COACHES’ CORNER: ‘Uncle Larry’ knew when it was time to go

UNCLE LARRY:  His nephew, professional golfer David Toms, gained more fame but Larry Toms stacked up many more victories in his high school basketball coaching career. 

EDITOR’S NOTE — They have seen it all (or at least a lot of it) and they’ve certainly got stories to tell. The Shreveport-Bossier Journal begins a summer series of weekly articles featuring prominent retired local coaches.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

On the night of Feb. 12, 1980, there was a 13-year-old boy riding on a school bus on the way back from Natchitoches and noticed that things seemed a little different. So he tapped the head coach on the shoulder and said “Uncle Larry, you might want to look around.”

Larry Toms, who was actually the second cousin of the boy’s father, said “I know. You better take a good look, son, because this is going to be my last trip.”

And with that, the basketball coaching career of Larry Toms ended. “I had a rule about talking on the bus after we lost,” he says now. “But once the girls and boys started sharing the same bus, you couldn’t stop it.”

(You might be interested to know that the 13-year-old boy who served as the team’s statistician and anything else “Uncle Larry” needed him to do  was David Toms, who traded his pencil and scorebook for a set of golf clubs and became a star on the PGA Tour.)

He will be 85 years old this month, but you can still find Larry Toms in high school gyms in Shreveport-Bossier during the season. Especially when the Bossier Bearkats are playing.

Toms made a terrific run – he won back-to-back state championships at Jonesboro-Hodge  in 1964 and 1965 – and had a number of outstanding teams at Bossier in 1970s.

He was always good for a colorful quote when he was coaching, so it is no surprise that when he wasn’t coaching high school basketball, Toms sometimes would take it upon himself to become a poet. And you don’t need to guess what his favorite subject was. Here’s an original selection from the early 1970s:

Oh, the agony of it all, the game of basketball

When your back is to the wall and you are about to fall

To hell with the refs and the sadistic fans

 And even the one who invented it all.

Toms grew up in Saline, graduating in 1955, and went to Northwestern State. He played on the freshman team, but got cut from the varsity and transferred to East Texas Baptist after a year and half. He began coaching at Sikes in 1959, spent a year at Sterlington and before taking over at Jonesboro-Hodge for five years.

The Tigers beat Neville 56-53 to win the Class 2A (the second-highest classification) in 1964 and followed with a 73-70 win in the 1965 finals.

“Winning the state championship in 1964 and 1965 was the highlight,” he says of his coaching career. “At that time we had pretty good height. We had four 6-foot-4 (players) and a 6-1 guard. That was rare back then. We won the state two years in a row running a 1-2-2 zone. That was before the 3-point line, of course. We tried to take everything we could out of the paint. Nobody could score inside and it worked.”

It was all part of the best coaching advice Toms ever got and it came from his father.

“He told me ‘If the zone defense were no good, the pros wouldn’t have outlawed it,’ ” he said. “I liked that zone. I’d camouflage it and change it up a little bit. Different people attack a zone different ways, so we would change it up so you couldn’t tell it from another defense.”

Interestingly, Toms became a good friend of basketball legend Bob Knight, who played almost exclusively a man-to-man defense.

Toms had several outstanding teams at Bossier, particularly his first one (1970-71) that was 31-6. He had two playoff runs ended by teams that went on to win the state championship and another that reached the finals.

But he is still a faithful follower of the Bearkats during their impressive run of success in the last decade. And if you’re a coach and want some advice, just ask him.

“Never practice over two hours and be very organized when you do practice,” he says. “I didn’t like to run a lot of sprints or bleachers. Whatever running we did would involve the ball game and we would get conditioned that way. My guys loved practice. It was just like a ball game. Love your team and make sure they love the game.”

Photo by JOHN JAMES MARSHALL