Boys Basketball

‘Loner’ Robert Hughes finally ‘going to that thing’

The winningest boys basketball coach in America, Robert Hughes, will accept the sport’s highest honor — induction in to the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — Friday in Springfield, Mass., at a gala event packed with the game’s biggest names and stars.

Don’t be surprised if he’s off reading a book somewhere.

“The first thing I do when I leave the hotel is take me a book,” he said during an interview at his home last week, where he was making his preparations for the trip. “If I see anybody coming, I can act like I’m reading, and they can keep on walking.”

He paused.

He smiled his trademark mischievous half-smile. But if you waited long enough, he’d stop smiling. Because he wasn’t really kidding.

“I’m basically a loner.”

That’s how Robert Hughes, 89, thinks of himself — has always thought of himself — despite retiring in 2005 as the national leader in high school boys basketball victories, celebrated as a legend in Tarrant County athletic annals. He won 1,333 games in a 47-year coaching career at two Fort Worth high schools, segregation-era and now closed I.M. Terrell, and Paul L. Dunbar.

He collected five state championships, three at Terrell and two at Dunbar.

Proud, fiery and determined on the court — traits reflected in his teams — Hughes could be a mystery off the court.

But he liked it that way.

“I’ve always been basically quiet,” said Hughes, a widower for four years. “I don’t know where I got that from. Ever since I was knee-high to a duck. I know I’m a loner. That’s one of the things that made it easy. If someone asks me to make a talk somewhere, it won’t be a long speech. But I had a gift for being able to push a guy to play the best that he can play. And I am a voracious reader. I read everything.”

Fire and brimstone

Was he aloof? Sometimes.

Annoyed by UIL rules? Sure.

Outspoken with his superiors? Take a wild guess.

But Hughes was courteous with reporters and the public, strict with his players and demanding as a parent.

There were not many coaches doing things his way when he started at Terrell in 1958. At least it seemed that way to him, a loner. An outsider.

Except with kids.

From the time he started as a 30-year-old coach at Terrell until he retired at age 76, having also coached volleyball at Dunbar for 20 years, he had a knack for connecting with and motivating students and players.

“This is one of those blessings I had,” he said. “That was the ability to talk and communicate with kids. And it didn’t matter whether they were basketball players or tiddly-winks players or boys or girls or athletes or non-athletes,” he said. “If you were at Terrell High School, I was going to talk with you. I was going to let you know some things. I said, ‘I will never throw you under the bus. But sometimes, I will have fire and brimstone.’ 

Fire and brimstone? Loner? Outsider?

It all makes former Fort Worth school district deputy superintendent Walter Dansby nod.

“He came in and pushed the envelope on basketball and the importance of basketball in Fort Worth, where like in the state of Texas, it was football country,” he said. “Gymnasiums in Texas, in my youth, were closed in football season. In my junior high days and part of my high school days, the gymnasium doubled as the auditorium. So most of the time, before basketball season, you had no place to play but outside.

“So, being an outsider? I can understand how he felt he was an outsider when he first got here.”

‘Tough as nails’

Former Fort Worth school district athletic director Paul Galvan said Hughes at least made his concerns known directly, whether it was about officials or facilities or more time for basketball and, in rare cases, conflict with rival coaches or parents.

“People used to accuse him of doing a bunch of stuff,” Galvan said. “But they could never say this is what happened. Jealousy was involved in that. But he just did his business. He wasn’t somebody that was looking for attention or wanted to put himself in the public eye. He just did his job.”

“I was a guy that was tough as nails,” Hughes said. “I wasn’t going to donate you anything. I think this just ran people bananas.”

Clearly, that part of Hughes’ personality came from his upbringing on a farm with six brothers and one sister. His older brothers demanded excellence in his work, no matter his age. And when they played basketball in the dirt, it was the same.

“They are probably the best thing I could have found,” he said. “None of them was a smoker or a drinker. They gave plenty of advice. They said, ‘You’re going to work? You need to be the best worker. Period. No excuses. You need to be the top worker.’ Well, that’s what I did in basketball when I was a player. ‘If you play basketball, you need to be the best player, period.’ 

Outsider no more

At this point, it’s hard to argue Hughes — a former McDonald’s All-America Game coach, national high school coach of the year, Morgan Wooten Lifetime Achievement Award winner and High School Basketball Hall of Famer — wasn’t the best high school boys basketball coach, period.

But Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame status was not automatic. It took three tries before Hughes got the necessary votes.

“I’ve been around him all my life. I never heard him complain about not being in there,” Dansby said. “I think he understood that he’s deserving of that honor. You’ve got to understand that most African-American coaches, especially his age, went through a lot before they ever got to this stage. That kind of thing is nothing new to them. Sometimes it’s something that you expect to happen.

“But it’s happened now. We can celebrate the fact that he has made it, that he is a Naismith Hall of Famer now, whatever it took to get there.”

That’s among the best of the best. In days, in ceremony and spectacle, Hughes will join their ranks.

“An outsider,” he said. “But I’m going to that thing.”

He will have his book.

Carlos Mendez: 817-390-7760, @calexmendez

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