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Oklahoma connection nets star billing at Mt. Vernon ‘Legacy’ service

by Michelle Wilson Bradley, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

On July 15 at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, 620 Parkrose Ave., two coaching legends of Memphis with Oklahoma connections will be honored during Mt. Vernon Baptist Church’s Legacy Sunday service at 10 a.m.

Coach Jerry C. Johnson, born in Tulsa, Okla. in 1918 and Coach L. C. (Lavalius Cyrone) Gordon, the first black basketball player at Oklahoma State University (in 1957) located in Stillwater, will be honored at their home church.

Johnson, a coach for 46 years at LeMoyne Owen College, guided the college to the NCAA Division III National Championship in 1975. He is the only coach to bring a national championship title home to the area and the first historically black college or university coach to accomplish such a feat.

Before becoming a coach, Johnson was a dedicated athlete himself.

“I came up (doing) a lot of sports. I was all conference in high school (football and basketball),” Johnson said.

With such a long distinguished career as a “roundball” coach, Johnson actually began his career, after attending Fayetteville State College, as a football coach at Ridgeview High in Hickory, N. Car. While coaching there he won five state championships, later duplicating that feat at LeMoyne in the former Volunteer State Athletic Conference.

Johnson came to Memphis in the 50s to coach at LeMoyne, retiring over 10 years ago. He won more than 800 games as a coach and only six NCAA men’s basketball coaches have been able to accomplish that.

Gordon became a basketball standout at Booker T. Washington High School, before leaving for Oklahoma State. Although often facing racism challenges, Gordon persevered, having a great career as a defensive guard and earning a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education. He continued his education, earning a MBA from the University of Memphis and a Masters from Texas Southern.

Gordon, who has spent over 50 years teaching and coaching, designed an athletic program at Mt. Vernon that started with basketball first, then spread to other sports like volleyball and softball.

“I (relished) the idea of giving back to kids what I experienced. I like seeing kids grow and go off to college,” he said.

According to Earniece Foster, chair of the event, “This is our 5th annual Legacy celebration. It is the brainchild of our pastor, the Rev. Melvin D. Watkins. Every year we look for people who have made (outstanding) contributions to the community.”

Some past recipients have been Dr. Willie W. Herenton (former mayor of Memphis), Dr. Johnnie Watson (former LeMoyne-Owen College president) and Dr. David and Yvonne Acey, who built Africa in April into a Memphis tradition.

Both honorees emphasized life lessons taught to players.

As Johnson said, “I did the best I could with what I had.”

The Tennessee Sports Hall of Famer was known for personally checking with athlete’s instructors to see how they were doing. It seems his life lessons paid off. From his team’s have come NBA players, numerous high school and college coaches, a mayor and successful professionals.

Gordon has advice for parents.

“Give them (kids) something to do to keep them out of trouble. Very few of the students (I coached), got into trouble.”

Gordon was known for spending quality time with each basketball player.

Both coaches have received numerous honors down through the years, and what they have done to develop young boys into men remains close to their hearts.

Stillwater and Tulsa are just 70 miles away from each other in Oklahoma. Both cities molded legends for a community some 400 miles away in Tennessee. Although their time in Oklahoma was nearly 40 years apart, their paths merged in the community they both now love and in their home church, Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood.

(For more information, call the church office at 901-785-1612.)

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