During the winter Coach Brewer had his football players — the ones who weren’t playing basketball — lifting weights, wrestling and playing handball. Our “handball courts” were defined by strips of masking tape on the gym floor. We would swat a racquetball against the concrete block walls of the gym. Good for eye-hand coordination and quickness, he told us. Most of the time, though, we goofed off.
The few football players who played basketball lived, at least for the winter, in a separate universe, one ruled by J.D. “Tuffy” Bourland.
Sometime around Christmas our junior year we were milling around the gym when Bourland came in with a tall, lanky kid we’d never seen — in those days 6’2″ was tall. He was dressed out in his basketball togs including the shoe of choice, Converse All-Stars. Black and low-cut, like those worn by “Pistol Pete” Maravich.
We stopped what we were doing to watch. With all the self-assurance in the world, the stranger dribbled to the top of the key and shot. The ball was all swoosh, no backboard, no rim. Over and over he did it from all over the court. He looked like he might have been born on a basketball court.
Skip Hershfelt’s father had been transferred here from St. Louis to work at what was then American Bosch. He’d moved around a lot. Basketball was the one constant in his life.
“I know my wife is sick of hearing about it, but I’ve been telling her about Coach Bourland for 30 years,” Hershfelt said from his home in Amelia Island, Fla., Friday.
Bourland died a week ago Friday. He was 81.
“He didn’t have to scream at you. He was one of those guys you just wanted to do well for,” he said. “I don’t know what it was. He was a fantastic coach.”
For Hershfelt, though, (we called him “Hersh”) it wasn’t love at first sight.
“Oh shit, this is going to hurt,” he said to himself upon meeting Bourland. “He had that cigar stub and didn’t always have the nicest look on his face.”
Tuffy Bourland was different from the other coaches. Gruff, yet avuncular. He was a solid presence, not a hothead for whom winning the next game was the most important thing in life.
Bourland’s interest in his players extended beyond the basketball court. Hersh had a reputation as a rounder.
“He was concerned about my extracurricular activities,” Hershfelt remembered. “About 30 minutes after practice, he would call at home. My dad or stepmom would answer the phone. ‘Coach Bourland wants to make sure you are here,’ they would yell. ‘Yeah, I’m here.'”
Hershfelt’s senior year the Lee High Generals were the best team in the northern half of the state and third in Mississippi. Jimmy “Big Jim” Coleman (6’5″) played on that team.
Coleman’s feelings for Bourland mirror Hershfelt’s.
“One of the finest men I ever met in my life,” Coleman says without hesitation.
Retired from OK Tire, Coleman lives in the Molloy community just across the Alabama line. He had a heart attack a few years ago and says he’s busy trying to see as much of the world he can while he’s able. That, and “watching the grass grow.”
“My mother raised me and my sisters,” said Coleman. “I didn’t have a dad to speak of. When report cards came out Tuffy would get my grades before I did.”
On the way to a state tournament in Jackson, Bourland noticed the pitiful condition of Coleman’s shoes.
“My mom couldn’t afford to buy me new shoes; I had stuffed cardboard in the bottoms of ’em,” Coleman recalls. “When we got to the motel he told Coach (Evans) Page to keep an eye on everyone, that he and I needed to go somewhere.
“He took me to downtown Jackson and bought me a new pair of shoes. He told me, ‘We’re not going to tell anybody about this.’ It was years later before I did.”
A kid doesn’t forget that kind of kindness. Not ever.
“You played your heart out every ball game,” Coleman said.
He was one of these guys you only knew for a little while who made a huge impression on your life, Hershfelt said.
Clearly, J.D. Tuffy Bourland had a powerful influence on the lives of these two men. It’s a safe bet they’re not the only ones.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.