laid down on his couch to die.

Logan woke up on the floor the next morning with the worst hangover of his life. He’d been out for a full 24 hours. He thought he was in the corner of hell where the bells never stop ringing. He finally realized he was still alive and his phone was ringing. He wanted to ignore it but it was making his head hurt and he had to make it stop.

“Henry Logan, this is Pastor Harold Aday with the Swannanoa Assembly of God. We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a couple of weeks. We’re building a gym and we want you to come run our outreach program for the young people of this community.”

Henry told the minister that he didn’t think that was such a good idea. “I just tried to kill myself,” he said. The minister said he’d be right over. They prayed together and Logan accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. He joined Aday’s church and took the job as youth outreach director. He prayed every day he could learn to read so he could read the Bible and not have it read to him. It took two years of hard work and study, but his prayers were finally answered. At the age of 35, Henry Logan learned to read.

He struggled for the next 14 years, with periods of sobriety interspersed with increasingly insane drinking sprees. Periodically he would end up on the streets of Asheville, panhandling tourists, drinking with the hard-core winos and doing the street drug Bam. It seemed like every time he went on a bender, a minister named William Robertson, a class behind him at Stephens-Lee High School in Asheville, would find him. “God’s got work for you to do, Henry Logan,” Pastor Robertson would say. Finally, Henry gave up and started attending Robertson’s church, Faith Tabernacle Christian Center.

That was in 1992. Logan has been clean and sober ever since. He got a job in an automotive equipment plant. He and his wife Barbara rebuilt their marriage and are still together after more than 30 years. Western Carolina finally included him in its Hall of Fame after three decades of ignoring the man who still holds most of its all-time basketball records. In 2000, he was inducted in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Today, Logan spends much of his time speaking to youth groups and spreading the word of hope and recovery. He leaves nothing out of his story, the bad choices he made as a young man, the shame and sadness he went through, the long road back to God. He is finally at peace with himself, free of the demons that haunted him, complete and comfortable and content in his own skin.

For his accomplishments as a player, as a civil rights pioneer and as an inspiring figure of redemption, Henry Lee Logan is deserving of a place in the National Basketball Hall of Fame.

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