It was the beginning of the second year of existence for the entertaining Memphis Rockers, a pro franchise in the unique, but short lived World Basketball League, showcasing the talents of hoopsters 6'5 and under. It didn't take long for one newcomer to catch the eyes of the Commercial Appeal beat writer assigned to the team, Ron Higgins.
"With the Rockers...you knew most of them. But, I'd never seen this guy before...and all of a sudden this guy was like...Who is this guy?" says Higgins.
But, then it never took Jimmy McClain long to win respect for his gifted basketball skills. Not even when he was playing in the shadow of college teammate Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas or going head to head in practice with Rockers' standouts Andre Turner and John Starks did the 6'4 McClain ever give an inch.
Higgins adds, "A 6'4 guy. Explosive. Gave himself the nickname "Jimmy Jam" and Jimmy could jam. He'd get you a bunch of points in a hurry. Always had confidence in himself. He didn't care who he guarded. Who played against him."
As Memphis homicide detectives continue their investigation into the 49-year-old McClain's apparent murder at his Cordova home last month, his death becomes even more tragic. He attained personal successes as a popular Ridgeway High School teacher and coach and a dedicated minister at the Johnson Street Church of Christ in Benton Arkansas. But, even with his lightning speed, tenacity and will to win on the court, in a sport where size counts, his status as a "tweener" at 6'4 kept him from finding a coveted slot in the NBA. He was cruelly saddled with a journeyman's career relegated to the back roads of what was and what should have been.
"I just refuse to believe that I'm done. I look at guys like John Starks and Andre Turner, Askew. Guys, that I've played with actively..and all those guys have gone up. I just believe that the talent that I have that I could play on any level," said McClain in 1996.
Never was McClain's pride tested more than when among his last stops proved to be a stint with another professional dead end as player, then coach of the USBL's Memphis Fire.
"His first year there. They were gonna put him like on the practice squad to start. He said, "nah, I'm just quitting. I'm not gonna do that. Three weeks later he was on the team. The next year he was the coach," recalls Higgins.
Higgins says he last ran into McClain at a Cordova store just before his death and the two warmly reminisced about the roundballer's exploits, "Always told him. I said, you made yourself coach to make sure you would play. He says, but you know me."
And it was that side of Jimmy McClain which always made you think, basketball career or not, he was someone worth knowing.
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