Ernie McCray: Thinking about some guys who fought like Wildcats

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 now-defunct and has continued to offer his opinion and insight with McCray also writes blogs for

I’ve been thinking of my Wildcats over there at the U of A. They got ousted in the first round of March Madness the other day by Wichita State who, as they say, “came to play.” I mean really came to play.

Arizona did too, but it was one of those games that all ballers find themselves in every now and then where the ball just won’t bounce right, where the strings on the rim seem too tight and you can’t do a damn thing right, tripping over yourself, everywhere you step the other team is already there, in your way, in perfect rhythm, like they’re practicing plays in a workout, all over the place, in the right place, setting the pace, catching all the breaks, breaks they don’t need, stealing passes in the lane, getting blocked out and getting the rebound anyway.

In other words, it just wasn’t my guys’ day. I felt for them, because like the players on all the teams in the tournament, they worked hard to get there. But I love it that they scratched and crawled and gave it their all, in the spirit of the sacred “They fought like Wildcats” or “There are no quitters in the university,” sentiments that are at the core of Arizona sports lore.

But what happened to them is the beauty of the tournament: having to win the game. You might be able to beat the other team ninety-nine out of a hundred times but that means nothing if you lose this one time.

When you look at the whole season, though, this team fought like Wildcats all year. I have images from the season in my mind: Allonzo Trier, a gifted freshman who makes the game look so easy; Ryan Anderson banging the boards with all his heart, making the hard shots, getting to loose balls; Gabe York letting it fly with a hot hand, to beat the band, rallying the troops; Kaleb Tarczewski, giving it the old college try, putting his game together, piece by piece, getting better everyday; Kadeem Allen doing whatever needs to be done; all the guys playing their roles… They’re all winners.

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)

(Flickr Commons)

(Flickr Commons)

I can’t help but reflect on how different these Wildcats experiences are from mine. I came along, in the late 50’s, when Arizona basketball was in a rapid decline.

Fred Enke, my legendary coach, was falling behind the times as the game was changing, moving on from two-handed and one-handed set shots to jump shots and running hook shots and no-look passes and guys beginning to jump out of the gym, clearing the way for the alley oop action of today.

Recruiting more and more became the name of the game, with coaches having to sit in a family’s living room and talk them and their son to come play for their school as opposed to choosing some other school. That just wouldn’t have been Fred’s forte at all. But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing ball at the college level. We took what we had and did the best we could with it. In the process we lost a lot of games.

In spite of that I got a nice dose of personal acclaim that later landed me in the Hall of Fame and I left the university with two college degrees and a wonderful life lying ahead of me.

But these guys today. They’re having the greatest of times. They’ve got tons of passionate fans who follow them religiously. They get to play on national TV, fairly regularly, in pretty shoes under the tutelage of a master coach, in a spectacular arena (I played in the old Bear Down Gym). I couldn’t envision such a scenario when I was playing 56 years ago.

They took their hoops skill to Tucson and upon their arrival they stepped into a winning atmosphere with much expected of them, a winning tradition, elite training facilities, tutors, new modern buildings.

They’ve got access to some of the finest professors one can find at a university that has come a long way since my day.

They’re being educated in a city that’s come a long way too, a city that’s somewhat a beacon of light in a state that has a rough time growing up and acting responsibly in matters of basic human relations, in matters of fairness and justice.

They’re being educated at a time when the country isn’t faring too well along these lines either. So I hope they’re using the university’s resources to truly expand their minds, to explore ideas of how they can best make a difference in a world that desperately needs their intelligence and their drive, their proven ability to work hard and commit to pursuits of excellence.

I hope they find out early on what I’ve come to understand over the years as a basketball player and a scholar, that there will always be much to learn and always room for growing as a human being in this life.

Those who seek a better world have to “Bear Down,” and “Fight like Wildcats” pretty much all their lives.

Life is very much like March Madness. One has to give it all he’s got. These guys should find no problem with that.

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