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The Book Shelf

Trailblazing Richardson is a compelling subject

By Joe Sullivan
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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Most people’s last memory of Nolan Richardson was an odd press conference after a loss to Kentucky in 2002 when the Arkansas coach seemed more interested in talking about his personal situation than the game. He didn’t seem interested in coaching anymore, saying, “If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow.’’

Soon, he did lose his job, and then he sued the university, a suit he eventually lost. Frankly, Richardson seemed unhinged at the time, clueless.

How unfortunate, because there are so many amazing things to know and remember about Richardson, truly a sports hero and pioneer. Rus Bradburd brings back a lot of them in the biography, “Forty Minutes of Hell.’’

The title refers to Richardson’s coaching strategy of full-court pressure for entire games and fast-paced offense. It was good enough to win 536 games (against 224 losses) and a national championship. But Richardson’s life was about more than wins and losses, as Bradburd details in excellent and entertaining style:

■ Richardson grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in El Paso and speaks fluent Spanish.

■ He was one of the first black athletes at Bowie High when El Paso desegregated its schools in the 1950s.

■ He played at what is now UTEP for the great Don Haskins, who later famously won a national championship with a starting lineup of five black players. Richardson wasn’t Haskins’s first black player, but he was his first really good one.

■ An El Paso restaurant refused to serve him, and the incident put in motion the eventual end of Jim Crow statutes in the city.

■ He became the first black coach at Western Texas Junior College and Tulsa.

■ His success at Tulsa led to the job at Arkansas, which made him the first black coach in the powerful Southeastern Conference.

Richardson overcame bigotry, tragedy (the death of his daughter from leukemia), and other obstacles, including Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, the man who hired and fired him.

Broyles refused to be interviewed by Bradburd, who portrays him as racist and power-hungry — with good reason. Too bad Broyles doesn’t defend himself. If anything, Bradburd belabors the point of Broyles’s racism and Arkansas’s mistreatment of Richardson. At some points, the reader could say “OK, I get it.’’

Bradburd is a former assistant basketball coach at UTEP and New Mexico State who also authored an outstanding book titled, “Paddy on the Hardwood,’’ which details his move to Ireland to coach professional basketball and learn to play the Irish fiddle.

In that book, he brought readers to Ireland, drawing them into his own experience. In much the same way, he places the reader in El Paso, Tulsa, and Fayetteville, Ark., incorporating the social and cultural aspects of those locales into the biography. That helps you to understand what shaped Richardson and contributed to the sudden and unfortunate end of his coaching career.

Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson
By Rus Bradburd
Amistad, 336 pp