HATTIESBURG – Basketball legend Purvis Short, 61-year-old grandfather of two and a thoughtful, soft-spoken gentleman, last month came home to a hero’s welcome in Hattiesburg.
Short, who lives in Houston, was inducted into the inaugural class of the Hattiesburg Hall of Fame, a slam dunk for the first class. After leading Hattiesburg High to a state championship in 1974, he went on to become Jackson State’s all-time leading scorer and a first round NBA draft choice. In 12 years in “The League,” he scored nearly 15,000 points and once scored 59 points in a single NBA game. His high-arching jump shots, launched with perfect form, were nothing short of lovely.
Yet, here in Hattiesburg, Purvis often is remembered as Eugene Short’s kid brother. Eugene Short, who died two years ago at age 62 after a lengthy battle with diabetes, was the basketball superstar who came along first and burned the brightest while the two brothers were here in their hometown.
Theirs is a story worth telling, especially since much of the story has never been told.
We begin where it all began – on Carpenter Street, a few blocks from downtown Hattiesburg in a small, humble home, where Eugene, Purvis and their sister, Eva, were raised. Their father worked as a plumber, their mother as a cook in nearby Eureka School, where all the Short children went to elementary school.
“Eugene and I were really close growing up,” Purvis says. “He was my big brother . . . I always looked up to him.
“How could I not look up to him?” Purvis continues. “Eugene was so good at everything he tried: basketball, football, baseball, you name it. He started at quarterback at Rowan in the 10th grade. Man, he could throw it. And basketball just came so natural to him. He did everything so well, and he just made it look so easy.”
It is no great stretch to say that Eugene Short brought the two sides of Hattiesburg – black and white – together. When he transferred to previously all-white Hattiesburg High from cross-town, all-black Rowan and led Hattiesburg to a 1972 state basketball championship, many Hattiesburg folks saw for the first time black people and white people working and playing together – and being all the better for it. Young white people, who had never had a black friend, suddenly had not only black friends but a black hero.
Off the floor, Eugene Short was quiet and reserved. He rarely showed emotion or, for that matter, rarely changed facial expression. He was unfailingly polite.
On the floor, Eugene was the show.
Says Jud Vance, a guard on the 1971-72 team who now lives in Tupelo: “Eugene was just so talented. He was point man on our full-court press and he had those unbelievably long arms. I can’t tell you how many times he stole the ball or forced a bad pass. And, man, he could jump. I remember when he hit his head on the backboard at the state tournament and had to play the rest of the game with stitches and bandages.”
Eugene Short was listed at 6 feet, 6 inches. He played 6-9 or 6-10 because of his those long arms and his remarkable leaping ability. And, oh my, how he could shoot the basketball.
Hattiesburg native Tim Floyd, a veteran college and NBA coach, has spent a lifetime recruiting high school players around the country to schools such as UTEP, Idaho, New Orleans, Iowa State and Southern Cal. He says he has never seen a better high school player than Eugene Short.
“If I’ve got one game to win and one player to win it, give me Eugene Short … Eugene could do it all,” Floyd says.
Two years behind Eugene, Purvis Short was a starkly different story. Seemingly nothing came easy for Purvis, who didn’t start for his seventh grade team, didn’t even play in the eighth grade, came off the bench in the ninth and didn’t even start for the Hattiesburg High B team in the 10th grade. It’s hard now to imagine how embarrassing that was if you were the great Eugene Short’s brother.
“I just wasn’t good enough,” Purvis says. “It’s that simple. What came so easy for Eugene was not easy for me.”
Eugene’s jump shot was smooth, almost silky. Purvis’s jump short, two-handed from behind his head was as awkward as it was inaccurate. And that’s where Johnny Hurtt, the basketball coach at Hattiesburg High at the time, entered the picture.
Says Purvis Short, “Coach Hurtt made me into a basketball player. He taught me how to shoot. He taught me the fundamentals, how to place your hands on the ball, finger placement, shooting form. The things he taught me, I used the rest of my career.”
In the beginning, Purvis shot a line-drive, not much arc at all. Hurtt brought out a broom to practices and used it to guard Purvis.
“He made me shoot the ball over that broom,” Purvis says. “That’s where the high arc of my shot came from. Coach Hurtt strongly believed that the higher shot was a softer shot and had a better chance of going in the basket. Plus, it was harder to block. As I got better, I got hungrier and Coach Hurtt was always there. He told me I should never waste a day of working on my game. I can honestly say I didn’t. I didn’st waste a day. Coach Hurtt made me a player.”
Purvis’s work ethic would serve him well. By his senior year, he led the Hattiesburg Tigers to another state championship, and then he joined Eugene at Jackson State where they played together for one unforgettable season, Eugene’s junior season and Purvis’s freshman season. Eugene averaged 26 points per game, Purvis 15 a game. JSU finished 25-4 and won the 1975 SWAC Championship.
Eugene Short went pro following his junior season, his second straight as SWAC Player of the Year, and was drafted as the ninth pick of the first round by the New York Knicks.
But Eugene’s NBA career was brief and disappointing. He played in just 34 games over two seasons with the Knicks and Seattle Supersonics, scoring a not-so-grand total of 84 NBA points. Compare that to the 14,647 points scored by his his younger brother, who had always played in his shadow.
It’s all conjecture now.
Clearly, there were issues outside of basketball. Without question, Eugene Short, with new-found wealth, was not ready for the 82-game-per-season physical and mental grind of the NBA. He played 27 games for the Knicks before being traded to Seattle and played in seven games for the Sonics.
The brief NBA career of the best high school player he ever saw always mystified Tim Floyd, the former high school teammate of Short’s. Several years ago, Floyd had a chance meeting with Bill Russell, the NBA Hall of Famer who coached Short during his brief Sonics stint. Floyd asked Russell about Eugene Short.
Russell, Floyd says, said Eugene was one of the most talented players he had ever been around. “But he said Eugene was going through what he now thinks were bouts with severe depression and that there were days Eugene wouldn’t even get out of bed or leave his hotel room. Back then, they really didn’t know what to do,” Floyd said.
Important to note: Russell’s is not a medical evaluation. For Eugene Short, at that time of his life, there isn’t one, certainly no psychological evaluation.
“Eugene came back to Jackson after he was let go and I was still at Jackson State,” Purvis says. “I remember trying to tell him that there were other teams out there, that he could get on with another team or go overseas. He just didn’t seem interested. He said, ‘Man, I’m through.’”
And he was. Eugene never played again, while his younger brother became the fifth overall pick in the draft and went on to a long, lucrative career.
This is conjecture on the writer’s part: Everything had come so easily for Eugene Short. He was the natural, so talented and fluid that he had never really experienced failure. He wasn’t at all ready for it. Purvis Short had worked so hard for everything, including becoming a starter on his high school basketball team. If something wasn’t going right, Purvis’s experience told him to work that much harder. Eugene had so such experience.
“Eugene just sort of withdrew from everything,” Purvis says. “I tried – a lot of people tried – to help him, but he just became more and more isolated.
“Most people don’t understand what a professional athlete goes through transitioning away from the game,” Purvis says. “And it affects different people in different ways. You’ve done something all your life. It’s what you are known for, who you are, and then suddenly you are told you can’t do it any more. It can be like losing a loved one, like death.”
Not conjecture: Eugene began to drink heavily – perhaps self-medicating depression – and his health problems, particularly with diabetes, worsened with age. His alcoholism, just as the diabetes and possibly depression, was an illness.
Purvis Short played 13 seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and New Jersey Nets. He was a model pro, highly respected by coaches and his peers. He was vice-president of the players’ union his last four years in the league. During all that time, Purvis was a social drinker, would have a few beers with teammates after games. When he retired, he says, he begin to drink more.
One morning, in 1993, Purvis Short awakened and drove himself to a treatment center. Thirty-five years later, he has not had a drink.
He did all he could for his big brother, financially and otherwise, even checked him into a treatment center, went through counseling with him. Eugene resisted.
Meanwhile, the NBA Players Union was developing a program to help players deal with some of the inherent problems of the NBA lifestyle. Charles Grantham, the director, sought Purvis Short to work in what became known as the Department of Player Programs. The idea was to counsel NBA players in four key areas: drugs and alcohol, financial management, career development and health issues.
“When Charlie asked me if I was interested, I said, ‘Man, yes,’” Purvis says. “Because of my experience and what had happened with Eugene, I wanted to help in some way. I thought, honestly, that God was moving me in this direction. I jumped at it.”
It has become Purvis Short’s life work. Now, he heads up the department.
“We have helped a lot of young players deal with a lot of different issues,” Purvis Short says. “If someone has an issue, we make sure they get expert help.”
And, yes, he says, he often wonders what might have been had there been such a program back in 1975 and ’76 when his brother was a rookie.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this,” Purvis Short says. “This is my life’s work and when you get right down to it, it’s because of Eugene and all he went through. I loved my brother.”