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Naismith Hall of Fame Honor humbling for longtime Gwinnett educator

Staff Photo: John Bohn Debbie Loftice, a longtime Gwinnett educator, and former traveling basketball player with the All-American Redheads, is shown with her grandchildren, from left to right,  Owen Loftice, 3, Emily Loftice, 1, Elle McKenna Johnson, 1, Audrey Johnson, 5 and Cooper Johnson, 7. The All-American Redheads will soon be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball hall of Fame.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Debbie Loftice, a longtime Gwinnett educator, and former traveling basketball player with the All-American Redheads, is shown with her grandchildren, from left to right, Owen Loftice, 3, Emily Loftice, 1, Elle McKenna Johnson, 1, Audrey Johnson, 5 and Cooper Johnson, 7. The All-American Redheads will soon be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball hall of Fame.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Debbie Loftice, a longtime Gwinnett educator, and former traveling basketball player with the All-American Redheads, is shown with her grandchildren, from left to right, Owen Loftice, 3, Emily Loftice, 1, Elle McKenna Johnson, 1, Audrey Johnson, 5 and Cooper Johnson, 7. The All-American Redheads will soon be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball hall of Fame.

A basketball goal hangs on the side of the barn, above a dirt surface, at Debbie Loftice’s Commerce home. It mainly gets used when Cooper Johnson, her 7-year-old grandson, comes to visit.

Ya-Ya, as Loftice's grandchildren call her, takes some shots during those times, too, allowing her to flash a bit of the basketball skills that made her famous before Cooper's parents were even born.

The 62-year-old drained a long shot recently that shocked her grandson. Ya-Ya, it seems, still has game.

"I hit it and (Cooper's) eyes were as big as saucers," said Loftice, now retired after a long career as a Gwinnett educator. "I can still shoot. I can't guarantee I'm going to hit it. But I can still spin the ball, bounce it with my knees. I still have some basketball things I can do to impress (the grandchildren)."

Those talents earned Loftice, then playing under her maiden name of Smith, an opportunity to travel the country with the All American Redheads, a pioneering women's basketball team that has been called the female version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Loftice rarely discusses her own basketball career these days, but her past has been more in the forefront since early April, when the Redheads were selected for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The long-running franchise, which operated from 1936-1986, will be honored Sept. 7 at a Springfield, Mass., ceremony that includes fellow Class of 2012 recipients Reggie Miller, Don Nelson and Ralph Sampson.

All former Redhead players are invited to the induction, and Loftice plans to attend along with her husband Jerry, who taught and coached at Duluth for 34 years before his retirement. Her 84-year-old mother, Kathleen Smith, also may make the trip.

"We're all very excited," Loftice said of the Naismith honor. "It's a great honor for the players and people involved. I just hooked up with three (former Redheads players) on Facebook. They all got married and they're from all parts of the country. It will be good to see some of them again."

Loftice played one season for the Redheads in 1967, signing when she was just 17. She was a basketball star for Powell High School in Knoxville, Tenn., during a time when athletic opportunities after high school were limited for females.

She was a 5-foot-10 prolific scorer (she averaged 39.7 points as a senior with the help of a reliable, fall-away jump shot) who could stand flat-footed, leap and slap a backboard with her full hand. She thinks she could have dunked if she practiced at it.

In 2012, those skills would mean a free college education. In 1967, it meant little after high school graduation. Women's basketball wasn't even an Olympic sport for another decade.

When the Redheads offered a salary, all expenses paid and travel in a 15-passenger limousine (that now sits in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville) for a year of basketball, it was tough to turn down. All she had to purchase was her own hair dye, since her natural color wasn't red.

"My mother squalled, they really didn't want me to go," Loftice said. "To let your 17-year-old go off with strangers was tough I'm sure. From my point of view now, I can see how hard it was for my mom. But if they hadn't let me go, they knew I would always regret it.

"As a child in the '60s, your parents held on tight. You didn't have a lot of freedom. I learned how to judge the good and the bad in people. We only had two rookies on my team, so the other girls had been there for awhile and really helped us discern the difference between good and bad, what we should or shouldn't do. They really mentored us."

The players grew close through the whirlwind tour, which saw the Redheads win more than 70 percent of their 200 showcase games from October to May against teams of all men. They sometimes faced rosters of up to 30 men's players against their seven, which led to a no fastbreak rule to save the women's legs. They played seven days a week and twice on Sunday, with a rare, single day off at Christmas.

Most of the women had nicknames and ballhandling tricks they demonstrated during a pre-game show. Loftice was called the "School Girl Sensation," known for shooting foul shots from behind her back ("I would guess I shot close to 50 percent like that," she remembers.)

It was tiring, but fun. The team made frequent appearances off the court in their trademark red, white and blue, flag-inspired, uniforms, and even did a commercial for Tetley tea. They also got a free trip around the country, playing in both big cities and rural hamlets, as they traveled anywhere from 250 to 500 miles per day.

"We played in some really nice gyms," Loftice said. "Then there were some like McDowell, Kentucky, wood with a balcony around the top where people stood. You bounced the ball and you could feel the backboard vibrate."

The trip to McDowell, a coal-mining town in eastern Kentucky, also stirs up negative memories of her season with the Redheads. Men didn't like getting beat by women in basketball, and a man in McDowell punched Loftice.

"He got mad and cold-cocked me," she said. "They carried me off the court. After they played us for awhile, they carried him off in the second half."

Unfortunately, that incident wasn't the only one. Opponents sucker-punched the women in the stomach, occasionally touched them in inappropriate places.

"It was tough," Loftice said. "It was fun, but it was hard for a 17-year-old kid. I would have stayed for another year, though, if my parents would have let me."

With high-level sports over, a new era of life began later for Loftice, though she still played in recreational basketball and softball leagues until she was nearly 40. She married Jerry and both began teaching and coaching in Gwinnett, retiring after 31 years, including 23 at Buford High School.

Her children, Kristi and Jeremy, were involved in multiple sports at Duluth and they played college softball and baseball, respectively. That meant years of attending sporting events, an activity that is just beginning again with her five grandchildren, all under seven. Kristi's son Cooper already is big into baseball since his dad is Mountain View baseball head coach Jason Johnson.

"Sports were always a big part of our lives with (my parents)," Kristi said. "They didn't push us, it was our own choice. But she would shoot baskets with us. We would play Horse. Even Jeremy in baseball, she would catch for him. The shot is what I remember her teaching me. Square up your elbow and follow through, make sure the ball spins."

Jeremy didn't hear much about the Redheads as a youngster, but he knew his mother was a better athlete than most moms. The more he learned about it over the year, the more impressed he was, particularly with the latest Hall of Fame honor.

"We're definitely excited for her," Jeremy said. "It's cool to have an accomplishment like that recognized."

When Loftice isn't spending time with grandchildren these days, she is usually gardening, reading and fishing, among other activities. Her husband has been helping coach basketball at Banks County and he's also running for a county commission seat.

The couple's retirement schedule also got a nice addition thanks to the Redheads' Naismith honor. The upcoming vacation will be fun for Loftice, who hopes to take a return trip to the Hall of Fame with her children and grandchildren when they are older.

By then, they can appreciate the role Ya-Ya played for the first women's team inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Back when her hair was bottle-dyed red, not silver like it is in 2012.

"It's very humbling to be in the Hall of Fame," Loftice said. "It's such an honor. It definitely means a lot to us."