The Pryor Times


April 17, 2012

A lifetime of basketball success

Don Sumner is an outgoing, gregarious sort. He is a basketball coach-turned-fundraiser. He has shaken more hands than a grassroots politician. He has more one-liners than a vaudeville wag.

For more than half his life, he has been representing Saint Gregory’s, nurturing and chronicling its growth from two-year college to four-year university. His name is so synonymous with Saint Gregory’s, is so much a part of the Saint Gregory’s image, it is downright impossible to think of one without the other.

He breezed through Tulsa last week, stopping for lunch and rekindling memories of basketballs bounced and officials tormented.

Addressing a gathering as part of the Tulsa Sports Charities monthly luncheon series spotlighting notables and luminaries, Sumner exhibited the personality that has stamped him an Oklahoma original.

Partly as a result of his Saint Gregory’s connection, he is the most recognized citizen of Shawnee.

Sumner was born in Shawnee, reared in Shawnee, lionized in Shawnee.

He was a high school sports star in Shawnee.

He was a collegiate sports star in Shawnee.

He was he a coaching star in Shawnee.

His name still appears in the basketball record books at Oklahoma Baptist in Shawnee, where he is enshrined in the OBU Sports Hall of Fame as a player.

After winning 621 games as a basketball coach, he was inducted in the Saint Gregory’s Sports Hall of Fame.

His name adorns the court in W.P. Wood Field House where Saint Gregory’s plays its home basketball games.

He was in the first induction class of the Oklahoma Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Don Sumner and Saint Gregory’s are indelibly etched together in the legacy of Shawnee and Oklahoma athletics.

“Saint Gregory’s is my love,” Sumner says.

After 36 years with the school, Sumner tried retirement. He opened a barbecue restaurant in Shawnee in the 1990s.

But Sumner was not the same without Saint Gregory’s. He was an athletic legend without a school.

Saint Gregory’s was not the same without Don Sumner. It was a school without a face.

The president of Saint Gregory’s convinced Sumner to end nine years of retirement. He returned as director of athletics.

Now 75, Sumner has made one more transition, taking on a role of fundraiser for the university and settling into athletic director emeritus.

Before speaking to some three dozen luncheon guests, Sumner was visiting with a contingent from Rogers State University. Director of Athletics Ryan Bradley and assistant Eddie Jackson were sharing stories about the Claremore campus.

Sumner recalled when the school was known as Oklahoma Military Academy.

“I was refereeing football,” he was saying. “One of the coldest nights I had was refereeing junior college up here, and Red Rogers was coach.

“An ice storm came in and I nearly froze to death.”

Jackson is a former basketball official who called a number of Saint Gregory’s games with Sumner on the bench.  

While they kibitzed and reminisced, Sumner’s legendary humor began to surface.

He has long been considered one of basketball’s premier funnymen. His running commentary with officials during games has become part of basketball of folklore.

“Coach Sumner was a to-the-point type of guy,” Jackson said.  

“He would say exactly what he thought. And, he would do it in a lot of comical ways.”

Jackson said that there were instances during games when it was difficult to keep his composure when Sumner was at his working best.

An example, he said, was during a Saint Gregory’s game against Bacone, when both were junior colleges.

During a crucial stretch, Sumner called time to verbally confront his players. Jackson, knowing that Sumner was not all too pleased with a few of the calls made by the two officials, moved away from the Saint Gregory’s bench during the break.

“When we came back from the timeout, I was getting ready to throw the ball in play, and two of his players just came up and just guarded me,” Jackson said. “Just guarded me.

“I said, ‘Don, WHAT ARE they doing?’

“He said, ‘I told ’em to guard the people that’s hurting us the worst. And that’s you!’

There was another time, another story, another set of officials, that involved Saint Gregory’s and Bacone.

The official this time was the Hall of Famer Bud Brown of Tulsa.

“I was on ol’ Bud to call it at both ends,” Sumner remembered.

“One time during the game, he walked across the floor, came up to me and said, ‘I can’t, because I’m only on one end at a time.’

“Later in the game,” Sumner continued, “I hollered to get them (Bacone players) out of the lane.

“We fouled someone. Bud gave the ball to the shooter and walked over to me. I told him, ‘I bet you can keep them out of the lane and call three seconds sometime before the game is over.’

“I just knew I was going to get a T. He said, ‘How much do you want to bet?’

“I said, ‘I’ll be you a dollar.’

“The game went on, and he still hadn’t called three seconds,” Sumner said. “Finally, the game got over, and I pulled a dollar out of my wallet and was getting ready to hand it to him .

“Bud said, ‘Keep it. I’ve got you again Monday night at Eastern, and I’ll bet you double or nothing.’”

As director of athletics, and with a vantage point in the stands rather than on the bench, Sumner sees officials in a different light these days.

“They’re a lot better now than I thought they were,” he said.

“As a spectator, they’re not as bad as I thought they were when I was coaching.

“But I’d never tell them that.”

Still, Jackson said that Sumner was one of the most respected coaches among officials.

“He would get on us so much out there,” Jackson said. “But when it was over, it was over.

“That’s one of the things I really respect about coach Sumner.

“In fact, he would take us back to his office at Saint Gregory’s, and that’s where we dressed.

“He would talk about a lot of things, but he wouldn’t talk about the basketball game. He was always so generous and so professional.”

Sumner was a coach, but he was a teacher, first and foremost.

  “I enjoy teaching more than I do coaching,” he said. “I miss teaching a lot more than I miss coaching.”

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