March 23, 2017
Members of the Carverdale Cobras’ 1965 PVIL Class 2A state championship team were recognized at the 2015 UIL Boys’ Basketball State Championships in March 2015. Pictured (front row, from left) are: Leonard Dunlap, Coach Tommy Johnson, Earl Johnson and Allen Hicks; and (top row) Frank Henry, Robert Santee and Willie Hicks. (Photo courtesy 1stphototexas.com / Jeffrey Bishop)
by Joel Weckerly
March 23, 2017—Long before Cypress Falls in 2017, and even before Cy-Fair in 1971, state boys’ basketball champions were making a name for themselves in the Cypress-Fairbanks community during the waning years of segregation. By clinching back-to-back Prairie View Interscholastic League (PVIL) Class 2A titles in 1965 and 1966, the Carverdale Cobras established a foundation of basketball excellence in northwest Harris County.
A 24-year-old Tommy Johnson arrived in Carverdale in 1961, five years after the school added secondary students to the 25-acre campus located on Clara Road near Tanner Road. A far cry from the developed industrial expanse that it is today, the school for African-American students sat on farmland 19 miles from the center of Houston, unheard of by the hoopers at Emancipation Park in the Third Ward or Finnigan Park in the Fifth Ward.
Johnson, who played high school ball in Houston, set out to bring change.
The Carverdale Cobras’ first boys’ state championship team is preserved in the 1965 Cobra yearbook. Pictured (front row, from left) are: Ronald Guy, Allen Hicks, Elessie Jones, Leonard Dunlap, Robert Santee and Frank Henry; and (back row) Elvin “Link” Deauvero, George Hicks, Melvin Jones, Abe Hamilton and Willie Hicks.
“We lived in the same neighborhood and he would come down to the park and watch us play,” recalls Frank Henry, a 6-foot-5 inside presence who had dropped out of high school due to family hardships. “I was in the 10th grade and my mother and stepfather were sick. I was half working to make ends meet, but Coach Johnson came to my house and asked if I was interested in going back to school. I didn’t really want to, but he persuaded me to come out to Carverdale. I’m kind of glad he did because I wouldn’t have even graduated.”
Willie Hicks and Robert Santee were classmates at Harper Colored School on Center Street in the Sixth Ward, an area more commonly known now as The Heights. Hicks, who had family in the Carverdale community, didn’t take too much convincing.
Alumni from the Carverdale 1965 PVIL 2A state championship team are recognized on the floor of the Alamodome on the 50th anniversary of their title in 2015. Pictured, from left, are Allen Hicks, Leonard Dunlap, Willie Hicks, Robert Santee, Frank Henry, Earl Johnson and Tommy Johnson. (Photo courtesy 1stphototexas.com / Jeffrey Bishop)
“Coach Johnson came out of the Sixth Ward himself and he sort of recruited us,” Hicks recalls. “There were about six to eight of us who came from the city that were used to playing city ball.”
A perfect storm of life’s circumstances allowed a reluctant Santee to make the journey from the city lights to country life.
Former CFISD Superintendent T.S. Hancock and Head Coach Tommy Johnson hold the 1965 PVIL Class 2A state championship trophy after the Cobras defeated Grand Prairie Dalworth in the title game.
“I kind of recruited him to come out there,” said Henry, a friend of Santee’s. “He wasn’t doing too well with his grades and was struggling with some other stuff. He was kind of skeptical about coming, but I knew he could play some ball and I told him we needed some help out in Carverdale.”
Santee agreed to meet with Coach Johnson.
“He came to talk to me, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go out there, they’re riding horses,’” Santee said. “He said, ‘No, they’re not.’ We spoke and the rest was history.”
Coach Johnson lists one of Santee’s jaw-dropping accomplishments with surprising calmness.
“He averaged about 30 to 40 points per game,” he said.
Santee, a 2016 PVIL Hall of Fame inductee, doesn’t generalize the statistic.
“It was 39.9 points per game, and I led the nation in scoring,” he said. “That’s a true story. Being 6-4, I played above the rim and could do it all. God gave me some uncommon ability with the things I could do in sports. When I hear people talk about it, it’s like they’re talking about someone else. I didn’t realize at the time I was doing all those things.”
The immediate success of Santee, who arrived at Carverdale as a sophomore in 1963-1964, began to draw the ire of some veteran teammates.
“Tommy told them, ‘If we’re going to win, he’s the key,’” Santee said. “I wore No. 22. We had a trophy case with no trophies in it, and he put the No. 22 uniform in the trophy case. That’s what made the other guys angry. There was a lot of jealousy, but look, I just wanted to win championships. I guess they realized if we’re going to win it, we need this guy. Kind of like the MJ thing.”
The Cobras were far from a one-man show, and by the 1964-1965 season they were hitting their stride. Johnson had the athletes play an aggressive style of basketball, and the results showed: 89-37 over Brenham on Jan. 8 and 84-30 over Crosby on Jan. 12. One week later, they knocked off Conroe, 88-32.
“We played full-court press, one-on-one all the way down the floor. We doubled up on everything we saw,” Johnson said. “They could jump, they could shoot, they could rebound. We played Wheatley twice, Yates and Worthing. Whoever it was, when they came to the Carverdale gym, they lost.”
The team that Johnson worked to build was well-constructed. The athletic Leonard Dunlap went on to star on the football team at North Texas and play five years in the NFL. Lightning-quick point guard Elessie Jones was the distributor, setting up Santee for easy buckets. Henry dominated the glass and was an excellent free-throw shooter, but could also bring the ball up the court. Elvin “Link” Deauvero could shoot lights-out from deep.
“If they would have had 3-pointers at that time, he’d have killed them,” Johnson said. “He killed Wheatley in that old gym with 40 points.”
Henry was a tri-captain along with fellow seniors Allen Hicks and Abe Hamilton. Other contributors included George Hicks, Melvin Jones and Willie Hicks.
Although the 1965 Cobra yearbook and PVILCA website do not list full season results, Santee remembers that the Cobras were 17-0 heading into the Class 2A state championship.
“They were fantastic,” said Robert Brown, PVIL historian. “They were really good and well-disciplined. They had excellent talent.”
Filling the Trophy Case
Before merging with the UIL in 1967-1968 during the wake of school integration, the PVIL served as the main academic and athletic competition organization for Texas’ African-American students for half of the 20th Century.
Prairie View A&M College hosted the PVIL basketball championships at its campus gymnasium, and several of the Cobras approached their title game matchup against Grand Prairie Dalworth with an air of nervousness.
“When we arrived in Prairie View, many of the guys had doubts,” Santee said. “I told them, ‘We can win it all.’ We knew how good we were. We had a lot of guys with a lot of heart.”
Carverdale trailed by 7 points late in the fourth quarter, and Johnson called time out to focus the team.
“He told Elessie Jones he needed to get the ball in my hands if we were going to win,” Santee said. “I hit a couple jump shots that put us within 1.”
The Cobras got the ball back, and Santee grabbed a Dunlap miss off the rim and slammed it home to put Carverdale up 73-72. Following a Dalworth miss, Johnson instructed the Cobras to run out the clock. Santee passed the ball to Henry, who was fouled with seconds left on the clock. He hit both ends of the 1-and-1 free throws to lock Carverdale’s first state championship, 75-72.
“It was something that I never had an idea or experience of being called a champion,” Henry said. “It took me a while before it dawned on me and got to be more and more valuable to me. I never thought we’d be in a position like that, and as time goes on I really look back and cherish it.”
The Cobras finally had some hardware to place in their trophy case, and would add more in 1966. With Henry graduated, Santee assumed a senior leadership role and took the team back to Prairie View. The Cobras repeated their championship feat with a 70-66 victory over Gilmer Valley View.
Santee was named the championship MVP for the second straight year.
“It was a great feeling, but it was a tough road,” Santee said. “I think the ’65 team was better than the ’66 team, because we had more help.”
Following the second title in his junior year, Hicks finished his senior year at Cy-Fair High School under legendary coach and school namesake Ronnie Truitt. Four years later, the Bobcats clinched the 1971 Class 4A state championship.
Hicks briefly attended Wharton Junior College, then completed a four-year stint in the Air Force before returning to work for CFISD. He retired after 25 years as a supervisor in the operations department. His wife, Diane, and two boys, Demond and Andre, still work for the district.
“Carverdale was the country, and we were a step or two ahead,” Hicks reflects. “We came together and the rest was history.”
Santee, who also starred at baseball for the Cobras, was drafted out of high school No. 6 overall by the Houston Astros. His brief professional career was spent mostly in the minor leagues, and Santee still regrets not continuing his basketball career. He and his wife own a couple businesses and reside in Sugar Land.
“I love to tell these stories because Carverdale made me the man I am today,” Santee said. “If I could do it all over I’d go right back to Carverdale and do it again.”
Henry enlisted in the Navy and served in Vietnam, also playing semipro military football. He started boxing in 1967 and had a shot at qualifying for the 1968 Olympics before breaking bones in his hand. He drove trucks after the military before retiring to his country home in Diboll, Texas, where he spends time fishing, hunting and riding his ATV.
“Even when I lived in the city, I was more or less like a country boy anyway,” Henry said. “I just fit in at Carverdale.”
Carverdale was shuttered by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1970. Johnson continued his career with Cy-Fair, coaching the freshmen boys’ team.
“I had a good time at Carverdale and Cy-Fair,” Johnson said. “The kids respected me and loved me, and I raised some of those boys like they were my kids. I thank the Lord we made it that far.”
The Cobras were invited to San Antonio in 2015 and 2016 for the UIL Boys’ Basketball State Championships, where the UIL recognized the 1965 PVIL Honor Teams on the 50th anniversary of their achievements.
The 2015 ceremony was well-attended, with seven Carverdale representatives being recognized on the court at the Alamodome.
“That was definitely something special,” Hicks said. “I assure you the hair stood out on the back of my neck.”
Henry, too, said he enjoyed the “15 minutes of fame.”
“After we got out of high school, most everybody went their own way. I hadn’t seen some of them in more than 30 years,” Henry said. “I really enjoyed seeing them all again. It was a blast.”
Read more about the history of Carverdale on the CFISD website.