By Travis M. Smith | Ellis County Sports Sports
A black-and-white photo resurfaced Thursday that reminded Waxahachie basketball faithful of just how good the good times were. It also provided a welcomed case study into how deeply sports engrain themselves into a community.
The question was simple, “Who remembers this great team?” The answer was also just as straightforward: The ball boy, teammates, former coaches, fans who claimed to be at the game and even an out-of-focused cheerleader.
Michael Hartley posed that question and initially dug the rabbit hole by posting a photo of a Waxahachie Runnin’ Indian taking a mid-range jump shot over three defenders. Mr. Harley’s post was at 9:10 a.m. Friday in the Facebook group, “You might be from Waxahachie if…”
And people remembered the duo, for the most part. The year the shot and photo were taken? Therein laid the need for an answer.
You can clearly see one teammate (No. 30) to the left of the shooter, four cheerleaders over his shoulder and three defenders from an unknown team turning to grab a potential rebound.
The photo prompted a challenge issued to Ellis County Sports Sports to nail down its history. That then led to discussions with three former Runnin’ Indians, one current head coach, a booster club president, a ball boy drafted by three Major League Baseball franchises and, yes, one out-of-focus cheerleader.
And when it was all said and done, this trip down memory lane provided a much-needed reprieve in a world currently void of sport.
Here is how the journey down the basketball-sized rabbit hole was traversed.
Despite 45 Facebook comments on Hartley’s post, the year that the photo — likely snapped by Scott Dorsett, a freelance photographer formerly of the Waxahachie Daily Light and most recently with The Waxahachie Sun — was still in question.
Before a tragic accident in 2015, Dorsett and I spoke about his early years shooting Waxahachie ISD athletics and, in particular, the Runnin’ Indians. J.W. Williams Gymnasium is an awfully difficult setting to capture action photos due to its porous lighting.
Dorsett disclosed that he was one of the luckiest photographers in the state thanks to then-head coach Jack Aldridge allowing him to string flash-photography lights around the baselines.
Dorsett was a phenomenal photog, there is no denying that fact. Those lights definitely came in handy when he (likely) captured this shot. There is currently no reason to believe the photo came from any camera other than his.
The shadows on the back wall are an almost sure indication of his baseline flash photography.
Take, for instance, the size of No. 33’s shadow that just touches a handpainted Runnin’ Indian on a large square panel in the background and to the right of the basket.
The painting was by former WHS art teacher Mr. Montgomery, according to Greg Gober, a Waxahachie alumnus and current Runnin’ Indian head coach. The same picture, at one time, even hung on the garage wall of fellow alumnus Steve Wallace.
Unfortunately, none of that helped us to identify when this photo was taken. Neither did the all-white shoes seen worn by the shooter and his teammate, which Gober handpainted the tops of — green, of course — each Saturday.
Knowing what we do about Gober’s weekend gig painting shoes, we were now somewhat confident that the jump shot pictured was taken while legendary head coach Jack Aldridge commanded the Runnin’ Indians’ bench — or possibly the year after. Gober noted the team would often wear the same shoes for two seasons during that time.
Aldrige won more than 800 games as a high school basketball coach, which included a 230-83 overall record and five state tournament appearances. He was eventually inducted into the Waxahachie ISD Athletics Hall-of-Fame in 2013 and passed away due to complications with Alzheimer’s in May 2015.
Aldridge first took the Runnin’ Indians to the state tournament in 1976, only to fall to Ector in the 3A state final, 78-75. Waxahachie then returned to the state tournament each season from 1980-82, first bowing out in the state semifinals to Synder (65-62) and Beaumont Hebert (81-64), respectively.
Both Hebert and Waxahachie then jumped to Class 4A ahead of the 1981-82 season and met in the state final. For the second consecutive season, the Panthers again bested the Runnin’ Indians, this time by five points, 76-71.
That season ultimately marked the end of Aldridge’s tenure in Waxahachie.
Thankfully, that 1982 state tournament run did not end the Runnin’ Indians’ half-decade of basketball glory.
For those interested in that story, hold tight and check back later this week, as the photo takes precedent.
To track down the date of the photo in question, Ellis County Sports Sports first spoke with Chris Wright, Runnin’ Indian booster club president, and James Sterns, who starred at guard on the 1980 and 1981 teams.
Sterns was a 1981 Associated Press first-team all-state guard and then went on to play as a Baylor Bear, Harlem Globetrotter and Pensacola Tornado.
Both agreed that the photo was taken sometime between fall 1980 and spring 1983.
John Rodgers, who was a ball boy for the Runnin’ Indians in the early 1980s, then weighed in.
Rodgers was not a basketball player, and he’s the first to make sure that point is clear. He did go on to be drafted by three different MLB organizations — the Montreal Expos (1989), Cleveland Indians (1990) and Chicago Cubs (1993) — making him, oddly enough, the lone Waxahachie athlete on the court that day to be drafted by a professional club.
Rodgers was eventually inducted into the Waxahachie ISD Athletics Hall-of-Fame in 2015 alongside the same 1983 state championship Runnin’ Indian team that he served as the ball boy for.
“[…] They were my idols,” Rodgers told the Waxahachie Daily Light in 2015. “I was a baseball player and was terrible at basketball, and they don’t remember me, but I was the ball boy that had the word ‘manager’ on the back of his shirt. I looked up to those guys. I look back on them now, and they were just kids in high school, but they were full-grown men to me.
“All I ever I wanted to be was a Waxahachie Indian, that’s the truth,” Rogers continued. “I looked up to so many people on the way. You can’t say that about a college athlete or a professional athlete. Waxahachie, that’s what I wanted to be.”
Rodgers agreed Saturday afternoon with Sterns and Wright — the photo was taken sometime between 1980-83. Just like the other two, though, he was non-committal on the exact year.
All three did, however, confidently identify the shooter as Todd Alexander (WHS Class of 1984) and the teammate to be his brother, Deon Alexander.
The trio also deferred Ellis County Sports Sports to the expertise of Gober, who happened to play alongside both.
Gober ultimately confirmed what most of the internet had already solved — Todd is the one taking the jump shot and Deon is waiting in the wings.
Following his Waxahachie playing days, Todd signed a national letter of intent with the University of Minnesota and later transferred to Southern Methodist University.
Over his three seasons at the Division-I level, Todd averaged 11.4 points per game with 3.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per. His most productive season from the floor came in his first year with SMU (1987-88) and after transferring from Minnesota. As a sophomore with the Mustangs, Alexander shot 45% from three-point land and averaged 14.5 points per game over 25.7 minutes.
Todd was ultimately named the Southwestern Conference Newcomer of the Year in 1988.
It was a season that saw the Ponies defeat Notre Dame in the opening round of the NCAA March Madness Tournament, 83-75, at the storied Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Todd scored 11 points, dished out a team-high five assists and grabbed a game-high three steals in the win.
SMU was then upended by Duke in the second round of the East bracket, 94-79, on March 19, 1988. Todd, again off of the bench, matched Carlton McKinney for a team-best 17 points. Kevin Strickland scored a game-high 31 points for the Blue Devils.
According to an Associated Press article dated Jan. 18, 1989, Todd left the team the following December “for personal reasons.” He appeared in just 10 games that season, even after returning that January.
Todd is unequivocally the jump shooter in the photo seen ’round the Waxahachie internet. He recently passed away in a 2017 Christmas Eve motor vehicle accident.
His brother, Deon, is also without a doubt the teammate pictured just beyond the arc.
Through research, firsthand conversations and a book written by Mark McKee detailing the 1983 season, we also know that Deon left the school and program due to disciplinary issues ahead of the Runnin’ Indians’ state championship season in 1982-83. It would’ve been his senior year at Waxahachie High.
After relocating to Omaha, Nebraska, the 5-foot-10 guard eventually found his way onto the basketball team at the University of North Texas from 1986-87.
During his final season at UNT, Deon led the Southland Conference in steals, averaging 2.00 steals per game — with 56 over his 28 games played — and added 8.3 points per.
He ultimately averaged 6.9 points, 4.6 assists and 2.3 steals per game over his 54 games with the Mean Green.
On GoMeanGreen.com, which is a University of North Texas athletics fan-site, much like TexAgs for Texas A&M University, one poster thought highly enough of Deon to list him on the UNT All-Time team.
“Cooley,” as the 65-year-old website contributor is known, posted a thread of the UNT All-Time team on Sept. 3, 2003. Deon landed on the Honorable Mention team as the lone point guard.
— The jump shot is being taken by Todd Alexander, WHS Class of 1984.
— No. 30 is Deon Alexander, would-be WHS Class of 1983.
— The photo was taken during either the 1980-81 or 1981-82 season.
— The painting in the background is by a Waxahachie High art teacher.
— Greg Gober painted those dark tops on the shoes every Saturday.
— The ball boy, John Rodgers, respectively, was the only athlete on the floor that was drafted by a professional team (and it happened three times).
Known sources in attendance had almost been exhausted after nailing down the names of the two Runnin’ Indians pictured. And the research was still stuck at an impasse — the year.
The daylong study resulted in several dozen open browsers, half-dozen text chains and several phone calls, yet still no precise date.
However, just before Gober hung up the phone Saturday evening and after reexamining the photo carefully, he mentioned who he thought that the dark-haired cheerleader in the background might be.
It’s now when we should remind student-athletes of the thesis posed before we dove deep into this social experiment: Sports transcend the playing surface and athletes directly involved. Everyone carries a memory away from a game.
This also brings us to the aforementioned dark-headed cheerleader standing between the two athletic superstars. The one in the background that is watching just as intently as any coach, teammate or die-hard fan.
A quick Facebook message confirmed Gober’s suspicion.
Kristy (Rodgers) Pennock, the elder sister of John, is indeed the out-of-focus cheerleader between the Alexander brothers.
Pennock is a 1983 Waxahachie graduate, which was the year the Runnin’ Indians won the 4A state championship sans Deon Alexander.
She almost immediately recognized the uniform…of the cheerleaders, noting that those were worn by varsity members from fall 1981 — spring 1983.
By doing so, she confirmed the seemingly unconfirmable.
The two Rodgers siblings, both Alexander brothers, Gober, Wright and Aldridge were all on the court the day this photo was snapped inside J.W. Williams Gymnasium during the 1981-82 season.
It was a season that ended on the wrong end of a state championship final but continued a run on the basketball court that Waxahachie faithful won’t soon forget. And it took a cheerleader to remind us of it all.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith
Great story and reading…..