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Conversations with Clayton: Tom Lockhart

Manhattan College Basketball Great is Helping to Kickstart the Bronx Basketball Hall of Fame

Basketball and Hoop Photo by Dimitri Iundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In this week’s edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Lockhart. Tom Lockhart is a Bronx basketball legend. Raised in Marble Hill, he earned All-City honors at Bronx Science before going on to star at Manhattan College. Lockhart was selected in the fifth round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks before going on to a long and highly successful coaching career in Europe. Now, Lockhart is giving back to his native Bronx as a member of the Board of Directors of the new Bronx Basketball Hall of Fame.

The group’s website just launched.

They also have a vibrant community on Facebook.

In a wide-ranging interview, Tom and I discuss the budding Bronx Basketball Hall of Fame and what you can do to support it. We also survey his long career as a player and coach before near and far from the Bronx.

Clayton Trutor (CT): Tom, can you tell me about the Bronx Basketball Hall of Fame and how you got involved with the organization?

Tom Lockhart (TL): Back in early November [2021], I was asked by the president and CEO now Derek Doward, who attended Taft High School in the Bronx and whom I played against in high school but did not know very well. He approached me to see if I’d like to be on the board of the Bronx Basketball Hall of Fame, which was just forming. I was recommended by a good old friend from DeWitt Clinton High School, Ricky Sobers, who played in the NBA for 14 years, to help put the organization together and get it off the ground.

I’ve been with it ever since. I’ve been quite fanatical about it. I love history and it gives me a chance to research things about Bronx basketball, which is very, very close to my heart. It’s a pleasure to do this and it has so many possibilities. So many people have joined us and given their specific points of view coming from different parts of the Bronx. It’s a real socio-economic voyage through Bronx basketball.

CT: On the Facebook group, which is how I became aware of it, you guys describe the mission of the organization as including a gala presentation of awards, a summer camp, and hopefully someday having a physical location. Could you describe in more detail where you see this going?

TL: With the following we’ve developed, I foresee it reaching those goals. I can see one of the great institutions of learning in the Bronx picking it up. Maybe Fordham University, Manhattan College. It could be Bronx Community College and I’ve heard there might be some other possibilities. But I think the institutions would be a better move. It would justify our efforts. Our non-profit status would coincide with theirs. We’d like to do things for our community as well. We hope to have an online shop and ask for grants in the future as well as endorsements from influential people as well as work with the PSAL (Public School Athletic League). All these things are prepared. The timing just has to be right. We need to get as much publicity as possible. Through press releases and through BronxNet TV. I was involved with marketing a communications for 30 years so I have a pretty good background and a pretty good idea of how to get that started.

CT: I became aware through the Facebook group, which has such vibrant discussion. I’ve learned about so many different players that way. Is the Facebook group the primary way you guys are promoting it at this point?

TL: Well, yes. We’re about 95 percent finished with the website that’s coming. Our website will soon be up and it is just our Facebook page in another form. It will offer a few more possibilities for visitors. As BronxNet TV may as well. We’ll be interviewing different players and others, putting that on the website and on BronxNet, which is a big possibility locally.

CT: If somebody wants to contribute, what’s the best way to do it?

TL: We are a non-profit and we will have a donation button on the website explaining where the money goes. Donations will be tax-deductible.

CT: Who is eligible for induction? Did you have to be born there, grow up there, play college ball there?

TL: That’s a good question. We think we have it down. The class of 2021 was already chosen quite early. The criteria mainly entails being born and raised in the Bronx till the age of 10 or 12 or being from another place but going to high school there. Having made an impact on Bronx basketball. There have been several guys from Manhattan or Harlem who’ve spent many years working in the Bronx in community center impacting thousands of players over the years, getting them into schools. Being role models for several of the professional players who came from the area. For example, Charlie Yelverton from Fordham made such an impact on the Bronx in four years. He was a member of that 1971 team that made it so far into the NCAA Tournament.

CT: The one Digger Phelps coached?

TL: Yes, it was. So it’s being born or having some impact on the Bronx before moving away. We want to claim as many great players as possible. To me, its not just about the Hall of Fame guys, who have had their accolades. It is about the thousands and thousands of guys that played. These are the guys that we are attracting. The guys who watched and played and loved the game. With all the separation these days, this online platform is connecting guys from different neighborhoods. The Jewish neighborhoods, the Italian neighborhoods, the Irish, the Blacks, the Hispanics. Everybody is coming onto this platform and sharing stories. People are learning about each other things they didn’t know when they were playing. We’ve had guys on our board say that they never played against a white guy until they were in college. I think that’s incredible but it’s true. For me, this is bringing people together. Basketball was always sort of like this. A social awakening for a lot of the guys. These Irish and Italian guys heralded when more African Americans came into the NBA or into college, for example. Or won the national championship. They were so supportive. Especially guys from the Bronx.

CT: There’s been so much written for such a long time about a specifically New York City style of playing basketball. Do you think there’s anything specific to the style of basketball played in the Bronx? Or do you think it just reflects the broader ideas of New York City basketball as ball-handling, relentlessness, power, and speed?

TL: That’s a good question. I would like to say that the style of Bronx basketball is really unique but it is, as you said, a reflection of New York City basketball overall—the relentlessness, the ball-handling, and going at it very hard in the style of the city. Growing up in the Bronx is different than growing up in Manhattan but the styles of basketball would be very hard to separate.

CT: Growing up, where were your favorite places to play in the Bronx?

TL: I was fortunate enough to meet the guys in the West Bronx, in the Marble Hill area, just below Riverdale. It was very different than the East Bronx with more Italian and Irish players. I was very fortunate to move there when I was 13 and meet these guys. One guy that really stood out was Eugene Dennis. He was already a man at 14, dunking two basketballs at the same time. And I played against him and with him everyday. Inside, outside, at school. He was a remarkable competitor at the age of 14 and already had a reputation Bronx-wide. He ended up going to DeWitt Clinton, which is a factory for producing great, great basketball players. He was just one of them.

My favorite places were my housing project, Marble Hill. But because of him [Dennis], we went all over. He pushed me to play everywhere and to play against the best competition everywhere in the Bronx. The Forest Houses, the Melrose Houses, Parkchester. He showed me where the best competition was. I played for teams in Harlem, CC60, Salem Church. I was originally from Harlem. I played out in Brooklyn sometimes. I was everywhere.

CT: At what point did you start thinking about basketball being able to take you places, whether it was to college or play professionally?

TL: I still wonder about that. Because it took me so long to realize that I was a pretty good player. I saw how good other players where but before video I couldn’t see myself and how good a player I’d become. In college, I saw myself on film after a game for a few minutes at Madison Square Garden on the nightly news. I said “Holy Shit, I’m pretty good.” It was at that point that I really knew but I already knew it was opening doors for me. I was getting offers from coaches in high school but it took me a while to know how good I was or could be. I didn’t have the attitude. I didn’t have the swag but I was pretty good.

CT: Can you take me on your journey from being a high school player to playing in Arizona to playing at Manhattan to playing professionally?

TL: In junior high, I was playing with Eugene Dennis on some really good teams and at the time I was a really good student in eighth or ninth grade. So I was recruited by a coach from the Bronx High School of Science, which is a high-achieving academic school. I passed the test and got in. I played there for two seasons and was an All-City selection as a junior. All the attention and everything got to me. The emotional aspect of being a standout really got to me. I used to have a recurring dream of being at the top of the Broadway Bridge and I didn’t know how to get down. It was cold and windy and there were people underneath and there was the water, so I really wanted to get down but I didn’t know how. Finally, I said ‘I have to jump.’ So I jumped and landed in the water and floated the rest of the way. I think I know what it means now. I think I wasn’t emotionally ready for all of this attention. I stopped going to school. I screwed up the end of my junior year and didn’t end up going to school again until two years later. I just couldn’t pull it together. I ended up at Scottsdale Junior College after being at two other junior colleges. I pulled my grades together and through Billy Campion, who was a boyhood friend from the same neighborhood, got mentioned to Jack Powers, the coach at Manhattan, started playing there. And kind of made a comeback. Because I was losing it and getting more and more uninterested in basketball and didn’t have my life in order. Playing at Manhattan, coming home to New York. I could have played at many schools. After junior college, I had offers to USC, Long Beach State, Arizona State. A lot of schools out west, except for UCLA. I was averaging 24 points a game, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. I was playing like a guy from the Bronx. Give me the ball or I’ll go get it and make something happen. I was playing point guard at 6’6 and was one of the biggest guards in the nation at the time. I was cool, I was clean, I was away from the all the distractions in Arizona. I came back and started fulfilling my potential.

CT: What was Jack Powers like as a coach and how did you fit into the style of play at Manhattan?

TL: I think Jack [Powers] will remember me as a hard-headed kid. I wasn’t a bad guy but I just kind of did what I wanted to do and played how I wanted to play. And he’d sit me down. I did things my own way I respected Jack very much as a coach but I thought that I was going to handle the ball a lot more because I had just done it really successfully at Scottsdale. Instead, I was stuck as a rebounding, shooting forward, which was fine. I had a successful two years there. I got injured my junior year but came back my senior year and did well but I thought that I could have been a much better player there. He was loyal as a coach to his seniors and loyal to all his players. There wasn’t much room there for me to do a lot of ballhandling. I was a little disappointed by that but I got past it. Jack Powers is a great coach but I wasn’t always listening. Stylistically, he made me more of a team player. Before Manhattan, I was guy you just put the ball in my hands and I’d score for you. I was an offensive player and didn’t care too much about defense. I could do it, I was a shot blocker, but the real fundamentals of defense I wasn’t too interested in. I was more of guy who wanted to run, be a creative guy on the break. I did evolve at Manhattan into a better team player and understood certain aspects of the game that had not occurred to me before. I used some of his [Powers] offense years later as a coach, so he made an impression on me but I was too young and foolish to recognize that he was good for me.

CT: Can you tell me about your journey into professional basketball?

TL: I was drafted in the fifth round by Milwaukee. Thought I would go higher. It was a great experience at Rookie Camp. Billy Campion was also there with me for the second time. We were roommates there. Neither one of us made the team. After being cut, I ended up playing for Ivan Duncan, an assistant for Jerry Tarkanian, who was coaching in Sweden at the time. A couple of days after receiving the rejection letter from Milwaukee, he [Duncan[] sent a plane ticket and I left for Stockholm on a Sunday. I was really down and depressed about not making it and I left for Stockholm immediately. I won a national championship there. After that, I left and played in Switzerland for two seasons and we won two national championships. The first year, I played alongside Cornell Warner, who played eight years in the NBA and played alongside Kareem [Abdul Jabbar]. Both in LA and Milwaukee and for the Buffalo Braves. Real solid 6’9 forward who could run really well. He had played alongside Oscar Roberson as well in Milwaukee. He really helped me out. He had so much experience. He wanted me to be Oscar [laughs]. I learned a great deal from him that year. The first year I ran the point but there really was no point. We were just running. We weren’t really setting anything up unless it was necessary. I was both the high scorer and the high rebounder. We just had a reunion recently in Stockholm of that championship team and it was great to see those guys.

Then I went to play in the Netherlands. We were in the finals twice in a row, never won the Dutch title but I stayed in the Netherlands for 14 seasons and became a citizen. Then I returned to Switzerland as a coach, first as a player-coach. Then I set up a great international basketball camp and took many kids from different places in Europe back to New York. We were housed at Columbia University and also at Manhattan College. I did that for a few years until 2001 when the Twin Towers went down. Of course nobody wanted to fly that following year so it faded out. It was a great camp that lasted 10 years and brought in many friends who were coaching in different positions by then in different places in the city out in Brooklyn, up in the Bronx, Manhattan and Harlem. In the last camp, we had 70 kids that flew over to New York. I made a lot of friendships over the years and we got 25 to 30 kids into colleges or junior colleges from Europe.

CT: Is that the aspect of your career that you are the most proud of? Enabling so many kids to get an education?

TL: I think so and not only the educational part but also the experiences that came with them traveling. The others who didn’t get into schools had such an experience and they might never have been to the United States for any other reason. They would never have gone to Harlem or Brooklyn or the Bronx or have had this experience of going through this thing together and making lifelong friendships. Or some of them who got married to Americans and still live in the States. We keep in touch and so many of them are parents now. We had Nate Archibald coach in the program, he was the head coach of two of the programs. He came over to Switzerland to do two camps for me here. What an incredible journey. I took him all over Switzerland. He talked to all the newspaper people and the television people and we put him up in the best hotels.

It [the basketball camp] was a great, great thing and I wish it could have gone on longer but 2001 set it off and then things just changed.