Fallen Star ‘Goose’ Ligon is Looking for a Miracle, 1997

[One of my favorite working sports journalists today is Pat Forde at Sports Illustrated. From the “Forde-Yard Dash” to “Forde Minutes,” his tone is light, his eye keen, and his topics timely.  Forde has also published two basketball books. One was published with Rick Pitino titled Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0. The other is The Contract, subtitled The Journey of Jimmer Fredette from the Playground to the Pros. If you’re looking for some good summertime reading, check ’em out.

But before Forde made his mark on the national sports scene, he honed his reporting skills from 1987 to 2004 with the Louisville Courier-Journal. Among his many clips with the Courier-Journal is this memorable profile of James “Goose” Ligon, published on August 22, 1997. The Goose spent seven seasons scrapping in the ABA, most with the Kentucky Colonels, and then fell on hard times. As Forde later wrote of the assignment:

It was a wickedly hot summer day when I approached the cloudy-eyed man smoking a cigarette on a bench in the Iroquois Homes housing project. 

“Goose Ligon?” I asked. 

“Yes,” he said, smiling. 

I knew immediately that we were embarking on an extraordinary story—of how a popular former Kentucky Colonel came to be here on this bench, broke and going blind from glaucoma. His life story was the most harrowing, heartbreaking (and occasionally hilarious) tale I’ve ever heard first hand. 

Ligon passed away in 2004. But his memory lives on today for ABA buffs, thanks in part to Forde and this extraordinary story.]

Goose in 1997

Goose Ligon is broke and going blind. His glaucoma-ravaged eyes watch life fade to black from a bench in a bleak Louisville housing project, where he talks a lot about miracles. He crosses the long legs that used to glide gracefully across Freedom Hall. His socks sag around his ankles, and his left big toe pokes through a hole in his battered hightop Nikes.

The fanny pack around his waist holds a pack of Kools and a pair of gloves. Goose wears the gloves to mow grass around the Iroquois Homes project, charging a dollar or two per yard to supplement his disability checks.

When he’s done mowing, he retires to the bench in front of the community center. He sits and smokes, and searches with clouded vision for a divine bailout. “I just hope for some kind of miracle to get out of this death zone.” Cigarette smoke streams out the right side of his mouth, where a set of molars used to be. 

This death zone is where 53-year-old Goose landed after a quarter-century skid from sporting fame to society’s fringe. A generation ago, James “Goose” Ligon was the running, rebounding fan-favorite for the Kentucky Colonels. His luminous smile, expansive personality and nickname (bestowed by sportswriter when he was a teenager) made him popular beyond his talents. He latched onto seven years of pro basketball glory with the same tenacity he pulled down thousands of rebounds. 

He was a big-league player when Louisville was a big-league town. 

Those days were the apex of a mythic life littered with stories, scandalous and sad, hilarious and horrifying. In those days, Goose was golden, emancipated from a past he portrays through police beatings, prison time, and a near-lynching at the hands of white vigilantes. And when those days were over, Goose tumbled back down the mountain and crashed into a cocaine addiction that cost him everything but his family and his sanity. 

His most-valuable memorabilia from those days—uniforms, red-white-and-blue balls, and warmups—are all gone. But even as his glory years recede into history, people warmly recognize him almost every day as an Original Colonel. 

“It makes me feel like I must have done something good, for people to remember me,” Goose says. “But people stopped me and I get nervous. ‘Goose, what you been doing?’”

“Everyone has their own way of doing things. And mine has always been the hard way.”

Now, from his spot on the bench, Goose once again hears the echoes of those golden years—stirring up the old feelings, jarring loose the old memories. Three decades after its birth and 22 years after its death, the American Basketball Association is throwing a three-day reunion party this week in Indianapolis. 

But after the party is over, his future is the same. Goose is broke and going blind—with a wife, and eight-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter to clothe and feed. “Unless a miracle happens,” he says. 

He puffs more smoke into the stagnant air. There are no miracles happening today on the bench in Iroquois Homes.  

The street sign in the housing project says Oneida Avenue. But the gang-bangers call it Crenshaw Boulevard—named after the main drag in South-Central Los Angeles, part of which has fallen under the criminal hegemony of the Crips and Bloods. 

“I was out here one day with all red on,” Goose Ligon says from his bench. “Some Crips came by and said, ‘Goose, you better not have that red on next time we come back. We’ll have to do something about it.’ It’s ridiculous. 

“All these guys are walking around with 9 millimeters in their pockets. Every night you hear shooting down here—until the police started walking through here nine deep. I think that was the best thing they’ve ever done here. 

“I just don’t understand why young kids want to die. You’re 19, 20 years old. You ain’t even done no livin.’” 

Goose Ligon did a whole lot of livin’ as a young man. Most of it hard. 

The noose was around his neck before he knew what was happening. 

Goose at Kokomo High in 1962

Black of night in Kokomo, Indiana, the town that would drive out AIDS victim Ryan White a quarter-century later. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and civil rights marchers were beginning to transform the nation, but the black of night in many small towns still belonged to the hateful. 

As Goose tells it, he had just squeezed out of the white girl’s bedroom window and started walking when a man asked him for a light. He obliged without thinking. 

“By the time I lit the lighter, I saw it was the father of one of the other girls I’d been seeing,” he says. “By then, people were coming from everywhere.”

Quickly he was thrown into the back seat of a car with a rope constricting his neck. The men hissed their homicidal itinerary: he was being driven out of town to be tarred, feathered, and hanged. 

For once, being the star basketball player at Kokomo High School wasn’t going to save him. 

The son of a steelworker who died of tuberculosis when Goose was in fifth grade, he grew up a pauper king: so poor that he had to wrap wire around his crumbling shoes, but so gifted athletically that the 6,800 fans who packed Memorial Gymnasium we’re eager to help him out. 

On weekends, he earned cash—and broke rules—by playing semipro ball in Michigan under an assumed name. (“Norvell Brown,” he says. “I even wore glasses.”) But during the season, boosters always made sure he had enough to eat. 

And in the classroom, he says he coasted through without taking exams—simply signing his name at the top and turning them in blank. 

Who was going to flunk the Golden Goose?

“I took—maybe—three tests in high school,” he says.

But on this night, there was not a classroom, and no sympathetic boosters in sight. This was the white end of Kokomo in the black of night, with Goose at the wrong end of a rope and begging for mercy. 

He fathered a son at age 16 with a black girl, but most of his nocturnal wanderings were to the other side of town. That’s where the police often found him and—depending on who is telling the story—dealt with him either savagely or humanely. 

Ligon says there were several nights when the cops snatched him up after late-night trysts and drove him to a reservoir, where they beat him with rubber hoses. 

“Hose doesn’t leave marks,” he explains. 

Former chief of police Andy Castner laughed at the story. Several people who lived in Kokomo at the time described Castner and his cohorts as more friends to Ligon than antagonists, lending support when possible.

“Sometimes he’d be out a little late, and I’d give him a ride home,” says Castner, now president of the Kokomo city council. “I’ve never known Jim to have any trouble with policemen.”

The police were unable to curtail Goose’s tomcatting, whether by benign or malevolent means. So the local vigilantes decided to act—even if it meant jeopardizing the upcoming basketball season. 

To reach their intended destination, the white men who grabbed Goose had to drive through Kokomo’s black neighborhood. This was Goose’s saving grace. 

Stopped at a red light in front of a black nightclub, he snatched the coil of rope from the lap of the man next to him and leaped from the car, rolling away and screaming for help. Nobody in the car dared get out to give chase. 

“If they had gone another way, I might not be here today,” he says.

Castner says he’d never heard the lynching story before, but added, ”He was very popular with the white girls at the time, so it’s possible that might’ve happened.”

Goose Ligon survived that night and went on to lead the Kokomo Wildcats to their first and only state title in 1961. The next year, he finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,900 points. That mark still stands.

Goose’s rogue image in part prevented him from winning Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award as a senior. But he made the Indiana All-Star team, and Kokomo High hung a picture of him in his All-Star uniform on the gym wall. 

“He was probably the best high school basketball player Kokomo has ever had,” says Ken “Red” Craig, an assistant principal and unofficial team manager at the time. “I haven’t seen too many people who could measure up to the Goose—if he had good meals and those kinds of things.”

But when Goose’s high school career ended, so did his usefulness in Kokomo—even if he couldn’t see it coming. Long before the onset of glaucoma, his vision was flawed. 

“I thought I could keep on being Goose Ligon, the Golden Boy,” he says. “I wasn’t smart enough to understand that after I shot that last hoop, that was it.”

It was less than a year after he shot that last hoop that his relations with a white girl became a crime. 

U.S. marshals clanked cold bracelets on his wrists right there on the court, in the middle of a game, in December 1962 in some Oklahoma gym. Nineteen-year-old Goose Ligon was playing for the Harlem Magicians, a barnstorming team formed by former Globetrotter star Marques Haynes. He was arrested for statutory rape of a 13-year-old.

“Everyone started clapping and stuff,” he says. “They thought it was part of the act.” In a way it was—another tragicomic episode in James Ligon’s mythic life. 

He had never played college ball, joining the Magicians after an aborted matriculation to Tennessee A & I. And now the basketball hero was going to stand trial in his hometown for statutory rape. And as all the news reports made sure to point out, she was a white 13-year-old. 

Ligon was accused of having sex with the girl in late November, when the Magicians were performing in Kokomo. He says it was consensual, that he’d known the girl for some time, and that she even spent the night at his family’s home before. 

But there would be no escaping this time. Goose was convicted on June 18. 1963, of a lesser charge of “assault and battery with intent to gratify sexual desires.” He was sentenced to one to five years in the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton.

Goose spent the next three and a half year of his life as Prisoner No. 46142—the star of the penitentiary basketball team, hating every minute of it. 

“These kids who say they ain’t afraid of going to prison? Ha. They ain’t been to prison,” Goose says from his bench. 

When he was released from the joint, he did not return to Kokomo. Resentment simmered—not only in Goose, but in many who knew him.

“There were five involved (in the statutory rape), but Jimmy’s the only one who did time,” Castner says. “To be honest, it kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth. He was at fault, but he wasn’t the only one at fault. If he hadn’t been a celebrity, he might not’ve gotten time out of it.

“While he was playing, he could do no wrong. But after he was done, people criticized him for doing the same things as when he was playing.”

Ron Hughes was Goose’s teammate at Kokomo. Today he is an insurance agent in town, and he speaks cautiously about Goose’s fall from grace. But Hughes made it clear that he regrets how his former comrade was treated.

“I don’t know any facts,” Hughes said. “I just know that the times were pretty rough on blacks. I have my opinions, and they would all be on the positive side of Jim.”

That was not the popular sentiment in Kokomo at the time. When the trouble came down, they pulled Goose Ligon’s All-Star picture off the gym wall.

When Goose walked free from prison, he walked straight back to basketball. It was all he’d ever done, all he’d ever thought of doing. 

Just as he was working to get a tryout with a National Basketball Association team, the ABA sprang to life, and Goose decided to cast his lot with the Indiana Pacers. 

Mike Storen was the general manager then. Goose says Storen told him, when he cut him, that his personal history made him a risk in his home state. He referred Goose to the Kentucky Colonels instead. 

The year was 1967. Louisville has been Goose Ligon’s home ever since. 

He met with team owner Mamie and Joe Gregory and told them his story—the charge, the prison time, the whole deal. “They said no problem,” Goose recalls. “They just wanted me to play ball.”

Goose became one of the more colorful crystals in the kaleidoscope that was the ABA. He was a 6-foot-7 battler who did all his work within 10 feet of the basket, surviving on a soft hook shot and a hard edge. He averaged double figures in scoring for five seasons and always finished among the league leaders in rebounds, despite being outsized. 

“He was kind of a Dennis Rodman of his time,” says former [Louisville] Courier-Journal sports editor Dave Kindred, now a columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I hate to hang that on a guy, but that’s kind of what it was. If he were playing today, that might be what he’d turn out to be; some kind of wild persona. He was a rebounder and a runner, a tireless runner. He loved to play.”

He played well enough that Kokomo High decided to put Goose’s All-Star picture back on the gym wall. The winds of public opinion spun his weather vane back to the positive. 

Goose was one of the Colonel’s top attractions in those early days, his hard work blending well with a dynamic persona and fetching grin. “The thing I’ll always remember is that smile,” said Lloyd Gardner, the Fairdale High School coach and former trainer for the Colonels. 

Gardner recently watched an HBO special on the ABA days. In one video clip, he could see a figure loping by in the background and knew, from the distinctive gait, that it was Goose. He spent much of his time in the background of the news footage, but he was an indispensable teammate to Dan Issel, Louie Dampier, Darel Carrier & Co. 

Goose in a happier time returning to Louisville after 1971 ABA playoffs.

Gardner remembers nursing Goose through six games of the 1971 ABA championship series against the Utah Stars with back spasms, only to have Goose’s back give out in Game Seven. He played just a few minutes, and the Stars won the title. 

“I remember that he was willing to do whatever it took to survive,” Gardner said. “He was not going to give his place up without a fight. He played with a lot of pain that guys just don’t do these days.”

He had a high tolerance off the court as well. Goose says he saved the serious party binges for the offseason, but he hardly took a vow of sobriety and chastity between games. 

There was, for instance, the Can Opener Story. One night, Goose was pulled out of a “go-go club,” as he called it, on Chestnut Street by one of the many women who rotated through his life. An argument erupted over whether he would return to the bar. The woman pulled out a stiletto and pressed it to Goose’s neck. He escaped with a nearly severed left thumb that caused him to miss a few games. 

Telling the real story about the injury was, obviously, out of the question. So the Colonels concocted a tale about Goose cutting his hand on a new can opener, which was a gift from teammate Wayne Chapman. 

Everyone can chuckle about the story now. But not every day was a laughing matter with Goose. 

“Jim seemed to have some demons he was fighting, and we didn’t always see eye to eye,” said the Colonels coach at the time, Gene Rhodes. “And that may be rather generous. I liked him, and in the best way I could—which wasn’t always good—I tried to get him to do the best for himself. I think Jim couldn’t quite see that it was all going to end one day.”

No, Goose’s troubled eyes rarely looked past the next game, the next girl, the next party. He was working for tip money (his richest contract with the Colonels paid $13,000 a year), but he was in heaven. 

When heaven ended with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon nineteen games into the 1973-74 season with the Virginia Squires, that was it. His life reverted to the only constants it has ever known: tumult and trauma. 

From his bench, Goose Ligon watches a gray van carry two white men through Iroquois Homes. 

“There go the narcs,” he says.

You can tell?

He laughs.

Everyone can tell.”

A neighborhood with a bustling crack trade isn’t the best address for a recovering addict. But in one of the many cruel paradoxes in Goose’s life, it was the addiction that helped land him and his family in public housing. 

Over the years it ate up large chunks of his pension from the ABA (a measly 12 grand in one lump sum, as Goose remembers it), and the down payment on a house. Income from the one steady job he held—twelve years cleaning and preparing buses for TARC [Transit Authority of River City]—often went into the nose or veins as fast as it came in. 

“Everything I had moneywise, it’s all wasted,” Goose says. “And now I’m in a place where I may never get out of. I feel like, in a sense, I put us here.”

As his identity devolved from ballplayer to addict, Goose made three stays in drug rehab centers. He spent most of his life after basketball ripped, and he looks it today.

“That drug done did damage to his body,” says Jim’s 83-years-old mother, Christine, who lives in Louisville. “I can only say this like an old country lady, but it just done him in. He just don’t seem like himself.

At one point, Goose was so far gone that he and his friends had an agreement: you overdose, and the others dump your body in the nearest alley and scram. That way nobody is left with a corpse on their hands, facing a criminal charge. 

“They told him one time at the clinic that if he didn’t stop doing what he was doing, he wasn’t going to make it,” says Doris Ligon, Goose’s wife of 11 years and companion of 19. “A lot of times I was scared to come home. I was afraid I was going to find him dead.”

One day he and his junkie friends swaggered into the Cotter-Lang housing project with about $1,000. When the binge was over, he woke up in a garbage can, alone, and had to beg for a quarter to call home.

At least he knew Doris would answer the phone. Through all the lies (“He’d come home with no paycheck, tell me he got robbed”) and heartache and ultimatums, she hasn’t been able to turn her back on Jim Ligon. 

He’s not Goose to her. She never knew him as a ballplayer, and doesn’t love him for his past. 

“I always tell him he’s like a bad penny,” she says. “You try to throw him away and he won’t stay away.”

So they stay together, decorating their cramped apartment not with mementos of Goose’s playing days (those are in a box in a closet) but family pictures. A sign on the wall says God Bless Our Pad. 

Goose tending to his kids at Iroquois Homes in 1997

Eight-year-old Eric and 5-year-old Mary dash in and out of the place. They are the reasons Goose gives for finally getting sober. 

“The only thing saving me is my children,” he says. 

They gave him back an identity: father. 

His oldest son, Steven Purcell, is 37 and lives in Kokomo. He didn’t return phone calls for this story. Goose wasn’t much involved with him. He has his youngest kids, though, and a few others besides. Here, at a brittle 53 years of age, he has the opportunity to flower anew amid the rubble of his life—as a father, son, and citizen. 

There remains a chance that when Goose Ligon’s vision is gone for good and he’s living in darkness, his mind’s highlight reel will have something else to play beyond old basketball footage. 

He calls his mother every night, right after the lottery drawing. After waiting on the bench in vain for that divine bailout, he goes inside to watch for a secular miracle. 

When that fails, he picks up the phone. 

“I do listen for his call,” says Christine Ligon. “I love my son. A lot of this life I don’t appreciate , the drugs and stuff, but I can’t do nothing about it.”

She is not the only person outside his home that Goose looks after. On weekends he and Doris help the Community Church of God put on “Super Saturday,” an outreach program for at-risk children in Iroquois Homes. 

The church feeds about 100 kids every Saturday—more at the end of each month, when the government checks have all been spent—and teaches them about Jesus. Doris has a classroom, and Goose helps discipline unruly kids. 

“They’ve been a blessing,” says the church pastor, the Rev. Robert Davis. “He [Goose] has done things that robbed him of having things in life, but he acknowledges that. He can relate to the children.”

He relates passionately to Eric and Mary. Much of his lawnmowing money goes to them, in the form of trips to Dairy Queen or the pool. He recently scraped together enough cash to buy Mary bike. And when she wrecked on it, gashing her chin, Goose was a wreck. 

After five or six stitches were laced through Mary’s chin, the nurse was telling Goose and his wife how to care for her at home. 

Give her Chikdren’s Tylenol for the pain, they are told. Doris Ligon looks at her husband. He sighs and runs a twisted right hand across his face. 

They have no Children’s Tylenol. 

They have no money to buy Children’s Tylenol. 

There are no miracles happening again today. 

“I’ll mow some grass,” Goose Ligon says quietly. “I’ll mow some grass.”

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