Carlisle “Big Boy” Towery is one of the true early legends of Hilltopper Basketball. The 6’5″ native of Caldwell Co., Ky. was known for his physical, relentless, hard-working style of play that made him a favorite of both Coach E.A. Diddle and Asst. Coach Ted Hornback.
Over his three year varsity career on the Hill Towery led the Hilltoppers to a sparkling 68-13 record, two KIAC championships, three SIAA championships and the Toppers’ first ever NCAA appearance in 1940, a heartbreaking 30-29 loss to Duquesne.
Towery’s individual accomplishments were just as impressive. By being selected to the Chuck Taylor All-American team in 1940, Towery became only the second Hilltopper cager to be awarded All-American honors, following closely in the footsteps of William “Red” McCrocklin, who achieved All-American status in 1938. And upon being selected to the Chuck Taylor team again in 1941, Towery distinguished himself as the first two-time All-American in Western history, and one of only five Hilltoppers to ever achieve such an honor. Legends Bob Lavoy, Tom Marshall, Jim McDaniels and Clem Haskins are the only others able to boast of such an accomplishment on the Hill. Towery also holds the very impressive distinction of being the first Hilltopper in history to score more than 1,000 points in his career and to this day is still ranked 32nd on Western’s all-time scoring list.
Upon graduating from Western in 1941, Towery began a very successful professional basketball playing career that ultimately lasted until 1950. In between was a two year tour in the U.S. Army during WW II where many of the same qualities that Towery displayed on the basketball court came into play in life and death situations on the battlefields of Western Europe as the Topper legend earned medals for his valor in the face of battle.
After retiring from basketball, Towery returned to Kentucky to settle down and raise his family, and he later saw three of his four children follow in his footsteps and make the same college choice as he had in 1937. Western blood was definitely in the veins.
This phone interview was conducted on June 1, 2001 and for the most part has been transcribed in its entirety. Carlisle Towery is the oldest living Western All-American and one of the senior former Hilltoppers around anywhere. Even though it has been sixty years since Mr. Towery put on a Topper uniform, his love for Mr. Diddle, Coach Hornback, the program and the school that changed his life still runs strong and deep.
HH: Where are you originally from?
CT: The mailing address was Dalton, Ky. I went to school at Shady Grove. I was raised in Caldwell Co., right in the north end of Caldwell Co. but the school was in Crittenden Co. But the students from Caldwell went to Crittenden Co. That was high school, I went to Quinn grade school.
HH: So around what time did you start playing basketball?
CT: In grade school. We had a basketball team when I was in the seventh and eighth grade….three boys and two girls.
HH: So were you very heavily recruited when you came out of high school? Were there many schools besides Western that recruited you?
CT: Murray, Western, Evansville, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt. That’s all I can recall right now.
HH: What was it during the recruiting process that made you choose Western?
CT: That I don’t know…..when I was in high school I admired Harry Hardin (WKU 1933-35). He was from Tolu and he was a graduate of Western, I guess you’ve heard of Harry? And we always played them in high school. And my high school teachers…..a couple were from Western. I just always leaned towards Western. I think in ’36 they tried out for the Olympics and that was in the papers. I was real interested in basketball. When you was raised on a farm and that was the only recreation you had, I mean, when you had free time you’d shoot baskets…..it (the goal) was on the old barn. So that was relaxation or recreation or whatever you want to call it.
HH: Do you remember very much about how Mr. Diddle recruited you? Anything special or a story that stands out about Mr. Diddle early on?
CT: I went to a couple of ballgames at Western with the teachers. One of the coaches was from Western….Alfred Moore. He left and then his wife taught school and Mr. Diddle would ask her to bring me up there a couple of times for a ball game. Gander Terry was the brother-in-law to Moore. I went to school with Terry, who was the football coach at Western, I went to school with his sister and her husband.
HH: Well, once you got to Western the teams you played on had a combined record of 68-13 over three years. You were kind of the enforcer on the team weren’t you?
CT: Well, I had a lot of good ballplayers around me, they were all good ballplayers. In my mind, if I was outstanding, I had a lot of help with Dero and Alex Downing, Billy Ray Robinson, Herb Ball, Roger Woodward, Tip Downing….I mean I had good ballplayers helping. I had good coaches too…Mr. Hornback, Mr. Stansbury and Mr. Diddle.
HH: I read where Coach Hornback said that you were kind of used a lot of times to beat the opposition’s big man to death physically……
CT: Well, I never went away from contact if that’s what you mean? When I played, let me put it this way….I played and I played hard, physically and mentally.
HH: What was playing for Mr. Diddle like? Was he pretty hard on you during practices and so forth?
CT: Not really. He wanted you to hustle at all times and play your best. Which I didn’t mind, I don’t believe in loafing at all. He was strict….but in every way a gentleman, in every way.
HH: I’m sure he was kind of tough on you but everyone still loved him though right?
CT: Oh yeah, yeah. He helped more students that weren’t playing ball for him than ones that were playing for him. A lot of people maybe didn’t go along with what he said but I went along with it. He would tell them what they should do and maybe straighten up. I think ALL ballplayers and ALL the students respected Mr. Diddle in every way.
HH: Well, you had two nicknames….”Big Boy” and “Blackie.”
CT: “Big Boy” was given to me there at Western, but “Blackie” was hung on me after I got to Ft. Wayne with the Pistons.
HH: How did that originate?
CT: Well, I don’t really know to tell you the truth. One of the ballplayers that I played with, Curly Armstrong, he graduated from the University of Indiana……he started calling me that. It could have been, it goes back to the Sunday papers, there was this one particular comic I read in there and I liked this boy, Blackie. I don’t know, but anyway, Curly Armstrong hung the “Blackie” on me and it stayed with me.
HH: What about “Big Boy”?
CT: I think Mr. Hornback or Mr. Stansbury, one of the two, come up with that. Or it could have Mr. (Kelly) Thompson, who was the public relations man at the time. I think it was one of those three. I’m not sure which it was.
HH: Well, the 1940 team was the first one in Western history to play in the NCAA. Do you remember very much about that 30-29 loss to Duquesne?
CT: Well, not only that it was Western’s first appearance but they only had eight teams in the NCAA Tournament at that time. Four on the west side of the Mississippi and four on the east side. Duquesne beat us 29-30 like you said, I’d forgotten just what the score was. I fouled out with less than a minute or something like that to go.
HH: You were known a lot for your jumping ability also. I’ve read where you were one of the first players in the south to do a lot of dunking and also to shoot the jumpshot.
CT: Well, I could dunk the ball but we weren’t allowed to dunk the ball at that time, but I considered myself a good rebound man because I’d get the man on my back and I could tell which way he went and control it that way and I could jump pretty good too.
HH: How tall are you?
CT: About 6’5″ or 6’6″.
HH: Now what about the jumpshot?
CT: I played the pivot….it was a two-hand jumpshot. Sometimes I’d shoot the hook and sometimes I’d fake and take the two-handed jump and fade away backwards from my defensive man.
HH: Is that something you just kind of developed on your own?
CT: No, I copied that after Harry Sadler (WKU ). Mr. Diddle told me when I was up there while still in high school, we played a team at College High there an afternoon before one of Western’s ballgames. I went to the game that night and Harry Sadler had a good ballgame and he played the pivot in there and he had the two-handed jumpshot. So Mr. Diddle told me, and Eck Branham, he was one of freshman coaches there too, but anyway this is while I was still in high school…..and he told me to practice the two-handed jumpshot off the pivot. I didn’t shoot it when I was out on the floor, I had a two-handed shot but I didn’t shoot the jumpshot out there….it was just off the pivot where I shot the jumpshot. After Mr. Diddle told me…suggested down in the dressing room after one of the ballgames….I forget who Western had played, Murray I guess, but anyway we were talking and he wanted me to practice the jumpshot and I promised him I would. So, I started the jumpshot after that, after I got back in practice.
HH: Is there maybe one favorite story about Mr. Diddle that you can recall?
CT: No, not really. He was just a great man. I respected all the stories that he told and the tales and everything, but no, I don’t have one special thing.
HH: Was there much talk back then among the team or around Bowling Green or anything about how rupp always refused to play Coach Diddle and Western? Was there any animosity?
CT: Well, there was talk of it. We would play teams that would play uk and they would beat uk and we would beat them, but there was some talk naturally.
HH: Well, after your college career you played what, nine or ten years in the NBA?
CT: Yeah, I got credit for ten years, I was in the army in World War II two years, I missed two seasons.
HH: What branch of the military were you in?
HH: Did you see much combat?
CT: Enough. I got the Bronze Star in Europe. About six months of combat I guess. We went in at Le Havre and I don’t recall where all we were.
HH: As far as your pro career, do you remember very much about your averages? Your points, rebounds and everything? What were your best years?
CT: I think it was an eight point average per game, I’ve got it somewhere but I don’t know where it is. It’s all in the NBA book. But we only played 40 minutes until the two leagues went together and then they played 48. The BAA was formed right after WW II and then in ’48 or ’49 the two leagues went together.
HH: Were you a starter most of the years that you played?
HH: Did you play center or forward?
CT: I played both.
HH: Now weren’t you a member of a couple of title teams?
CT: Yes, they had the world’s champion tournament in Chicago after the season was over. The Trotters, the Reds ?? and all the pro teams from up east. The Herald-American newspaper put that on.
HH: But didn’t your team win an NBA championship a couple of times also?
CT: That wasn’t the NBA at that time, no. It was the national league, the old National Professional Basketball League.
HH: You played for three teams right?
CT: Yes. Four teams really. Ft. Wayne Pistons, Indianapolis half a year and Baltimore, which is the Washington Wizards. Is that what they’re called now? Then I came back to the National League after my contract was up with Baltimore. I came back to the National Basketball League with Grand Rapids.
HH: Were you involved with any team that won the NBA championship?
CT: No. Not the NBA championship it was the National Basketball League. It was the regular season, not the playoffs now.Only this tournament, which was called the World Championship Tournament.
HH: Do you remember playing against many Western players in the pros? I know Buddy Cate was talking about playing against you.
CT: Well, he played with me because I coached Grand Rapids part of the year that I was there. He played FOR me, Buddy Cate did. Yes, I played against Johnny Oldham, I played against Odie Spears, Dee Gibson, Don Ray, Buck Sydnor….he played with me at Western. Buck was a real ballplayer too. He played with the Chicago Stags before the two leagues went together after World War II.
HH: You said you coached…..was that just part of one year?
CT: That’s when Buddy Cate played for me. That was the last year I played.
HH: Who do you think the best player you played against was in the professionals? Did you play against Mikan?
CT: Yeah, I played against Mikan, Mikan was a fine ballplayer but what made Mikan suffer….we didn’t have the 25-second rule. Of course he made us suffer, made me suffer when I was on defense. But I’d take him out and run him and he’d have to come out on me or I’d shoot my outside shot. If he came up on that I’d go around him. See we didn’t have the 25 second rule. So he made us suffer, he made me suffer and I made him suffer. Let me say something about pro ball now. These people now have never seen a three-point shooter like Bobby McDermott. I’ve seen him hit ten in a row from way back just across the center line. He was a set-shooter but he’d go behind guys and they’d pick for him and everything. He’d that ball off in a hurry. Ask Dee Gibson about him. Dee played for him at Moline. He played a year or two years for him up there. I played for him at Ft. Wayne. He’s in the Hall of Fame.
HH: Where did he play college ball at?
CT: He didn’t play college ball. He went right out of high school and started playing in the league around New York, he was from Flushing, N.Y. Then the Celtics picked him up and he toured with the Celtics then the Pistons got him. My first year that I played ball with the Pistons, the first year that they had a ballclub, we’d had a tough year so Fred Zoellner, the owner of the Pistons signed him and got him and McDermott is really responsible for the Pistons being where they are today. Of course Fred Zoellner had all the money. He paid, the first year that the two leagues went together, he paid some of the other teams payroll, Fred Zoellner did. He owned a piston company that had patents on aluminum pistons that were made for tanks and planes in World War II. He was originally from Minnesota.
HH: So that’s where the Pistons got their name from then?
CT: Yeah, that’s right. They were first the Zoellner Pistons. Then after they went to Detroit they dropped the “Zoellner” after he sold them. And do you know what he paid for the first franchise in the NBL? $2,500.00. And I guess he sold it in the millions.
HH: What were the salaries like for the top players back in those days?
CT: Well, George Mikan was top dog and he made $28,000.00 a year. I’ll tell you the top money players though……McDermott, of course he was paid under the table and everything. I’m sure he made more money than any other ballplayer at that time, but Mikan was the highest paid according to the papers and all. Joe Fulks from over here in Lyon County was probably the next one and Tom Pollard. Of course with the Pistons we were on the payroll year-round…..there at the factory. That’s the reason everybody wanted to go to the Pistons to play ball because they had a job year-round and I was the second ballplayer that they ever signed. Herm Shafer was the first, he was the player-coach for them. He and I signed the same day. I hitchhiked to Bloomington and then we hitchhiked from Bloomington on to Ft. Wayne. He was a Ft. Wayne boy.
HH: Well, after playing pro ball you came back to Kentucky to settle down and you’ve pretty much raised a family of all Western kids haven’t you? Didn’t all of your kids go to Western?
CT: Well, three graduated and all four went to Western. Three graduated and I’m looking at the one that went to Murray right now (Laughs). He went to Murray. One of the boys played freshman ball up there (Western) that was Bill. And Rob had a couple of scholarships but he went to Murray. But he coaches now, Rob coaches now.
HH: Do you keep up with the team very much now? I know I see you at a couple of games every year, but do you try and keep up with them and what’s going on?
CT: Yeah, I get it out of the paper. I don’t read the paper that much, my eyesight is very poor when it comes to reading and everything. I have what they call “low-vision” and there’s nothing they can do about it, but I keep up with them, yeah. Of course I listen to them sometimes, I can pick it up on the radio. And I talk to Billy Ray (Robinson) quite often.
HH: What do you think about our big guy Chris Marcus?
CT: Well, I’ve only seen him play a couple of times, I haven’t seen him play that much. But I think he ought to stay in school another year or until he graduates. You know, while we’re on this subject, I think that a player…..if a school invests money in a player to give him an education, a free ride and everything that they’ve committed, then they ought to have to stay there four years to play for them. Either that, or they cannot play pro ball until their class graduates. That was the unwritten law years ago. That’s the reason Chamberlain played with the Globetrotters after his sophomore year out of Kansas.
HH: That’s true of coaches too. Coaches sign these long term contracts then leave after a couple of years to someone that pays them a little more money. A player may sign at a school because of a coach then a year later the coach takes off.
CT: I agree with you 100%.
HH: It’s coaches and players both.
CT: But you’ve got very few coaches that feel that way anymore, like the ballplayers.
HH: Well, I guess that’s about it. What’s the best thing about choosing Western that you can recall? Do you have any regrets about choosing Western?
CT: No. None whatsoever. I’ve met so many good people up there that there’s too many to name. I mentioned the Downing brothers, Dee (Gibson)…..all of them, Billy Ray (Robinson), Herb Ball, all of them…..(Buck) Sydnor. They were good country people, most of them.
HH: It’s a great place here.
CT: Yeah. There’s something about it that rubs off on you.