A.E. ‘Abe' Lemons, former hoops coach, dies

<B>Abe Lemons</b>, the unorthodox former UT coach with the sidesplitting wit, died Monday after battling Parkinson's disease. He was 79 years old.

Lemons helped put the Texas basketball program on the national radar screen from 1977 to 1983 by compiling a 110-63 record, and winning the 1978 National Invitational Tournament back when it still meant something. (The upset of North Carolina State in the final was enough to propel Texas to a No. 17 national rank, unheard of for the Longhorn basketball program at the time).

When Texas beat No. 3 Arkansas at the Erwin Center the following season, fans and motorists descended on Guadalupe Street in spontaneous revelry as if it were a big-time football victory. The next year the ‘Horns won the Southwest Conference championship, advancing to the NCAA Tournament (when the field was limited to 32 teams). His final season saw the resurgent Longhorns rise to No. 5 in the nation, upsetting Arkansas again, before the wheels came off with forward Mike Wacker's knee injury at Baylor. Texas never recovered, losing that game and dropping 13 of the next 15. Second-year athletic director DeLoss Dodds fired Lemons at the end of the season.

I remember the first time I met Lemons, as well as the last time I saw him. The first time I was a UT journalism major and was making extra income on the side by working for one of those, ahem, unofficial sports publications targeting Longhorn athletics. Lemons was at least 30 minutes late for our interview, but he finally sauntered in, with that icon of an unlit cigar pressed between his lips, and stared me down as if I was the tardy one.

"Who the hell are you?", he said.

I introduced myself. Lemons turned to his secretary and asked, "Well, what the hell does he want?"

He winked at me and we spent the next hour in his office, talking hoops as if we were old war buddies.

The last time was when Lemons was present at retirement ceremonies for former Texas guard Johnny Moore at the Alamodome when the San Antonio Spurs retired the number of his professional playing jersey.

By this time, Parksinsons disease had so caught up with Lemons that his hand holding his microphone shook repeatedly against the chest. I was not the only one stunned to see the effects of both age and the disease upon the man who compiled a 599-433 record during 34 years of coaching.

Typical, Lemons diffused the situation with humor.

"I've got Parkinson's, but don't tell the people in Oklahoma," he said. "They think I got rhythm."

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