Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of the When Marion Played Sports series. Click the link to see all the articles in the series.
By Jackie Hunt
Special to The Gazette
Jordan, Koby, Bird or Labron? Brady, Montana, Manning or Brees? Ruth, Bonds, Aaron or Mays? Enter the term “Greatest of All Time” into a conversation and varied opinions will certainly fly. These opinions are most often based on personal bias, exposure to athletes of one’s own era or what Grandpa said.
Asking any of the surviving alumni of Marion Industrial High School (1947-1959) who was the athletic GOAT at the school will probably get you a consensus answer…Hilbert C. Lee. Engage in a conversation with those who were around and remember sports at the old school and you may come away wondering if this guy wore a cape and leaped tall buildings.
Lee, now 84 and living in the Los Angeles area for the past 65 years, was a football, baseball and basketball star at MIHS until his parents packed up the family and moved west. Hilbert was already into his senior year then and the need to earn money to help the family in the more costly city forced him to immediately take a job and abandon school.
His California sports experience consisted of playing in recreational basketball leagues and showing off his legendary talents. “It was a new challenge with more great athletes, but I still did what I wanted to do against them,” he recalls, adding, “I had learned to play ball in Marion.”
Back in Union Parish he is recalled as a 6’2”, 190 lb., man among boys who was quiet off the field but a beast once the games started. He confesses to not having a girlfriend in high school, which I guess attests to his quiet demeanor. Aren’t all sports stars supposed to have at least one girlfriend?
James Wayne, one of the famous Marion Four has lots of insight on Lee. The Four, a group of high school seniors, (Wayne, Lillie Waters Davis, Ralph Holley and his late wife Clody Wasson Holley) all earned full academic scholarships to Southern University in Baton Rouge. The amazing back story is that Southern was only allowed to award one scholarship per school each year. This group scored high enough on standardized tests to allow the school to alter the rules and accept them all.
While at Southern, Wayne walked on to the baseball team and was a teammate to Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock. Wayne acknowledges the special talent that Brock had and would not proclaim Lee as having that level of baseball skill but says Lee had talent equal to any others on that squad. “There is no doubt that he could have played on that Southern team and would have been a star,” Wayne declares.
Lee, himself, says basketball was his true passion and what he did best. “I loved to rebound as much as score,” he says adding, “It showed that I could out jump the competition.” While scoring wasn’t his top priority…he could score. He recalls his best scoring game as a 39-point effort.
While 39 scoring points today isn’t that rare, Ralph Holley, a three-sport teammate of “Tutin” as Lee was called, adds a bit more perspective. Holley points out that scoring 15 to 16 points in those days was a really big deal. As a sophomore he says Hilbert averaged 24 points a game.
“He could score from anywhere on anybody,” says Holley, adding, “He could handle the ball, shoot the ball and even dunk the ball.” He notes that dunking was not allowed in games back then but Hilbert often showed off that ability during practices or warm-ups.
Decades after leaving Marion, Lee stills fondly recall teammates like Lee Autry Washington and James Bowman Archie on the basketball court, Holley, Wayne and others on the grid-iron and baseball diamond and coaches C. L. Oliver and John Q. Watley. He and his wife, Patricia, make their way back to Marion every few years during their journeys to visit her home in Fort Pierce, Florida. He visits relatives and a few remaining friends such as Holley. He frequently joins old team-mates on phone calls and was a ZOOM call attendee for a Marion Sports Project session.
When asked during the ZOOM call who was MIHS’s best athlete, he pondered a moment and sheepishly admitted, “Since they all say so, I guess it was me.”
Younger generations of Marion residents and natives probably don’t know the name and likely would not recognize him during trips back home but to many he is the original GOAT.