Everyone in the Wisconsin prep boys basketball world knew James Smallins Sr. was a generous, humble and wise giant who trod lightly in their midst.
He was the man who coached hoops royalty like Ellis Turrentine, Clarence Sherrod and NBA legend “Downtown” Freddy Brown at Milwaukee Lincoln in the mid-1960s when that school rolled out one great team after another, routinely scoring more than 100 points a game, taking on all comers and winning WIAA state titles in the one-class years of 1966 and 1967.
How good were those teams?
For one, I and many, many others will argue anyone to the end of time that there was no better backcourt in state hoops history other than the pairing of Sherrod and Brown.
But Smallins, a worthy member of many halls of fame, who we lost much too soon at the still young at heart age of 85 on June 18, was much more than the hoops junkie who came out of Indiana and inherited a great Lincoln program from the late Dick Wadewitz and made it even better.
He was an educator and humanitarian first. In a 2014 article I wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal on the Comets, Smallins told me how much in demand Lincoln was for high-profile non-conference matchups, particularly by up-state, largely white teams wanting to burnish their reputations.
But Smallins wanted more out of those games. He would only agree to them with a set of conditions, ones that were ground-breaking in the racially-charged era of the 1960s.
An African-American, Smallins wanted home stays in the communities his Comets would travel to instead of hotel rooms. That way, his African-American players and their white hosts would hopefully learn a little bit more about each other.
“I wanted my kids to see what others were like,” he told me at the time, “and I wanted them (the residents of the other communities) to see what we were like. If a team said ‘no’ (to the home stays), then we didn’t play them.”
Smallins would also arrange talks in those schools, speaking to the student body, sprinkling his players in among the group, helping to get people of different racial groups and economic classes used to one another.
“It was a matter of respect,” Sherrod said at the time of Smallins’ philosophy. “In order to gain their respect, you had to respect them (too).”
Smallins would step back from active head coaching in the late 1960s, finishing his distinguished education career with a long run in administration, but in the last couple of decades, he came back to basketball, running camps and coaching teams at Holy Family Church.
He also became a regular fixture at the Whitefish Bay High School Fieldhouse as an assistant coach to a number of much younger Blue Duke head coaches, offering sage advice to them when the heat was on and being an arm around the shoulder to anyone in the program who was a little unsure of himself.
Former Bay assistant coach Ron Radmer was at the crowded funeral for Smallins at Wisconsin Memorial Park in Brookfield on June 25. Radmer was holding back tears when he told me of a story from a few years ago, when both his parents died not too far apart. Smallins recognized Radmer’s sadness and offered him quiet and hopeful words of advice and consolation, words that Radmer still treasures to this day.
“You could talk to him about anything,” Radmer said. “It didn’t have to be related to basketball at all.
“And for many years, one of my great joys was, was that I was the one who was responsible for making sure there was a chair for coach (Smallins) to sit on during practice (laughs).”
Smallins was a proud member of that Bay staff and among the memorabilia at the funeral which included Milwaukee Lincoln treasures and pictures of his beloved family, was a great photo of the surprising 2011 WIAA state D2 champion Bay Blue Dukes. At the center of the stylized, dressed up happy photo was Smallins standing side-by-side next to young head coach Kevin Lazovik.
Family writ large and small was always important to this man. Smallins was married for 62 years to the lovely Roberta and to honor his love for her at the service, Percy Sledge’s immortal love song “When a man loves a woman” was played on a repeatedly loop. He was also a father, grandfather and great grandfather.
His basketball family was also there at Memorial Park in large number. Remembering his excellence and honoring his wisdom.
I will always be grateful to Coach Smallins for his generosity and his friendship, offering me much time and insight on a couple of other stories for NOW Newspapers as well as the State Journal piece. Those interviews are major highlights in my 30-plus year career.
I will also remember with a smile, his work in a decidedly non-basketball related venture. Those efforts were not quite as dramatic as coaching teams to state titles, but meant just as much if not more to the kids involved.
His coffin was not only bedecked with basketball related treasures including a Lincoln Comets t-shirt, but also with the jackets and caps he wore for many years as a meet official at the WIAA state track meet each June.
His primary duties at state track in the later years of his work (which ended only a short time ago), were ushering into the teeming and noisy press pit at UW-La Crosse, the state medal winners after they had had their moment in the sun on the awards podium.
It is sometimes hard for people to get attention in the pit with all us scribes and photographers worrying about the next event and our deadlines, but Smallins, with his smooth, strong, commanding baritone voice made sure we all turned our attention to the athletes he escorted in.
“Here are your state (fill in the event) champions,” he would boom. “Make sure to talk to them and write good things about them. They’ve worked hard and they’ve earned it!”
We would do as he instructed because we knew he was right about the kids, as he was with many things.
The following was a short eulogy that was written on the front of his lovely funeral card. One that shows him in a rare moment of leisure on a tropical porch, on a beautiful sunny day with palm trees just outside the deck, but still with a clipboard in hand ready to get some things done:
“Jim was strong, wise, dedicated and caring. He knew what he did today made a difference in all his tomorrows. He looked out for the community, his friends and most of all his family. He was all this and more, and we honor him today and always.
“We love you and miss you.”
And just for good measure, we’ll keep a chair open for you should you ever come by to watch practice.