By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

The story of the basketball career of the late Joe Edwards is about a classic late bloomer.

Edwards played in high school for the Priceville Bulldogs. It wasn’t until he played in college for what is now the University of North Alabama that he found stardom.

“Joe was 5-foot-10 when he got his driver’s license at 16,” Edwards’ wife Delores said. “He was 5-11 when he graduated from high school. By the time he got to Florence he was 6-5.”

The story goes that Edwards, who graduated from Priceville in 1958, went to school at what was then Florence State just for the academics. One afternoon in his first year there, he was playing intramural basketball when the school’s basketball coach Ed Billingham happened to walk by.

Billingham liked what he saw. He persuaded Edwards to come join the school’s team. Edwards did and quickly became a starter for the Lions.

Edwards is being inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.

Priceville has always been a hot-bed of basketball. The golden age for Bulldogs’ basketball came between 1951 and 1965. During that 15-year period the Bulldogs won state championships in 1951, 1955, 1961 and 1965. There were only two high school classifications until 1964.

“We always had the tradition of success at Priceville,” former Priceville All-State player Charles Maples said. “Winning that first state championship in 1951 really set the standard for other teams and players to follow.

“We had no football team so basketball was the sport year round. Winning the state championship was the goal year round.”

Besides the four state championship teams between 1951 and 1965, Priceville teams also advanced to the state tournament 1952 and 1954.

Between 1956 and 1959, Priceville teams lost in the district finals to teams that went on to win state championships. It was West Limestone in 1956 and Austinville in 1957-1959.

Edwards played at Priceville from 1955-1958. His head coach was Robert Ryan followed by Fred Culbreath in 1956.

College basketball was vastly different in Alabama during the early 1960s. Alabama and Auburn of course competed in the NCAA. There was no UAB or UAH. The smaller colleges in the state at that time competed in the NAIA.

The NAIA competition in Alabama included schools like Florence, Jacksonville, Troy, Livingston, Athens State, Saint Bernard and Samford. Those teams competed in a district that included some Mississippi schools. The prize for the district champion was a trip to the national tournament.

Florence State made the trip twice during Edwards’ playing days with the Lions. The first time came in 1960. The Lions won the district tournament with a 74-61 win over Troy and then a 91-70 win over Saint Bernard.

The NAIA national tournament was held Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. It was March Madness before the NCAA ever thought about it. The NAIA Tournament had 32 teams playing over six days on one court. It took five wins to take home the national championship trophy.

“It was the same place where they held rodeos and cattle shows,” Edwards’ teammate Byron West said. “The court was stuck right out in the middle. The depth perception was difficult.”

Florence’s stay in Kansas City didn’t last long. The Lions lost in the first round to No. 5 seed Hamline University of Minnesota, 88-83.

It would be two more years before Florence returned to Kansas City. During that time Edwards’ role on the team grew. He had several memorable games with two in particular standing out.

The 1961 season opened with Florence edging Nashville’s Lipscomb, 78-75. Edwards scored 33 points. He averaged 15.1 points that season and earned all-conference honors.

In December of 1962, Florence played in the Queen City Invitational in Clarksville, Tennessee. Lipscomb beat Florence in the finals, 73-68. Edwards was named the tournament MVP after a two-game performance with 56 points and 29 rebounds.

“Our offense was what I call ‘Grab and Go.’ We liked to play fast,” West said. “Our center Dabbs Ernest was a really good player.

“When defenses concentrated on stopping Dabbs, it gave Joe opportunities to score and he liked to take advantage of it.”

Sometime during the 1961-1962 season, Ole Miss made a quick trip to Florence probably thinking it could pick up an easy win. The Rebels got the win, but it was far from easy. The Lions gave the Rebels all they could handle.

A crowd of 2,800 watched Florence take a 19-16 lead midway of the first half. The game was tied 35-35 at halftime. Ole Miss opened up a nine-point lead behind 6-6 ½ center Sterling Ainsworth. Florence rallied late and trimmed the lead to two before falling, 68-64, in what the TimesDaily called a “spine-tingler.”

“That’s one of those games that I’ll never forget,” West said. “Joe got in foul trouble early and had to sit before he did foul out (in the second half). Ole Miss had a big advantage in free throws.”

According to the TimesDaily account, Ole Miss hit 20 of 26 free throws to Florence’s 10 of 18.

Edwards scored 11 points that night. Earnest had 16 and West added 13. Ainsworth led Ole Miss with 28 points. He hit 10 of 12 free throws.

The step up in competition paid off with another trip to the NAIA Tournament in Kansas City. Unfortunately, the Lions fell again in the first round. Saint Cloud State out of Minnesota knocked Florence out with an 86-54 win.

Edwards played one more season at Florence. He ended his career by scoring 24 points in his final game.

After college, Edwards returned to Morgan County to work, farm and raise his family. He passed away on Nov. 5, 2015.

“Joe lived life to the fullest,” his friend Leverette Blankenship said. “Material things didn’t mean anything to Joe. He was able to do something we all wish we could and that’s to find happiness in just being himself.”

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