David Adam

Phone call brings back memory of historic jam

 Broken backboard
Referee Lloyd Merritt looks in disbelief after Mississippi Valley State's Darryl Watson broke the rim off the backboard on a dunk during a game against Jackson State in the Mart Heinen Quincy College Holiday Basketball Tournament in December 1978. | H-W File Photo
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 16, 2017 12:01 am Updated: Oct. 17, 2017 1:50 am

Checking the voicemail after a week of vacation can be tedious, but one call was attention-grabbing.

"Hello. This is Darryl Watson," the message said.

Hold on. That name rings a bell. But it couldn't be.

"I was just hoping someone could help me find an old story from way back in 1978," he said.

Oh my. It was who I thought it was.

One of the best Christmas presents my brother, Joel, and I would get were three days worth of tickets to the Mart Heinen Quincy College Holiday Basketball Tournament, which was played between Christmas and New Year's Day. Twelve games of great small college basketball, with trips to the original Tower of Pizza on 20th and College between sessions each day.

The 1978 tournament, however, remains special to both of us.

The first game of the first day pitted Mississippi Valley State versus Drury, which meant the crowd in Memorial Gym at noon was scant. I was 13, my brother was 12, and we were at midcourt with a sheet of paper we dubbed the "Dunk-O-Meter" to record all of the dunks in the tournament.

Dunking now is not a big deal in a college game, but the dunk had been outlawed in college basketball from 1967 to 1976, so watching them that winter afternoon was going to be a treat.

The first dunk we saw that day will stay with both of us forever.

Watson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore for Mississippi Valley State, went up for a dunk on the south basket with less than two minutes played in the first half when BOOM! As he threw the ball down, the glass backboard shattered, and the rim thudded on the wooden floor as pieces of glass showered the court.

No one had seen that before. This was before the days of Darryl Dawkins breaking backboards in the NBA, and this was long before the days of ESPN grabbing video taken with someone's cell phone.

My reaction? I have no idea. It's been 39 years. To be honest, I could have sworn Mississippi Valley State was playing Jackson State instead of Drury, but I was wrong. I'm sure Joel and I just laughed in amazement.

This was one phone call I was definitely going to return.

Watson now lives and works in Atlanta. He works for the Georgia Student Finance Commission and helps students in the state with their financial aid packages for college. Before that, he coached for about 15 years at a variety of schools in the Atlanta area.

Now 58 years old, Watson was trying to find evidence of his broken backboard because he recently learned he was about to be inducted into the Mississippi Valley State Hall of Fame. Basketball fans in Itta Bena, Miss., remembered him for two things.

"My son lives close to the school, so when I go home, they say, ‘Hey, I remember you. You broke the backboard,' or they say, ‘You used to jump over cars,'" Watson said with a laugh.

Jump over cars?

"That's how I made money," he said. "If could jump over the car, I'd win 10 dollars. In 1978, that was a lot of money. If I could get 10 bucks out of five or six people, I was doing really good."

Watson vividly remembers his dunk.

"When our guy drove down the lane, my man helped off to stop the driver, and the star player came over to me," he said. "I said, ‘He's going to try to block my shot,' so I went as strong as I could.

"I called it my gorilla dunk."

The game was delayed for several minutes. First, the glass had to be swept up. Second, the backboard had to be replaced and the rim re-attached. The photo that appeared in The Herald-Whig the next day showed the rim on the floor, surrounded by glass, with the official looking up at the hole in the backboard.

Third, several players had to be attended to be trainers.

Several players suffered cuts on their shoulders from the flying debris. Many players, especially the black players with the large afros that were in style at the time, needed help picking the shards of glass out of their hair.

Mississippi Valley State eventually lost 94-67 to Drury, which went on to win the NAIA championship that season.

As for Watson, it was his only broken backboard. His other claim to fame was that when Mississippi Valley State became an NCAA Division I school in 1980-81, he led the country with a 14.0 rebounding average.

How did Watson celebrate his achievement? With a beer. At that time, the drinking age in Illinois was 19.

"After the game, I remember we were walking on ice, and there was a little pub around the corner (teams stayed on campus in those days) so we could get us some beer," he said. "The bartender said, ‘Hey, you're the one who tore down the backboard.' I said, ‘Yeah, that was me. Now get me a Budweiser.'"

What kind of an impact did that dunk have on the Adam brothers? Well, the next day, Joel clipped out the photo in the newspaper, took it to the gym the next day and got an autograph by Watson.

When I called him last week, Joel said, "I think I still have that autograph in my basement."

The conversation with Watson was great. It rekindled memories that were forgotten long ago.

"I just went to my 40th high school reunion and was peer pressured into grabbing the rim," he said with a hearty laugh. "I paid for that grab a long time after the reunion."

Before the conversation ended, Watson had one last question.

"Do you think someone has video of that?" he asked. "I broke the backboard before Dawkins did. If ESPN had existed back then, I would have been the one who was well-known around the world.

"I always wished someone in Quincy had filmed it."

So do I.