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Audio recording clip of interview with Lonnie G. Wright by Claytee D. White, October 23, 2009

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Part of an interview with Lonnie G. Wright by Claytee D. White on October 23, 2009. Wright describes how he started the Basketball Alumni Association to help players complete their education.

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Lonnie Wright oral history interview, 2009 October 23. OH-02029. [Audio recording] Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Neva


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I started the Basketball Alumni Association to send basketball athletes back to school to finish their degrees. In 1977 I started the Basketball Alumni Association because as I told you I was socially conscious. I saw that black athletes were being exploited. A lot of them did not get their degree. And the one guy that I looked up to -- remember I told you I had a lot of scholarships in football. This one guy named Tommy Watkins was a flashy ball player. And he helped recruit me in basketball at UNLV. And I actually went to school because Tommy Watkins spoke to me. And I had a trip to Cornell University in football. I had a scholarship to Washington State, Oregon State, much better schools than UNLV at that time. I went there because I was so enamored with Tommy Watkins because he was such a great ball player. What made me start the Basketball Alumni? I had graduated and I was doing well because I was dealing and making a lot of money. I went to a Rebel game and I was at the concession stand and I heard this bumping on the door. You have to understand how the old convention center was made. It kind of was in a circle. I looked and there was a black guy hitting on the door with authority. I looked and it was Tommy. The [nearer] I approached him the more he looked homeless, it -- you know, I opened the door for him. I let him in free because everybody was in the game. And so he just looked all tattered. The last time I saw him he was well-dressed. There were articles in the paper about him going pro and he had a few cars and this and that. And he was all tattered. And his teeth — he just looked bad. And then he started telling me how the university used him and this, that and the other. It was a tough thing. And it just got me. He said something needs to be done about this. So did he finish his degree? No. No. I never knew what happened. All I knew is that after I met with him, I said, man — remember, he was my hero. And so I said I've got to do something about this; this is not right. And it was like a dream. I just said we need to — so I raised the money to send our guys back to school and get their degrees. One of the first people that I talked to seriously about it was Jim Rogers. So how did you meet Jim Rogers? The young man that used to give me all my hand-me-down clothes when I was a kid — Yes. Woodbury. Bruce Woodbury was his law partner. And that's how I met Jim, through Woodbury. Jim was a big sports fan and we just hit it off. And I told him about my idea about the basketball alumni. And I also told him, "I don't want us to be beholden to these boosters." I said, "We want to put on our own — we want to raise our own money and not be beholden to anybody." He says, "Okay." He said, "Well, where are you going to get the money to start it?" I said, "I don't know." He says, "I'll give it to you, Jim." And that's how the conversation went: "I'll give it to you." And he gave me $25,000. That's a lot of money. I told him I wanted to bring UCLA's alumni in here to play against the Rebels alumni. And that would be our first fundraiser. Do you know we packed that place? And we made so much money we gave Jim his twenty-five grand back. However, because he believed in us, we embraced him and said, "Jim, we want you from now on to coach the Rebel alumni." He said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" "We want you to coach the Rebels," because I knew that he'd love that. He was a sports fan. He said, "Me?" I said, "Yeah, you." It didn't take much for him to say yes. He said "Okay." So how long was this around? Thirteen years. Really? Thirteen years. And a lot of guys went back and got degrees? Over a hundred. Now, let me tell you what happened. I want you to think about this. That's why they gave that big ceremony for me. I want you to think about this. When you start making money — and we're a nonprofit organization — you know, you have to spend that money. And so what happened was it got out there that we were sending our guys back to school. So the football players said, "Man, I wish we had a program like that." Make a long story short, we said, "Okay, you know what? We've got enough money; we'll send some football players back." Before you know it, we were sending all the sports back, men and women, men and women. The Basketball Alumni was sending. Our program was the first program of its kind in the history of NCAA. We embarrassed the NCAA and became the catalyst to give that fifth year for an athlete to get their degree. Check the research. They never had that until us, until we started sending people back to school and getting all this notoriety. When we would have an alumni game, it became very high profile because we'd bring in Magic Johnson and his alumni, Michael Jordan and his alumni. All of these were NBA pros and superstars. So to have those games I had to get it sanctioned by the NBA. To get a game sanctioned by the NBA, you had to have two NBA refs. So I got to know all the refs in the NBA because everybody wanted to come to Vegas to ref our games during off season. So I knew all the refs. You had to have all those guys indemnified with insurance. The only insurance that would indemnify them was Lloyds of London and the only insurance company in town that could do it was Leavitt Insurance. So we started dealing at a very high level. Jim Rogers made all of that easy for us because he had money and he had influence. And then he put together an executive group of guys that oversaw us. They let us do what we wanted to do because from the very beginning I told Jim, I don't want to be answering to the booster organization. Some of the boosters were a part of these young men being exploited. So like an advisory group? Governor O'Callaghan; Sig Rogich, who ended up being my best friend, and number one mentor; Jim Rogers -- there were some more very affluent — I know Governor O'Callahan, Sig Rogich. I can find out that first executive -- it was a who's who. So nobody touched us. Nobody hurt us. Everybody was pushing for us to send athletes back to school and get their degrees, to change the image of UNLV basketball. Then we started getting -- we put on the game. Now, this goes back to how I got in Caesars. I put on an alumni game, the first basketball game ever to be played at Caesars Palace. We flew in the portable floor of the old Utah Jazz. A guy named Ike Bishop owned the floor. We flew that floor in and we brought Bill Walton out of retirement to play with UCLA's illustrious group. Everybody was there because of Bill Walton playing for the first time I years and because Sports Illustrated and other sports media were there.