Rayl remembered for more than marksmanship

From Kokomo High School to Indiana University to the Indiana Pacers, Jimmy Rayl embodied Hoosier Hysteria as well as anyone. For him, basketball was much more than a game to be played. It was a passion, and like any love interest it could bring anger and agony to go with the joy.

Rayl, who passed away on Jan. 20, 2019 at age 77, was one of the greatest long-range shooters of his era, a threat from beyond 30 feet long before the three-point shot revolutionized the game. He also was one of the skinniest, weighing just 145 pounds as a 6-foot-3 guard at Indiana University. He was dubbed by state sportswriters as The Splendid Splinter, a nickname originally attached to baseball star Ted Williams.

As a high school player he was the forerunner to future guards of similar playing style and skin tone, such as Ron Bonham, Rick Mount, Billy Shepherd and Steve Alford, guys who would let it fly without conscience and with uncanny accuracy.  He was a colorful player in a colorful era of Hoosier Hysteria, seemingly fictional in his persona and accomplishments.

Rayl was a first-team all-state selection as a junior and senior and became one of the most written-about players in the state’s basketball history during his final season at Kokomo, when the school’s 7,500-seat gymnasium was filled for every game. He averaged nearly 30 points that season and surpassed 40 five times, including some games that still stand as prime examples of Indiana’s high school basketball tradition.

There was the one, for example, against top-ranked Muncie Central when he scored 45 points in a 79-77 victory. He played that one with a 101-degree fever. He didn’t feel any better after chasing after a loose ball, hitting his head on the scorer’s table, suffering a knot on his forehead and opening a gash over his eye that required four stitches to close.

Bob Collins, who covered the game for The Indianapolis Star, couldn’t suppress his admiration, writing: “With the fabulous Jimmy Rayl scoring an equally fabulous 45 points, the Wildcats shot Muncie Central off the top of Indiana’s high school totem pole …”

Rayl hit 18-of-30 field goal attempts in the game, scoring from “inside, outside, topside and sometimes nearly upside down,” Collins wrote.

Corky Lamm, who covered the game for The Indianapolis News, waxed poetic, leading his story as follows:

“Sickly, spindly Jimmy Rayl, caught a Bearcat by the tail;

wouldn't let him out alive, shot him dead with 45.”

Rayl also played a lead role in what became known as the Church Street Shootout, the final game played in the Church Street Gymnasium at New Castle High School. Rayl scored 49 points, but New Castle guard Ray Pavy scored 51 to lead his team’s victory.

Rayl set a North Central Conference scoring record his final season, although Muncie Central’s Bonham would break it a year later. He went on to score 40 points in a state tournament game in Fort Wayne, hitting 18-of-19 free throws. The United Press International account of that one began, “Slim Jimmy Rayl, a nervy fire horse, rammed in a one-hander at the final gun to give Kokomo a spine-tingling 92-90 victory over defending state champion Fort Wayne South Saturday.”

Rayl led Kokomo to the final game of the state tournament in 1959, where it lost by 38 points to Crispus Attucks. Rayl scored 26 of his team’s 54 points and rang up 114 points over the final four games of the tournament, breaking a record once owned by Oscar Robertson. He also received the Trester Award, a prestigious honor for players best exhibiting sportsmanship and academic achievement. Rayl joked in later years about his lack of qualification for the award, but he was a unanimous selection in the voting -- perhaps as a tribute to his popularity and consolation for not winning the championship.

Asked on the court after the final game for a reaction, he was nearly inconsolable. “Aw, it’s all right,” he muttered, “but to get beat like that …”

Rayl was the runaway winner in the voting for Mr. Basketball that year, then took a scholarship to IU. He didn’t become a starter until his junior season, but caught on fast. He set the Big Ten’s single-season scoring record of 56 points in an overtime victory over Minnesota that season and repeated the feat as a senior against Michigan State. Not only did he not have the benefit of a three-point shot at the time, the clock continued running whenever the ball went out of bounds, thus shortening the actual playing time. He was taken out with about 3 ½ minutes remaining, much to the dismay of the IU fans.

 

He averaged 29.8 points as a junior and 25.3 as a senior, the drop-off resulting from improved talent around him, namely the addition of three sophomore scorers: the Van Arsdale twins, Tom and Dick, and Jon McGlocklin. All went on to have long careers in the NBA.

Rayl was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, but elected not to go to training camp without a guaranteed contract and took a job with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. His primary role was to play for the company’s AAU team, which competed against a national schedule of other AAU squads and college teams.

Four years later, the ABA was formed, and the Pacers came calling.

Rayl was a member of the inaugural Pacers’ team that began play in the American Basketball Association in the 1967-68 season. He appropriately hit the first three-pointer in franchise history, in the team’s second game. He went on to average 12 points that season but scored 30 or more three times in the final month. Thanks to his deep roots within the state, he was voted Most Popular Player by fans, an award sponsored by Tuchman Cleaners. He kept the trophy for that honor on display in his living room throughout his life.

He was a starter at the beginning of the following season, along with Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown, Bob Netolicky and Mel Daniels. He scored 21 points in the season-opener and hit five three-pointers, a franchise record that stood until Brown hit seven in the final game of the ABA finals in May of 1970.

Rayl had a rocky relationship with the Pacers’ first coach, Larry Staverman, and was left behind on a road trip early the second season. His career temporarily got a boost when Bob Leonard took over as coach. Leonard, like Rayl, was a former IU All-American and Kokomo resident, and the two occasionally shared rides to practice in Indianapolis.

Rayl averaged more than 16 points in his first six games under Leonard’s direction, but his playing time gradually declined and he was released by general manager Mike Storen in December. He found footing in the “real world” when he put his good name to good use and landed a job as a salesman for Xerox, working a territory out of Kokomo until retiring.

Rayl was a colorful figure in and out of basketball. He owned fast cars, such as a Shelby Cobra and a Porsche 928, and he drove them hard. Nearly killed himself a time or two. He also had a temper, which occasionally caused conflict with coaches. That second 56-point game for IU against Michigan State came just two days after he had quit the team during practice because coach Branch McCracken had said something to him about a turnover. A local sportswriter brokered a truce and Rayl was allowed back on the team after he apologized to his teammates.

(The postscript to that story is that Rayl loved telling people McCracken was sitting in the second row of the church when he married his high school sweetheart, Nancy, shortly after graduating from IU.)

He popped off to Staverman occasionally as well, and once threw a bar of soap at general manager Mike Storen from the shower because he was angry over his playing time in a  homecourt victory.

He wasn’t opposed to talking back to opposing players either, such as the time he called Ohio State center Gary Bradds a “crybaby” during a game. Bradds swung at his head and barely missed.

His temper, however, wasn’t as great as his sense of humor. Naming his daughter Ginger was all the proof he needed for that, but he flashed it often.

Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote once called him to talk about Delta High School star Matt Painter, a player whom Rayl was promoting to college coaches. He had sent newspaper clippings to Heathcote extolling Painter’s virtues, and convinced Heathcote to come down to watch him play.

Rayl had scored 44 points against Michigan State the same season he scored 56 against the Spartans, so when Heathcote opened the telephone conversation by saying, “Is this Jimmy Rayl, Indiana’s all-time leading scorer?” Rayl responded, “No, Jud, I wasn’t, but if I played you guys every night I would have been.”

Rayl also enjoyed telling the story of the time he met IU coach Tom Crean, who was hosting a gathering for former players. When Crean extended his hand, Rayl said, “Now who are you again?”

Crean took him seriously, until Rayl interrupted and said he was joking.

Rayl’s sense of humor helped him maintain friendships in and out of basketball. He was proud of the number of notable figures who went to the trouble of visiting visit him in Kokomo. Pacers teammates Bob Netolicky and Mike Lewis drove up the summer after the Pacers’ first season to help him panel his basement. Jerry Harkness, whom he competed against in college and played with for the Pacers, drove up on a Sunday afternoon to have lunch after both had been released by the team. Former Ohio State and Boston Celtics great John Havlicek looked him up while driving through town. The VanArsdale twins visited in the summer of 2017. Scott Skiles dropped in now and then as well.

Rayl made all of the notable basketball players take a shot on the goal hanging on his garage.

One day he even convinced Mount to come over after Mount had appeared at a camp at Kokomo High School. Rayl badgered him into a game of H-O-R-S-E, a classic matchup of Hoosier shooting legends. The should-have-been-filmed game ended in a tie, although their stories of how they reached that conclusion differ.

Ironically, Rayl became more closely tied with Purdue’s basketball program in later years than IU’s. He attended several games with Painter’s father and remained close to Painter, even driving with friends to hear him speak at off-season Purdue alumni gatherings. Rayl kept a letter Heathcote wrote to him in 1989 regarding his recruitment of Painter, and Painter later claimed he had “the best street agent in the state” in Rayl.

Although initially bitter over his exit from the Pacers, Rayl eventually shrugged it off and maintained a relationship with the franchise. He attended Pacers games and their annual golf outing for as long as his health permitted. That attitude enabled him to have a contented life after basketball. Many high school and college legends have a difficult time adjusting to a life after their athletic career, but Rayl maintained a stable personal life. He stayed married to Nancy and maintained a close connection with his three surviving children, Another son, Timmy, died in an automobile accident, the sort of tragedy a parent never gets over but one Rayl managed to navigate because of his close ties to family and so many friends.

He had health issues in his later years. A stroke. Open heart surgery. A broken hip. He spent most of his time in a reclining chair in his living room, and his memory gradually declined. He tended to repeat stories, as so many older people do, and he never failed to tell the story of the time he was kicked off the IU team two days before the game against Michigan State.

“Can you believe I did that?” he would always say.

A college basketball star talking back to his coach and quitting the team would generate endless media coverage today, but it was kept out of the newspapers at the time. It became a harmless, amusing anecdote as the years passed, reflective only of Rayl’s sensitive nature and passion for the game rather than a genuine character flaw.

His popularity was obvious to those attending his funeral service as well as the occasion the following year in which the street running in front of the high school gymnasium was renamed Jimmy Rayl Boulevard.

Tom Bolyard and Darnell Hillman

That ceremony conducted inside the gymnasium where Rayl played featured local dignitaries as well as Painter, Harkness, his IU teammate Tom Bolyard, and former Pacer Darnell Hillman who represented the franchise. There, more stories of Rayl’s shooting prowess and basic decency were revealed.

Harkness had played against Rayl in Bloomington on Dec. 20, 1962, when both were seniors. Harkness’ Loyola team, which went on to win the national championship that season, won the game, 106-94, but Rayl outscored Harkness in their personal matchup, 26-24.

Jerry Harkness

Harkness recalled reading the scouting report for the game and being stunned by the marks that showed where Rayl had shot from in IU’s previous game.

“Some were almost to halfcourt,” he said. “I thought no, this can’t be right. I called the (assistant) coach and he told me, ‘I scouted him, Jerry, that’s where he shoots.’”

Harkness said Rayl’s first three shots proved the scouting report to be correct.

“I was flabbergasted the guy would shoot way back there,” Harkness said. “And he made the first three shots. I was so hurt. I really was. I’ll never forget that.”

Harkness also recalled running a three-on-one fastbreak with Rayl and another Pacers teammate. Rayl, running to his right, flared to the right corner to set up for a three-point shot, forcing Harkness to make an awkward pass. Rayl hit the shot and then ran over to Harkness and said, “Jerry, I don’t mean to confuse you, but isn’t three points better than two?”

Painter gave credit to Rayl for promoting him to college coaches while Painter was playing outside the mainstream of high school basketball at a smaller school, Delta, near Muncie. Rayl had watched Painter play in the sectional and considered him a legitimate Big Ten prospect, so he took it upon himself to contact Gene Keady at Purdue, Bob Knight at Indiana and Jud Heathcote at Michigan State.

Matt Painter

Painter was going to go to IU, but the offer was retracted. He then chose Purdue over Michigan State. Painter and Rayl remained friends thereafter, with Rayl often attending Purdue games in Mackey Arena in a gold sweater.

Painter said Rayl’s selfless gesture impacted his coaching philosophy.

“A lot of times when people help you out, they have an agenda,” Painter said. “He didn’t have an agenda. He just wanted what was best for me. That’s something I’ve carried with me for a long time.

“It’s a player’s game. Do everything you can for your team during the season, and then outside the season do everything you can for that individual.”

 


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