In the days since C.M. Newton’s passing last week, the one player most connected with Newton and his basketball legacy has taken time to reflect, not just on an important moment in history but on a 50-year friendship.
Wendell Hudson was interviewed often about signing with the University of Alabama, breaking the color barrier for Crimson Tide basketball and changing the course of the sport in the Deep South in ways that still resonate today. But the story didn’t end when Hudson’s college basketball career concluded in Madison Square Garden in an NIT consolation game in 1973, as historic as that trip to the world’s most famous arena was. Instead, it was simply a transition into a friendship between player and coach that lasted another 45 years.
That was the theme on Thursday at Newton’s memorial service at Tuscaloosa’s First Presbyterian Church. There were a few basketball stories, of course, dating to Newton’s days as a player for the legendary Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. The church was full of celebrities from the basketball world, including coaches like John Calipari, Tubby Smith, Billy Donovan, and Avery Johnson.
There were conference commissioners ranging from the current SEC head man Greg Sankey to Roy Kramer, who hired Newton as his basketball coach when he was the athletic director at Vanderbilt. Wildcats and Commodores were well represented, alongside the Crimson Tide and more athletic directors, current and retired, than you could count. But most of the tributes, and the stories told, had more to do with Newton as a mentor, or a friend, a husband and father. He was unfailingly remembered as a gentleman, as a man who combined influence and humility in a rare way.
“I’ve been reflecting and the thing I remembered most was his ability to reach people,” said Hudson, now retired and living in Waco, Texas. “He always made you feel respected, which is why he was so successful as an administrator. People knew he was fair.”
Newton detected the way to reach Hudson from the beginning, he said. Hudson’s coach for much of his career at Birmingham’s Parker High School was the revered but strict William “Cap” Brown. (Brown actually stepped aside to coach football in Hudson’s senior year and the Thundering Herd was coached to the AHSAA championship by Herman Williams.)
“Cap was my coach, so when I got to college, there was no need to yell at me any more,” Hudson said with a smile. “I’d heard it all. So Coach Newton saw that what I needed was to be taught, to be shown what to do. There wasn’t any need to motivate me to play hard but I needed a teacher and that’s what he was to me.
“We never had a disagreement as coach and player. Now, when I came back to be an assistant coach, we’d disagree all the time on basketball things, on how to defend a certain team or just on which coach out there was a better coach. Martin (Newton) spoke earlier about how he would make milkshake bets with his dad, and that’s what we would do, bet a milkshake on which coach had the best team or who would win the Final Four. So we disagreed all the time, but it was always a good-natured disagreement. Sometimes he’d be right, sometimes I’d be right. When I was right, he’d tell me. It was just a great relationship, for 50 years.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.