Athens, Ala. – As representatives from the Huntsville Rockets football team walked into Applebee’s to come on Applebee’s Tailgate Talk, I noticed an older gentleman was with them. After the show was over, I went over to the table where he was sitting and introduced myself. We shook hands and he said, “I’m Robert L. Boykin.” As soon as he began talking, I knew I wanted to sit down and talk to him so I pulled up a chair. The conversation that day interested me so much that I wanted to talk to Mr. Boykin more, so I arranged a visit at his home in Huntsville. I wanted to know more from this man who served in WWII.
Robert L. Boykin was born in Woodland, Alabama, in Randolph County in 1923. Mr. Boykin described his family as “cane farmers.” Boykin said his grandfather, Mack Boykin, was a tough man, but a hospitable man. Being a successful farming family in first half of the 1900’s in the south, brought its share of challenges, but Boykin said his father, John W. Boykin, and grandfather, Mack, stood their ground. Boykin said his family was friends with both whites and blacks. When it came to his friendships, he said they respected each other.
Mr. Boykin attended Woodland High School and was a successful baseball player. Unfortunately, Mr. Boykin was sent to war before he could finish school. After finishing basic training in Ohio, Mr. Boykin served his country in the European Theater in Paris, France, during WWII. For a black man in the U.S. Army, life was different. Mr. Boykin spoke of having to stay on the bottom of a military ship and not being allowed to go to certain levels because of the color of his skin. On a positive note, Mr. Boykin told the story of becoming the driver for an Army general. He said that he was at his post when the general walked in. The general told him that he had seen him driving a truck and liked the way he drove. The general told Boykin that he wanted him to drive for him. Boykin said that he told the general he would have to get permission from the officer above him to leave his post. When he spoke with his ranking officer he told him that the general was above him, so he needed to do what the general requested. At that time, Boykin became the driver for the general and he would be the general’s driver throughout his time in the service.
During our conversation, Mr. Boykin described both good and bad experiences during WWII. At one point, he took out his billfold and pulled out a picture of him and a young boy. He said the boy was a young German he had come in contact with during the war in Europe.
These many years later, Mr. Boykin still expresses great sadness when talking about fellow comrades who were lost in battle. Like so many, the war had an powerful affect on Mr. Boykin’s life.
When Mr. Boykin came back to the States, he made his home in Ohio. With a love of baseball still in his heart, he said he tried out for the Detroit Tigers. Ultimately, he played some ball for a team in Dayton before finding success in small business. During our conversation, Mr. Boykin had held up his left hand to show me the affect of wearing a poorly made glove while playing third base. Of his small business, Boykin said he did very well selling cars and operating a car wash in nearby Pennsylvania.
During his time in business, although he still faced some adversity simply for the color of his skin, he said he provided many jobs to people both black and white. In spite of the times, Mr. Boykin was a fair man. Mr. Boykin attributed his treatment of others to the way that he was raised.
Mr. Boykin eventually found his way back to Alabama. He and his wife of 41 years, Merle, now call Huntsville home. At 93, Mr. Boykin enjoys watching the teams his son, Jason, coaches.
Whether it’s J.O. Johnson or the Huntsville Rockets, Mr. Boykin says he likes to talk to young people and encourage them. Mr. Boykin has much to share if people are willing to slow down and just pull up a chair.
Los Angeles, CA – In a recent interview on Applebee’s Tailgate Talk, five-time NBA All-Star player and two-time NBA World Championship Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said that his first love actually wasn’t basketball, but baseball. Tomjanovich grew up in Hamtramck, Michigan, which is surrounded by the City of Detroit. He said the recreational programs in that city were outstanding, especially when it came to baseball. In a city where it seemed all the boys grew up wanting to play baseball, young Rudy Tomjanovich went right along with them. When Tomjanovich was around 11 years old, Hamtramck won the 1959 Little League World Series. Some of the older boys that he played with, including a cousin, were a part of that championship team. As a side note, a team from Gadsden, Alabama made it to the quarterfinals of the same tournament, but never faced Hamtramck. Tomjanovich said the guy that really encouraged him was his Uncle Joe. His uncle bought him his baseball spikes, gloves, and other equipment because Tomjanovich’s family didn’t have much money. Tomjanovich took to baseball, even becoming an All-Star. Tomjanovich said he played baseball in high school, but, unfortunately, he had a baseball coach who he described as a “sarcastic guy.” He said because of the coach’s personality, he quickly lost his love for the game.
Tomjanovich’s Uncle Joe had always told him it would be good for him to play a sport and keep his grades up, because of the possibility of getting a scholarship. When he told his uncle he wanted to give up baseball, his uncle wasn’t happy about that. At that time, Tomjanovich said that his uncle was concerned about his future if he didn’t pursue baseball. When he told his uncle that he wanted to play basketball Tomjanovich said that this announcement garnered a strange look from his uncle. While he had played on the basketball team, he had never actually played in a game. Tomjanovich started practicing on a basketball court at a junior high school. He said the basketball court where he practiced happened to be the “hot spot” for all the great players in Detroit. He said he started at one of the smaller baskets and moved up to the big baskets. Tomjanovich said that the day he got to play on the big baskets with the high school players and the college players was “like going to Madison Square Garden.”
Although he was enjoying honing his skills on the basketball court, Tomjanovich’s pursuit wasn’t met without some resistance. In the process of trying to play basketball, he had those who told him that he shouldn’t waste his time and even pursue the sport. After he had told his uncle he was going to play basketball, he went out for the freshman team the next year. Tomjanovich said that the freshman basketball coach was a new teacher at the time. The coach was an ex-football player, a linebacker. After trying out for the freshman team, Tomjanovich was in homeroom class when a classmate came in the room and informed him that he had seen the list of the players who made the team, and his name was not on the list. That was something that didn’t sit well with Tomjanovich. Before the next practice the next day, and before the coach could do anything, he challenged the coach to a game of one-on-one. Tomjanovich said the coach, coming from a football background, didn’t know how to play basketball. He said every time he dribbled the ball, it was like a fumble to the coach. The coach would lunge at him and he even had to jump over him a couple of times. After the match up, the coach saw that he had a passion for the game and put him on the team.
After freshman season, Tomjanovich signed up for a gym class that the varsity boys were in. Tomjanovich described himself as the “scarecrow” with “wobbly legs” as a young man. He said, the varsity coach pulled him to the side and asked him what he was doing there. He asked him if he was thinking about going out for the team. He said, “Yes, sir”. The coach, who Tomjanovich described as “the king”, responded, “Well, don’t waste your time.” At that moment, Tomjanovich said, “My heart dropped out of my chest.” After that experience, he said he made up his mind that he loved the game of basketball and that his love of the game was so strong that he was going to play wherever and whenever he could, even if it meant playing in leagues outside of school. By the end of the year, the head coach had moved Tomjanovich up to varsity. In high school, Tomjanovich was an All-State basketball player.
Upon graduation from high school, he went to the University of Michigan to play basketball. Tomjanovich said that Michigan “didn’t make a lot of noise” as a team, but they did get to play the number one toughest schedule in the country his junior year and the second toughest schedule in the country his senior year which meant that when all the NBA scouts were coming to watch players from the other team, they were watching him on the court as well.
In 1970, the NCAA All-American was the number two draft pick by the San Diego Rockets. After being drafted, the San Diego Rockets were sold to Houston. At that time, no one thought they were going to make it in Houston because Texas was a football state. Tomjanovich said they hung around and built the program and laid the foundation for the great franchises found in Texas today. He said it was pretty cool to be a part of that process.
Although Tomjanovich had great success as a player and a coach, he said that one of the most important moments of his career was when his former player, Akeem Olajuwon, was being inducted into the hall of fame. Tomjanovich said that he gave Olajuwon a call. During that call, Tomjanovich said that Olajuwon was so gracious. Olajuwon told him, “This is for you too, Coach.” Tomjanovich said that Olajuwon saying that was an incredible feeling, it was the greatest moment in his career. Tomjanovich said, although he wasn’t the one who traded Olajuwon, he wasn’t sure about how felt about him until that moment. A reporter who was there told Tomjanovich how happy Olajuwon was that he had called him. Tomjanovich said that having a connection with someone you’ve gone through the wars with and then them show their appreciation for your support, that’s his most rewarding moment.
In December 2016, Tomjanovich returned to the list of nominees for induction into The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. With Tomjanovich being an All-American at Michigan, a five-time time All-Star with the Rockets, nominated by the coaches committee as the winning-est coach in Rockets history, having led the Houston Rockets to two NBA championships, USA Basketball to an Olympic Gold Medal, and a team of replacement players to a World Championships Bronze medal, it seems that his resume warrants induction. The finalists and direct-inductees will be announced on Feb. 18 in New Orleans. The entire class of 2017 will be announced on April 3 during the Final Four in Phoenix, Arizona. The induction of the class of 2017 will take place from September 7th through the 9th at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“What I’d like to say to the non-believers is never underestimate the heart of a champion.” – Coach Rudy Tomjanovich