Before Charlie Scott or Michael Jordan graced the basketball airwaves in the Virginia/North Carolina region, there was Gene Littles. Littles, who later spent two highly successful years as head coach at North Carolina A&T and used that as a springboard to a professional coaching career, passed on Sept. 9. He was 78.
Littles, a lithe 6-foot, 160-pound guard, played at McKinley Tech High School in Washington, D. C. before attending High Point College (now University). It was at High Point from 1965-69 that Littles became a three-time NAIA basketball All-American.
He was one of the pioneering black stars there along with Henry Logan of Western Carolina and Dwight Durante of Catawba in the Carolinas Conference, an NAIA league that had a package of regionally televised basketball games that aired in Southside Virginia and parts of North Carolina.
Each distinguished themselves as outstanding scorers on the court and for breaking barriers off it. Logan, in 1964, became the first African American player at a predominantly white college in North Carolina. Durante and Laurence Bullock became the first African-American players at Catawba in 1965-66. Littles, in 1965, was the first African-American student-athlete to live on campus at High Point. He would go on to break down barriers throughout his playing and coaching career.
All of them put their talents on display and excelled before the ACC integrated.
A High Point Legend
One of those Littles influenced to attend High Point was another DMV native, current High Point head basketball coach Tubby Smith. Smith has had very successful stints as a head coach at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis. Smith attended HPC from 1969-73.
“We are saddened by the passing of another legend of our High Point University Athletic Family in Gene Littles,” Smith said on the High Point athletics website. “Gene was the best player in High Point University Basketball history. He was a true gentleman, a great competitor, and a classy individual. He was a role model for me and many other collegiate and professional athletes.
“Gene was a proud ambassador for our alma mater and he represented the values of High Point University throughout his career. We will always remember Gene and honor his memory. Our sincerest condolences and best wishes to his family, friends and loved ones.”
Into the Pros
Littles finished his career as High Point’s all-time scoring leader and later had his No. 14 jersey retired. In his final season in 1969, he led High Point to a 28-3 record and the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.
He was drafted by the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA and the New York Knicks of the NBA. His ABA rights were acquired by the Carolina Cougars, with whom he earned a spot on the league’s all-rooke team as a starting point guard averaging a career-best 13.4 points per game. After five years with the Cougars, he finished his career with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, who beat the Indiana Pacers for the 1975 ABA title.
Gene Littles: A winner in Aggieland
He began his coaching career at Appalachian State under Bobby Cremins before taking over the head coaching position at NC A&T in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons.
In his first season he finished 20-8 overall, first in the MEAC at 11-1, led by leading scorer James Sparrow’s 19.3 points per game. The Aggies defeated Morgan State to win the MEAC tournament title. In the following season, the Aggies were 20-7 overall led by Sparrow (18.5 ppg.) and Joe Brawner (15.8 ppg.)were again 11-1 for first in the MEAC. His Aggies defeated Howard for the MEAC title.
Littles’ .727 winning percentage (40-15) is second only to A&T legend, the late Cal Irvin’s (.768) in NC A&T history. Irvin (308-125) and the late Don Corbett (256-145), who succeeded Littles, are the winningest coaches in Aggies history. Irvin won four CIAA Tournament titles in 18 years. Corbett won seven straight MEAC Tournament title after going 9-19 his first year.
The success at A&T propelled Littles to the pro ranks where he served as an assistant and head coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and assistant and interim head coach of the Denver Nuggets.