When Mike Byars left Dunbar in 1997, he was part of the class that had the dubious distinction of becoming the first group of seniors under legendary coach Robert Hughes to never make a trip to the state basketball tournament during their career.
Since Hughes took over at Dunbar in 1973, no senior had gone four years without at least one trip to Austin.
Byars continued his college career at Miami and Northwestern State and then professionally overseas for several years. But his Dunbar legacy had a hole in it.
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He brought the life and legacy of the greatest coach in the history of high school basketball to the big screen.
Byars — the writer, director, producer and sole financier — premiered the movie at a packed black-tie gala at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Thursday night. In attendance was Hughes, his son Bob. Jr., the current coach at Dunbar, and the rest of the Wildcat family along with Fort Worth civic and school district dignitaries and Dallas Mavericks legend Michael Finley.
“I wanted to do this because I want people to know who he is and what he did not just for me, or players, but for Stop Six and Fort Worth,” Byars said. “Coach was more than just coach here. He was everybody’s hero. Some people viewed him as a dad or an uncle or a grandfather. He meant someone to everyone here in east Fort Worth. He is somebody who should be cherished.”
Hughes, who turns 91 next week, suffers a little memory loss as he deals with the effects of aging, but he remains striking, tall and as dignified as ever.
The self-proclaimed Sultan of Stop Six, who once told me I got demoted to the Cowboys beat from covering Dunbar, no longer had the fiery bite that allowed him to make 17 trips to the state tournament, winning five state titles and more games (1,333) than anyone in high school basketball history during a 36-year career between I.M. Terrell and Dunbar.
Hughes was hard on his boys and ruled with an iron fist. His discipline was rooted in love. It wasn’t just about basketball. He was teaching boys, who had to avoid gang violence to get to school and the gym, to become men.
He wasn’t always kind to the media, other coaches or basketball officials because of a life of dealing with racism, discrimination, and criticism before, during and after integration.
He was always fighting for his boys, his school, his rightful place, his teams.
But he was caught smiling Thursday night.
As much as Hughes deserved to be inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor that came in 2017 after so many years of waiting, his best and most worthy accomplishments were the lives and achievements of his players.
They are now a fraternity and a brotherhood that represent what Hughes did on and off the court as a father figure.
Byars’ documentary chronicles Hughes’ journey from growing up in rural Oklahoma to a stint in the military before coming back to star in college at Texas Southern, only to see his NBA basketball dreams with the Boston Celtics end because of a torn Achilles. He then reinvented himself and lived out his true destiny as the winningest high school basketball coach in history and molder of men.
The premiere on Thursday was a homecoming and a family gathering that tugged on the heartstrings as players laughed, cried and remembered the man who started it all and meant so much, not just to Dunbar but the entire Fort Worth community.
Hughes and Dunbar put Fort Worth on the national map long before cattle drives in the stockyards, the mechanical bull at Billy Bobs or even Heisman Trophy winner LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU.
Now Byars has immortalized him on the big screen with an emotional and endearing documentary ensuring that his legacy and impact will carry on for generations to come.
“5700 Ramey Ave: The Robert Hughes Story” will be shown again to the public at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Saturday, May 11. Show times are 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.