2014 INDUCTEE - ROBERT WHISENANT
By David Elwell
For the Decatur Daily
Robert Whisenant's high school no longer exists. It closed over 40 years ago.
Whisenant's basketball career ended 44 years ago. Time has not closed the door on the legend of the man they called "Rippin" Robert from Ryan High School in south Morgan County.
"My daddy (Leon) was a good basketball player in his own right," Whisenant said. "His dream for me was to be a ballplayer. That's all I ever wanted to be."
When Leon built his family a new home, he made sure it had a basement with room for a basketball goal. It was basketball 365 days a year for Robert "There's no telling how many hours I spent in that basement shooting," Whisenant said. "Dad had me learn to dribble by turning the lights out and making me do it in the dark."
The numbers show today that Whisenant was indeed a "ballplayer." The Alabama High School Athletic Association lists records on its website. Under "Highest Scoring Average in a Season," Whisenant is No. 1 at 46.2 points in the 1969-70 seasons. Under "Highest Scoring Average in a Career," Whisenant ranks third with 34.4 points from 1967-1970. Under "Points in a Season," Whisenant comes in No. 7 with 1,112 in his senior season.
"He was the real deal," said Wally Sanders, who was head coach at rival Union Hill when Whisenant played. "He was a great shooter. He scored against everybody."
Basketball in 1970 was a different game from what it is today. First, there was no three-point shot in high school or college. Second, the game today has evolved into a more physical style. Today, some teams may not score 46 points in a game.
Billy Abercrombie became Ryan's basketball coach in 1968. He knew that at a small school like Ryan needed to build its team after its best player. "We only had 130 to 150 kids in 12 grades," Abercrombie recalled. "I think we had 14 in Robert's senior class and that was one of the bigger classes. One class had nine to graduate."
Abercrombie's plan was to feed the ball to Whisenant, who had averaged 23 points as a sophomore. The junior averaged 34 points a game. He scored a season-high 54 against Vinemont. It got even better the next year.
"He was a gifted and talented player," Abercrombie said. "He moved all the time working to get open. He could drive inside and score. He could step outside and shoot. Sometimes he would be guarded by two, three and maybe four defenders. He got fouled a lot and hit a lot of free throws. He was remarkable."
Remarkable describes his senior season. He scored 63 against Arab. He hit 65 in an 88-83 loss to Cullman.
Whisenant's performance in the 1969 Holly Pond Thanksgiving Tournament really is the stuff of legends. On three successive nights, Whisenant scored 54, 52 and 57 points in leading Ryan to the championship. After it was over, he said "This is the greatest thrill of my high school career."
Whisenant's high school career ended with a 45-point effort in the first game of the area tournament with a loss to Madison Academy.
The Daily named him the Most Valuable Player in Morgan County. The Birmingham Post-Herald named him to its 1A All-State team.
"I was fortunate to play with some unselfish teammates," Whisenant said. "Tony Puckett, Gary Ryan, Dennis Latham and Ken Ellenburg would give up open shots to get the ball to me."
Not surprisingly, colleges came recruiting. Whisenant headed to Alabama Christian College in Montgomery.
"I always wanted to go to Auburn," Whisenant said. "They wanted me to go to Alabama Christian, play a couple of years and transfer to Auburn."
But Whisenant left Alabama Christian before ever playing in a game. He returned home to Joppa, got married and started a family.
"I didn't think college was for me," Whisenant said. "Looking back, I have always regretted I didn't take advantage of the opportunity."