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Category:  Sports History
Published:  February, 1997

Playground of Champions

By Al Owens

Our family lived on Coolspring Street during my earliest years. We lived next door to a Uniontown High School basketball player named Jimmy Jones. Jimmy Jones became an All-Stater in his senior year.
By the time I reached fifth grade our family moved about two blocks away from East End playground. We just happened to move next door to another All-Stater named Mel Freeman.

Chances were good that if my family moved to 15 different East End homes in the 1960's we'd live no further away from an All-Stater than a few houses, every time we'd unpack. That's just the way it was.
I truly believe that any smart college coach could have stopped his car along any East End street, gone door-to-door starting at 9 a.m., and he could have recruited enough athletic talent for a national championship team by noon. Football or basketball. First and second teams!!!!

Woody Hayes, a coaching legend, came calling. He recruited an East End playground dweller by the names (you'll notice I wrote names) Lonnie, Barney Rubble, Cheese, Ray Ray, Lou or just plain Ray Gillian.

In the 1962 Rose Bowl game All-American and East End native Sandy Stephens threw for a pair of touchdowns to beat UCLA. Nine years later Ray Gillian took the East End back to the Rose Bowl. He scored on a 16 yard touchdown pass from fellow Ohio State Buckeye Rex Kern on their way to a national championship.

That touchdown was the capper in a 27-16 win over the USC Trojans, before a national television audience and President Richard Nixon who was at the game that day. It was the first time newly crowned Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson ever tasted defeat as a collegian, that is.

Later though, another former Fayette County resident and frequent East End playground visitor, Jim Braxton would step in to save O.J. Simpson. Dozens of times. University of West Virginia graduate Braxton was O.J.'s blocking back when they both played for the Buffalo Bills.

One of the most exciting people to ever visit East End playground never stopped long enough to say hello.
Starting in 1982, I began interviewing entertainers. First in Phoenix, Arizona then in Los Angeles, Wichita, Kansas and Seattle, Washington. That was my job. I've interviewed perhaps 2 thousand entertainers. Yet the hour and a half I spent interviewing Bill Cosby, or the time I was given a personal tour of Sammy Davis Jr.'s house didn't excite me as much as the day my father took me to see Joe Thomas' Trophies when I was in grade School.
And there were lots of Joe Thomas trophies. He'd won the state championship twice as a miler at Uniontown High School, and on July 19th, 1960 "Brother " Thomas was one tenth of a second away from winning the National High School Championship for the mile run.

He would have spent much more time at East End playground if he had stopped long enough to play there. Instead we'd just have to watch as Joe ran past over and over again. Joe practiced his particular talent every single day. The results produced state championships and records and a blur every time we thought we saw him.

You can't possibly mention East End playground without mentioning two magnificently talented people. When I moved away and joined the U.S. Air force, I was constantly amazed by people from all over
would always ask the same question when they found out where I was from. "Do you know the Yates Brothers."

The headline stealing, high flying, hard hitting, spinning, moving, shakin' 'n bakin' Yates brothers. Patrick and Donald (Ham and Doc) were among the very best to ever take the court at East End. You need 30 points from the outside? Go get Patrick. You need 38 points through the middle, find me Donald.

Ham, with a broken right hand, lead Uniontown High School to a State Championship in 1962, with his left hand. Doc played a major role in Uniontown's 1964 championship.

The other night I visited the Laurel Highlands-Monesson basketball game. January 17th, 1997 mind you. I was speaking to a man from Monesson. (Monesson was one of the few teams to beat Uniontown in the 1960's. 72-58 was the score. Uniontown returned the favor not once but twice by the end of that season.) The man I was speaking to asked me a question I haven't heard in many years. "Do you know the Yates Brothers"?

Of course I did what any loyal Red Raider fan would do under the circumstances. I said, "never heard of them". One never knows if he's a Monesson scout having a mid-sixties flashback.

That man like so many is fully aware of the PLAYGROUND OF CHAMPIONS, and what it meant. Yet something tells me those days or days like them, will never return. I don't think I'll ever know what created that environment. Some people I've spoken to have had their theories.

They say a strong competitive environment was established in Uniontown's grade schools, with Saturday morning basketball each winter. The YMCA had it's Church league too.

Of course that environment continued to thrive with two very competitive Junior High's. In the mid-sixties, a Ben Franklin-Lafayette basketball game got as much attention as most high school games. People also point to people like Lafayette's Junior High School Coach Bob Fee. A man who lived in the part of town in which he coached. A man who was obviously devoted to his youngsters.

East End also had the undying support of a man who was once Uniontown High School's basketball coach, who was now in charge of recreation for the city. J.S. "Bus" Albright was a tower of support for the potential which existed on East End playground.

And of course there was Spider Minor. The newspaper articles I read about him in 1947 proved he was nothing, if not a hard working athlete who cared about helping his team win. Those are the same qualities he instilled in each young athlete whom he prodded twenty years later on East End playground.

Bob Fee, "Bus" Albright and Spider Minor took young people and molded them into caring young people. Men who saw a worthy mission in winning a game. All three very nobel men.

But why can't East End playground happen today? I say look around you. People who've been allowed to think automatic weapons and drugs are the keys to manhood abound.
When I was growing up we knew the FUTURE FARMERS OF AMERICA, THE KEY CLUB, OR THE NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY were not knocking on East End doors, beckoning us. We did not feel so much like outsiders though.

Because well meaning adults taught us there was nobility in bouncing a basketball or in throwing one. Because those people understood that the tools for hard work and self-fulfillment can be honed anywhere. Even on a playground.

Perhaps that's all the East End needs now.