Ernie McCray blogs

Ernie McCray: Remembering a track star’s granddad

Ernie McCray

Ernie McCray


EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Tucson High School and University of Arizona basketball standout Ernie McCray is a legendary figure to Tucsonans and Wildcat fans. McCray, who holds the Wildcats’ scoring record with 46 points on Feb. 6, 1960, against Cal State-Los Angeles, is the first African-American basketball player to graduate from Arizona. McCray, who now resides in San Diego, earned degrees in physical education and elementary education at Arizona. He is a longtime educator, actor and activist in community affairs in the San Diego-area. He wrote a blog for TucsonCitizen.com before the site ceased current-events operations last year. He agreed to continue offering his opinion and insight with AllSportsTucson.com. McCray also writes blogs for SanDiegoFreePress.org.


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I’ve been thinking about an old departed friend. My best friend. Thomas Ross. Loved the dude although we were dissimilar in some ways. He was stocky and bear-like strong and prone to growl every now and then and I was sinewy and laid back, trying to live life with a grin.

Anyway, he’s been on my mind because his son, Ron, keeps me posted on his grandson, Tavian, who’s got college track coaches salivating to beat the band because the dude recently ran the 400 in forty-seven-point-six seconds (47.60).

Thomas would say to that: “The dude can step, Jack!” He would be so proud of his progeny. Especially since he’s doing his thing for Tucson High, our old high school. And, we were pretty decent jocks too. Football. Basketball. All-State and all. Living the life, strutting down the hall, wearing the big red “T.” “Badgers” to the bone!

When all is said and done, I think, it’s all about having a little amusement, whenever you can, and Tavian’s granddad and I sure had some fun times. Just being kids, all full of testosterone, talking trash at high volumes, living rent-free, with plenty of food to eat, clothes on our back … Can life be any better?

High on the list of all my memories is a moment when Thomas and I, striking a Bee-Bop Pose as though we were on stage with the Woody Herman Band playing on my victrola, were popping our fingers and scatting and singing:

“Take a seat and cool it
cuz unless you overrule it
we are ready to show you some blowin’.
A rompin’ and a stompin‘
is a lot of fun.
Four Brothers who are blowin’ our horns…”

We were so full of ourselves. Perry Mason couldn’t have convinced anybody that we weren’t cool. We were just taking a break from the “real world,” Tucson, Arizona.

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Ernie McCray during his Arizona playing days. His 46 points in a 1960 game remains a school record (University of Arizona photo)

Ernie McCray during his Arizona playing days. His 46 points in a 1960 game remains a school record (University of Arizona photo)

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Thomas Ross, Carl and Ernie (Ernie McCray photo)

Thomas Ross (far left) and Ernie McCray (far right) sharing a good time with a friend (Ernie McCray photo)

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Thomas and I were, as we used to say, “tighter than Dick’s hat-band” but I can’t tell you why. Our philosophies and approaches to life sure didn’t jibe.

I mean, take “crashing a party” for instance. I’d be trying to cop a “nice person” stance before I joined the fun and Thomas would enter the house with “Anybody got a problem with this?” written all over his face and star fullback body.

This “knock the door down” approach to introducing yourself to folks can be quite provoking and a couple of times I found myself having to launch into a “Can’t we all get along” monologue while Thomas is yelling something that sounds to me like: “Don’t just stand there, help me pull my foot out of this fool’s behind!” And I, a lover by nature, am all of a sudden ducking uppercuts and chairs and going through Joe Louis-like motions.

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There wasn’t going to be a third time and slowly in our early 20’s our paths took off in completely different directions. I began a teaching career and he stepped off into the underworld. Years passed before we joined spirits again.

But I’m so glad that one day he picked up a phone and gave me a call because I hadn’t forgotten him at all. I knew that wherever he was, his brilliant mind was there with him as he’s one of the brightest people I have ever known.

As a kid I saw his IQ in full view. I don’t remember the details but one day we were trying to figure something out that involved math. I’m adding and subtracting and dividing and multiplying and practically counting my fingers and my toes and Thomas got to the answer with a couple of scribbles on a scrap of paper.

Tavian Ross

Tavian Ross

His mind didn’t miss a thing. Great listener. Had a unique slant on things. I remember actually saying to him “Do you know how smart you are?”

He didn’t. In retrospect, I can look back at the effects of racism, of Jim Crow, how it gets in the way of some people coming to realize their value as a human being.

But he put that brain power to work when he finally had enough of being locked up and walked away from all the madness – with a woman who believed in him and nurtured a new beginning for him.

He morphed into a loving man, a giver, a man who had a knack for helping folks find their better side and go on to living fruitful lives. What irony.

For his counseling skills he became recognized by 100 Black Men of America, Inc.

It’s a beautiful sight to see a man pull himself out of the depth of darkness into the light and come to use his brilliant mind to do wonderful things and nothing in life means more to me than the times we got to hang out with each other in his last years.

We grooved like we had never been apart, like we had never departed from the old days when we were, in a sense, fancy free. Two brothers just blowing our horns … Can you dig it?

I miss my old homey. But he has a special place inside me and, in his memory, I will, for the both of us, bask in Tavian’s exploits in track.

And it’s going to be a kick because “The dude can step, Jack!”

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