Johnny Jones' hoops roots go deep

DeRidder, La., is a sleepy place.

Culturally, it's where the Baptist churches and La-Tex twangs of north Louisiana begin to give way to the Catholic churches and spicy Cajun tones of south Louisiana. Economically, it's all about its paper mill and Fort Polk, the United States Army base about 15 minutes north of town.

It hardly fits the stereotype of a basketball hotbed. It's way too small for inner-city slick, too Southern for Midwestern farm-boy fundamentals.

But in the 1960s and 70s, the quintessential Bible Belt town that's the gateway to the central Louisiana forests was, indeed, a hoops hotbed. It produced state titles and title contenders on high school teams. First it was from the separate black and white high schools in segregation days, then when the two schools merged into a single DeRidder High.

There were players who were drafted into the NBA -- three in a 25-year span. And there were college players, tons of them, many of whom decided to stay with the game they loved after they were done playing.

And because of that, years later, we get reminded of how good a basketball town DeRidder was back then.

Like last week when Johnny Jones, the "Bullet" at DeRidder High in the late 1970s, became the head basketball coach at LSU.

Deep roots

"It's kind of exciting when you think about it," said Dale Skinner, now an aging principal at Natchitoches Central High School in North Louisiana. In 1977, he was the head basketball coach at DeRidder High, about an hour south of Natchitoches, when he coached a 41-1 state runner-up DeRidder Dragons team. "Until Johnny got the LSU job, I hadn't really thought of it much, but it's really something," he said.

What's exciting for Skinner is the thought that three players in his program during the 1977 season -- Jones, a freshman, Dave Simmons, a senior, and Mike Sanders, a junior -- have all gone on to coaching prominence.

Simmons has been the head coach at McNeese State, a Southland Conference program two hours west of LSU in Lake Charles, La., since 2006. Sanders, a former NBA journeyman player who played collegiately at UCLA, is in his first season as the Utah Jazz manager of player development after he forged a coaching career mostly as a minor league head coach in his post-playing days.

And Jones, the youngest of the DeRidder three, is the first to get a job as head coach at a power conference program following an 11-year run at North Texas.

"DeRidder was a great basketball town," Jones said Monday after he was introduced as LSU's head coach. "I'm proud to be from there. It helped me become what I am."

A town's pride

Simmons said there was no magical formula to DeRidder's success in that era. Players weren't being "recruited" from neighboring towns and there wasn't a magical bloodline. It was simply in the culture of the town.

"It's what we did," said Simmons, who saw his senior season of 1977 get to 41-0 before ending with an upset loss to suburban New Orleans power power Archbishop Rummel in the Class AAAA state championship game. "Basketball was the main thing in DeRidder."

In the West Central parishes of Louisiana, that's not unusual. Tiny towns, many too small to even have football teams, thrive on a basketball-centric sports culture. While DeRidder is bigger than most of those towns and the high school has a football program, basketball is where it has historically made its mark.

In the 1950s, a forward from DeRidder named Bob McCoy went to Grambling and eventually was drafted by the Detroit Pistons. He attended Carver, the town's black high school.

"Both Carver and DeRidder were really strong," Simmons recalled. "So when they brought the two together, it was like they were forming an all-star team."

DeRidder had its best run in the early 1970s. With a thriving forestry industry and Fort Polk at its peak, DeRidder's population boomed. In 1970, the school won the state's Class AA state title. A year later, an integrated DeRidder team won the state's Class AAA championship.

DeRidder continued to have success. In 1974 it produced a power forward named John Rudd, who went on to star at McNeese, then played for a season for the New York Knicks.

When Skinner got the DeRidder job a year later, he expected the school's growing enrollment -- by then it was competing in Class AAAA, at the time the state's highest enrollment class -- to produce more big men like Rudd.

"But when I met the team -- I had about 45-50 in the room -- I had them stand up and not many were much taller than me, and I'm 5-foot-9," he said.

But they could play. Inside, he had the 6-foot-5 Sanders, who shot 74 percent from the floor in 1977. Simmons was a 6-1 point guard bound for Louisiana Tech. They formed a tough, smart nucleus. Jones was a young up-and-comer in the program.

They had grown up playing together at "The Pool" -- a local public court located near a municipal pool -- often against past DeRidder greats. Simmons said Robert Willis, a guard from the early 1970s-era whom they competed against at The Pool, was the best guard he ever played against.

"We were younger, so we had to learn to be tough if you wanted to stay on the court at The Pool," Simmons said.

Jones, Simmons and Sanders would often go together. Or, they would make the trip to Fort Polk and play against servicemen.

"Bring five dollars for food and drinks and you'd play all day," he recalled.

Toughened by adult competition and disciplined by the demanding Skinner -- "If you can put up with me, you'll be tough enough to play for any college coach," Skinner said -- they formed a nearly unstoppable nucleus.

In the 1976-77 season, they swept through big preseason tournaments, including a blowout win over Rummel in the finals of the prestigious Lake Charles American Press Tournament.

"Losing never entered our mind," Simmons said.

Until the final game, when Rummel got its revenge for the loss at the American Press tournament, winning the state title 52-48 in Lake Charles.

"We had the best team," Simmons recalled, "but they were the better team that night."

Changing times

After the 1977 season, the trio started to drift separate ways. Simmons went north to Louisiana Tech and a year later, much to the chagrin of Skinner, who wanted him closer to home, Sanders headed west to UCLA.

Two years later, Jones finished a prep All-American career and headed to LSU, where he went to the Final Four as a freshman. All three went straight into coaching when they were done playing (for Sanders, that didn't happen until after an 11-year run as a pro player).

But they've always stayed in touch with each other.

"I'm not surprised with any of them," Skinner said. "Dave's done well (McNeese won the 2011 SLC championship and went to the NIT), Mike was in the NBA for 11 years, so he shouldn't have to worry about much, and I truly believe that in three to four years Johnny will have LSU competing for national championships."

DeRidder basketball hasn't been the same since the trio left. Simmons thinks it's because the past greats have left town. Rudd settled near Lake Charles. The three coaches have gone where their jobs have taken them. DeRidder's run on talent lasted into the 1980s to forward Wayne Sims, who played on the 1986 Final Four LSU team. But Sims lives in Baton Rouge.

In November, there will be a DeRidder hoops reunion of sorts. McNeese will visit Baton Rouge for a game scheduled for Nov. 15. Sims, whose son attends LSU Laboratory School and will be a promising high school freshman next season, will likely be there to watch. Skinner will certainly be invited.

"I don't know if Baton Rouge will pack the house, but if they don't, DeRidder will," Simmons said.

McNeese goes to LSU most years. Like many mid-majors, it visits larger schools for needed cash guarantees. But now, Simmons thinks he has an angle to getting LSU to come to Lake Charles.

"Tell Johnny he owes me a return game," Simmons said. "And tell him if they don't, I know all the stuff on him from growing up. ... I'll use it."