To me, Andy Richmond was bigger than life

By Gary Abernathy - [email protected]

Every morning at the mine we would see him arrive,

He stood six foot six and weighed 245,

Kinda broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip,

Everybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John.

“Big Bad John,” the popular Jimmy Dean song from the 1960s, never failed to make me think immediately of Andy Richmond.

Andy, who played basketball at Lynchburg-Clay and set records that stood for a long time or still stand, is among the inductees this Thursday in The Times-Gazette’s annual Highland County Ahtletic Hall of Fame and Scholar Athlete ceremony at the Ponderosa Banquet Center.

Jeff Gilliland wrote a great profile of Andy last week, as he did for the other three inductees, the 1928 Marshall basketball team, coach Tom Purtell and former track star Ed Ayres.

For me, growing up in the Lynchburg-Clay school district meant growing up watching Andy and his teammates play. I was four or five years younger than Andy, but I doubt we ever missed one of his games. My dad was, and is, a big high school basketball fan, and our family probably traveled to every game Andy played, home or away, until he graduated in 1970.

By 12 or 13 years old, I was a basketball nut. I had already fallen in love with the NBA, and was fascinated by the 1969 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. It turned out to be Bill Russell’s final year with the Celtics, and Wilt Chamberlain’s first year with the Lakers after a record-breaking career with the Warriors and 76ers.

The Lakers were truly the first “super team,” with Wilt joining Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in Los Angeles. They were considered unbeatable. Of course, the Celtics beat them anyway in a classic seven-game series, and Russell walked off with his 11th championship in his 13-year career. Can you imagine that? Play 13 years and win the championship in 11 of them?

Anyway, I recount all that to say that watching the Lynchburg-Clay Mustangs play at that time was not, in my young mind, much different than watching the Celtics or Lakers. To me, basketball was basketball, and Andy Richmond was just our own Russell or Chamberlain, with the addition of a deadly jump shot.

So when Andy started making his way a couple of short miles down the road to our house to play basketball with me, I sincerely mean it when I say it might as well have been Russell or Chamberlain or Jerry West or Oscar Robertson.

Andy grew up rough, and that roughness was sometimes displayed against others. As his brother, Jeff Richmond, said in Jeff Gilliland’s story, their dad taught them, “You don’t back down from nothing.” Andy didn’t back down, and sometimes he initiated things. Life wasn’t easy on Andy or the rest of his family, and sometimes that makes people lash out.

But to me, Andy Richmond was something like a big brother. As I mentioned in Jeff’s story, my dad told Andy not to take it easy on me when we played one-on-one. There were no free shots at the basket. There was no drawing his hand back so I could make a layup. If he could smash the ball back in my face, he did. Well, he could, and he did, often. But there’s no doubt in my mind that it made me a much better basketball player than I otherwise would have been.

On our farm’s barnyard court, which amounted to a basket and backboard fastened against the barn with about a 20-foot range from what would be the top of the key to an endless range in the corners – it was basically the packed gravel driveway for the farm equipment — I played countless hours of basketball with Andy, as I had with Dad. I have clear memories of Andy taking the ball to the furthest reaches of the court and launching that beautiful jump shot, scoring more often than not.

Other times, he had no compunction about backing me in close to the basket, giving me a few shoves with his shoulders or hips and scoring a layup or even a dunk. (Dunks were banned in high school and college basketball at the time, but Andy loved dunking in playground games.)

There was a popular Jerry Reed song at the time called, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot (When You’re Not, You’re Not),” and when Andy hit a few shots in a row, he would yell out, “When you’re hot, you’re hot!” and just laugh.

After he graduated, Andy was heavily recruited by college teams but chose a small Florida school. He eventually dropped out from what his brother described as being “love sick.” Happens to the best of us.

Andy attended a lot of Lynchburg games, including when I played. His temperament didn’t change much, and I recall him being thrown out of the stands a couple of times for barking too much at the refs. That was Andy.

Jeff Richmond said that my family did a lot for Andy. But I am here to tell you that what Andy Richmond did for me was 10 times as valuable as anything we did for him. He was a bigger-than-life personality who made me a better basketball player, helped build my confidence and remained an important part of my life. There was never a time I wasn’t proud to call Andy Richmond a friend.

When I heard that Andy was killed by lightning, I remember being shaken by the news. But to this day it seems appropriate. In the song, it took a mine collapse to bring down Big Bad John, and in real life it took a bolt of lightning to bring down Andy Richmond.

Along with our other inductees, I’m glad we get to remember and honor Andy this week.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or by email at [email protected]

By Gary Abernathy

[email protected]