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Throwback Clifton McNeely Jersey

SLIDELL, Texas — One of the best Class A boys basketball teams in the state no longer plays in the “rock gym” a half hour northwest of Denton, which is a shame, because it’s a barn straight out of Hoosiers. Eight rows of bleachers lacquered like Elvis’ pompadour. Elegant arched roof with wood beams. Burnished oak floor swanky enough for the Savoy. “Gym Rules” sign, the first and third lines of which read, “Clean gym shoes only” and “No smoking — dipping”. And, of course, stone walls on all sides. Only thing missing is Gene Hackman in a sweater vest.

A Works Progress Administration legacy, the rock gym opened in 1940, two years before Slidell won the Class B state title, then repeated in ’43. The Greyhounds also made the state semis in ’49, ’52 and ’55. The girls took state in ’63. Slidell won so big in basketball, no one cared that they never practiced the state religion. They were basketball heretics.

Then suddenly Slidell didn’t win big anymore. The Greyhounds were always good, but never good enough. One decade after another passed without a trip to the state tournament. Turns out the old rock gym wasn’t the only echo of Hoosiers. They could have filled out the cast in Slidell, too.

Consider Freddie Fortenberry, whose family members, like the Pruetts, wind through Slidell’s hoops history like wisteria. He promised to burn his hat on the front steps of the rock gym the day they finally went back to the state tournament.

Freddie didn’t live long enough to see it, but 64 years since the Slidell boys’ last trip, the bus pulled out Wednesday morning for San Antonio. All 281 students, K-12, lined up waving orange-and-blue streamers to see the Greyhounds off to play Oakwood on Thursday at the Alamodome. The Greenwood/Slidell Volunteer Fire Department even provided a seven-piece escort to the county line.

The end of a six-decade drought isn’t just historic, it’s personal. The faces here may change, but the names don’t. One of Slidell’s old timers approached Slayton Pruett after last week’s regional win over top-ranked Lipan and told the 6-6 junior they’d been waiting a long time for this.
The Slidell boys, reminded of their history every day, have another way of putting it.

“We’re trying to get as far as the people on the wall,” Pruett said.
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The banners decorating Slidell’s bigger and brighter gym, built this century, don’t cover all the significant history. Joe Fortenberry had long left his hometown by the time he captained the U.S. basketball team that won a gold medal in the ’36 Olympics. Joe, who went 6-8, also is credited as the first to dunk in an organized game. Another Slidell slice of basketball lore: Clifton McNeely, first man ever drafted by the NBA. Also the first to say no, thanks. McNeely opted instead to coach at Pampa, where he won four state titles, one more than his son, Phil, managed at Duncanville.

Pretty impressive footnotes for an unincorporated farm-and-ranch town that has never numbered more than 300 citizens. Despite a district that covers parts of four counties and 118 square miles, they count more cows than kids. The high school has 65 students, about middle of the pack for their district.

A few of their closest competitors play six-man football, but there’s never been much of a push for it here, locals say.
“Basketball,” Slayton Pruett said, “is more of our culture and community.”

A Pruett, in fact, is more or less expected to play basketball for Slidell. Edwin Pruett was on the ’42 and ’43 state title teams. According to Irene Pruett Wilson, Slayton is Edwin’s fifth or sixth cousin, give or take. Slayton’s sister, Caitlin, played on powerhouse teams at Slidell. Tyler Pruett, a freshman basketball player on this year’s squad, is a distant cousin of both.

Consider this family tree: Tyler’s father, Lenzie, played basketball at Slidell, as did his father, Rene, and his father, Harold Ray. And it’s not just Pruetts. Most players on the floor weren’t the first of their family, and they won’t be the last.

“That keeps the story alive,” Casey Pierce said.
Pierce is in only his second year as head coach at Slidell and sixth overall. His résumé includes stops from Class A to 4A. But he played basketball in the late ’90s at nearby Krum, meaning he understands the hold the sport has on a tight community. Slidell is also good in track and cross country. Good at just about everything, said Tim Fletcher, president of the school board. There’s just not a lot else to do in Slidell. There’s not even a Dairy Queen, the town hall of Texas.

Anyone wanting to talk basketball is left to do so at the First Baptist Church across the parking lot from the high school or at Greenwood Grocery over a burger and a slice of pie. Unless it’s Saturday night, and then it’s fried catfish.

“They’ll sit around and say, ‘Well, they should have done this,’ or ‘Why did they do that?’” Fletcher said. “Plenty of politics and basketball. It’s kinda like Hoosiers. They want to consider themselves experts.”

Fletcher, born and raised in Slidell, played basketball here. His father, also born and raised here, did not.

“But he could sure yell at games like he did,” Fletcher said, smiling.

All four of Fletcher’s children — two boys, two girls — played basketball at Slidell. One of his 13 grandchildren, Zak, is a freshman on the team this year.

The generations pack the house at most games, drawing nearly as much as the local population. Of their 300 allotted tickets for the state tournament, only 70 were left as of late Tuesday afternoon.

The team’s 2019 UIL Regional Championship trophy sit on his desk as Slidell High School head coach Casey Pierce’s makes a phone call in his office after practice at the school on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Slidell, Texas. Slidell High School, northwest of Denton, is trying to win its first state boys basketball title since 1943. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer

The team’s 2019 UIL Regional Championship trophy sit on his desk as Slidell High School head coach Casey Pierce’s makes a phone call in his office after practice at the school on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Slidell, Texas. Slidell High School, northwest of Denton, is trying to win its first state boys basketball title since 1943. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)

Betty Opal Pruett won’t make the trip to San Antonio. Until just last year, her daughter, Irene Wilson, would pick her up at the nursing home and wheel her into games. Her obituary last month noted that she loved watching her great grandchildren play basketball.

Betty Opal died on a Monday after breaking her leg in a fall. They buried her on a Sunday, so as not to conflict with the playoffs.

“Some people didn’t like that,” Irene said, “but it’s the way she would have wanted it.

“She bled orange and blue.”

Only God and family trump basketball in Slidell. Betty Opal’s granddaughter, Rhonda Wilson Weathers, lives in a house built in 1894. She represents the sixth generation of Pruett to occupy the premises. Rhonda was a state champion shot putter at Slidell. Also a pretty fair basketball player. She heads up the local chapter of Players in Progress, an organization that promotes basketball skills for kids from kindergarten through sixth grade.

PHOTOS: Class A Slidell Greyhounds head for the school’s first boys UIL state basketball tournament appearance since 1955

That Slidell’s kids keep coming back tells you a little about the town’s hold.

“We’re just embedded here,” Irene said. “It’s a good place to live.”

Also a good place to play basketball, as this season once again attests. No matter what happens this week, the Greyhounds (31-8) have earned their banner on the wall.

“It’s a big deal,” Fletcher said. “These kids won’t think about it now, but they’ll never forget it.”

Hard not to remember at Slidell, with the banners and the rock gym next door and the cemetery on the front lawn. Life and death and basketball intertwined. The setting no doubt has an effect on the local psyche. The janitor tells Taylor Williams, Slidell’s principal, that he occasionally hears basketballs bouncing in the old place when no one’s around.

Fortunately, they celebrate their ghosts here. Freddie Fortenberry’s been dead more than 30 years, but on Sunday, a bitterly cold, gray day, they gathered on the steps of the old rock gym to burn his hat. Promise kept.