Born into poverty in Ryan, Oklahoma, on November 21, 1922, future basketball coach Abe Lemons was given the initials-only name "A. E." After graduating from nearby Walters, Oklahoma, High School in 1941, he joined the Merchant Marine and officially changed his name to "Abe." He later married Betty Jo Bills. Together they had two daughters, Dana and Jan.
Lemons attended college and played basketball at Southwestern State Teachers College (now Southwestern Oklahoma State University) and Oklahoma City University (OCU). Fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be a coach, Lemons won 599 games as one of the nation's premier major college basketball coaches from 1955 to 1990. Along the way, at OCU (1955-73), Pan American University (Edinburgh, Texas, 1973-76), the University of Texas at Austin (1976-82), and again at OCU (1983-1990) he produced several All-Americans and became the most quoted coach ever. One major publication chose Lemons's famous line, "Doctors bury their mistakes; ours are still on scholarship," as the sports quote of the twentieth century.
Behind the coach's funny-man exterior was a superb basketball mind. Some have said that Lemons's ability to coach basketball players on offense was unparalleled in the history of the game. He spent his life teaching young men the skills of basketball and life. One former player said, "He took me as a boy and made a man out of me. He taught me how to live and enjoy life."
Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1990, Lemons retired from OCU, and in January 2000 the university dedicated Abe Lemons Arena in his honor. Abe Lemons died September 2, 2002, in Oklahoma City.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bob Burke and Kenny Franks, Abe Lemons: Court Magician (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1999). Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 11 November 1999. Karen Klinka, "Oklahoma Hall of Fame Coach Made Name For Himself,"
© Oklahoma Historical Society