The basketball career of Scottsburg’s Billy Mac James was culminated when he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
That was 40 years after his accomplishments of the 1969 season elevated his name to the level reserved only for the true legends of Indiana high school basketball.
That season, he led Scottsburg to an undefeated regular season while averaging 36 points per game, which included 69 points in one game against West Washington. His 938 points that season still ranks eighth all-time in Indiana.
James’ 1969 season remains one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of Indiana basketball.
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After high school, James completed a successful college basketball career at Tyler Texas Junior College and Marshall University.
This short story is about the period after his high school and college basketball playing days. It’s the unique story of how he ended up being drafted in the NFL and eventually onto a professional basketball roster for the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels … and here’s the story.
In the fall of 1973, James’ college basketball days were behind him, and he was now working on the last stages of his college degree when he received a visit from an unexpected source — coach Jack Lengyel, the new football coach of Marshall University.
Lengyel was trying to rebuild the football program in wake of the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 members of the Marshall football team and wanted James to play football. Up to that point in his life, James had never played one minute of organized football. In fact, Scottsburg did not even have a football team when James was in high school.
After talking the offer over with his wife, Shari, he enthusiastically accepted Lengyel’s offer and ended up with a starting position as a wide receiver for the Thundering Herd.
Little did he know, nearly 35 years later, his role on the Marshall football team would take on a new twist when actor Mark Patton played his character in the 2007 movie “We Are Marshall.” The movie paid tribute to the horrific tragedy and starred major motion picture star Matthew McConaughey.
When the football season ended, James got another surprise, as the Houston Oilers selected him in the 18th round of the NFL draft. James, not one to pass up a challenge, reported to the Oilers camp but was eventually released by the team on the fourth day.
Early in 1974, James and his wife were back in Scottsburg, where he was looking for a teaching job. One morning, he picked up a copy of The Courier-Journal, and something caught his attention. Indiana basketball great Rick Mount had left the Kentucky Colonels and was demanding to be traded.
Bill’s mind began to work quickly, and he saw Mount’s departure as an opportunity. However, there was one problem — Bill had not played basketball in a long time because he had been playing football.
After thinking about it for a few minutes, James packed his gym bag and headed to Louisville. Arriving at Freedom Hall, James was surprised to find an open side door, which allowed him access right to the floor where the Colonels were practicing. James had been acquainted with Colonels coach Babe McCarthy a few years earlier, but he wasn’t sure how to approach him.
Nervously, James asked McCarthy if he remembered him, which the coach did and asked Bill what he needed. James responded, “Coach, I think I can help you,” and waited for a response. McCarthy smiled and said, “Well, get dressed, and let’s see if you can.”
After warming up for a few minutes, McCarthy asked James if he was ready and had him play a couple of games of one-on-one with Colonels players Walt Simon and Jim O’Brien. To the surprise of McCarthy, James beat them both.
The coach then asked James to play Colonels star guard and ABA All-Star Louie Dampier. Years later, James recalled the moment.
“Dampier was great, and he put it to me,” he said. “I played him very aggressive, and he didn’t like it. He probably didn’t like the idea of having to play me, so he threw an elbow that busted my mouth. I didn’t back down, and I kept playing. He beat me pretty good, but man, he was good.”
After the one-on-one encounter with Dampier, McCarthy had James do some drills. During the drills, he heard Dampier tell McCarthy, “We can use him.” A short time later, McCarthy called James over and told him he had a spot on the roster.
Eventually, being out of basketball shape caught up with James, and a few weeks later, the Colonels waived him, but not before he got to play in a game against the Memphis Tams.
Lloyd “Pinky” Gardner was the trainer of the Kentucky Colonels in the 1970s and remembers when James became a Colonel.
“He was a great kid,” Gardner said. “We were short on players, and he came into a tough situation. He had a great attitude and worked very hard. His hard work paid off when Babe put him in a game. It was a nice reward for him.”
In 2011, Gardner co-authored a book about the history of the Kentucky Colonels with Gary P. West.
After he was waived by Kentucky, McCarthy told James he still had a chance to play pro basketball, and he would place him on the Colonels’ summer league roster. However, the front office of the Colonels had other plans and fired McCarthy at the end of the season, replacing him with Hubie Brown.
As summer approached, James was hoping the Colonels would still honor McCarthy’s plans. But eventually, Brown informed him he did not have a spot on the roster, and James’ professional playing days were over.
James coached Scottsburg to the 1979 regional championship and retired from teaching just a couple of years ago.
Mike Barrett is a local resident with an interest in history. His Backroads Indiana columns appear regularly in The Tribune. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.