By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

On a recent Christmas, Regina Mooney presented her husband Leon with a gift that left him speechless.

It was a scrapbook that chronicled his basketball career at Ryan School from 1964-1968.

"I didn't know what to say and I usually have a lot to say," Leon said.

Regina, with the help of family and friends, worked several months to complete a book filled with memories for the former Ryan Red Devil.

The man they call "Pee Wee" was a giant on the basketball court for the smallest school in Morgan County. There were just 15 students in his senior class.

Mooney was only six-feet tall, but he towered over the game at a time when Morgan County was a hot-bed for talent and state championship teams. He was No. 23 in the red and black uniform long before Michael Jordan made it famous with the Chicago Bulls.

"Basketball was all we had to do at Ryan and I loved it," Mooney said. "We had some pretty good teams at Ryan and we always thought we could play with anybody. Heck, we thought we could beat the Boston Celtics."

One story in The Decatur Daily from 1967 called Ryan's style of play "racehorse basketball." The team was described as "lightning quick" and would "sail down the court at full speed." The Red Devils used a full-court press on defense.

The style of play led to some high-scoring games. In the 1966-67 season, Ryan beat Danville 102-100 and 102-89. The Red Devils also lost to Clements, 118-96.

"We try to get the close shot," Ryan coach Pat Graham said, "but, if we can't, we're not afraid to fire away from 20 to 30 feet."

If the shots "from 20 to 30 feet" didn't fall through the net, Graham knew that Mooney would be there for the rebound. In Mooney's junior season, he averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds. In his senior season, he averaged 33 points and 17 rebounds. One night against Vinemont, he scored 39 and had 29 rebounds.

"I think I was more proud of the rebounds than the points," Mooney said. "A lot of the points came off of rebounds."

Mooney's rebounding ability was tied into his jumping skills and that came from hard work.

"I practiced my jumping as much as anything," Mooney said. "There were times when I would be in the gym at school as late as 2 a.m. just working on jumping.

"I started out trying to touch the bottom of the backboard, then it was the net and then it was the rim. Then I started dunking a softball and then volleyball and finally a basketball."

In 1967, Mooney was the only junior on the All-Morgan County dream team along with Danny Welborn of Danville, Thomas Fowler of Cotaco, Ferrell Maples of Priceville and Steve Hammond of Decatur. He made the team again in 1968 along with Bud Stallworth of Morgan County Training, Dwain Keel of Hartselle, Ronnie Smith of West Morgan and Tony Julian of Decatur.

Julian had attended school at Ryan. After his sophomore year, his family moved to Decatur. He was inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

"Leon was always the biggest and best and it didn't matter what it was," Julian said. "We all wanted to be as good as Leon."

Robert Whisenant was two years behind Mooney. The man they called "Rippin' Robert" was inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

Because Ryan was not an accredited school during Mooney's career, the Red Devils were not eligible for the state playoffs.

"If Tony hadn't of moved and we could have gone to the playoffs, I think we would have had a great chance to win a state championship," Mooney said.

Despite not being able to play on the big stage, Mooney's accomplishments didn't go unnoticed. Following his senior season, he was named to the 1968 Prep All-American team by Coach and Athletic Director magazine.

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