Vanderbilt alumni and boosters gathered March 10, 2000 at the Atlanta downtown Sheraton to pay tribute to the school's first true basketball great, Billy Joe Adcock. Adcock, who graduated 50 years ago this spring, was honored by Vanderbilt and the SEC as a "Living Legend".
Today, sadly, I'm afraid that only a few Commodore fans with long memories comprehend the seminal place Adcock holds in Vanderbilt's storied basketball history. It's probably not an understatement to say that Commodore basketball history began in 1946 with Adcock's decision to accept a scholarship offer to attend Vanderbilt.
Oh sure, Vanderbilt had fielded basketball teams as far back as the 1890's. But for most of the first half of the twentieth century, basketball was not taken seriously as a spectator sport, and few would have dared to dream that one day it might actually produce revenue for the school. Up until World War II, basketball was mostly looked upon as a way to keep football players in shape during cold winter months.
Hard as it is to believe today, Vanderbilt had no on-campus gymnasium suitable for spectators until 1952. The "Old Gym", as it was known, was an embarrassment-- during the Adcock era, Vandy home games were played in rented high school gyms, the old Hippodrome, and David Lipscomb's McQuiddy Gym.
Things began to change around the end of World War II. Seeing the success that the University of Kentucky and other northern schools were having with basketball, school officials drew up plans for a gym, and began discussing methods for how best to seek out and attract talented high school players.
As luck would have it, one of the best was right under their noses.
A few blocks down West End, a strapping young Adcock was building a reputation as one of Tennessee's most outstanding prep players ever. Under the tutelage of legendary coach Emmett Strickland [also now a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame], Adcock was leading West High School to a second straight state championship in the spring of '46.
College coaches were taking notice, and among them was Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp. "The Baron" attempted to entice Adcock to become part of his already established program in Lexington.
But the Vanderbilt braintrust, headed by Athletic Director Red Sanders, implored the young Adcock to stay close to home. They offered him the school's first ever basketball scholarship, and convinced the Adcock family that Billy Joe be the player to help the struggling Commodore program find its feet.
Adcock had almost literally grown up in the campus's backyard. Billy Joe's father, a projectionist at the Belle Meade Theater, had erected a backboard on the side of the family's garage, and had installed lights so that Billy Joe and the neighborhood kids could improve their skills after dark.
One of those neighborhood kids was Adcock's longtime friend, Bob Dudley Smith. Billy Joe would practice his shots until late into the night, remembers Smith. It was here that he developed his deadly aim from the right wing.
"Billy Joe could have played anywhere," says Smith, who played with Adcock at West High and later at Vandy. "But he decided to stay close to home and get Vandy's program off the ground. Vanderbilt basketball truly began when Billy Joe became the first scholarship player."
Freshmen were ineligible for varsity teams in those days, so Adcock didn't see his first varsity action until December, 1947. By that time Sanders had named Bob Polk the school's first full-time head coach. It was the dawn of the modern era of Vandy basketball.
The sharp-shooting, home-grown Adcock soon became a fixture at the right wing position, and went to work rewriting Vanderbilt's record books. In his sophomore year under Polk, Adcock led not only his team, but the whole SEC in scoring with 17.1 points per game. (Clyde Lee and Dan Langhi are the only other Commodores ever to win an SEC scoring crown.)
In 1947-48 Vanderbilt struggled to a record of 8-14, 4-11 in the SEC, good for the cellar. But the next year, with Polk calling the plays and Adcock filling the nets, things began to turn around: 14-8 overall, and a 9-7 mark in the SEC, the Commodores' best finish in the conference in 15 years. Adcock again led his team in scoring with 15.4 points per game.
Before Adcock's junior year, Vanderbilt would offer five more scholarships in basketball. One went to Smith, Adcock's former teammate at West High. Another went to Gene Southwood of Evansville, Indiana. At last, in his senior year, Adcock would have a worthy supporting cast.
In his senior season, 1949-50, Adcock led Vandy to an 11-3 SEC mark-- its best-ever SEC finish to that point-- and Adcock was named both All-American and SEC Most Valuable Player.
How dominant a player was Adcock? The legendary Rupp once supposedly said that he would "trade [his] whole team for one Billy Joe Adcock." Years later, even after the advent of run-and-gun basketball and the 3-point shot, Adcock remains #25 on Vandy's all-time scoring list.
Largely thanks to the national attention drawn by Adcock, the popularity of Commodore basketball began to mushroom. Polk's program began attracting more and better high school recruits. Roundball was at last recognized as a viable spectator sport, and a sport at which a private school like Vanderbilt could compete successfully. Athletic scholarships became commonplace.
Blueprints for a new gym had been waved under the noses of prospective recruits for several years, but it was the heady success of the Adcock era that finally got things in motion. Ground was finally broken in 1950 for Memorial Gymnasium, and the gym saw its first game in 1952. Memorial, which seated 6,583 in its original configuration, endures today as one of the grand, albeit unique, palaces of college basketball.
Despite his accolades and his place in Vandy lore, Adcock (today a sales rep in the St. Louis area) remains a humble man. "I don't know if I'm a 'Living Legend' or not... but I guess it beats the alternative," he quipped to an admiring audience.
Adcock also became the first Vanderbilt player ever drafted by the NBA. He was drafted by the Fort Wayne, Ind. franchise, but never played, electing instead to continue his education.
"It was a dream of mine, number one, to attend Vanderbilt, and number two, to play basketball," said Adcock, now in his 70's. "I was so fortunate to achieve both goals."
Unlike some athletes today who make their school choices based on what the school can do for them... "Living Legend" Billy Joe Adcock tearfully told well-wishers, "For four years, it was my supreme privilege to represent Vanderbilt. It was the greatest time of my life."
Today, every self-respecting Vanderbilt basketball fanatic should pause for a moment, bow towards Memorial Gym... and be grateful that, 54 years ago, this unassuming schoolboy legend decided to stay and play his college basketball close to home.