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Bob Lutz: Paul Stovall’s career kept going out of bounds

  • Published Saturday, April 27, 2013, at 5:27 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, April 27, 2013, at 5:46 p.m.

They say Paul Stovall, who was between 6-foot-4 and 6-5, could stand underneath a basket, bend his knees, and explode so high that he could grab a half-dollar off the top of the backboard.

They not only say it, some say they saw it.

“The old-time people still talk about it,’’ said Kurt McAfee, the athletic director at Pratt Community College where Stovall’s legend sprouted from 1968-70.

McAfee said he was a kid when he saw Stovall sky so high that the ceiling in the gymnasium was threatened.

“He took that 50-cent piece off the square top of the backboard,’’ McAfee said. “I’m serious. He actually did it.’’

Put nothing past Stovall, who was in jail before he was in high school and never did figure out how to keep his nose clean before dying in a motorcycle accident in San Diego in January 1978, when he was 29.

Stovall, who grew up in Wichita, is the eighth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder in junior-college basketball history. At Pratt, he averaged 30.3 points and 22.2 rebounds in 58 career games.

At Arizona State, he averaged 19 points and 12.4 rebounds during two seasons and was a second-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972.

But Stovall, one of the 2013 inductees into the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame, played in 38 games professionally – 25 with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns in 1972-73 and 13 with the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors in 1973-74. He had been out of the game for a few years when he lost control of his motorcycle in a driving rainstorm and crashed into two cars. A troubled life, littered with crime and punishment but also a charm that could win over the most ardent critic, was over too soon.

Stovall’s early death fed his immense legend. Nearly 50 years after he entered the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson after being convicted of a series of crimes, Stovall’s basketball talent still makes the old-timers shake their heads.

The skinny, non-descript teenage kid who entered the prison came out three years later packing more than 200 pounds on a much taller frame. It was while serving time, in fact, that Stovall made up time as a basketball player.

He played on the prison team that toured small towns in Kansas in 1966-67, playing town teams and an occasional junior-college team. It was during a game against Stovall and other inmates that then-Pratt coach Jim Douglas became infatuated. And when Stovall was released from the Hutch facility in 1968, Douglas was practically waiting outside the gate.

He wanted Stovall to play for the Beavers and Stovall, who had attended North High only briefly, was interested. He earned a high school diploma through correspondence while in prison. Those who knew him say Stovall wasn’t dumb, just stubborn.

“As a big brother, Paul was carefree,’’ said Carl Stovall, 61, who worked as a technical writer for Boeing. “I think that’s the term I like to use for him. He liked people and he got along with people.’’

Paul Stovall, his brother said, had many friends. Some good, some not so good. Unfortunately, he got involved too much with the wrong crowd and he was happy to go down the same path.

He was in and out of trouble during most of his adult life, but managed to get through his two years at Pratt without incident.

What a basketball player Stovall was. There was nothing Stovall couldn’t do.

“As good as I’ve seen,’’ said Bill Himebaugh, who was a coach at Horace Mann when Stovall attended junior high there. Himebaugh, who later went on to coach at South, said Stovall tried to emulate Warren Armstrong, a 6-2 Wichita State player from 1965-68 who also played beyond his height.

“One night I saw Stovall at Hutch when he was with Pratt and – this is going to sound unreal – he got the ball off the backboard at one end, turned in the air and threw a strike to a teammate underneath the basket at the other end,’’ Himebaugh said. “He could do anything he wanted with the basketball. Of course, he had hands like a frying pan. They must have been 20 inches across.’’

Basketball showcased the good in Paul Stovall.

His life away from the game, though, was difficult. Newspaper clips detail a life filled with crime, from the sale of cocaine to receiving stolen money orders to battery against a police offer to lewd and lascivious conduct on the Arizona State campus in 1974, two years after his Sun Devils career ended. Prison cut short his professional career.

Stovall blew it.

But decades later, those who best knew Stovall are captivated by his charm.

Ty Lockett, a Kansas Supreme Court justice from 1983-2002, was a Wichita lawyer when he first got to know Stovall for all the wrong reasons. He later became a judge and tried to help Stovall, he said, because he just liked the guy.

“I always called him a gentle giant,’’ said the 80-year-old Lockett, who lives in Topeka. “He would tell you something and then he would do it. I’m not sure how he got off the right path. So many different things can happen to a kid. But I always enjoyed Paul. He was a friend of our family.’’

Lockett, who said he worked with many troubled boys early in his career, said Stovall was no different from a lot who got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

“Kids like that can be taken into crime by their friends,’’ Lockett said. “If you get to be a friend with somebody who’s in trouble, you tend to try and do things for that person. Paul had too many friends who were in trouble and in those days that was really commonplace.’’

Yet Stovall came from a good family. He grew up on North Hydraulic and both of his parents were around and involved, Stovall’s sister said.

“They were pretty regular parents,’’ Fae Cole, Stovall’s older sister, said. “Strict in some sense and lenient in other ways. My dad built the house we’ve stayed in for 50 years and which we still own. And I mean physically built it himself.’’

Paul took to building things, too, and he was interested in cars and motorcycles, Fae said.

“Paul could really turn on the charm for the ladies,’’ she said. “And not just ladies of his caliber, but he could take the grandmothers and wrap them around his finger. He did that with my mother, my grandmother and our older aunt. They always thought Paul was OK.’’

But Stovall wasn’t. Not always. He did well obeying the rules of basketball; it was the rules of society he struggled with.

At Arizona State, he was a star. And he loved being in Tempe, his brother and sister said.

In 1972, then-UTEP coach Don Haskins called Stovall the most physical player at the Olympic Development Camp.

“He was the best jumper and the hardest worker,’’ Haskins said then.

Guy Lewis, a Hall of Fame coach at Houston, was impressed by Stovall, too.

“ASU is as physical a team as I’ve seen and Paul Stovall is the most physical of all,’’ Lewis said after a game against the Sun Devils. “He looks like a tight end but jumps like a 6-foot-10 man.’’

But Stovall’s demons were too many and they overwhelmed any chance he had at a long professional career. He had people who cared about him, but it wasn’t enough. He was drawn to a life outside the lines.

“He was an intimidating guy,’’ said Dennis Brunner, who had just become the basketball coach at North when Stovall came to the gym one day with a group of former Redskins players to play against the varsity during Christmas break.

Stovall never played basketball at North, but Brunner, aware not only of Stovall’s tremendous basketball ability but also of his run-ins with the law, wasn’t about to tell him he couldn’t play.

“It got to a point where I was watching him instead of my players,’’ Brunner said.

Stovall could do it all. But he was an especially fierce rebounder, a guy who could jump out of the gym – almost literally.

“There’s a folklore that surrounds Paul,’’ McAfee said. “But there’s sadness to his story, too. His life ended way too early.’’

What would Stovall had been without the crime? How would his life have turned out if it had been longer?

His siblings run those questions through their minds often. Stovall would be 64 if he were alive. He would have had stories to tell.

“Paul might have gotten into radio announcing,’’ Fae Cole said. “Or definitely something to do with sports. He really did like all sports. So maybe he would have been a coach.’’

It never worked out, though.

Stovall, Fae said, loved to go fast on his motorcycle. He was addicted to speed.

“If he wanted to ride the motorcycle, he wanted to ride at a high speed,’’ she said. “And he got caught in the rain. Being on a bike in the rain is not where you need to be. Paul wasn’t a daredevil or anything like that.

“But he didn’t worry about the what-ifs.’’

Stovall could fly high enough to pluck a half-dollar off a backboard, but he never knew how to land.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Check his blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz, and follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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