In the book An Almost Perfect Season: A Father and Son and a Golden Age of Small Town High School Basketball, I cover several aspects of the basketball culture of southern Illinois in the 1960s. In the winter months of that era, high school basketball was a constant topic in almost every little diner, mom and pop grocery store, and coffee shop in southern Illinois. On those Saturdays when I went with my dad to his car salesman job at Holman Ford Motor Company, Dad would drag me to a little sandwich shop across the alley at the Grey Hound Bus station in Mt. Vernon. I’d drink chocolate milk from a small waxy carton, using the drink to help me get down a roast beef sandwich that was so dry each bite was like swallowing sawdust. The time was made bearable, however, by the enthusiastic talk about high school basketball between Dad and other sports fans, one of them a local basketball official. Not only did I hear great stories about past and present players and teams, but I got the latest low-down on what team was likely to win a particular game.
Another source of great southern Illinois basketball stories in the 1960s came from newspaper sports writers. The Mt. Vernon Register News, our primary paper, had sports editor John Rackaway who penned the column “Sporting Daze.” A large metropolitan paper just over the state line in Indiana, the Evansville Courier, had Pete Swanson, who also covered our part of Illinois. Carbondale’s Southern Illinoisan featured Merle Jones and “Sport Talk.” Jones reported with a fidelity to truth and without any sentimental trappings, a practice that sometimes made readers and teams angry.
Dad drove to Mt. Vernon every Sunday morning, rain, snow, or shine, to get a copy of these papers from a beat-up newsstand in front of a tiny stationary shop on North Ninth Street, next to the Granada Theater. Then he and I would spent the afternoon pouring over the well-constructed stories of great basketball drama, both tragic and humorous. I soon discovered, however, that you could read all you wanted to about the great teams, players, and coaches, but nothing compared to seeing them in the flesh.
In 1964, when I was twelve, Dad took me to see my first big-time basketball game, a South Seven Conference contest in Davenport Gym in Harrisburg, Illinois. We traveled south to Harrisburg with two of Dad’s car salesmen friends, the three adults jabbering in the cigarette-smoke-filled car about southern Illinois basketball all the way there.
The contest was electric from the minute we came into the gymnasium—the packed house, the festive smell of popcorn, the pep band blaring, the student sections crowded with rowdy, happy fans—and all this before the game ever started. When the Mt. Vernon Rams and the Harrisburg Bulldogs squads came out on the floor for their warmups, one at either end, the crowd exploded with a roar of excitement, the pep band blasting out the Harrisburg fight song.
His hands deep in his pockets, Dad stood up to get a better look down on the floor after one of the other car salesman pointed and said, “There’s Turner.” I joined my dad in standing, feeling somehow that I was in the present of greatness.
Guy Lee Turner, called the “Bull” until the Harrisburg coach dubbed him the “Elegant Elephant,” was six foot three inches tall and was reported by one sports writer to weight two hundred and forty pounds. He looked much leaner than that to me, and much of his weight was carried in his tree trunk muscular legs.
Turner put on an absolute show that evening, hitting a barrage of strikingly soft jump shots from the outside and bulldozing his way to the basket for close in shots that ended with a move so delicate I realized why he was called the “Elegant Elephant.” On defense he was so rugged that he literally staggered one Mt. Vernon opponent when he came down with a rebound.
On that play, I became so excited I stood up and cheered, my father jerking me back to my seat by my shirttail, reminding me we were sitting in the Mt. Vernon cheering section.
Given the passage of all those years, I don’t remember who won the game. But I do remember Dad and I, and the two other car salesmen, taking our time leaving the gym. Many others seemed reluctant to leave too. Small pockets of fans stood here and there, talking quietly about the game, causing other groups of leaving fans to part and move around them like a stream of water around a rock.
I left the Davenport gymnasium hooked, hoping to figure out how one day I might play on such a floor in front of such a crowd.
When the first games that were the beginning of the 1964 state tournament started in March, I cheered for the Mt. Vernon Rams, along with my dad. They would be our team, until they fell; then we’d chose another southern Illinois team to root for. There were plenty of great teams to back that year. Centralia, Harrisburg, and Herrin in the powerful South Seven Conference looked strong, and Carmi, McLeansboro, and Pinckneyville had great records too. There were star players to follow as well: Guy Lee Turner, of course, but also Terry Gamber at Mt. Vernon; big Cliff Berger at Centralia; and Bennie Louis from Pinckneyville. Centralia was rated through much of the season as the best team in the state.
Mt. Vernon had played streaky all that year, but given the strong competition they played, Dad said he believed they could go deep into the tournament. Guy Lee Turner, the stout scoring machine whom, to my joy, I had watched play in person, continued on his torrid scoring streak. John Rackaway wrote several stories in the Register News about his feats, one account proclaiming in the early part of the state tournament drive, “Guy Lee Turner, the 6-3 Elegant Elephant of Harrisburg, boomed 44 points through the hoop last night to almost personally annihilate McLeansboro’s Foxes 67-48.”
There was a photo in the paper account too of happy Harrisburg fans carrying the stocky Turner on their shoulders off the playing floor.
Of great mystery was the actual size of Turner. It was sports writer Merle Jones, the sports purist, who pointed out that “The report that Guy Lee Turner of Harrisburg weighs 240 pounds is 30 pounds too heavy. He weighs 210.” John Rackaway had more fun with the question of Turner’s weight, writing, “What is the size of Guy Lee Turner, Harrisburg’s Elegant Elephant? We have read that he is 6-2 and 185 pounds, and we have read that he is 6-4 and 240 pounds . . . Harrisburg coach Bill Trees says that Turner is 6-3 and weighs 210 . . . He ought to know.”
Turner and the Harrisburg Bulldogs were defeated in the final round of sectional tournament play in the 1964 season, falling to eventual state champion runners-ups, the Cobden Appleknockers. The Bulldogs did not go down without a fight against the Cobden team, however, losing by only a basket and with the Elegant Elephant scoring an amazing forty-one points back in a day before a three point shot line.
By the end of the season, Turner had attained Harrisburg’s all-time basketball scoring record. Harrisburg coach Bill Trees, in talking about Turner’s great achievements, also pointed out how unselfish the Elegant Elephant was, often passing off to his other teammates and racking up high numbers of assists along with his scoring.
As I began playing basketball in grade school, I often visualized being one of the great players I saw on television or in the flesh at local high school games. My main go-to-player in this visualization process was always Guy Lee Turner, who I continued to read about. By my own senior year of playing basketball at Bluford High School, I was just shy of six-three and weighed two hundred and fifteen pounds, roughly the Elegant Elephant’s size. While I did my best to imitate the amazing Turner, and sportswriters sometimes referred to me as being rugged or husky, alas, I was never called elegant.
I was especially happy when I read in the Southern Illinoisan that Turner was going to play basketball at the University of Alabama, his father saying, “He loves to play basketball and I want him to go to a school where he has the opportunity to play. I think basketball will keep him happy and interested in college.” Reading this made me hope I might see Turner play on television sometime in the future, but it also stirred something in the back of my mind—the father’s odd comment about hoping basketball would keep his son interested in college. Later that summer, the Harrisburg newspaper, the Daily Register, carried another story about the prize recruit.
The Crimson Tide sports department reported Guy Lee Turner looks somewhat like a playful ex-high school football player who has given up athletic participation in college to devote more time to an extracurricular schedule. He moves about not too swiftly, smiles easily and gives the impression that fun is going to be out of style and needs more of his attention. To Crimson Tide basketball fans, he is chunky no. 45, that new boy that shoots so well. Turner is indeed the new boy who shoots so well, and rebounds and plays defense and does other things so well. . . . On the court chunky Guy Turner moves like his more slender colleagues, grabs rebounds with the force of a 6-6 performer and plays defense exceptionally well for his size and build. . . . The thing that pinpoints a winner is performance, not build or size or appearance. . . . Turner, with ruffled hair and shirttail hanging loosely out is always in the thick of action.
In his freshman year of basketball at Alabama, Turner led the underclassmen in a defeat of the varsity unit in a preseason game. By June of 1967, as he waited to start his senior year, Turner was surely happy in the fact he had been the Crimson Tide’s leading scorer from the year before, riding high and enjoying college life, just as his dad wished.
On June 22, 1967, the Mt. Vernon Register News Sports page carried horrible unbelievable news: Elegant Elephant Guy Lee Turner Killed in Swimming Pool. The story of Turner’s death was layered in mystery, reports explaining that Turner had jumped off a nine-foot ledge into the shallow end of a swimming pool at an apartment just off campus from the University of Alabama. According to another newspaper account, the accident occurred just after midnight and Turner was said to be studying with some college friends when the accident happened. Alabama basketball coach Hayden Riley said, “It is a great shock to all of us. Guy was one of the most popular players we ever had here.” Later, the University of Alabama would name their yearly basketball defense award in Turner’s honor.
My sadness was beyond words, but Dad told me horrible accidents happened every day and that we should pray for the family. For several weeks I had trouble sleeping at night and concentrating during the day. What little else came out about the accident the next two weeks mostly emphasized the great sadness of his parents and of the Harrisburg community, some of the latter being the same folks who had once joyfully carried Guy Lee Turner off the basketball court on their shoulders after his fantastic basketball feat against McLeansboro.
Today, over fifty years after Guy Lee Turner’s death, few probably remember this great athlete and his accomplishments. Hopefully, this narrative will bring back some degree of remembrance of that distant time long ago when a happy-go-lucky elegant elephant once graced the high school basketball courts of southern Illinois.