By T. Scott Boatright
It’s kind of a case of double dribble déjà vu for Jack Thigpen, who by no means is a stranger to state basketball championships.
And seeing the Ruston Bearcats reach this year’s state tournament for the first time since 1988 has brought memories flooding back.
Thigpen was head coach of the 1988 Bearcats team that won the Class 4A state title. He also helped take state as a Ruston player in 1962 as a junior, defeating Natchitoches, and was also a member of the 1963 RHS team that fell to Neville in the state championship game.
The 2023 Bearcats are the No. 2 seed in the Division I Nonselect School boys playoffs and will take on No. 3 seed Ponchatoula in semifinals action at 6 p.m. Thursday at Barton Coliseum in Lake Charles. It’s the first time a Ruston boys team has made it back to the state tournament since the 1988 state title run.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the weekend,” Thigpen said. “But I think about it often this year, particularly at the end of basketball season as someone who won state championships as both a player and a coach. It was always an exciting time as a player and a coach, and still is as a fan. I still love to go to games and know a lot of coaches in the area.
“But it becomes a different game once you enter the playoffs. It’s just so exciting and memorable – impossible to forget. So yes, I think about those old championships every year about this time, and the fact Ruston is finally going back is making those memories even stronger and more powerful now.”
Thigpen first coached the Bearcats from 1986 through that magical 1988 season, and later, after a stint as an assistant at Louisiana Tech, served as Ruston’s head coach again from 1995 through the 2000 season.
The 1988 Bearcats were based around a pair of big men – senior forward Anthony Dade, who sent on to a standout career at Louisiana Tech, and junior Al Thurman.
“Those were two outstanding players,” Thigpen said. “Both were inside players, but Al could shoot the ball. He could go outside a little bit and had a nice, slick shot. He was good around the free-throw line.
“So we played a double post with Al and Anthony, who was real quick on his feet and made a lot of great spin moves around the basket. We played Anthony down in the low post and Al in the high post and designed plays to get those guys loose inside.”
Thigpen said the 1988 Bearcats had some good outside players and a solid point guard to mix with their double-barrelled inside attack.
“We had an outstanding shooting guard in Lance Hall who could go out on the perimeter and loosen some things up,” Thigpen said. “And Gerald Johnson and Kent Germany were two other guards who did outstanding jobs for us.
“Our point guard – Willie Melton – was an outstanding leader on that basketball team. He didn’t care about scoring, but he got the ball down and got everybody in place and made good passes. A good team has to have a good floor leader, and Willie was that. A lot of games he wouldn’t take a shot. But he was so important in helping us win games by feeding the ball where it needed to be, playing unselfishly and playing good defense.”
Ruston beat previously undefeated John McDonough for the 1988 title 55-51.
“John McDonough beat East Ascension, who was coached by someone well known around here – Butch Smart – in the semifinals,” Thigpen said. “We beat Shaw, a Catholic school out of New Orleans, in the semifinals. They had a player – Melvin Simon – who played a lot like Anthony Dade and went on to have a heckuva career at the University of New Orleans.
“Then we beat John McDonough for the championship. It was a low-scoring, hard-fought game.”
Thigpen said the Bearcats opened the 1988 playoffs with a win over Airline and followed that up by defeating what was known then as Lee High School out of Baton Rouge (now known as Liberty) with both of those games being played as Louisiana Tech’s Thomas Assembly Center.
“Then we played McKinley High School at Istrouma. We played the best basketball team in Baton Rouge that year – McKinley – and then we played the best Catholic High School team from New Orleans in Shaw before playing the best team out of New Orleans in John McDonough. So we played some pretty good teams.”
Thigpen said determination and unselfishness were the keys that led the Bearcats to a state title.
“It was a true team,” Thigpen said. “No one was out there trying to showboat and or anything like that. They didn’t care who scored. All they wanted to do was win. You don’t win a state championship without good players, but that was a team win — a team season – from start to finish.
“We had the players I’ve mentioned and other guys like Chucky Jenkins coming off the bench, but everybody knew their roles. All they wanted to do was win and they did whatever it took to make that happen.”
Another magical memory for Thigpen during that 1988 state title run was being able to share it with his son Phillip, a sophomore team member that season.
“That was very special,” Thigpen said. “I know it was special for me, and I’m pretty sure it was just as special for him. Think about how special that season was for me to have won a state championship for Ruston, come back here to coach and then be able to win another state championship with my son as a member of the team.
“The last time Ruston had won a state championship at that point was when I was playing for the Bearcats.So those are amazing memories that Phillip and I talk about from time to time.”