AWM head coach has seen it all
By Billy Woods WM School District
Please forgive Larry Bray if he doesn’t remember all of the hoopla from March Madness. After all, he’s only coached in 24 state tournaments for the West Memphis Blue Devils. Wednesday night will mark Bray’s 25th state tournament in 31 years as Blue Devil head coach and he’s seen it all, from a heart-breaking loss on a bad call in the 1989 state championship game to the elation of winning four state titles. Bray’s current Blue Devils (16-11) face Springdale Har-Ber Wednesday in a 5:30 p.m. first-round game at Cabot. “The state tournament is what you prepare for all year,” said Bray. “Your goal is to get to the state tournament and the ultimate goal is to win it all. You never know what’s going to happen once you’re there. I don’t remember all the years and games, because 31 years is a long time.” And Bray certainly wasn’t counting on what his Blue Devils were in for in the 1989 tourney at Pine Bluff. His squad barely qualified for the event and was given a very tough draw in the first round — defending state champion Little Rock Parkview. To everyone’s surprise, the Blue Devils stunned the Patriots for West Memphis’ first state tournament win since the 1981 team defeated Bryant in the Overall. That victory over Parkview pushed the Blue Devils the rest of the week as they then followed with wins over Russellville in the quarterfinals and North Little Rock Ole Main in the semifinals before playing Blytheville before a very small gathering at Pine Bluff High School. “That win (over Parkview) was kind of a springboard for us the rest of the week,” Bray recalled. “That year I gave our players individual things to work on and they were disciplined enough to work on them. We had two point guards, Sammy Williams if we wanted to play fast and Alex King if we wanted to slow it down and execute.” Bray admits his biggest disappointment in coaching came in the championship game that year against Blytheville when Blue Devil senior Lee Suggs hit a fall-away bank shot at the regulation buzzer that would have given West Memphis a wild state championship. But it was wiped off as officials ruled the shot was too late. Blytheville went on to win in overtime. Bray has kept a video tape of that game and in the following several weeks he watched as it clearly showed the ball left Suggs’ hands well before the buzzer sounded. “I have that tape at home, but I don’t look at it anymore,” said Bray. “I still see that ball already in the air and then the buzzer goes off. And then I see (the refs) waving it off. That’s without a doubt the biggest disappointment I’ve had.” But that postseason run kick-started perhaps the greatest era in West Memphis basketball history. The Blue Devils played in the next two state title games, both of which were played at the old Devil Dome before standing-room-only crowds. Bray’s current assistant, Marcus Brown, was a star on those Blue Devil teams and the atmosphere is what he remembers most. “Being a Blue Devil was a big, big thing back then,” said Brown, an all-state choice who starred at Murray State before playing the NBA and pro ball overseas and finally being inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. “The level of excitement and competitiveness in the state tournament is always much higher than it is during the regular season.” After being edged out in the 1990 title game 59-57 to Pine Bluff, Brown and the Blue Devils captured the school’s third state title in 1991 with a win over Watson Chapel. It was a game that saw West Memphis down 9 points heading into the fourth quarter before the home team was rescued by the hot hand from Paul Brown, who knocked down 5 three-pointers and the Blue Devils won going away. Bray’s clubs missed the state tournament just once in the decade of the 1990s, with his 1997 squad winning the school’s fourth state championship. The LaGrange, Ga., native then guided the Blue Devils to even more postseason success in the first half of the 2000s as Sonny Weems, Mark Mangum and others starred on back-to-back state title teams in 2004 and 2005. “That (2004) team had so much talent,” Bray recalled. “We were long, we were athletic, we were quick and we could run. And what I remember most was the fact that we had five guys sitting on the bench who would push our starters every day in practice.” Bray has also finished state runner-up in 2010 and 2011, losing both times to Little Rock Hall.