The legend of Billy Tubbs: When OU basketball players were rock stars

The legend of Billy Tubbs: When OU basketball players were rock stars

The basketball was frenetic, and the show, from Top Daug the mascot to the pom squad to Tubbs’ personality to the style of play, made the Sooners a college hoops phenomenon.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 20, 2024, 1:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 20, 2024, 1:00pm CST

NORMAN — The Skeeter Meter returned to Lloyd Noble Center on Saturday. Not a replica of the makeshift scoreboard that counted Skeeter Henry’s points back when the world was young and OU basketball was the coolest thing this side of acid-washed jeans, but it’s the thought that counts.

Skeeter Henry was back, too, as OU celebrated the late Billy Tubbs. Even unfurled a banner from the Lloyd Noble rafters, honoring Tubbs.

Just saying the name, Skeeter Henry, brings joy to those who remember the glory days of Sooner basketball. The junior-college transfer on Tubbs’ No. 1-seeded teams from 1989 and 1990 now is 56 years old. But Skeeter still flashes that lanky gait and wide smile that lit up Lloyd Noble Center almost two generations ago.

Henry wasn’t a prolific scorer; he led the 1989-90 Sooners in scoring with 17.3 points a game, a rate that would amaze the contemporary crowd, but an individual season that ranked just 20th in Tubbs’ 14 seasons as the OU coach.

But Henry was fun to watch and easy to cheer for — most Tubbs players were — and the basketball was frenetic and somehow the show, from Top Daug the mascot to the pom squad to Tubbs’ personality to the style of play, made the Sooners a college hoops phenomenon.

“Incredible two years of my life,” Henry said before the OU-Kansas game Saturday. “It really was. We played an exciting brand of basketball. We sold out every gym, every game. Never lost at home. And we just played really good basketball. Fun basketball.”

Funny how the memory works. The Sooners did not sell out every game when BillyBall rode the range. The greatest college team this state ever has claimed or is likely to, Tubbs’ 1987-88 Sooners, averaged 9,281 fans per home game, a couple of thousand shy of capacity. In the 10 years from 1998-2008, post-Tubbs, the Sooners averaged 10,945.

So the support has been exaggerated. The fun has not.

OU basketball under Tubbs was an event. Non-stop entertainment on the court, with dizzying point totals and high-pressure defense and wondrous feats. Wayman Tisdale and Mookie Blaylock and Stacey King became national celebrities.

Those Sooners were rock stars, home and road. Mike Tyson and Don King, when boxing ruled Las Vegas, came to see OU play the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV; Tyson invited the Sooners out on the town with him.

The Sooners became the captains of cool, even popularizing the low-five hand slap for pregame introductions, which NBA players soon adopted.

OU won like it has not before or since in basketball. Four Big Eight championships in six years. Four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament in six years. The 1988 NCAA Championship Game.

And the scoring. Oh, the scoring. OU averaged 102.9 points a game in 1987-88; 102.2 in 1988-89; 101.3 in 1989-90. Some NBA teams, playing eight minutes more per game, averaged fewer points in those years.

Tubbs, who died in 2020 at age 85, left OU 30 years ago in April. The Sooners have played quality basketball since. Kelvin Sampson in 2002 and Lon Kruger in 2016 coached teams to the Final Four. Players like Trae Young and Buddy Hield, Blake Griffin and Eduardo Najera, Ryan Minor and Hollis Price, became stars at Lloyd Noble.

But there’s been nothing like BillyBall. Not even close. And sometimes, you stop and think.

Did it really happen? Did Duke and Nevada-Las Vegas and Georgia Tech really come to Lloyd Noble Center for CBS showdowns that were every bit as hyped as football games against Ohio State and Southern Cal and UCLA?

Did OU really score 173 points against U.S. International, and 172 against Loyola Marymount?

Did OU really beat No. 1-ranked Missouri 107-90, then new No. 1 Kansas 100-78 two nights later? 

Did OU basketball players really walk campus as rock stars, as big or bigger than the football stars from Owen Field?

Did all that really happen when Billy Duane Tubbs coached the Sooners?

“I lived it,” said Anthony Bowie, who played at OU from 1984-86, then appeared in 461 NBA games over eight seasons. “Deep down in their heart, everybody knows that it happened.”

Skeeter Henry stands with the Skeeter Meter, which stood Saturday as a reminder of the BillyBall glory days. (OU Athletics)

Skeeter Henry stands with the Skeeter Meter, which stood Saturday as a reminder of the BillyBall glory days. (OU Athletics)

Skeeter Meter

OU scored at least 100 points 128 times in Tubbs’ 465 Sooner games. That’s 27.5% of his games.

The Sooners scored at least 100 points 16 times in Sampson’s 388 OU games. The Sooners have scored at least 100 points 18 times in the 581 games since Sampson.

The game has changed. Even coaches who want to go fast, who want to play uptempo, are cosmically prevented, by the whistles and the talent and their backgrounds and dozens of other things that afflict the sport.

“Freedom,” Bowie says of Tubbs’ style. “Freedom. It was freedom. It was freedom. I mean, a lot of coaches try to hold you back and not really let you just run up and down the floor.

“When we needed it, when we needed to run a play, we ran a play. But a majority of the time, it was just a whole lot of freedom. Everybody felt comfortable about playing … it was everybody out there having a good time.”

OU basketball history sometimes gets short-changed. The Sooners have had star talent through a variety of eras. Of OU’s 10 highest individual scoring seasons, only five came in the Tubbs era, and three of those were by Tisdale, who averaged 24.5, 27.0 and 25.2 from 1982-85.

Minor’s scoring average went from 16.2 playing as a sophomore for Tubbs to 23.6 playing as a junior for Sampson.

But Bowie was right. Tubbs’ trademark was filling the court with players who could score. All five starters on his 1988 Final Four team averaged double-digit points: King 22.3, Harvey Grant 20.9, Blaylock 16.4, Ricky Grace 14.7, Dave Sieger 10.9.

By 1990, six Sooners averaged double-digit points: Henry 17.3, William Davis 16.4, Jackie Jones 15.0, Damon Patterson 11.6, Tony Martin 11.1 and Smokey McCovery 10.8.

Last season, OU had two players average double digits, and one of them, Tanner Groves, finished at 10.2.

“It was unbelievable,” said Kermit Holmes, who averaged 14.8 points for Tubbs in 1990-91. “Especially from a guy that’s from Oklmulgee, Oklahoma, and Wayman Tisdale was my idol growing up. We had a lot of fun.

“Oh man, it was so, so different. Had so much fun. The excitement. Even when you go around campus. When you go around the town, Oklahoma City, it was great. No. 1 in the nation, winning streaks.”

The Sooners played brashly. With swagger, said Chuck Watson, a Sooner from 1983-87. With confidence, said Shawn Clark, a Tubbs guard from 1981-85.

“Billy created an atmosphere of not necessarily cockiness, but confidence, that we could go out and compete, any place, with any opponent, at any time,” Clark said. “He just instilled that. We played at almost an extension of his personality. He allowed us to be who we were on the court, and we took advantage of it.”

Tubbs, born and raised hardscrabble in Tulsa, had a chip on his shoulder most of his coaching career.

“Billy was such a feisty guy,” said Tom McCurdy, the regent who campaigned for Tubbs to get the OU job back in 1980. “He’d walk across the street to get in a fight, instead of get away from one. He was a little rooster. I liked that about him.”

Coaches have proven that you don’t have to play Tubbs’ style to win big. 

Kansas coach Bill Self is a Hall of Famer whose teams play more uptempo than most in these slower days. Self, who grew up in Edmond and played for OSU in the 1980s against Tubbs’ teams,, offers high praise of Tubbs.

“There’s two people that made basketball in Oklahoma: Billy Tubbs and Wayman Tisdale,” Self said after his Jayhawks beat the Sooners 67-57 Saturday. “They changed how it was viewed everywhere. At least in my eyes.

“He’s one of those guys that you loved to hate, and then after you got to know him, you hated it, because you loved him.”

Self coached several seasons for Eddie Sutton at OSU. Sutton and Tubbs overlapped four years of Bedlam.

“I remember when I was with Coach Sutton, he (Tubbs) would beat a team 111-74, and we’d beat the same team 71-59,” Self said.

Sutton told Self that winning comes in a lot of forms.

But Self is old enough to remember the glory days of the old Big Eight.

“The best days of college basketball, we had it better than anybody, and we probably didn’t realize it,” Self said. “We had Billy, we had Larry (Brown) at Kansas, you had Jack (Hartman) at K-State or Lon (Kruger). You had Norm (Stewart, at Missouri). You had Johnny (Orr) at Iowa State. You had Coach Sutton at Oklahoma State. That was as good as any league’s ever had it. Those guys made this league great.”

Defense! Defense!

At the height of the Tubbs era, OU assistant football coach Merv Johnson once casually mentioned to me his admiration for Tubbs. Johnson was Old School; he came from the Frank Broyles coaching tree that produced so many greats, from Barry Switzer to Jimmy Johnson.

Merv Johnson marveled at the physical conditioning of Tubbs’ players. Tubbs migrated to a fullcourt press after the Tisdale years, and his players went all-out. If they rested, they rested on offense. Not on defense.

All these years later, Choo Kennedy still can mimic Billy Tubbs.

“Hey! Hey! Fifty-zeeee,” Kennedy said, sounding a lot like Jack Nicholson, because Tubbs always sounded a lot like the Mulholland Man. “Fifty-zeeee. One hundred-zeeee. He had names for every kind of trap, press.”

Tubbs’ teams were known for run-and-gun. But run-and-stun was more like it. Oh sure, they jacked up quick shots and, after the 3-pointer was implemented for the 1986-87 season, deep balls.

But the BillyBall Sooners, especially after the Tisdale years, played defense the way they played offense. They came at you fast and they came at you often. Oklahoma, Nevada-Las Vegas and Arkansas defined that era’s uptempo, high-pressure tactics. None were basketball bluebloods, but the latter two won NCAA  championships, and Tubbs’ 1988 Sooners dang near did.

“He wanted to jump people,” said Kennedy, the productive forward who from 1983-87 averaged 15.3 points and 7.0 rebounds. “He didn’t want you to ever get comfortable. He always wanted to make you have somebody up in your side.”

Kennedy reverted back to impersonation mode, recalling opponents who made a habit of missing shots. “Hey, don’t even hold him. He cain’t throw it in the ocean.”

Turnovers were Tubbs’ lifeblood. Mookie Blaylock averaged 3.8 steals per game over his two seasons. Blaylock and backcourt mate Grace each had more than 100 steals in 1987-88.

“The biggest thing to convince people was that we played defense,” Clark said. “It was all about getting the ball back to go score.”

Opponents of OU’s famed 1987-88 team averaged 23.9 turnovers per game. Those Sooners were the culmination of how Tubbs always wanted to play. But even before the Blaylock/Grant/Grace/King/Sieger team that hawked opponents into mayhem, Tubbs was setting a culture.

“We attacked people because we figured if we could get more turnovers and get more running, it was better for us,” Bowie said. “That’s one of the reasons why defense was the way that it was. Just try to put pressure on teams, if we could cause turnovers and get more runs up and down the floor.”

Why Tubbs?

John Thompson was the prime target in the 1980 OU basketball coaching search. Thompson had just led Georgetown to the 1980 regional finals. When Thompson decided to stay at Georgetown — a wise choice, the Hoyas were a year and change away from signing Patrick Ewing — OU’s focus turned to DePaul assistant coach Joey Meyer.

But McCurdy, a former Sooner player, tells the story that he had just been appointed to the OU board of regents, though he had yet to be approved by the state Senate. Then-OU president Bill Banowsky asked McCurdy to find a coach.

“I was gung-ho about it,” McCurdy said. “I wanted to find somebody, but I didn’t want the ball walked up the court. I wanted fast-paced, exciting brand, get the place filled. I called John Wooden and Digger Phelps, Billy Packer. And I said, ‘I want you guys to give me the names of some coaches that can play like that.’ Billy’s name was always one of them.”

McCurdy said that for some reason, Tubbs was not initially interested.

“When I talked to him on the phone, he said, ‘I’ve got a good job … I’m not interested,’” McCurdy related. 

But McCurdy called back, and this time, Tubbs’ wife, Pat, answered.

“I said, ‘Pat, we’d like for you to come up, you and Billy, come to Norman, look the place over,’” McCurdy said. “She said, ‘When can we be there?’ She said, ‘Everything I’ve got in here is rusted’” in the refinery town of Beaumont, Texas, where Tubbs had rousing success at Lamar University.

According to McCurdy, Tubbs came to Norman, and when Banowsky told Tubbs he would make the same salary as Barry Switzer, Tubbs was sold, saying “President Banowsky, you’ve just hired yourself a coach.”

“He didn’t really want to come,” McCurdy said, “but … I never gave up on him.”

Soon enough, Tisdale signed on with Tubbs, and OU basketball took off. Big 12 titles and the Final Four, 100-point games and national acclaim.

“Billy created something here that was a brand,” Watson said. “It’s amazing what he created, and the synergy … Billy gave us a certain amount of swagger.”

Three and four decades later, those Billyball days seem almost mythical. Was there really a Wayman Tisdale, and a Mookie Blaylock, and a Skeeter Henry, complete with a Skeeter Meter?

“Our student body back then was so incredible, they stood outside on a cold, rainy day, trying to get in the game,” Henry said. “It was awesome.

“We were just trying to make our student section and the alumni and the University of Oklahoma proud.”

Mission accomplished.

“It was surreal,” said Bryatt Vann, who averaged 16.9 points as a 1992-93 senior. “The whole school life, plus basketball life, it was the best times of my life. It was a lot of fun. I wish it never would have ended.”

We’ve spent a lot of time lamenting the loss of such glorious basketball. But maybe that’s the wrong attitude. Instead of being sorry that BillyBall is gone, we should rejoice that it happened.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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