Ray Tolbert

I first met him when I was a senior in college, working as the sports editor for the Indiana Daily Student. He was a senior in high school and had announced his plan to attend IU, so I drove up to Anderson to interview him at his high school. I gave him a ride home afterward, and still remember all the students who shouted at him as we drove through the school grounds. It was like he was the King. A really popular King.

We had this conversation over the telephone, though. I should have been more patient and waited until he could come into the studio, because he’s a charismatic guy and a great talker, but sometimes deadlines force compromises.

His Mr. Basketball experience in 1977 didn’t go particularly well. Indiana lost both games to Kentucky and I remember a fan heckling him while he sat on the bench, right in front of my press seat at the game at Market Square Arena. His career at IU went very well, though. He was the starting center on the national championship team in 1981 and a natural energy guy. He was best known for his dunks. Upon completing his farewell speech after the final home game, he accepted the fans’ request to dunk one more time.

He was a first-round draft pick of New Jersey, but had an unusual NBA career. He played three seasons for three teams, went overseas for three years, then returned to play to play two more seasons for three teams.

Yeah, you could say he was a journeyman. That’s the price you pay for being a 6-9 center. Tolbert wasn’t tall enough to excel around the basket and lacked the skills to play away from it. But he lasted a long time in professional basketball. Combine that with being Mr. Basketball and the starting center on an NCAA championship team, and you’re bound to feel like a King.

First aired 2011

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