Louis Dunbar: Best of the Big Bunch, 1974

[During the 1970s, the vast majority of basketball coaches in America subscribed to the decades-old dogma that the smaller, quicker kids had to play guard away from the basket. It was just common sense that the bigger, taller, slower ones needed to battle inside for rebounds and put-back shots. 

By the end of the decade, though, Magic Johnson and his daring coach Judd Heathcote forever turned common sense on its head at Michigan State. Or so, many of us remember our basketball history. Except Magic wasn’t the first college big man to run an offense and openly challenge common sense. Several seasons earlier, the 6-foot-9 Louis Dunbar conspicuously dribbled the ball upcourt for Guy Lewis’ University of Houston Cougars and set up on the perimeter to run the offense. 

The Gulf Coast loved their positional freak of nature with the big Afro. As a sportswriter in Shreveport beamed in February 1974 over Dunbar, a Louisiana native and the state’s first Black player to be named its Mr. Basketball (1971):

If you ask me—and you didn’t—Louis Dunbar of Minden, La.—is the best college basketball player in the United States. You see, Louis is 6-foot-9, and he doesn’t become a babbling idiot 15 feet from the basket. Give him a basketball, and he’d be at home in a cave full of vampire bats. He is a player, the purest sense of the word.

Louis would be a good guard—an  EXCEPTIONAL guard—on a team of 6-foot-3 players. He handles the basketball like a six-footer. He dribbles better than most six-footers. He shoots better than most six-footers and, at 6-foot-9, he rebounds, blocks shots, and intimidates like most people his size. 

I doubt if there’s another 6-foot-9 basketball player in the world who can do it all—I mean REALLY do it all. If Louis played for UCLA, he’d get votes for President. 

Only Louis Dunbar plays for the University of Houston—whenever and wherever they need their best shot. Against Centenary Saturday night, Louis played in the corner, and he played outside. Dunbar handled the ball against six-footers . . . and I can assure you the ball wouldn’t have been more secure in a safe. 

In 1973, after his sophomore season, the ABA reportedly wanted Dunbar to take the money and run. He said no. After his junior year, Dunbar fended off both leagues and their insistence that he “go hardship.” Instead, he spent the summer swelter in Houston refining his game against pros Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, Mike Newlin, and others. 

Dunbar had a good senior year, earning honorable mention All-American honors with the likes of Bo Ellis, Quinn Buckner, and Mitch Kupchak. But there were now doubters out there. Houston hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament with Dunbar controlling the ball, and some said he spent his final season “in personal scoring duels” with teammate Otis Birdsong.  

By the 1975 college draft, pro basketball was also suddenly in transition. The NBA-ABA war kaboomed into its final throes, and most ABA teams, broke and unsure of the league’s future, were preparing to shut down, not sign million-dollar rookies. (Yes, there were a few exceptions, but, by and large, this statement is correct.) Many rank-and-file NBA teams were also in financial trouble, and there was that matter of common sense. Who in their right mind would have a 6-foot-9 player at the point, especially Dunbar? He never saw a 30-footer that he didn’t like, and word of mouth also had it that Dunbar, if called upon, wasn’t much of a banger inside. 

Dunbar’s draft stock fell, and that’s why today we don’t utter his name in the same breath as Magic Johnson. That’s not to imply that Dunbar could go basket for basket, assist for assist, rebound for rebound with Magic. He couldn’t. But that’s not to say that he wouldn’t have wowed many an NBA arena with his unique skills for a big man, if he’d been given a chance.

In the first article below,  published in the December 1, 1974 edition of Basketball Weekly, Dunbar tells reporter and diehard basketball fan Mark Engel why he returned to Houston for his senior year. Give it a read, and we’ll pick up Dunbar’s ill-fated NBA dream after that.]

It was a warm afternoon late in May when the Texas populace turned its thoughts to more pressing matters. Can we squeeze enough from the wells to drive around Daddy’s ranch all summer?

It was the day of the NBA player draft, more than a month after the ABA selected its first high school player. Six hardship cases went in that first round, one-third of the talent drafted by the established league, and the name everybody looked for, David Thompson, was missing. So was that of Houston’s Louis Dunbar, the other All-American to stay home. 

The decision to remain in college for his senior year was not really a difficult one for the 6-foot-9 Dunbar, who for two years has led the nationally-ranked Cougars in scoring. “In my position, it was best for me to get in another year of college ball,” he stated. “There’s a few debts I’d like to repay to some teams that beat us. The past year, we didn’t have the year I thought we’d have. I feel I need another year of experience playing. Another year of school would be good, too.”

Besides, Dunbar’s father thought it would be a good idea, and few people argue with a 6-foot-9, 285-pound deputy sheriff. 

The decision sat well also with Houston coach Guy Lewis, who has already dispatched such luminaries as Elvin Hayes, Don Chaney, Dwight Davis, and Dwight Jones to the pros. Dunbar, who started out with the Cougars as the nation’s tallest guard, is a little different than all his predecessors. 

“It is so hard to compare players. He’s the best ballhandling big man I’ve ever had, but he doesn’t fit into the patterns of those others,” Lewis observed. “Number one, he does have the ability to handle the ball. He’s just a complete basketball player.”

This season, with height needed up front, Coach Lewis sees Dunbar as strictly a cornerman, although he could swing back to guard in a pinch. It will take a little adjustment. “He’s not as strong physically as some of the others, so he gets bumped around some rebounding,” Lewis stated. “He is not what you’d call a real hatchetman under the boards.”

Dunbar, who averaged 21.7 ppg. last year, agrees with Lewis, but isn’t exactly worried. “I think I’m strong enough to rebound,” he insisted. “I’ve never been that physical, but I feel I can hold my own.”

It was an awesome sight for opponents when Dunbar played in the backcourt for a team labeled “the Big Bunch” two years ago. He scored, parlaying a bank shot into a 21.1 average, and he passed, too. “I like assists,” he said. “The crowd likes them. You can’t do it by yourself in this game. I like to make a good pass as well as put the ball in the hole. I was second on the team in assists last year, so I know I can do it.”

Dunbar, who spurned an ABA offer after his sophomore year, has been consistent all along, scoring in double figures in 51 of his 53 varsity games. But he’s smart enough to realize that basketball is played at both ends of the court. 

“As far as I’m concerned, I have a pretty good offensive game. Now, I’m working on my defense. You need that to play the game,” he stated. “I try to do everything.”

He did in high school, making the all-state team as a baseball pitcher as soon as he sunk his final basket. In fact, when Houston assistant Harvey Pate visited Webster High School in Minden, La. one day, he headed for the practice diamond only to see Dunbar shooting baskets in the distance, wearing his baseball uniform. 

The second sport is now a thing of the past, although its passing is sometimes recalled with just a twinge of sadness. Presently, full time is devoted to basketball, the sport in which Wilt Chamberlain—who ironically left Kansas a year early—was the early Dunbar hero. 

“I used to like Wilt, but I guess me and Wilt have two different games now. I saw some films of him playing when he was younger, and we were a lot alike,” said the slender Dunbar, the Cougars’ chief comic. “He liked to go behind the back and take behind-the-head shots. I always admired Wilt.”

Enough to want to compete in the only pro league which shows Wilt’s name in the record book. “I’d like to play in the NBA,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to the pros for a long time. This has been my goal since high school. I think, well, I’ve been hoping that I can make it.” 

Coach Lewis has no doubts. “He won’t play pro ball badly,” the coach said flatly. “He’s got all the tools, and certainly his desire counts. We’ve had quite a few players go on to the pros, and he should be the next one.”

But not until next year, a wise move which will doubtlessly garner him more money when the pros proffer their next battery of contracts. Marquette’s Al McGuire has already observed that by leaving a year early, former Warrior Larry McNeil cost himself a quick $400,000.  

And, of course, there is the chance, the gnawing fear that haunts all pro hopefuls, that they simply won’t make it, a situation which has befallen such hardship cases as David Brent and Coniel Norman, cast adrift to look for pickup games in the manner of a surfer searching endlessly for the ultimate wave. 

That should not happen to a more-experienced Louis Dunbar, the other kid who stayed. 

Tom Nissalke

[The doubters were afoot, and Dunbar’s stock fell. The Philadelphia 76ers finally nabbed him in the fourth round of the 1975 NBA draft, behind high schooler Darryl Dawkins and Lloyd Free. In its review of the draft, the Philadelphia Daily News wrote of Dunbar, “Tall, slim, and on the wild side. Borderline.” Make that, snowball’s chance in hell. The 76ers had no open roster spots, and little money to offer anyway. “I spoke to them [the 76ers] over the phone a couple times, but the way they were talking, I didn’t think it was worth the time to negotiate,” Dunbar later said.

Dunbar played in Switzerland for a season instead, then came home to the harsh realization that the 76ers still held his NBA rights for another year. And so, he sat home and worked and waited      . . . worked and waited . . . and eventually signed in the summer of 1977 as a free agent with the Houston Rockets. Ed English, a sports columnist with the Shreveport Journal, lays out the details.]

Back in the early 1960s, people in Houston thought guards were supposed to be the same size as astronauts—no bigger than 5-foot-11. Big men still aren’t welcome in space capsules, but big guards have gained acceptance thanks to University of Houston basketball coach Guy Lewis. Starting with Don Chaney (6-foot-5) and going through Otis Birdsong (6-foot-5), the Cougars may have had the tallest collection of guards of any college in the country over the last 12 years. 

That brings us to Louis Dunbar (6-foot-9), the biggest of Houston’s big guards. Dunbar, the state of Louisiana’s Most Valuable Player his senior year at Webster High in Minden in 1971, just signed a contract last week with the Houston Rockets and the man who may love big guards most of all, Tom Nissalke.

Ever since Nissalke began coaching pro basketball in 1971 with the ABA’s Dallas Chapparals, he has consistently utilized big guards instead of oft-times highly talented little guards. For instance:

1) Dallas—Traded away starter Joe Hamilton (6-foot) and built the offense around guards Steve Jones (6-foot-6) and Donnie Freeman (6-foot-4).

2) Seattle—Traded away former player-coach Lenny Wilkens (5-foot-11) and replaced him with everybody’s all-star, Fred Brown (6-foot-4). 

3) San Antonio—Dealt away high-scoring Bird Averitt (6-foot) and installed James Silas (6-foot-4) and George Gervin (6-foot-7) at guards. 

So far, Houston’s Calvin Murphy (5-foot-10) is the only short guard to last a season with Nissalke. Even though other factors (Wilkens asked to be traded) besides Nissalke’s personal preference have played a part in the trades, a pattern exists. 

It may be this pattern that lands Dunbar one of the 11 jobs on the roster. If not playing guard per se, Dunbar has played out front with the ball from high school through his year overseas. He handles the ball better than anyone anywhere his size.  

However, the Rockers told Dunbar when he was signed that he would compete for the quick forward position, now held by Rudy Tomjanovich (6-foot-8).

The Rockets will go into training camp with 18 men fighting for spots on the roster. And when a team finishes among the NBA’s top four, as Houston did last year, the spots are hard to come by. The offseason trade of John Johnson, Tomjanovich’s backup at quick forward, may be the break Dunbar needs . . . 

As soon as Dunbar signed last week, the Rockets whisked him away to play on their summer league team in Southern California. Dunbar, along with ABA veteran Eugene (Goo) Kennedy, Moses Malone, Rudy White, and others will play on the team coached by Nissalke until camp opens in August. 

Dunbar was originally drafted out of college by Philadelphia, B.C. (Before the Coming of George McGinnis in 1975). In order to sign McGinnis and later Julius Erving, the 76ers didn’t throw away much money on draft choices in those days. Philadelphia’s low offers resulted in Dunbar’s flight to Switzerland, where he played on a team based in Lugano. Dunbar averaged 28 points per game, but decided to quit after one season. 

Dunbar just worked and worked out this past year waiting for the two-year option Philadelphia held on him, as a result of drafting him, to run out. When it did, Dunbar began negotiating with the San Antonio Spurs. The Rockets didn’t enter the picture until only six days before Dunbar signed. 

Dunbar didn’t even hesitate to leave his job in the sporting good department of United Jewelers in Houston for another crack at pro basketball. “I even had the thought [of giving up on pro basketball] in my mind,” Dunbar said over the phone from Los Angeles. “All I’ve been thinking about the last two years was getting my free-agent status.”

After a two-year exile, Dunbar is ready for the test. “I’m in pretty good shape. I’ve been playing on Mondays and Wednesdays, and running on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Dunbar said. “I think I have a good chance of making the club, especially since they traded away John Johnson. I think I can help them.

“But I’ve been out two years. Now, I have to prove myself all over.”

Even so, coming back after a year’s playoff and trying to make the roster of one of the four best basketball teams in all of creation will be his toughest test by far. But while Dunbar is trying to prove himself on the Rockets’ summer league team, don’t be surprised if Nissalke starts frothing at the mouth with this Baron von Frankenstein-look in his eyes while observing Dunbar. 

The 6-foot-9 forward is a big-guard fan’s dream-come-true. 

[On August 19, 1977, Dunbar was one of four final roster cuts made by the Houston Rockets. But don’t feel sorry for Baron von Frankenstein or Dunbar. “The Trotters asked me to come to their camp and try out,” Dunbar recalled. “I felt I had nothing to lose, so I went.” He spent the next 42 years as “Sweet Lou” Dunbar traveling with the Harlem Globetrotters as a player, top showman, and coach. He remains one of the most-beloved Trotters of all-time, as this video attests.]

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