Respect on and off the court

By Monica Albert
Abe lemons, the wit
"Finish last in your league and they call you idiot. Finish last in medical school and they call you doctor."
— on the differences in the measure of success

Abe Lemons was known for his wit as well as his wisdom.

As one of Oklahoma's most successful basketball coaches in history, the former Oklahoma City University coach made a lasting impression on his peers, players and family.

Betty Lemons said the pride for her husband as a coach came second only to that of him as a family man who worked hard but balanced life well. And the famous sense of humor that first confused her became a treasured quality.

"I always admired him," she said. "His wit made it a fun life. What more can you ask for?"

To his players, he was a trusted leader and the kind of coach who could shout at you and you wouldn't get angry.

"The thing I will always remember about him is, he was always in your corner," former OCU player Hub Reed told The Oklahoman the year the coach retired.

To other coaches, he was a model and a friend, who gave honest answers and smart advice.

"Never did I talk to him that he didn't say something that was interesting and an extremely worthwhile point," said Eddie Sutton, then basketball coach at Oklahoma State University.

And to Lemons' family, he was a caring husband and father, a regular guy who liked to hang out at home.

"He left problems at the office," his wife Betty Lemons said. "When he came home he was just Abe."

Lemons began his collegiate career at Hardin University (Now Midwestern State University), playing there for one year.

Lemons was born in Walters, OK, in 1922 and graduated high school in 1941. After he and Betty married, Abe set out to fulfill his lifelong dream of coaching basketball. Lemons played basketball at Southwestern State Teachers College (now Southwestern Oklahoma State University) and OCU. Lemons won 599 games from 1955 to 1990, but the record does not come close to telling the whole story.

Abe lemons with 2 players

"I was at OCU 23 years and today I can give you the addresses of every kid who played for me and what he's doing now. To me, that's what coaching is all about."

— on the meaning of his career

Abe lemons, the wit
"One day of practice is like one day of clean living. It doesn't do you any good."
— on the importance of daily practice success

a life remembered

For Betty, memories of life with Abe tell a rich story of years well-lived.

During his life, Lemons was inducted into the All-College Hall of Fame, and of course, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, among other honors.

Lemons retired in 1990 but remained an active speaker. His wife recalls that he still joked easily, even about Parkinson's disease, which plagued him in his later years.

Since his death from Parkinson's complications in 2002, Abe's legacy has lived on in more ways than he might have imagined.

Betty has traveled to places as far as Madison Square Garden to receive the honors Abe did not live to see. This year alone, Abe was inducted into the University of Texas Pan-American (UTPA) Hall of Fame on Feb. 21, followed by the Sports Hall of Fame in Waco on March 4.

"It's very fulfilling," Betty said. "It's good to know people haven't forgotten him."

And the awards reach beyond basketball.

The Abe Lemons Memorial Hoopla is held every year in Oklahoma City to benefit those affected by Parkinson's disease.

The Jim Thorpe Association has several youth programs in Lemons' name, and created the Abe Lemons Award in 1990.

"We look for someone who shows dedication to Oklahoma and the goals of the association," said Draper, executive director of the Jim Thorpe Association. "Most important, reliability and dependability, qualities Abe was known for."

Abe lemons with a championship Trophy

"There are really only two plays: Romeo and Juliet, and put the darn ball in the basket."

— on the fundamentals of the sport

A sharp wit

Lemons' quick wit made him one of the most quoted coaches and was as much a part of his game plan as anything in the playbook.

"He became the state's humorist," Draper said, "and through that humor and his dedication, he became an icon throughout the nation."

Perhaps Abe's most significant legacy lives on at the school where he spent 25 years as a coach.

With the exception of a brief stint in Texas, Lemons spent his whole career at OCU, earning 432 wins and the admiration of past and present members of the school's community.

"People around here say his name a lot," said OCU Athletic Director Jim Abbott.

The campus bears OCU's pride for Abe well. The Abe Lemons Arena is the school's multipurpose arena that opened in 2002, with the coach present. In addition, the Abe Lemons OCU Golf Classic takes place every year to honor the coach who meant so many things to so many people.

"He was a coach, a friend, a humorist and an educator," Abbott said. "Not just in class, but in a life sense."

"You may be big in New York, but in Walters, Oklahoma, you're nobody."

— to broadcaster Howard Cosell after being questioned about holding a scrimmage at halftime

"I don't have any tricky plays. I'd rather have tricky players."

— in response to a question about his best plays

"Hey, some places this would be a foul!"

— while at the the scorers' table holding up a tooth that had been dislodged from a player's mouth

"How hard is it to coach track? Tell 'em to stay to the left and get back as fast as you can."

— after being fired by Texas athletics director and former Kansas State track coach Deloss Dodds

"I don't jog. If I die, I want to be sick."

— on why he didn't exercise daily

"Maybe it would be best for me to finish at 599. People seem to like you better when you finish just short."

— on losing the game that would have been his 600th career victory

Back to the top