E.A. Sports Today

Firsts and ‘legends’

Players from the first Calhoun County tournaments for boys, girls get one more time to shine in pregame recognitions

Former White Plains basketball player Alvin Robertson presents the game ball to officials as former teammate Charles Thornburg looks on before Friday’s boys Calhoun County championship game in Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Joe Medley)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE – It was 43 years ago, long enough that only the memories that came stamped with emotion remain vivid. The first sensations of the first girls’ Calhoun County basketball tournament remain fresh for Laura Gunnells Gilmour.

A team that might play before 10 people during afternoon matinee games in their home gym at Anniston High walked onto a college court, at Pete Mathews Coliseum, for the first time in 1979. They saw cheerleaders. They saw more than 10 fans.

“It was so much fun to play in a bigger place with lots of people screaming and yelling and cheerleaders,” Gilmour said. “The cheerleaders came out for us for the first time, and that’s what was so exciting.”

Gilmour and four of her Anniston teammates were among seven county-tournament pioneers recognized before Friday’s championship games. She and Katrina Dorsey, Stephanie McBride, Michelle Oliver and Ceclia Whatley presented officials the game ball before the girls’ final between top seed Oxford and No. 2 Anniston.

They were part of Anniston teams that won the first three county girls’ tournaments, in 1979, 1980 and 1981.

Charles Thornburg and Alvin Robertson, members of the 1951-52 White Plains team that played Anniston in the first-ever county tourney, presented the game ball before the boys’ final between top seed Jacksonville and No. 2 Oxford.

All seven former players were part of organizers’ efforts to recognize “Legends of the Game.”

The first boys’ tournament was played at Saks.

“It was quite a thrill, to get to have a county tournament,” the 88-year-old Thornberg said. “That was the first tournament that I remember. It was something different than just going out and playing a game.”

Robertson, 89, has endeavored to find former players from that first boys’ tournament.

“I was trying to find all of the players that are still living,” he said. “As far as I can find out, Piedmont doesn’t have any. Jacksonville has got one. I cannot find out about Anniston and Ohatchee. I’ve called about everybody I know.

“There’s not but about six or eight left.”

Seeing the former Anniston girls’ players recognized brought back memories for long-time coach Eddie Bullock, who coached Anniston’s girls to their first-ever state title in 2020 and 12 of their 21 county titles. He graduated with Gilmour, who was a freshman in 1978-79.

He played pick-up games with members of the girls’ team.

“They were tough, all of them girls,” he said. “They could play. They were probably a little bit tougher and a little bit bigger then these girls (today’s players). Skill wise, it’s hard to say, because these players are pretty skilled.”

The first girls’ county tournament came seven years after Title IX. 

Oliver was a senior in 1979, and that tournament came within the larger context of the “great time” she had with her former teammates. 

“We had great teams and great camaraderie,” she said. “We had a lot of laughs together.”

Part of their camaraderie involved afternoons at Gilmour’s house. As athletes, they had seventh period off and went to her house, before returning to school for practice.

“We would raid the refrigerator, make sandwiches, eat and watched soap operas and then headed off to practice,” Gilmour said. “My parents never knew.”

Oliver called it “neat” when they learned they would play in a county tournament for the first time. When learning they would have a county tournament, Anniston’s players pictured a showdown with Oxford on the county’s biggest stage for basketball.

“Oxford may have been our biggest competition,” Dorsey said. “We may have been looking forward to playing them again, because we always had a home and away game with them, so we always looked forward to playing them.”

Anniston beat Jacksonville 52-32 in the final of that 1979 tournament. They went on to beat Oxford in the 1980 final and Alexandria in 1981.

Anniston won four of the first five girls’ county tourneys.

“We were beating the brakes off of everybody,” McBride said.

Game memories from the 1979 tournament have grown fuzzy over time. For Whatley, Anniston’s point guard, one steal and layup against Oxford remains vivid.

“I couldn’t make a layup,” she said. “At this particular time, I made a layup, and we got back in the game.”

Oliver called her only county-tourney experience “something special.”

“I wish I’d played in it more often than just the one year,” she said.

Players who played in Oxford’s 56-38 victory over Anniston in Friday’s title game likely can’t conceive of a day when there was no county tournament for girls. The players of yesteryear couldn’t conceive of their moment’s significance. 

“We didn’t even know what we were doing,” Dorsey said. “We didn’t know we were at the beginning of Title IX, so we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and now they reap the benefits. All of the foundation was built, and they reap the benefits of it, and that’s pretty cool. 

“They can’t conceive of it, and I’m glad they don’t have to.”

Ohatchee’s Kelbe (L) and Jorda Crook display the giant scholarship checks they received for winning their respective fan voting in F&M Bank’s Half-Court Shot promotion. Jorda took the shot for $10,000 at halftime of the boys championship game and missed the mark.

Gave it a shot

Ohatchee senior Jorda Crook was a little nervous when she took the floor for her mid-court shot for $10,000 as the top vote-getter in F&M Bank’s Fan Favorite poll for the Calhoun County Tournament.

And she gave it a valiant effort, although her shot was a bit strong, banking off the backboard and the rim before falling away.

“I knew it was off, but I was a little bit nervous, so it’s OK,” she said.

Jorda practiced the shot a little before coming back to Pete Mathews Coliseum and even hit one in practice Tuesday. But there was no such luck Friday, when the shot counted for $10,000 to be split between the school and the player.

She hit the the square near the back of the iron, briefly rolled along the right side of the rim and fell to the floor.

“I did not want an air ball,” she said.

Still, she and cousin Kelbe Crook each walked away with a $500 scholarship for being the top male and female vote-getters in their respective polls. – Al Muskewitz

Ticket sales

The Calhoun County Tournament sold approximately 1,800 for the championship round, bringing the total ticket sales to more than 6,500 for the week.

Cover photo: Members of the Anniston team that won the first Calhoun County girls’ basketball tournament in 1979: (from left) Laura Gilmour, Stephanie McBride, Michelle Oliver, Cecila Whatley and Katrina Dorsey. (Photo by Joe Medley)

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