By Rod Jones
Abe Lemons — perhaps the most famous name in the history of Oklahoma City University athletics.
The legendary basketball coach needed some help along the way to become one of the winningest collegiate basketball coaches of all time, most notably from his players.
A documentary about the All American players on those Division I teams was recently released. The film is titled "The Great Eight: The Story of Oklahoma City University's NCAA Division One All Americans."
OCU alumnus Mike Tosee '74 led the production efforts behind the documentary. Tosee played under Coach Lemons and his assistant, Paul Hansen. Tosee said the impressive success of a basketball program from a small college was the motivating factor behind the project.
"The program had a deep history that I think many people have forgotten," he explained. "These were mostly small-town kids who were overlooked by the larger universities, and they came together to play on one of the best teams in the country over the course of a long period. These were the teams that put Oklahoma basketball in the spotlight."
Tosee, who earned his history degree at OCU and is now a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, discussed the documentary possibility with his fellow Haskell faculty member, Bill Curtis, who was working in the video productions program when their project began. The two decided that the Division I era of OCU basketball was too good a story to let slip away.
"It was a fascinating project to do," Curtis said. "I first started learning about the program when we came down to interview some of the players for another project (during the Abe Lemons Arena dedication). It sounded like a great topic for its own documentary, and we already had some great footage, so we decided to work on this one."
They made trips to Oklahoma City to visit the campus archives and dug up newspaper clips, photos and film footage to produce the documentary. Curtis estimates that they gathered more than 100 hour-long clips that had to be packaged into a 58-minute documentary in order to air on OETA, Oklahoma's PBS affiliate.
The two sorted through more than 100 interviews in creating "The Great Eight." It took them about five years to make the documentary while teaching full time at Haskell University.
Tosee credits fellow OCU alumnus Gary Gray '67 for helping brainstorm the project and finding the funding to get it going.
"We were both former players for Abe and Paul Hansen. That program changed our lives, and we were very grateful for all they did to help us get to where we wanted to go," Tosee said.
The production team made a documentary called "An American Indian Tribute to A.E. 'Abe' Lemons" a few years prior to working on "The Great Eight." They had several player interviews ready for the later documentary, and came back to Oklahoma to get some new material.
"The Great Eight" covers the stories of Arnold Short, Hub Reed, Gary Hill, Bud Koper, Jerry Lee Wells, Gary Gray, Rich Travis and Ozzie Edwards.
The time period covered is from 1950 to 1973, when OCU had the most elite NCAA basketball program in the state. Some experts had OCU picked to win the national championship over schools several times their enrollment size. It was a regular fixture in the top 20 rankings, and often found itself listed as a top 10 team in the country.
Among the interviewees is Bill Self, who won an NCAA national championship as coach of the Kansas University Jayhawks. Another is Skip Bayless, a sports analyst for ESPN. Bayless regularly attended OCU games while growing up in Oklahoma City. He recorded the interview in the ESPN studios and sent the footage to Curtis for inclusion in the documentary.
Bayless' experiences probably reflect those of many other basketball fans of that era, and Tosee is hoping to remind those fans of that atmosphere.
"Abe went after character," Tosee said, explaining the coach's recipe for success. "He saw what other coaches didn't see in players and put them together to work as a team unit.
I feel like these (documentaries) are my way of paying off a debt I owe for all that I learned under him. Not just about basketball and school, but also hope, inspiration and motivation."
Watch a trailer of "The Great Eight" on the Bill Curtis Video Production website at www.billcurtisvideoproduction.com. Call (785) 218-6166 to purchase the DVD.