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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Henry Lee Prather

Sport: Basketball

Induction Year: 1965

Henry Lee Prather played basketball for the first time as a high school freshman in 1901, just 10 years after Dr. James Naismith fastened the peach baskets to the wall of the YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Mass.

It was love at first dribble.

A dozen years later, Prather arrived at Louisiana Normal (later Northwestern State), where he coached basketball teams for 37 years and produced winning records in all but two of them.

Born on a farm near Odessa, Mo., in 1886, Prather attended the University of Missouri – earning a bachelor’s degree in 1910 and a law degree one year later. While he was attending law school in 1911, he found time to coach the Columbia, Mo., high school basketball team.

The Missouri yearbook described him as “an elongated walking advertisement of the university.”

When Prather came to Louisiana, he coached one year at Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette. Then he settled in Natchitoches, coaching football, basketball, track and baseball teams without an assistant for 20 years.

By the 1930s, he realized that the job was becoming too big for one man.

“When I started looking for an assistant,” he said, “I didn’t have far to look. One of my athletes, Harry ‘Rags’ Turpin, was the very best choice I could make.”

He eventually turned all athletics except basketball over to Turpin. Prather continued to coach basketball until 1950, when he became president of the college.

Once again, one of his former players – Charles “Red” Thomas – was selected to succeed him.

In 1916-17, Prather’s team won its first 14 games by an average margin of nearly 24 points dropping the season finale to Tulane – the only opponent that scored more than 25 points. The 1918 team opened its season with a 54-5 rout of SLI, winning 10 straight games before losing the season finale to LSU.

Prather teams won five Louisiana Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships between 1916 and 1927.

There was no conference and no eligibility rules when Prather arrived in Natchitoches. He organized the LIAA. His teams scored single victories over Louisiana State University in 1916 and 1924, and swept a pair of games with the Tigers in 1925. They opened the 1930 season with a 46-18 rout of Tulane, then rolled through Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association play with a 13-5 record to finish second.

By that time, they had a nickname – “Demons,” selected by the students in a 1922 contest. In the early 1930s, the Demons rolled up 96 points in a romp past Magnolia A&M – a mind-boggling total for the era when a center jump followed each basket.

Prather, who was Dean of Men and a professor of business law, political science and government when he wasn’t coaching, kept his priorities in order.

“I heard him make opening night talks to several of his basketball teams,” Thomas said, “and he always started by telling the boys that they were in college first to obtain an education, and second to play basketball. I think this typified his whole philosophy in training young people.”

The first true national tournament in college basketball was the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament in Kansas City, which made its debut in 1937. Prather’s Demons qualified for six of the first 13 tournaments, winning one game in 1941 and two in 1949 – when a team led by Claude “Jodie” Stoutamire and Bernard “Tussie” Waggoner won the first basketball championship of the Gulf States Conference.

Relying mainly on country boys from Northwest Louisiana, Prather emphasized conditioning fundamentals and the fast break. “Discipline and conditioning were the keys to his success,” recalled Wallace Prather, who played for his dad before and after a stint in the service in World War II.

There were no letters of intent then. Prather’s “recruiting” consisted of a handshake – and sometimes even that wasn’t necessary.

After serving in the Marines during World War II, Frank Lampkin visited friends at Northwestern while he was considering his college options. He already had offers from SLI and Rice. When he walked past Prather’s office, the legendary coach called him in. “I understand you’re looking for a scholarship,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” Lampkin replied. “I would like to have one.”

“You’ll room with Ward and Richie,” Prather said.

The man who was called “an elongated walking advertisement” of his university reminded his players that they represented their school, on and off the court.

DeWitt “Pee Wee” Patten, who played on his 1948-49 team, recalled a story about a Midwest school that illustrated the coach’s sense of fair play. Playing a game in Natchitoches on a swing that would include Southwest Conference teams, the visiting coach requested SWC officials. After a couple of early calls favored the Demons, Prather called timeout and conferred with the visiting coach and game officials in the middle of the court.

“Your men are calling this game because this coach asked for you,” he said. “But I did not ask for home cooking, and I will call the game off if you continue to make those calls.”

Prather compiled a career record of 473 victories and 169 losses – a winning percentage of .737.

He served on term as president of the NAIA, and was inducted into the Helms Foundation All-American Hall of Fame for Basketball and the Naismith Hall of Fame.

Prather retired in 1954 after four years as the college president. He died at St. Charles Hospital in Newellton, La., on Sept 23, 1964, two months before the coliseum which now bears his name and houses the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame was opened.

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