February 14, 2008 8:29 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
In 1969, Drake achieved the Final Four with a 26-5 record. Adolphus (Dolph) Pulliam was the emotional leader of that team, and his Bulldogs lost in the national semifinals to UCLA and Lew Alcindor by a single point. After his senior season, he was drafted by multiple professional basketball and football teams, and three decades later, he's the Director of Community Relations and Development at the Des Moines school. In 2003, then-coach Dr. Tom Davis invited Pulliam back into the program, asking him to provide commentary on Bulldog radio broadcasts and be generally available to the players. Now that Davis has retired and handed the reins over to son Keno, Pulliam has remained an important link to the program's past, an important advocate and friend to the team in every way.
In journalism school, they fill your mind with a lot of ideas about interviewing, stuff about asking leading questions and guiding the flow of the conversation and all that. But every so often, you have to just roll the tape, keep your mouth shut and let a legend unspool his remarkable life story for the public record. Mr. Pulliam was ever so gracious to give us an hour of his time before Drake traveled to Southern Illinois this week; he spoke about the parallels between the magical Drake basketball teams of 1969 and 2008, the $800 blue leather suit that brought the team luck on its recent 21-game winning streak, and the importance of friendship on a championship basketball team. We also reveal an exclusive, shocking surprise -- he and I are, in fact, both men of the cloth.
Listen, too, as he talks about why he turned down his childhood dream (a career with the Boston Celtics or Dallas Cowboys) in order to fulfill his destiny as a destroyer of racial barriers.
TMM: After a long period of mediocrity, Drake is running away with the Valley. What's so special about this team, and what the heck is going on this year at Drake?
DP: No one predicted that this team would be as good as it is today. As you know, this team was picked to finish ninth out of 10 for the conference, and we lost four starters from last year's team. And so it was just not on the horizon that we would be there this year. Maybe next year, the year after, but not this year.
And so what we have found is that this group of understudies have learned very well from those guys while they were looking for their time to get on the floor and play last year. And last summer, they worked out and really started to blossom and come into their own and become friends.
That's the thing that's happened with this team, why they're so good. These kids are all good friends. Many of them have lived in different apartments just south of Drake's campus, and they get together and hang out together, cook each others' meals, play computer games together and what have you. Klayton Korver bakes desserts for them! They're just like a family. And all of that has translated into great chemistry on the basketball court.
As a broadcaster, this team has given me a sense of confidence and quiet. I don't fear that they're going to lose even if they're down by 10. I've seen that they don't get too excited, they don't get too emotional about things, they just go out there and do their jobs. These are blue-collar workers, and these kids get out there and they just play steady as it goes. They just give you everything they've got for 40 minutes, and they don't care who gets the credit. They don't care who is the leading scorer.
To me, that is what's going on with this basketball program. And these coaches, I'm telling you, Keno Davis has stepped it up and placed his own stamp on the program from what his dad started for him. Keno said to his kids at the beginning of the season, "I will pull you out of the game if you get a shot and you don't take it... but I will not pull you out if you take the shot and miss it." And when he said that, the team just lit up. Klayton said, "But coach, what about me? I'm going to shoot that ball a lot!"
TMM: Those Korvers, they do love to shoot!
DP: Yes, indeed. He's followed in the footsteps of his brother Kyle, now there's Kaleb at Creighton. And there's another one who's going to be coming up out of high school... that's a family of shooters. And their dad is a better shooter than all of them! He beats them all in the park and the driveway shooting H-O-R-S-E. Their father can kill 'em!
TMM: Some people would certainly give credit to the guys and their friendship for what they've done on the court, but others say that it's all in The Suit. That there's something going on there, that when that blue leather mojo is going, that you guys can't be beat. What's the story?
Oh my God, Kyle, let me tell you. Three years ago, I purchased this blue leather suit. And normally I'd wear the suit once or twice a year during the conference season. So now we come back from Saint Mary's, where we lost a close one, and we're getting ready to go to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. So Keno comes to me and said, "Dolph. I want you to wear the blue leather suit to Milwaukee." And I said, "Keno, I don't wear it unless we're in conference play!" But he insisted. "No, Dolph, I want you to wear the blue leather."
Okay. But then he said, "Now that you've agreed to that, I want you to wear it until we lose." And I went, "You're kidding me!" And he told me, "You are going to wear it until we lose!" I didn't think at the time I'd be wearing this blue leather 20 games later.
Back then I thought, sure, maybe I'd wear it for three or four games, and then we'd lose and I'd start wearing something different, but no. So now, all of a sudden, the blue leather has created a cult. When I walk into the arena in Des Moines, people are rushing up to me and rubbing the blue leather! When I get to my broadcast table, people are coming up behind me, they're rubbing the leather... even during the broadcast! If the game is close, or we're behind, there are people constantly coming up and rubbing the leather. I don't even turn around and look at them anymore. I just let 'em rub the leather.
We're playing at home, I believe it was against Illinois State and they'd jumped out for a lead. So coach Dr. Tom Davis, he sits at the opposite broadcast table, he came over said, "Dolph, can I rub the leather?" And I said, "OK, Coach, go ahead and rub the leather." So he rubbed the leather.
Is there any luck associate with this blue leather? I don't think so! There is no damn luck there. You've got to have a good team!
TMM: The question I've been wondering about, have you found a good way to keep it clean? That was a big question back in January, you were getting it taken out of town for a while.
DP: We had a game just after we came back to Milwaukee, there was a week break. So I took it to the cleaners, and they said they had to send the suit out of state because there's nobody in Iowa that will clean a suit like that. And they said it would take seven days.
TMM: That wouldn't work with a basketball schedule.
DP: Oh, no. So when I told Keno that, he said, "No, Dolph, they can't do that! We've got to have that suit!" Leather doesn't breathe, as you know, and you've got to have it freshened up. So we take it to the cleaner and he has it for two days... he steams it inside, freshens it up, the perspiration's gone and it smells okay. It's quite a deal to get all this stuff done, boy! The cleaning bills get pretty high taking this leather suit in all the time, but I'm willing to do it because that's what they want. They expect to see that leather.
One day, our women's team wanted me to wear the leather to their game because they said, "We need some luck too!" So when the men's team found out, they refused and said, "Get your own leather!" That's the fun we're having. They want to take pictures with me, be in the picture, we have little kids and old folks, everybody in between. It's been so much fun.
TMM: Are there any parallels, similarities or differences between this team and your team back in 1968? Is there a Drake spirit that the two have in common, or is this a different deal than back then?
DP: You know, it is so similar. I'll tell you how. We thought that as a team our senior year, we were going to be successful by becoming best friends, getting to know each other. We went to movies together, went bowling together, just run around together. That, we thought, was very important. So we did that, and it translated into us getting to know each other very well on the floor. We had eye contact signals... if a guy was guarding Willie McCarter really close, all he had to do was look at me a certain way, and I'd know that meant, "Dolph, come over here and set me a pick." So I'd go set a pick, and Willie would come over that pick wide-open and take them both to the basket and he'd get a wide-open shot. That's the kind of stuff we did with each other.
We didn't care who got the credit at Drake University. Coach John gave us departments in those days. Willie McCarter was to shoot the basketball. Dolph Pulliam's job was to guard the leading scorer for every team, and I had to shut them down and keep them under their average. And when we did that, we won. Willie Wise was to lead the team on the backboards, and that's what he did. I was second in rebounding. All the time that we were doing these things, the other kids on the bench would be learning from us.
A lot of people don't know how important reserves are. They were our practice team, they take on the personality of the team we're going to play. When they got into the ballgame, they knew the opponents' defense and offense almost as well as the opponents did, because they'd been running those plays in practice. Every player was a different opponent from that team, and so they'd run their plays, they have to run them hard, we had to defend them, and we had to scrimmage against them. The harder the practice team made us work, the better we were prepared for the basketball game. Sometimes, we would have fights in practice, we were going at it so hard! Coach Maury John would have to step in and stop us!
But we loved each other as brothers, and we still love each other as brothers. But on the basketball court, we knew it was business. That practice team knew that their job was to make us the best we could be, and they did that.
Fast forward 39 years later, and that's what you see with these kids today. I was talking to Josh Parker, who's our freshman backup point guard. I was saying to Josh, "Gee, I'm seeing you get more comfortable out there on the floor." He said, "While I'm sitting on the job, I'm watching Adam Emmenecker, and he's teaching me how to do that job. I'm just a mirror image of Adam."
I tell folks that this team today can go into any corporation, and tell that corporation how to have a successful company with all their employees, because that's exactly what they're doing here. They do their job, they know their job, and they're unselfish. That's how you have a winning combination, and that's what they have today. I am so, so proud of those kids.
TMM: Tell me about the opportunities that basketball gave you, that Drake gave you, coming out of that great era. I know you were drafted by the Boston Celtics in the fifth round of the 1969 draft, but you never played in the pros. What happened, and what was your immediate post-college life like?
DP: I'm not going to brag on myself, and I haven't commented a lot about that. But I'm happy to tell you. When you're a student-athlete, you have to do your job in the classroom, because Drake University sets its standards very high for students and student-athletes alike. If you don't make it in the classroom, you're not going to be on the athletic field. So I'd go to my classes and earned my grades and I did very well.
But I was just sorta a different kind of cat. Before basketball games, while my teammates were in the shootaround, I would play catch with the Drake students. I'd throw the ball into the stands, and they'd throw it back and they'd all be screaming, "Dolph, throw it to me!" And I would get those kids so riled up that it was just amazing. I knew that our students were our No. 6 player on that team and we needed those kids, and I wanted to make them feel like they were part of our family.
Also, after basketball games, I would hang around and I would talk to everybody who wanted to talk, sign autographs, hold babies, take pictures, what have you. Coach John, during my senior year when we were doing so well, was getting requests to speak at civic clubs all over the greater Des Moines area, and there was no way he could fulfill all those requests... so he came to me. He asked me if I'd go out to speak to some of these civic clubs, and that would make the fans happy and get them to come to our games. So I started going out and speaking, Coach John would take some and I would take some.
Once we'd gone to the NCAA Final Four, we lost to UCLA and were back in Des Moines, my first call that I got was from Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys. He had met me at the NCAA Regional in Manhattan, Kansas. He said he'd never seen a defensive ballplayer like me in his life. He told me in Kansas, "Son, you shut their leading scorer down, and I wanted to come and shake your hand. Good luck for the rest of the year, and I'm going to be watching you."
Then I got a call from Red Auerbach from the Celtics, then I got a call from the Denver Nuggets from the ABA. They were drafting me. Then I got a call from the Cincinnati Bengals from the AFL. They were drafting me too. So there I was, my childhood goals in reach. I wanted to play basketball for the Boston Celtics or football for the Dallas Cowboys. But all of a sudden, I got them all wanting me.
Not only that, I got a call and an invitation to fly into Omaha, Proctor & Gamble offered me a job. I went to Poughkeepsie, New York to interview with General Electric. In Detroit, I interviewed with the Ford Motor Company. I was flown via a private plane to Chicago to meet with the president of Standard Oil of America. We had lunch together, and he offered me a job. I went back to Des Moines, and the governor offered me a job working with him!
I said to the governor, "What in the world is going on here? Why am I getting all these opportunities?" And he said, "Dolph, don't you know? Here's what's happening. You know how you used to stay around after the games and talk to everybody? Remember when you were out talking to civic clubs and you were telling all those funny stories about your teammates? Dolph, don't you realize what you were doing? You were marketing Dolph Pulliam.
"Because of that, all these people saw you, and all these people said, 'this was the type of person we wanted working for me.' That's why you're getting all these opportunities." I didn't realize that. So, Kyle, that's why those opportunities came about.
Then there was a group of businessmen that contacted Coach John, they asked me if I would have lunch with them. And I asked Coach, would he go with me, I'd never met with these people. He said, "No, Dolph, they just want you. Just go. Just listen to what they have to say."
It turned out it was a group of Des Moines' leading businessmen and philanthropists. The mayor of the city was there too. I had lunch with them, and they said to me, "Dolph, don't leave. Stay here. Whatever job you want in Des Moines, we will help you get it. Just please don't leave us."
I was so impressed with that, I was so impressed... I had come out of West Point, Mississippi, where my nine brothers and sisters, and my mother and father lived in a one-room house. We picked cotton in Mississippi. In those days, it was before the civil rights laws, we lived under the Jim Crow laws. I saw a lot of my people hang from trees, lying along the roadsides dead, to the point that my mom and dad were concerned and wanted to get us all out of the state so we could go to school. They wouldn't let us go to school in Mississippi.
So we got to southern Missouri to pick cotton on one guy's cotton farm, we didn't know that we had taken the jobs of some white people who worked in the town. A few months later, somebody took the lives of my mom and my dad.
We were left with a 17-year-old head of the household. I was six, and we had lost both of our parents. So my mother's sister came from Gary, Indiana to southern Missouri, and they brought us up there and raised us. I've had traumatic experiences in my life, but it's all helped me to become the person I am today.
So after I met with those businessmen, I met with Jim Duncan, the famous and great professor on Drake's campus. The track they use for the Drake Relays is named after him. He said to me, "Dolph, come over to my office. I want you to go put on a suit and a tie, and I want you to go down to Channel 8. I want you to talk with that station manager." "But Professor," I said. "What about the Boston Celtics, Dallas Cowboys and all the others?"
He said, "No, Dolph, this is what I want you to do. This is more important." So I went down and talked to this guy, and told him, okay, I'll take a job. So I came back to campus and told Professor Duncan, "Okay, I'm going to do this. I'm going to turn down all these draft choices. Why is this so important?"
And he said, "Dolph, because I want you to be the first African-American television broadcaster in the state of Iowa. You do a good job, which I know you will, other African-Americans will follow and be hired in the state of Iowa."
TMM: Your loyalty to Des Moines, and to Drake University... what is it about the city and the university that's made you want to give back so much?
DP: I was not supposed to go to Drake University. My coaches in high school told me that I was going to Indiana, that's it. I was not to talk to anybody else. I was playing on the All-State basketball team, in an All-Star tournament for an Indiana team against players from Kentucky. After we had finished that game, I was trying to get to the dressing room to take a shower because I had to get on the Greyhound bus to get back to Gary.
As I'm rushing off the court, this guy comes up to me and said, "Nice game, Dolph Pulliam." And I stopped and said, "Thank you so much." He asked me if he could talk to me. I said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I have to shower and catch a bus." And this man said, "I just prayed that I'd be able to talk to you for a few minutes."
Being raised and baptized in the Baptist church, when I heard that, I immediately stopped and said, "Well, who are you?" He said, "My name is Morris John." I said, "Mr, John, I don't know you. What do you do." He told me he was a college basketball coach. I told him, "But Coach, I'm going to Indiana." He said, "But I'm not going to recruit you." And I said, "Oh, where are you from?" He said, Des Moines. I said, "I don't know where that is."
He asked me what I was going to major in. I thought about it for a second, and told him I didn't know. He said that if I went to Drake University, he'd make sure that academics would be a higher priority than basketball. That really resonated with me, that he cared that much about my fortunes off the court, not just my playing talent.
TMM: So we have something in common, you and I. I'm the Rev. Kyle Whelliston and you're the Rev. Dolph Pulliam, thanks to the Universal Life Church.
TMM: Seriously, it's true! I've heard that you became a minister so you could perform a wedding between Drake grads, please tell me that story.
DP: There were race riots and buildings were burned on some college campuses. We didn't have that problem at Drake University. Wayne Evans came from Boston, and I was from Gary, Indiana... growing up there, Boston had the reputation of being one of the most racist communities you could imagine. But here's this blonde-haired kid, I'm from the inner city, and we struck a chord in those days and we became good friends. Our friendship lasted after we left Drake University.
Wayne was working for the kind of Saudi Arabia as a purchasing agent for the king's oil fields. His first daughter wanted to come to Drake University, so she called me in Des Moines. She said, "Dolph, tell my dad that I want to come to Drake University, he won't let me. But he'll listen to you. Dolph, will you tell him I want to come?" So I said okay. So I called Wayne in Saudi Arabia, and said, "Allyson wants to come to Drake." And he said, "Great! I wanted her to go to Drake, but I didn't want to put any pressure on her."
So I had to look after her when she was there, and I became Uncle Dolph to his first daughter. So when Allyson was lonely, she would come over to my house and cook and fix food for herself. She graduated, and met a guy named Dan. Eventually they decided they wanted to get married. So I came out to Wayne's home in Maryland, as Dan and Allyson wanted to meet with me privately. We got out on the deck, and they said they wanted to get married... and they wanted me to perform the marriage ceremony! I said, "Whoa! But I'm not a minister!"
She said, "We can help you become a minister. Here's how you can join the Universal Life Church." So I filled out all these papers, and got my card, and I've been a practicing minister ever since. I performed that wedding for them at their home in Maryland. So that's how that came about.
Once Drake published the story that I had done that, I got calls from all over from people asking me to perform their weddings or baptize their babies. I told people, you have to be a Drake graduate! If you're a Drake graduate, then I'd be willing to do it.
TMM: Are you generally too busy, or are you able to spend any time fulfilling your religious duties?
DP: I have been so busy, I haven't had a lot of time to do it. I'm delighted, though, to speak at churches, to speak with youth groups, to talk about my faith, to tell them how I came out of poverty and have become a success. I'm happy to tell them about how God has worked in my life, about the people He's brought into my life. I'm grateful to do that. Professor Duncan came into my life at a very critical time and helped me make a change in my life. Coach John came into my life when I didn't expect to see him, and he came into my life and changed it. When my mom and my dad were killed down in southern Missouri, my mother's sister came down and got us, brought us to Gary, Indiana.
Somebody has been in my life wherever and whenever I need help. And that's why I want to give back, and continue to give back, to motivate and help other people.
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