Gary Alcorn laughed when he reminisced about parking behind the old Fresno State gym an hour and a half before basketball practice and shooting a limit of pheasant or quail on the outskirts of the campus. This is a snapshot of Alcorn's life: basketball and in the outdoors. Alcorn was one of the Fresno State's finest basketball centers and still hold the Bulldog career rebound record. Bad knees on his 6'10", 240-pound body limited his professional career to two seasons; one each with Detroit and Los Angeles; however, he played when there were only eight teams in the NBA, which means at that time he was one of the top eighty professional players in the country. One of his proudest accomplishments for the Bulldogs during the school's two-season stay in the California Basketball Association was breaking Bill Russell's single season CBA rebound record. Alcorn was born and raised in Calwa on a small farm.
"Everyone around there cut peaches, picked grapes, and other crops. It was hard work," Alcorn said during an interview at his home in 2004. "My uncle had a fort-acre ranch in Selma and our whole family helped him harvest his crops." Alcorn was running up and down mountains, chasing deer and bears and hiking into fishing lakes long before he bounced a basketball. He never stopped that part of his life and his dad, an avid outdoorsman, was a good teacher. Hiking as well as the discipline and patience of hunting and fishing served him well when he entered Roosevelt High School. His legs were strong on a tall frame; his stamina and breathing were good. Alcorn said he was fortunate to have Stu Inman and John Toomasian as his coaches at Roosevelt. Both had been centers in college, Inman at San Jose State and Toomasian at Fresno State. Toomasian recalls the first time that he met Alcorn. "Buck [Alcorn] was a tall, slender, gawky kid I had to look up to. I determined ahead of time if he gave me a dead fish grip, he wasn't what I wanted. But his handshake was firm. He was a boy in a man's body. So each Saturday morning, I would open the gym and work with him and Tommy Urriate. I had played in the very strong AAU League after college which had teams with a lot of college All-Americans. It was very physical.
Jim Lustacoff of the Phillip Oilers broke my nose twice. I would bump Buck around pretty good. Alcorn had good work ethics, was always on time for practice, and stayed all the way. There were a couple of Saturdays he asked to be excused, so he could go hunting with his dad." Alcorn led the Rough Riders to the North Yosemite League title his senior year, once scoring a league record forty-three points against Fresno High. His next stop was Fresno City College, where he helped Joe Kelly's Rams win a state championship in 1955 and a third place finish in 1956. He was All-State both years.
"I had three great coaches in a row," Alcorn said. "Both Inman and Toomasian though I had a good chance of getting a college scholarship. Kelly told me he was sure I would get that and said I even had a chance of being a pro. My parents and two sisters didn't have the money to send me to college, so that was real encouraging. Joe's words were a big incentive to work as hard as I could, to dream high. Another thing was Fresno jumped to a league where we were playing some of the best teams and players in the country: Santa Clara, USF, St. Mary's, San Jose, Loyola and Pepperdine."
Even though his professional career was short, he played with and against some of the greatest players of all time. The best in his opinion was Elgin Baylor, who was Just short of 6'6", but could score or board with anyone. Others included Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Rex Kerr, Tommy Hawkins, Walter Dukes, Jerry West, and Bob Leonard.
When he entered the business world, he became the manager of the fishing department at Hanoian's Market. Later, he found some financial backers and opened Alcorn's in the Ashlan Park Shopping Center. Alcorn brought some of the biggest names in bass, trout, and ocean fishing to his annual spring weekend sale. Hanoian's was inadequate to hold the crowds of outdoorsmen who attended those sales. If you wanted a certain item, you were advised to get there before the store opened. Alcorn's was a much more spacious area and the crowds increased. Alcorn was widely recognized as a fountain of information for the fishing and hunting fraternity. He also helped found Kokanee Power, an organization that brought popular game fish to several Central California's lakes and reservoirs. Alcorn personally put in many hours helping local Department of Fish and Game biologists with stocking these Fish.
Born in Oklahoma in 1898, Ermest Lauck moved to Fresno at two and said he can't remember a time in his life that he wasn't interested in anything with wheels. That early spark became a passion when Lauck was involved in building race cars and race tracks. Because of his innovative ideas, admirers said Lauck was way ahead of his time. When midget race cars captured the attention of fans, Lauck was building them. Midgets proved to be the incubators for many well-known Indianapolis 500 champions when "The Brickyard" was the biggest event in racing. In 1934, he built his first midgets for famous local drivers like Dutch Van Tassell, Duane Carter, and Bryce Morris. Lauck sold Morris' car for $175 to Fred Gerhardt who installed a Drake engine, put Billy Vukovich behind the wheel, and dominated the California midget circuit. Not content with just building cars, Lauck went into partnership with Curly Boyde to build a banked track on the north side of Kearney Drive near Chandler Field. One year later, Lauck headed a group who bought property across Kearney Drive and laid out the track which became Airport Speedway. The name changed first to the Italian Entertainment Park and then to Kearney Bowl where people packed the stands to watch the midgets.
Gloria May, one of the finest fielders in women's fast-pitch softball, played for the Fresno Rockets from 1949 to 1958, winning three national championships. Originally from Glendale, May had an eighteen-year career in softball, making her mark as a first baseman. She was inducted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1973 and had a perfect fielding percentage in ten of fifteen national championship games. "I was an average hitter. Basically, I was known for my defensive play," May said. She earned All-American honors three times and was a second team pick twice.
May also excelled as a pilot, competing in cross-country air races. She said highlights of her softball career include the National Championships and selection to the Hall of Fame. She regrets not having the chance to represent the United States in the Olympics. "That would have been such a thrill," May said. While softball players from May's era often talk about the crazy cross-county car trips, May remembered a terrifying plane ride during a thunderstorm over the Midwest. Lunch boxes were flying and passengers screaming. "We went into a nosedive and you could feel the color disappearing from your face," she said. "The pilots were battling and finally, it was a gradual thing and we pulled out, and down below, I could see lights." During the turbulence, a baby flew out of his mother's arms, but was caught safely. A flight attendant broke an ankle and passengers had to pick their way through debris before getting off the plane. She said the captain stood at the bottom of the steps as they disembarked, his shirt drenched in sweat. "We were given drink tickets when we got off the plane and I think everyone used them," May said. While she said the trip exacerbated some of her teammates' fear of flying, it did nothing to diminish May's fascination with airplanes. As a child, May lived across the street from the Grand Central Air Terminal. She began racing airplanes in 1981.
May and many of the women from the Rockets have remained close through the years, forever connected by the unique era in which they played. The Rockets and their competitors were in many ways pioneers for women's sports, providing an avenue for women to excel in athletics at a time when there were few opportunities. "I feel fortunate to have played in that era," May said. "I played against the best and with the best there will ever be."
Fresno native, Justin Simons was referred to by his teammates as "Judge" because of his quiet demeanor. He signed as a catcher with the Fresno Tigers following graduation from Fresno State in 1923. His professional career included seasons in Salt Lake, Utah, Little Rock, Arkansas, Muskogee, Oklahoma, and then to the Pacific Coast League with the San Francisco Seals, the Los Angeles Angels, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. After retiring from the professional game, Simons returned to Fresno where he played and managed in the famed Fresno Twilight League through the mid-1930s. He made the Fresno City All-Star team and played several times in the Little World Series. Simons also competed for the Coalinga Oilers in the Valley League and with Roma Wines in 1945. One of his biggest local contributions was to youth baseball. He served as an assistant coach for the Fresno Bee, KMJ and KMJ-TV Baseball Schools. Simons helped found Spartan League baseball in Fresno and served as president of the North League for eighteen years. In 1969, he received the Raymond Quigley Award for service to the youth of Fresno. His son, Tim, who became an outstanding football coach at Clovis High School, was later an assistant at Fresno State. Tim served as a coach and athletic director at Clovis North High School. Justin Simons died in 1979 at seventy-five.
This native Fresnan was the cheerleader for his talented son Ted Wills Jr., who became a major league pitcher, but Wills, who played a little baseball and basketball at Central High School from 1925 to 1928, became a sports booster of all Fresno sports in his role as a city council member and mayor. He was able to use his offices in a positive way to push for new athletic facilities. Wills was always one of the ringleaders in getting any city athletic programs started. He was the first chairman of the Fresno City and Fresno Unified School District's Parks and Recreation Board to help build swimming pools in every city high school.
Wills was president of the Fresno Boys Club and helped organize and coach a team in the Fresno Little League. He voted with the mayor at the time, Arthur Selland, to build the Fresno Convention Center with the emphasis on the sports center. Ted, Jr. said his father was extremely active in the Cub Scouts as a Scoutmaster and also organized Cub baseball teams.That's when I started team baseball as an eight-year-old," Wills said. While mayor, Wills led the drive to enlarge Selland Arena to a seating capacity of 10,400 people. With his trademark colorful, large bow ties, Wills was a top booster for all Fresno State sports teams and traveled long distances to see games. In 1980 for his lifetime commitment to Fresno's youth, the Ted C. Wills Community Center was built and dedicated to him. Mr. Wills died in Fresno at ninety-two.