When I was a boy, I watched Dave Stallworth play basketball. As an adult, and a reporter and columnist, I talked to Dave about playing basketball.
It was a dream come true.
To listen to Stallworth, the greatest Wichita State basketball player of them all, was mesmerizing. He spoke with a subtle Texas drawl and quickly changed his focus. His mind raced when he talked about the game he loved, and mastered, and it was a thrill ride to try and keep up.
Our discussions impacted me greatly. When I told Dave that, I’m not sure he understood.
I’ve had a 42-year career as a sportswriter and I really think it’s because of Stallworth, who died Wednesday night at the age of 75. He introduced me to the combination of sports and passion. I adored him. I wanted to play basketball the way he did. When the Shockers came out of the Roundhouse tunnel, he was the first player I looked for.
It’s so sad that Stallworth is gone. So sad that he wasn’t able to take in all of Wichita State’s basketball success the past few seasons the way I know he wanted.
Stallworth averaged 24.2 points and 10.5 rebounds during his Shocker career, covering 80 games from 1962-65. He shot 53 percent from the field. He had some of his best games in the Shockers’ biggest moments. In today’s media world, Stallworth would be a national star, the subject of documentaries and highlight reels.
It was a smaller world then, but Stallworth stretched its limits. He was 6-foot-7. He could shoot, pass and defend.
“One of the things that first struck me and the rest of his teammates was his special skills,” said former Shocker forward Dave Leach, who played with Stallworth. “And what a gifted athlete he was.”
Leach unlocked a memory from way back, when the University of Wichita’s freshman team went to Hays to play the Fort Hays State junior varsity team in 1960.
“If memory serves after all these years, we beat them 120-60,” Leach said. “And David had 61.”
Despite being such a force, and unquestionably the best player on the floor, Stallworth was all about team.
“He never lorded his skills over anyone,” Leach said. “He included every one of us as teammates even though everyone knew he was the special player of the group.”
Stallworth played in the NBA with the New York Knicks and Baltimore/Capital Bullets and was part of the Knicks’ championship team in 1970, a roster that included former Shocker teammate Nate Bowman and Cazzie Russell of Michigan, with whom he had several showdowns as college players.
More than any other player, Stallworth is responsible for the popularity of Shocker basketball. And give him some credit for the rise of college basketball, too. He was preceded by the great Cleo Littleton, the program’s career scoring leader. Stallworth, though, led the Shockers to unprecedented notoriety and helped them reach their first Final Four in 1965, although he wasn’t on the team that played UCLA in the national semifinals in Portland, Ore.
Stallworth was made eligible for the varsity with only eight games remaining in the 1961-62 season because Ralph Miller, the Shockers’ coach, thought he might be able to help the team catch Cincinnati in the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
Stallworth did all he could, averaging 19.8 points and 9.4 rebounds in those eight games. But the Shockers came up short and there would be a huge price to pay for Miller’s impatience.
After 16 games in 1964-65, Stallworth’s eligibility was gone. He and Bowman, a 6-10 center who was dismissed from the team for academic reasons, were absent from the undersized team the Shockers took to Portland.
Leach and others, including Kelly Pete and Jamie Thompson, did their best. But the Shockers couldn’t slow down UCLA in a semifinal loss and were beaten badly by Princeton and Bill Bradley in the third-place game.
Not being with the team in that Final Four, Leach said, always stayed with Stallworth.
He scored nearly 5,000 points during an eight-year NBA career, but battled health issues, including two seasons of his prime lost to a heart condition. He later returned to Wichita and worked for many years at Boeing, later Spirit. He blended into the Wichita scene inconspicuously. He was humbled by attention. Stallworth enjoyed his stature as one of the greatest college basketball players, but he didn’t promote it.
“Everyone who knows Dave knows what a kind person he was,” said Mohamed Sharif, formerly Kelly Pete, a Wichita East graduate who learned the ropes as a young player with Stallworth. “And we all know how talented Dave was as a basketball player. The thing that set him apart, for me, was that he was such a great leader. He was the kind of person who wanted everyone to contribute even though he had so much talent himself.”
Stallworth’s versatility was something to behold. He could play all five positions and never strain to adapt.
“He could play inside, outside, either side,” Sharif said. “He could use his right hand, his left hand. He could do everything.”
When you talk to people about Stallworth, you hear that over and over. He could do everything.
There wasn’t anything on a basketball floor “The Rave” couldn’t do. He was a tremendous basketball player and a tremendous human being. Kind, soft-spoken, sweet.
“He had such a love for the game,” said Melvin Reed, another former Shocker teammate who also grew up in Dallas. “His play was inspirational, really. And he could have done anything. He could have been a great NFL receiver.”
Leach said he was pretty high on his badminton skills until he went up against Stallworth.
“He turned me every way but loose, I didn’t have a prayer,” Leach said. “And he was a really skilled golfer, too. Anything athletic, Dave excelled in.”
Stallworth’s spirit was pervasive at Koch Arena, even when his body wasn’t. He filled that building with so many memories, so many moments.
It truly was The House That Dave Built. Rest in peace.
Dave on Dave
Dave Stallworth quotes from over the years
In 1963, after Wichita rallied to beat No. 1 Cincinnati 65-64, ending a 37-game Bearcats win streak. Stallworth scored 46 points and was carried off the Roundhouse floor afterward. “None of us let up for a second. If we had, we wouldn’t have won.”
In 1990, on the hurt of not being able to play in the 1965 Final Four/ “With me playing and with Nate out there, I thought we had the best club in the country. I couldn’t even watch the team play after I left. I think I saw them once. It was hard. My dream was to play in the Final Four. That’s every kid’s dream.”
In 2001, on why he wasn’t more selfish as a scorer. “People asked me all the time: ‘Why don’t you shoot the basketball more, why?’ ” Stallworth said. “I was pretty accurate, so I didn’t have to really put up a whole lot of shots. I wouldn’t know what it was like to shoot the basketball 25 times in a game. I did that maybe once or twice in my whole career.’’
In 2013, on the the attention he received in Wichita, even 50 years after his Shocker career ended. “… I try not to change. I try to be the same old Dave the Rave. That’s a nickname I got from (former WSU sports information director) Tom Vanderhoofven. He’s the only guy I knew in the (administration) at that time and at the time I didn’t really revel in it. But it was a pretty good nickname, wasn’t it?”
What other Shockers are saying about Stallworth
“What a great man! Dave was a mentor to me when he returned to live in Wichita in the mid-’70s. He prepared me to be a pro player along with Kelly Pete. He shared with me his wisdom, experiences and personal life at WSU and at the pro level. He was so generous with his time, humbled of his status and a true champion of the sport and most important the people.” Calvin Bruton, 1972-76
“Dave Stallworth was one of the best people that I ever met in my life. When I was 12 years old. I used to watch Dave and Nate (Bowman) when they played for the New York Knicks. That’s how far long we go back. I will really miss him, he was one of my mentors.” Cheese Johnson, 1975-79
“He was a great person and the greatest Shocker of all-time. He would always give us advice about life and basketball back in days when we played in the 1980s. We are truly going to miss him.”Aubrey Sherrod, 1981-85
“Dave was a great person and a great basketball player. Dave is what Shocker basketball is all about, which is greatness. He will surely be missed.” Xavier McDaniel, 1981-85
“He was a legend to every player that has come through the program. I can remember many times looking up at the retired jerseys during practice and being tired and thinking I want to make those guys proud and it motivated me to keep working.” Paul Miller, 2001-06
“Dave inspired me each day I walked into the arena and saw his picture hanging from the rafters. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Dave while I was at Wichita State. His words of encouragement and confidence he shared with me will never be forgotten.” P.J. Couisnard, 2004-08