Remembering Indiana Basketball Legend Jimmy Rayl

From Kokomo High School to Indiana University to the Indiana Pacers, Jimmy Rayl embodied Hoosier Hysteria as well as anyone. For him, basketball was far more than a game to be played. It was a genuine passion.

Rayl, who passed away Sunday afternoon at age 77, was one of the greatest long-range shooters of his era, a threat from beyond 30 feet more than two decades before the introduction of the 3-point shot. He also was one of the skinniest, weighing just 145 pounds as a 6-foot-3 guard at Indiana University. He was dubbed by state sportswriters as The Splendid Splinter, a nickname originally attached to baseball star Ted Williams.

Rayl was a member of the Pacers' team that began play in the American Basketball Association in the 1967-68 season, making the team after playing for the Akron Goodyears in AAU competition. He averaged 12 points that season — scoring 30 or more three times in the final month — and was voted Most Popular Player by fans. He kept the trophy for that honor on display in his living room throughout his life.

He was a starter at the beginning of the next season, along with Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown, Bob Netolicky and Mel Daniels. He scored 21 points in the season-opener and hit five 3-pointers, a franchise record that stood until Brown hit seven in the final game of the ABA Finals in May of 1970.

Rayl had a rocky relationship with the Pacers' first coach, Larry Staverman, and was left behind on a road trip early the second season. His career temporarily got a boost when Bob Leonard took over as coach. Leonard, like Rayl, was a former IU All-American and Kokomo resident, and the two occasionally shared rides to practice in Indianapolis.

Rayl averaged more than 16 points in his first six games under Leonard's direction, but his playing time gradually diminished and he was released by general manager Mike Storen in December. He later worked as a salesman for Xerox copier machines out of Kokomo until retiring.

Rayl also hit the first 3-pointer in Pacers' history, in their second game, an appropriate distinction for one of the state's greatest shooters. Rayl was the forerunner to players such as Ron Bonham, Rick Mount, and Billy Shepherd, guys who would let it fly without conscience and with uncanny accuracy.

Rayl, with witnesses, once hit 532 consecutive free throws in a church gym in Kokomo. But he sealed his legend as a shooter in far more public settings, however, as described in my book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indiana."

He was a first-team all-state selection as a junior and senior, and became one of the most written-about and highly-regarded players in the state's basketball history during his final season at Kokomo, when he led a team that filled the high school's 7,500-seat gymnasium for every game. He averaged nearly 30 points that season and surpassed 40 five times, including some games that became etched in the state's collective basketball memory.

There was the one, for example, against top-ranked Muncie Central, Bonham's team, when he scored 45 points in a 79-77 victory. He played that one with a 101-degree fever, and at one point chased after a loose ball and hit his head on the scorer's table, suffering a knot on his forehead and opening a gash over his eye that required four stitches to close.

Collins, before he became sports editor at the Star, covered the game and couldn't control his admiration, writing: "With the fabulous Jimmy Rayl scoring an equally fabulous 45 points, the Wildcats shot Muncie Central off the top of Indiana's high school totem pole..."

Rayl hit 18-of-30 field goal attempts in the game, scoring from "inside, outside, topside and sometimes nearly upside down," Collins wrote.

Corky Lamm, who covered the game for the News, waxed poetic:

"Sickly, spindly Jimmy Rayl,
caught a Bearcat by the tail;
wouldn't let him out alive,
shot him dead with 45."

Rayl also played a lead role in what became known as the Church Street Shootout, the final game played in the Church Street Gymnasium at New Castle High School. Rayl scored 49 points, but New Castle guard Ray Pavy scored 51 to lead his team's victory.

Rayl set a North Central Conference scoring record by the end of his final regular season, although Bonham would break it a year later. He went on to score 40 points in a state tournament game in Fort Wayne, hitting 18-of-19 free throws. The United Press International account of that one began, "Slim Jimmy Rayl, a nervy fire horse, rammed in a one-hander at the final gun to give Kokomo a spine-tingling 92-90 victory over defending state champion Fort Wayne South Saturday."

Rayl led Kokomo to the final game of the state tournament, where it lost by 38 points to an Attucks team led by Edmonds. Rayl scored 26 of his team's 54 points, and rang up 114 points over the final four games of the tournament, breaking a record once co-owned by Robertson. He also received the Trester Award, a prestigious honor within the state's basketball community, for sportsmanship and academic achievement. Rayl joked in later years about his lack of qualification for the award, but he was a unanimous selection in the voting — perhaps as a tribute to his popularity and consolation for not winning the championship.

Asked on the court after the final game how it felt to receive such a prestigious honor, he was inconsolable. "Aw, it's all right," he muttered, "but to get beat like that..."

Rayl was an obvious choice for Mr. Basketball in 1959, then took a scholarship to IU. He didn't become a starter until his junior season, when he set the Big Ten's single-season scoring record of 56 points in an overtime victory over Minnesota. He repeated the feat as a senior against Michigan State. Not only did he not have the benefit of a 3-point shot, but the clock continued running when the ball went out of bounds then, shortening the game. He was taken out with about 3 1/2 minutes remaining, to the dismay of the IU fans.

He averaged 29.8 points as a junior and 25.3 as a senior, the drop-off resulting from improved talent around him, namely the addition of three sophomore scorers: the Van Arsdale twins, Tom and Dick, and Jon McGlocklin, all of whom went on to play in the NBA.

Rayl was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, but elected not to go to training camp without a guaranteed contract and took a job with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. The primary purpose of that was to play for the company's AAU team, which competed against a national schedule of other AAU teams and college teams.

Four years later, the ABA was formed and the Pacers came calling.

Rayl was a colorful figure in and out of basketball. He owned fast cars, such as Shelby Cobra and a Porsche 928, and drove them hard.

He had a temper, which occasionally caused conflict with coaches. That second 56-point game for IU, against Michigan State, came just a couple of days after he had quit the team during practice. A truce was brokered with coach Branch McCracken and he was allowed back on the team after he apologized.

He wasn't opposed to talk back to opposing players, either. He once called Ohio State center Gary Bradds a "crybaby" during a game. Bradds swing at him, and barely missed his head.

More than a temper, however, he had a sense of humor. Naming his daughter Ginger was all the proof he needed for that. Once, though, Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote called him to talk about Delta High School star Matt Painter, a player whom Rayl was promoting to college coaches. He had sent newspaper clippings to Heathcote extolling Painter's virtues, and convinced Heathcote to come down to watch him play.

Rayl also had scored 44 points against Michigan State the same season he scored 56 against the Spartans, so when Heathcote opened a telephone the conversation by saying, "Is this Jimmy Rayl, Indiana's all-time leading scorer?" Rayl responded, "No, Jud, I wasn't, but if I played you guys every night I would have been."

Rayl also enjoyed telling the story of the time he met IU coach Tom Crean, who was hosting a gathering for former players. When Crean extended his hand, Rayl said, "Now who are you again?"

Crean took him seriously, Rayl said, until Rayl interrupted and said he was joking.

Ultimately, Rayl was likable. He made friends easily, and rarely held grudges. He recalled having a close relationship with referee Jim Enright, admitting Enright "gave me every break in the book" and even gave him encouragement during games.

After his playing career at IU ended, Enright wrote him a letter that Rayl kept in his scrapbook. It read in part, "Mrs. Enright and I were never able to have children, but if we did we'd have liked for him to be just like Jimmy Rayl."

Rayl's sense of humor helped him maintain friendships in basketball. He was proud of the number of notable figures who bothered to visit him in Kokomo. Jerry Harkness, whom he competed against in college and played with for the Pacers, once drove up on a Sunday to have lunch. Teammates Bob Netolicky and Mike Lewis drove up the summer after the Pacers' first season to help him panel his basement. Former Ohio State and Boston Celtics great John Havlicek looked him up once while driving through town. The VanArsdale twins visited two summers ago. Scott Skiles used to drop in now and then as well.

Rayl in those days made his basketball guests take a shot on the goal hanging on his garage.

One day Mount stopped by to say hello after participating in a clinic in Kokomo. Rayl badgered him into a game of H-O-R-S-E, a classic matchup of Hoosier shooting legends. The game ended in a tie, although their stories of how they reached that conclusion differ.

Ironically, Rayl became closely tied with Purdue's basketball program in later years. He attended several games with Painter's father and remained close to Painter, often driving with friends to hear him speak at offseason alumni gatherings. Rayl kept a letter Heathcote wrote to him in 1989 regarding his recruitment of Painter, and Painter later claimed he had "the best street agent in the state" in Rayl.

Although initially bitter over his exit from the Pacers, Rayl eventually shrugged it off and attended Pacers games and events, such as the annual golf outing. His life after basketball was content, other than the tragic loss of his son, Timmy, in an automobile accident. That was due mostly to his stable family life. He was close to Ginger and his other son, Jimmy (who appeared in the movie "Hoosiers") and had a storybook marriage to his high school sweetheart, Nancy.

"I'm just thankful I'm where I'm at," he said recently, as his health declined. "The best thing that ever happened to me was my wife. I couldn't do any better."

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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