No place like home: Globetrotting Sweet Lou returns for HOF induction

Nico Van Thyn, Special to the American Press

EDITOR’S NOTE: Seventh in a series of stories about the eight inductees to be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.

From the Harlem Globetrotters website …

“Throughout his illustrious career, fans throughout the world adored “Sweet Lou” Dunbar’s on-court comedy routines and shared his love of the game. Now he is passing that love and considerable knowledge on to a new generation of Globetrotters as a coach.”

Some 50 years ago, Louis Dunbar was the”Magic Man” of Louisiana basketball.

He was an Earvin Johnson-type player — the 6-foot-9 point guard who could play forward or center when needed — years before we’d heard of “Magic.” He could leap, shoot from distance, dunk easily and score inside, and he was a willing ballhandler and passer.

Dunbar was a high school superstar, the state’s best player and top college recruit in his senior year at old Webster High in Minden, and a college all-American at the University of Houston.

He played for two legendary coaches, Ozias Johnson at Webster (his teams won nearly 950 times over three decades) and Guy Lewis at Houston (592 college victories, 27 consecutive winning seasons).

Dunbar’s professional career had a surprising twist, but it has lasted more than 40 years.

He never played in the NBA, as many envisioned he would, but he became a 27-season star for the world’s most famous basketball team.

“One of the most revered players in Globetrotter history, “Sweet Lou” has traveled three times around the world, playing in front of more than 10 million people on six continents,” the website says.

He’s still with them in the entertainment/basketball business, for the past dozen years as a coach and director of player personnel.

A few pounds heavier than the graceful, lithe young man he once was, he’s still dancing on the sidelines and making scenes with officials and players. In a bittersweet twist, he coached the ’Trotters in appearances a few miles from Minden in Bossier City, then in Lafayette and New Orleans, last March before the coronavirus pandemic brought that tour, and nearly everything else, to a halt.

He has interacted with fans of all types — royalty, presidents, prime ministers and, in Rome, he stood alongside Pope John Paul II when the team named him an honorary Globetrotter on Nov. 29, 2000.

For two decades “Sweet Lou” played the showman, the “clown prince” — the garrulous, loud, joking center of attention, ballhandler extraordinaire (with his huge hands and wingspan) and chief protagonist of the Globetrotters’ mischief.

It was the position made most famous by Goose Tatum and by Dunbar’s mentor and role model, Meadowlark Lemon.

If you’ve seen him in person or on video or film, you know that Sweet Lou’s laugh and sense of fun were as big as his oncourt ability.

Add in an enormous hairdo in his college years and beyond — the “biggest ‘fro in all of creation,” he said years later —and he was at least a 7-footer.

What also stood out was that he was engaging, charismatic and talented.

About his size: He much resembles his father, also named Louis, who was a cannot-misshim, imposing 6-foot-10 deputy sheriff in Webster Parish.

In 2007, Sweet Lou was honored as a “Globetrotters’ Legend” at Houston’s Toyota Center. In 2008, he was inducted into the University of Houston (athletics) Hall of Honor. Last year his Globetrotters No. 41 jersey was retired in a ceremony at UH’s home basketball arena.

For a guy who has traveled around the world three times, there’s a trip back to the state of Sweet Lou’s youth: he will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches to culminate the induction celebration.

“It’s home,” said a man who made the world his home during his professional career. “My family, my oldest friends, they’re in and around Minden. So this is a very special honor to share with them.”

His fame began at Webster High, where he broke in as a freshman, a rarity for coach Johnson.

“Louis has developed faster than any boy I’ve ever had,” Johnson said in 1971. “He is a real team man. If we wanted him to score 40 points a game, all we’d have to do is get the ball to him more.”

His senior season scoring average was 28.2, and that year he swept state honors: a 34-1 record and the Class AA state title, Outstanding Player in the Top 20 state tournament, Outstanding, Mr. Basketball and MVP of the state all-star game with a record 33 points.

In a Class AA semifinal against future Hall of Famer Robert Parish and Union High, he had 41 points and 19 rebounds. As Webster wrapped up the state championship, Dunbar had 26 points and 17 rebounds and, despite playing with four fouls, dominated the final quarter.

Their teams met seven times, with Dunbar and Parish —no surprise — each playing heroically.

The first three battles were in the 1969-70 season when Dunbar was a junior at Webster and Parish a sophomore at Union High (Shreveport). Their schools then were in the Louisiana Interscholastic Athletic and Literary Organization for black athletes.

Webster won two regular-season meetings. Union won a bi-district state playoff and went to the state tournament. Webster finished with a 31-3 record.

They did not play the next season, although both led their teams to state title games. When schools integrated, Parish moved to Woodlawn in Class AAAA. Webster remained one of a few all-black schools open in North Louisiana, but now competing in the formerly all-white Louisiana High School Athletic Association.

In 1973 and ’74, the super prospects met again four times — as collegians when Parish, staying in Shreveport, chose Centenary.

Dunbar had many college offers, and picked Houston, whose main recruiter and assistant coach, Harvey Pate, practically posted up in Minden.

Freshmen were not eligible for NCAA Division I varsity play in Dunbar’s first year and he set the UH freshman-team record with 27.5 points a game.

In three varsity seasons he averaged 20-plus each year — 20.9, 21.7, 24.3 — and totaled 1,765 points in 79 games (22.3 average). He was often the point guard/forward on offense and the point man in Houston’s 1-3-1 zone defense.

Guy Lewis marveled at Dunbar’s versatility.

“I think we have found his natural position — the backcourt,” he told a Shreveport reporter in 1973. “He has the talent to play outside and is able to exploit that talent. I don’t mean he can’t play without the ball. He can and he does. Even if he doesn’t have the ball, some exciting things happen.

“I’ve never had a guy that size that could do so many things with the ball.”

Dunbar made all the area all-star teams in 1973-75 and was a thirdteam all-American selection in 1975. The Philadelphia 76ers then made him a fourth-round NBA draft pick (59th overall).

But Lou never reported to camp. He felt the team never made him a solid contract offer. So he headed to Switzerland to play pro ball for two years, helping his team to one national title.

He returned to Houston and was working at a jewelry store when he got another NBA shot — a Los Angeles summer-league tryout with the Rockets.

Again, it did not take. But a Globetrotters scout liked what he saw, made an offer … and it was showtime.

“I just don’t think the NBA was ready for that (big point guard)” Dunbar said, looking back in a 1992 Shreveport Times story before an appearance in Shreveport. “People my size were supposed to play inside. I was a fluke. Now if I had come along a little later …”

In that story, it was pointed out that the one thing that Dunbar has always had is the personality. That smile. That chatter. “It was probably meant for me,” he says of his Globetrotters role. “Performing has always come natural.”

“He is absolutely the greatest kid,” Guy Lewis said in 1973. “He keeps our team loose. I’m sure he’s the most popular guy on our team. He’s one of the great guys to coach I’ve had and not just because of his ability.”

Dunbar was brought to tears when UH retired his jersey, just as he remembers crying after Webster High’s lone loss in his senior season.

He hasn’t had to cry after a Globetrotters game.

The Globetrotters seldom lose.

And they never fail to leave fans entertained.””

Louis “Sweet Lou” Dunbar has been around the world three times with the Harlem Globetrotters as a player and coach, but this week he returns to his home state for induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Special to the American Press

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