Arizona literally was part of Al Fleming’s life since the day he was born almost 70 years ago in 1954.
The Arizona legend was a baby of Arizona.
The first name of Fleming’s mother is Arizona.
That made for an interesting recollection from the Fleming family during the recruiting process when they were interviewed via a Zoom call with local media about Al being inducted into Arizona’s Ring of Honor on Saturday during halftime of the Washington-Arizona game.
Tucson High legend Ernie McCray, who still holds Arizona’s scoring record of 46 points in a 1960 game against Cal State Los Angeles, will also have his name added to the Ring of Honor.
Fleming’s brother Robert mentioned that Indiana’s Bob Knight took the 220-mile trip from Bloomington to the family’s home in Michigan City, Ind., to make a recruiting pitch. Louisville’s Denny Crum made a recruiting priority of Fleming a 6-foot-7, 215-pound power forward from Elston High in Michigan City.
Evelyn Fleming, Al’s sister, said the connection of Arizona’s name of the school and also that of her mom played a part in her brother signing with first-year Wildcat coach Fred “The Fox” Snowden in 1972. The late Snowden holds the distinction of the being the first African-American head basketball coach at a major university.
“I wanted to see who this guy was,” Evelyn said of Snowden. “I come over and there’s Coach Snowden talking to my mom. My mom’s a very religious woman, always has been. She said, ‘I’ve been praying. So many (coaches) are coming (to the house on recruiting visits). I don’t know what to do. He sat down. He talked to mom.
“He said, ‘Ms. Fleming …” She said, ‘You can call me Arizona.’ His eyes lit up. He was like, ‘Arizona?’ He says, ‘Well, you know, that would be the school he’d be going to — Arizona.'”
In an interview last July with AllSportsTucson.com, Jerry Holmes, an assistant who was with Snowden in that visit, said this scenario was his favorite recruiting story, when they were at the Fleming living room and they were waiting to meet the mom.
“We were looking up at the wall and there’s pictures of Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I told Fred, ‘We’re in the right spot,’” he said. “So Al goes and gets his mom. They come back walking arm-in-arm. … Her first name was Arizona … I looked up at the wall at the picture of Jesus Christ and I thought he winked at me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get this kid.’”
Evelyn mentioned that it was their mom’s choice of where Al went to college, and she made that decision after meeting Snowden.
“He left and she said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea.’ I wasn’t going to trust anybody with him,” Evelyn said. “She did a little prayer, she comes back out and says, ‘I think I’m going to tell him to go to that one. I just feel good about it.
“From then on, it became the equation of Arizona and Arizona … (Snowden) came and he told her, ‘I’ll take good care of him.’ From then on, he and Coach Snowden had a father-son relationship.”
Fleming, who was a minister when he passed away at age 49 in 2003 from cancer, became more enamored with Snowden after visiting Tucson for the first time on a recruiting trip.
“Coach Snowden is something else,” Fleming told the Tucson Citizen. “He was the first coach who not only told me what I was going to be able to do, but what I have to do. He told me if I was not in class, he was going to personally kick me out of bed and get me there.”
Arizona branched out its recruiting effort significantly across the nation, especially in the Midwest, with Snowden’s ties there after he was hired in 1972. Recruiting was much more regionalized under previous coach Bruce Larson.
Snowden grew up in Detroit, went to high school there and met his wife Maya while attending Wayne State in Michigan. He coached at the high school level in Michigan before serving as an assistant at Michigan under Dave Strack and Johnny Orr.
After Strack was hired as Arizona’s athletic director, he brought Snowden on board as a historical hire for African-Americans.
Snowden beat Big Ten schools for Norman and Money out of Detroit’s Kettering High School.
Fleming appeared to be favoring Louisville according to media reports before Snowden made a last-ditch effort.
“We’re going after the same blue-chippers that all the top basketball schools are after,” Snowden told the Citizen.
Snowden’s first recruiting class of 1972 became labeled the “Kiddie Korps” by the Tucson media because of how as freshmen they changed the landscape of Arizona basketball. The Wildcats became more of a national entity, not a regional one in the WAC, because of what members of that recruiting class built.
The class other than Fleming:
- Ron Allen, guard, Neosho County (Kan.) Junior College
- John Irving, forward, Wilmington (Del.) Howard High School
- Eric Money, guard, Detroit Kettering High School
- Coniel Norman, guard, also from Kettering
- Jim Rappis, guard, Waukesha (Wis.) High School
- Jim Wakefield, forward, Aurora (Colo.) Junior College
Irving transferred after his freshman season to Hofstra. He became the nation’s leading rebounder there in 1974-75.
Money, Norman, Fleming and Rappis (all standout recruits from Big Ten country) are one of the best foursomes in a class historically for the Wildcats based on pure talent. Fleming and Rappis were essential to Arizona’s Elite Eight appearance in 1976. Allen, Norman and Money became tri-captains in 1973-74. Money and Norman declared hardship for the NBA draft after two years at Arizona.
Fleming remains Arizona’s career rebounding leader (1,190) and he also had the career scoring record at 1,765 points from 1972-76 before it was broken by his best friend and roommate Bob Elliott the next season.
Fleming still holds the school record for career double-doubles (53), a stat that was not tracked during his playing days and became essential to him finally earning a place in Arizona’s Ring of Honor 45 years after his Wildcat career concluded.
Elliott, who is in the Ring of Honor, broke Fleming’s school scoring record with 2,131 points in 1977 and held that distinction until Sean Elliott (no relation) passed it in 1989 with 2,555.
“Every time I think of Al, I think of the two of us, No. 54 and No. 55,” said Elliott, who wore No. 55. “All three years we were teammates we roomed together on the road. We lived together my sophomore year (when Fleming was a junior). Al was also my best man at my wedding after that sophomore year.
“We’re brothers from another mother. In fact, when Al passed, his mom said I’m now Albert to her. Not to take anything away from (new Arizona football coach Jedd) Fisch, it’s personal. This one right here (the Ring of Honor induction) for Al, it’s personal.”
Arizona Fleming is now 87, still residing in Michigan City with most of her family.
Evelyn said their mom was named Arizona after her aunt.
“We called her Aunt Zone, so we never knew her name was Arizona,” Evelyn said. “We asked our mom, ‘Where did you get the name? Is it a family name? From bloodlines? Are we from Arizona?
“She said, ‘No, I was named after Aunt Zone.’ I said, ‘Aunt Zone?’ She said, ‘Yeah, her name was Arizona. My mom really liked her, so she named me after her.'”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.