Even in retirement, basketball is never far away from Larry Slater.
He can watch his daughters Jeanice and Terrie coach the sport he grew up loving. He can see his granddaughters play the game that changed his life.
It’s a long way from the days when Slater was trying to find a way to get girls involved in the recreation basketball program in Hartselle.
“It was 1977, and I had a part-time job working for parks and rec while I was finishing up college,” Slater said.
“I wanted Jeanice to be able to play basketball. We didn’t have enough girls to start a girls league. We didn’t even have enough for one team. She ended up playing on a boys team.”
In a few short years, the girls basketball program at Hartselle High would be one of the best in the state. One season the team was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country by USA Today. Jeanice would be the first Miss Basketball in Alabama.
Slater would coach Pell City to a state championship in a game that gave girls basketball a giant boost of publicity. He would go on to coach the girls program at Wallace-Hanceville for 22 years.
“I’ve been lucky,” Slater said. “I just wanted my daughters to have the same opportunity playing basketball that I did. It’s a great game.”
Slater grew up in the basketball hot-bed of Cotaco and played for coaching legend Greg Blagburn. He was in the starting five his senior season in 1963-64, along with Harvey Kirby, Ronald Grantland, Larry Thomas and Richard Gurley. Slater averaged 22.7 points a game.
After high school, Slater wanted to play in college, but the opportunity did not come and he joined the Army. After nearly 10 years in the Army, Slater left and went to work for a computer company. The constant travel and nights away from home convinced him to go to college and get a teaching degree so he could coach.
The timing could not have been more perfect. Title IX, which changed the landscape of athletics by allowing equal access for females, had just become law. The rebirth of girls basketball in Alabama was in its early stages. The game needed advocates to push the cause. Slater was more than happy to help.
“We had three girls play that first year at parks and rec,” Slater said. “Jeanice was the only girl to make the all-star team. She had to dress in the girls bathroom.”
The next year there were two girls teams. They played half the season in the 10-and-under boys league and the other half in the 12-and-under boys league.
“I know my dad got some complaints from some upset moms that the girls were too rough,” Jeanice said.
After Larry got his degree in 1982, his first job was at Lawrence County. In the summer, he would coach Jeanice in AAU basketball. In 1986, he coached her team to the national tournament.
“In 1987, Lawrence County had hired a new head football coach and they needed my teaching position for an incoming assistant football coach,” Slater said. “I was out of a job.”
One of the players on Slater’s AAU team was Tonya Tice. Her father, Mike, took a job as head football coach at Pell City. He convinced Slater to come to Pell City. In 1987, he was one of the few coaches in the state hired just to coach girls basketball.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Slater said. “Those girls were hungry for basketball.”
Slater and Jeanice’s mother divorced in 1982. When he moved to Pell City, Jeanice stayed with her mom in Hartselle. She was a senior in the 1987-88 season. Pell City and Hartselle both competed in Class 5A.
Father vs. daughter
“We looked at the playoff bracket before the start of the season, and we knew the only way Hartselle and Pell City would meet was in the championship game,” Slater said. “So we knew it was possible.”
In 1988, the boys and girls basketball state championships were separate events. The boys played at the University of Alabama. Calhoun Community College hosted the girls. Pell City and Hartselle both advanced to the semifinals at Calhoun. After big wins in the semifinals, the stage was set for a 5A championship showdown between Pell City (24-1) and Hartselle (26-3).
“After we won our semifinal game, I took our team to McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue to eat,” Slater said. “All our parents are there and in comes Jeanice looking for her dad to buy her something to eat. That got a lot of strange looks from our parents. Some of them may have questioned my loyalty.”
The 5A state championship was the last game of the tournament on a Saturday night. Hartselle and Pell City fans turned out strong, but so did a lot of just plain basketball fans wanting to see the matchup between father and daughter for a state championship.
“It was wall-to-wall people,” Slater said. “There was not enough room to warm up because fans were sitting on the floor right up to the edge of the court. It was an outstanding environment for a championship game.”
It turned out to be an outstanding game. Hartselle led 44-35 at the half and 61-49 with 2:06 left in the third quarter. Jeanice fouled out with 1:38 to go and the game turned in a hurry. Hartselle led 76-74 with eight seconds left, but Pell City had the ball and called timeout.
Rather than go for a tie and force overtime, Slater decided to go for it all. He drew up a play for Tonya Tice to shoot a 3-point shot to win it. Tice put the punctuation on a classic game with the winning shot at the buzzer for a 77-76 final score.
Alan Mitchell of the Alabama High School Athletic Association said after the game, “A crowd like that, a shot like that, it’s hard to beat.”
For the winning coach, it was mixed emotions.
“I was so proud of my team, but at the same time I hated it for Jeanice,” Slater said. “I have never experienced anything quite like that game.”
Slater coached Pell City back to Calhoun the next season, but his team fell short of repeating as state champions. The next season, he was the head coach at Wallace-Hanceville. His teams at Wallace had 479 victories, six state championships and four appearances in the national tournament.
Jeanice played on her dad’s first team and later served as an assistant coach for seven years. During part of the seven years they coached together, younger sister Terrie played for the Lions.
Despite the nearly 30 years since that classic championship game, Slater said it is not a topic of conversation for the family.
“I can remember it coming up one time when we were all together,” Terrie said. “Jeanice insisted that the final shot was not really a 3.”
What cannot be disputed is how girls basketball in Alabama has grown since the 1988 game. Today, the girls game is on equal footing with the boys. Some people even prefer the girls game.
“There’s no doubt that game was a launching pad for girls basketball in the state,” Slater said. “It’s amazing how far the girls game has come. I’ve seen things happen that I never could have imagined.”