In a town known for its basketball players in the 1960s, one of the very best was Don Black, a member of the Lovell High School Class of 1966 who will be inducted into the LHS Athletic Hall of Fame this Saturday.
A deadly shooter who averaged 27 points per game his senior year and scored school record 51 points in one contest, Black was also an all-state football player and a track and field athlete who went on to have a highly successful career in the U.S. Navy.
Black’s father Joseph and uncle Paul had played basketball for the Bulldogs during an earlier era, so it could be said that basketball was in Don Black’s blood. Father Joseph was an accountant for Marathon Oil for about 20 years after World War II, but just as Don was coming into his senior year the company downsized and Joseph lost his job. He quickly obtained a similar job with Husky Oil in Cody, but there was a lot of discussion in the family and in the area that the family might move to Cody and take Lovell’s star player with them.
They did move, but it was after Don graduated, and his dad commuted to work during the 1965-66 school year so Don could complete his career at LHS. His mother, Ruth Christensen Black, a Cowley native, was also an accountant and did books for various businesses in Lovell including Dude’s Café and the Robertson Motor Co. Older brother David was about five years ahead of Don in school and was also an all-state basketball player at LHS. Younger sister Jeanette graduated from Cody High School.
His parents stayed in Cody another 30 years or so, Don said, until Joseph moved to be closer to kids and grandkids after Ruth’s death. Joseph lived into his 90s.
Asked if basketball was his favorite sport, Don replied, “I think so. I liked football a lot, but in those days Lovell football wasn’t anything to brag about. We kind of had a resurgence when I was a junior (fall of 1964). They (the seniors) had a big class with lots of athletes.
“My class was kind of low on athletes…Most of the teams we played were later placed in a higher class. We lost to them in football, but we had a winning record against the same teams in basketball. We routinely beat Cody, and their fans didn’t like that at all. They didn’t like losing to Lovell.”
Despite the team rivalries, Black recalls the area competition fondly.
“We had a lot of friends among the Big Horn Basin teams,” he said. “After the game it was a lot of fun to talk to them. It was like playing against your friends.”
Dean Gerke was Black’s head coach for both football and basketball, and Black said he loved his coach for his passion for basketball.
“Dean Gerke was the heart and soul of Lovell basketball,” he said. “He had more passion for the game than anyone I ever knew, and he couldn’t stand for players to not play up to their potential. At halftime he would get so fiery, so mad. He might kick a garbage can or slam his fist on a locker. You could hear a pin drop in that locker room. But he also had a sense of humor.
“The players loved him and respected him…He gave everything he had to that team.”
The Bulldogs went 3-5 in football in 1963, and the sophomore Black played fullback and backup quarterback, he recalled. He was again the backup quarterback to Bobby Hill as a junior in 1965 and also played on the line, starting at center.
“I just about fell on my face (when asked to play on the line),” he said. “I had never played on the line, but it was a blessing in disguise. We had one of the best lines in the conference. We had some wrestlers on the line like John Franckowiak and Ted Mickelson and Roy Despain. It was a good experience for me.”
The Bulldogs did well that year, playing to a 5-4 record.
As a senior Black was the starting quarterback and received Class A All-State honors and was named to the Associated Press Dream Team. The Bulldogs played to a losing record, going 2-6 in 1965 with a young team, but Black had a lot of fun, he said.
“I called all the plays,” he said. “Sometimes coach Gerke would send in a play, but in those days the quarterback called the plays. Bobby Hill (the previous quarterback) had a really strong arm and could throw the ball about 70 yards, but he wasn’t very accurate so we played mostly single wing.
“I tried to convince the coach to let me throw the ball more, and little by little he did. My prime target was Ralph Winland. He could jump up and catch the ball. I would make eye contact with him and throw it up and he would get the ball.”
On defense, Black played middle linebacker for three years, and during his junior and senior years, he said, he was also the team placekicker and a kick returner.
Black really shined in basketball. He grew up in an era when backyard or driveway hoops were common.
“We played year-around,” he said. “I lived on Park Avenue and we had a hoop over the garage. Every street in Lovell had at least two hoops on it. There was a game going all the time, after school, in P.E. It was a basketball town, no doubt about it. Even after basketball practice we’d play. One time we were playing and Coach Gerke drove by and said, ‘Don’t you kids ever get tired of playing?’ He was proud of us.”
Black was a freshman on the B team during the 1962-63 season that saw the Bulldogs win the first of four consecutive Big Horn Basin District tournaments, but he said Gerke would sometimes allow promising players to practice with the varsity.
He joined the varsity full-time as a sophomore in 1963-64, and the Bulldogs were strong as usual, eventually placing third at the state tournament. The Bulldogs won the district tourney in Greybull, beating Greybull 69-45 with Black scoring 16 and then edging Basin 58-55. At State, the Bulldogs knocked off Lusk in the first round 70-68 but fell to University Prep in the semifinals, 81-78, despite 23 points by Black. Lovell rebounded to beat Basin 81-65 to place third.
The following season, Black’s junior year, Lovell rolled into the district tournament in Basin with a 12-6 record and again won the title by beating Basin 77-43 and St. Stephen’s 75-66 as Black scored 16 and 19 points, respectively, in the two games. At State in Laramie, Lovell edged Wheatland 50-47 as Black scored 24 points, then beat Evanston 72-59 in the semis behind 22 points from Black.
Lovell met Green River for the title and fell 62-57. Black had 15 in the loss, and sophomore Ralph Winland scored 19. The Bulldogs dug themselves a 25-13 hole in the first quarter and trailed 37-33 at halftime, then scored only 10 points in the third to trail 52-43 after three. Lovell cut the lead to one point, 58-57, but couldn’t get over the top.
What fans may not have realized, Black said, is that he played injured at State. He had cut off the tip of a finger on his left – non-shooting – hand the week before State with a paper cutter. The doctor froze the finger to numb it and put a rubber sheath over the finger.
Black was named to the Class A All-State team following the season.
Black also ran track and field during his junior year, encouraged by the coach, he said, and excelled in throwing the discus.
Record scoring game
The Bulldogs had another outstanding team in 1965-66 featuring a tall lineup with all five starters standing six-foot or taller: sophomore Jeff Pearson and junior Noel Hoffman at guard, both of them 6-0, junior Richard Fink and senior Black at forward, both 6-3, and junior Ralph Winland, 6-5, at center. Coming off the bench was junior Reed Robertson, 6-4, giving the team six six-footers.
Lovell was ranked fifth in the state in Class A following the regular season with a 14-4 record and won the school’s fourth straight Big Horn Basin District title, hosting the tournament. In the first district tournament game following a first-round bye, the Bulldogs clobbered Basin 84-46, and Black outscored the entire Bobcat team, scoring 51 points – in three quarters. With Lovell having built a 46-27 halftime lead and increasing it in the third, Coach Gerke had his starting five on the bench midway through the quarter when the scorebook keeper let Gerke know that Black had 49 points.
The way teammate Jeff Pearson tells it, Black was cooling off at the end of the bench when Gerke asked the senior if he wanted to go for 50 (51 with a bucket). “Sure, coach,” Black reportedly replied matter-of-factly. So he re-entered the lineup, received a pass about two steps in from the mid-court line and fired up a long-range bomb, then turned without watching the flight of the ball to take himself back out of the lineup. It swished, and Black had his 51.
“That’s how hot he was that night,” Pearson said.
Ralph Winland had a slightly different take. He said Black may have been a little bit closer, though he agreed it was a long-range shot. And he didn’t recall Black not watching the flight of the ball.
“But mine is a better story,” Pearson said with a laugh.
As for Black, he said he was surprised Gerke put him back in.
“Gerke wasn’t very big on individual accolades,” he said. “It was all about the team. I left in the third quarter and didn’t even know I had 49. I was in la-la land watching the game.”
He said Gerke asked him if he wanted to go back in to get to 50 and he recalled thinking, “You bet!” But the coach told him to get it and come right back out because the younger players needed to play.
It didn’t take long at all.
“I thought they would pass it around a little bit, but there was one pass and I turned and shot it,” he said. “It was way out there, maybe five or 10 feet in from the center court circle. I let it go and it went right through.”
Black said he did turn toward the bench but not because he was confident. He was worried about the coach’s reaction to the super long shot.
“If I’d have done that in a normal situation, I’d have been taken out,” he said. “I did turn away, and I had a lot of confidence, no doubt, but I was so afraid Gerke was going to come out and grab me by the short hairs. I really thought I’d missed it. He called time out and took me out. I wasn’t in the game more than about 10 seconds.”
Lovell then beat Thermopolis 73-47 for the district title as Black scored 32 points, and he received the Wilford Mower Award for academic and athletic excellence in the Big Horn Basin following the game. The award went to Lovell senior Roy Despain the prior year.
At State the Bulldogs knocked off Evanston 80-69 in the first round and Black fired in 37 points, Winland 25. Lovell met Gillette in the semifinals and fell to the run-and-gun Camels 80-64 as Winland tallied 22 points, Black 14, despite nursing a painfully sore foot.
“I had bad luck at state tournaments,” he said. “I broke a bone in my foot (against Gillette), and they X-rayed it (after the game). The trainer said I couldn’t do any more damage, but it was extremely painful. They taped it up as tight as they could, and I appreciate what Gerke did for me. He let me play even (in game three) though I played with a limp.
“Gillette had a fine team. They used a platoon system (five players coming in and going out at a time) and would fast break on every play. They just ran us out of the gym. We hadn’t faced anything like that since we played Powell, which was the best team in the state.”
Lovell fell to Green River 71-55 in the third-place game, and Black managed to score 17 points. Noel Hoffman led the team with 20 points. Gillette went on to beat University High for the state title, 60-55. Black and Winland were named to the all-state tournament team.
Black averaged 27 points per game his senior season and was named Class A All-State. He was also named a Look Magazine (honorable mention) High School All-American. He won the LHS coach’s free-throw shooting trophy all three of his varsity seasons.
Other high school awards included freshman class president, senior class president, American Legion Boys State and All-State Band as a trumpet player. He was a member of the marching band, concert band and high school chorus for all four years of high school.
Post high school
Black went on to Brigham Young University and played on the freshman team during an era when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity. His basketball career ended after that season, but he went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering at BYU in 1974, then joined the U.S. Navy and served for nearly 29 years as an officer in the Naval Civil Engineer Corps.
During his service he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering/construction management from the University of Washington, an MBA from Golden Gate University and a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He served as a player-coach on the U.S. Navy Basketball Team in Italy in 1975-76, playing in a number of semi-pro tournaments in Italy.
As an engineer Black directed the design and build-out of the Miramar Naval Air Station realignment, a $400 million project to expand airfield capabilities for both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
The 9-11 attack
Black was serving in the Pentagon when the airliner struck the building during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Serving as an aide to a senior executive, he was in his office on the other side of the building when the airliner hit.
“We felt a rumble; it felt like an earthquake,” he said. “Security was running up and down the corridors telling people to get out of the building, and alarms were sounding.
“We went into the parking lot, and it was quite a thing trying to find all of the injured and dead people.”
The silver lining to the terrible attack was the reaction by ordinary citizens.
“For a week or two after the event I was in uniform day and night, and people would come up and shake your hand or honk their horn and wave, people I had never met before,” he said, and noted in his hall of fame resume, “I felt a most profound sense of patriotism among the civilian and military communities during the aftermath, which made me proud to be an American.”
Black retired from the Navy in 2003 and then worked in civil service for the U.S. Marine Corps as head of the Marine Facilities Section in the Pentagon. In 2017 he was awarded the Civilian Meritorious Service Medal in recognition of his engineering and leadership contributions. He retired in 2018 at the age of 70.
“I love the Navy with all my heart,” he said. “Until my dying day I’ll remember my time in the Navy as the best times in my life.”
Black married Catherine Thatch of Norfolk, Va., in 1980, and the couple have five children and five grandchildren. The Blacks now live in Willis, Va.
By David Peck