John Alstrom is arguably the finest volleyball player born and raised in Fresno and the wonderful thing is that he was able to continue playing the sport well into his sixties. Alstrom's Legends Club won the Over 65 National title and his team went to the World Master Games in Sydney, Australia to defend the championship they won in Edmonton, Canada in 2005. The first WMG was held in Portland in 1998 where his Legends finished second. In 2002, they won in Melbourne, Australia. For fifteen years, Alstrom's Legends' team has either won or finished second in every age group national tournament. One player on the team is John Stanley, a teammate at Brigham Young University and like John an Olympian on the 1968 U.S. team. Basketball was Alstrom's game when he was a 6'3" freshman on coach Jerry Jury's Hamilton Junior High team. When he moved over to Fresno High, he was 6'5" and would grow another inch before he graduated. Lee Angelich was his basketball coach.
Starting with the 1957-1958 season, Alstrom was All-City for three years and the Warriors won the Yosemite League. They lost only four games in three seasons. In track, Alstrom was a high hurdler good enough to make the CIF State meet in his senior year. During the regular season, he also high-jumped, ran the low hurdles, and long-jumped. He was recruited to Brigham Young on a basketball scholarship, but seldom played. "I got a lot of time on the bench; not sure why, but it was still a good experience," Alstrom said. "John Lowelf formed a club team because volleyball was still not a collegiate sport and told me: 'I think you would be a great player, why don't you come out and I'll teach you.' That's how I got started." BYU finished third in the collegiate club nationals where UCLA, Santa Monica Junior College, and San Diego State were the powers. Alstrom graduated from BYU in 1966. He returned to the Fresno Volleyball Club, recruited John Stanley- with the very competitive George Sarantos as setter and leader-they won the 1967 National Volleyball Association championship. Alstrom and Stanley had played on the United States national team in 1966 for the World Games and in 1967 at the Pan American Games. Together with Lowelf, they also played on the 1968Olympic team in Mexico City.
Family and business forced Alstrom to drop the national team, but he continued to compete at the highest level of club play. In 1969, the team won the National Championship, finished second in both 1970-1971, and were victorious again in 1972 when Alstrom was voted the MVP of the country "My forte was as a middle blocker and I was one of the best in the country," Alstrom said, with records to prove his point. "I wasn't a great spiker, but I almost always could get the ball down. You can teach people to spike, but most of it is a natural arm swing and that comes from your system naturally. The key is to hit at the top of your jump. I was a jumper and quick for my size."
Alstrom was thrilled with the U.S. Olympic Men's Indoor Volleyball gold medal in Beijing. He said the last men's indoor medal was a silver or bronze in 1996. *My teammate Stanley's son, Clint, was one of the big hitters for our team," Alstrom said. "The U.S. men's and women's teams in the indoor and beach volleyball ended up with three golds and a silver. Quite a feat for our teams." Alstrom also played one season in 1975 for the professional Los Angeles Stars with player/coach Stanley. It was called the Pro Volleyball League and the Stars won the first title. Alstrom has bad knees and couldn't play more than once or twice a week for tournaments. The four- and five-day straight matches were out. Alstrom has a son and daughter in the Bay Area, John, Jr. played for Stanford on a volleyball scholarship and his daughter was All-CIF in high school. John retired to Newport Beach.
The boycott that never happened deprived Charles Craig of an opportunity to represent the United States in the 1968 Olympic Games and a legitimate chance for a medal. The Fresno-born former Central High athlete and NCAA triple jump champion at Fresno State in 1965 was disappointed at the time, but said it could have been a blessing in disguise since it caused him to get on with his coaching career. The retired track and field coach at Cal State Bakersfield (1973-2004) is recognized as one of the finest coaches and representatives of his sport in the country. He was voted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Halls of Fame. Craig missed the 1964 Olympic team by inches; he had a 53’ jump, but was three spike marks over the board, so it didn't count. In 1965, Craig and teammates, Sam Workman, Marvin Bryant, Darel Newman, Sid Nickolas, and Bill Allen, won the Division NCAA championship in Fresno. Craig in the school's 4 X 100 relay team, Allen in the pole vault, and Nickolas in the long jump all qualified for the NCAA Division I meet. Craig won the triple jump at 51'9". Newman opted out of the relay in an attempt to beat Hayes, so Craig said it was 9.5 Craig on the relay team instead of 9.2 Newman. The Fresno team still placed third in 40.3.
Craig was fully convinced he could make the team for the 1968 Mexico Games. It appeared that he was a lock when he won the 1967 Pan American Games gold medal with a personal best of 54'3 1/4". He had a 53'9" early in 1968. "There was talk that the United States black athletes were going to boycott the Olympics," Craig said. "Our Olympic Committee decided to have a pre-Olympic Trial in the Los Angeles Coliseum. They said if you finished in the top three, you were pretty well-assured of making the team. There was a scramble to get the Coliseum ready. They draped a makeshift all-weather rug over the asphalt triple jump runway. It was the hardest surface I had ever jumped from. I hit an area where there was very little covering and injured my heel. The injury was bad enough that I was unable to compete in the real trials."Craig has been accorded an impressive list of honors. Among other achievements, Craig was the head manager of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team in Athens, Greece; assistant manager for the 1992 U.S. Olympic men's team in Barcelona, Spain; assistant coach for men's jumps for the 1996 Atlanta, Georgia Olympics; assistant manager of the 1991 World Games U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo; and Triple Jump and National Coordinators for the Triple Jump in the USA Track and Field Association from 1989-2000. He is also in the Fresno State Track Hall of Fame, Class of 1992 and the Kern County Bob Elias Hall of Fame.
In the Fresno climate, a good place to be in the summertime,is at one of the nearby lakes, rivers, or swimming pools. Rick Earley found that the latter was one of his favorite places to be. In his early teens, he discovered diving competitions, and by the time he graduated from McLane High School in 1962, he was a two-time Valley Champion and had many offers to take his winning ways to college level competitions and beyond. Choosing Indiana University, it didn't take Rick long to become a well-known Hoosier, IU's top diver, and a national champion. In 1968 after his junior year in Bloomington, Rick Earley heard the call to war in Viet Nam and volunteered for the draft. He received advanced training as a medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. "Luckily, I did not get stationed in Viet Nam, as most of my medic class did, as I was stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska," said Rick. "I did represent the U.S. Army in the 1968 Olympic Trials in Long Beach and the All-Military Games in Pescara, Italy." He was also honored to represent the U.S. State Department, touring and giving swimming and diving clinics in allied countries in such places as Morocco, Lebanon, Greece, and Turkey.
Upon returning to Indiana in 1970 to finish up his degree, Rick went right to work training and competing in diving competitions for a shot at the 1972 Olympics. In 1971, he qualified to represent the United States in the Pan American Games in Cali, Columbia. He took home the gold in the ten-meter platform and then qualified for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany where he placed 6" in the ten-meter diving event. "It was a great experience even though we all had to deal with the terrible tragedy when the Arab terrorists came into the Olympic Village and killed several Israeli athletes," remembers Rick. Rick achieved great success in his seventeen years as a competitive diver and gymnastics and he lettered in both sports at IU.
After the Olympics, Rick came back to Fresno and started his teaching and coaching career in the Valley. After seven years of working in Fresno,Clovis, Madera, and Cupertino, Rick was offered a full-time coaching position at the University of Southern California. In 1984, he helped run the 1984 Olympic diving events at the brand new USC Olympic pool. He coached many diving champions in his fifteen years at USC, including his son, Brian, who won the 1993 NCAA Championship as well as the U.S. National Championship. Over the years, Rick has stayed busy with coaching and has taken many teams to competitions in the United States as well as Mexico City, Sweden, Madrid, and Rome. He coached the Mission Viejo club program until 2000 when they had sixty divers and won several national championships. Rick and his wife, Michele, moved to Big Bear where they are close to their family. He and Michele love to travel and spend time in the water.
When Jerry Heard was a junior golfer, he-in Johnny Miller's own words-”beat me like a drum." They earned their PGA Tour playing card the same year. Heard was a Top 10 player who already had won four tournaments from 1969 to 1974 and by the age of twenty-eight appeared to have a promising career. He was solidly in contention for the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1973. "I thought I was leading going into the back nine, then I looked at the scoreboard and Johnny [Miller] shot a 63 final round and I didn't care to play for second," Heard said in a telephone conversation last year. "I think I finished sixth or so.” Heard was speaking from the Silverthorn semi-private Country Club that he owns and operates in Spring Hill, Florida. He plays golf a couple of times a week and fishes a lot, something he has done most of his life.
Heard was regarded as one of the up-and-coming stars from a stellar group of "Young Lions," as they were called. Heard said he and Miller earned their PGA playing cards in 1969 and Lanny Watkins did so two years later. The three played a lot of golf together. Miller, still a close friend, said of Heard: “When we started in the PGA, Jerry was a fantastic putter and had the best tempo on the Tour. I've always said if he hadn't been hit by lightning, he would have won a lot more tournaments.” The incident that Miller was referring to was the fateful day in the second round of the 1975 Chicago Open, where Heard, Lee Trevino, and Bobby Nichols were waiting out a storm near the 13th green at the Butler National Golf Club and a lightning bolt arced across the water. Heard and Trevino were sharing an umbrella and they were knocked into the air by the force of the bolt. The lightning knifed through Trevino's bag and up his arm before exiting through his back. Heard was resting the umbrella on his groin and it hit there: he recalls he could not open his hand. It also passed through his back.
All three golfers were taken to a hospital and kept for two nights. Because the tournament was delayed for two days because of rain, Heard checked out of the hospital and was able to play the final two rounds and finished fourth. "I didn't think it was too bad because I didn't have pain, but it wasn't many days [before] my back really bothered me," Heard said. "The thing I regret is that I didn't have back surgery right away. Trevino did and he was able to play years of great golf. I guess I thought I could work it out and I waited way too long before I had surgery. I won one tournament after that, but while my back was sore. It altered my swing and I never fully recovered." In 1971, 1972, and 1974, he finished seventh, fifth, and eighth on the money list with over $100,000 in earnings each year. He also made a rare trip overseas in 1974 and won the Spanish Open. "I've always kinda wondered what I could have done if the lightning hadn't happened," Heard said. "I was in the Top 20 all the time. At one time, I was the one to beat, but I have no regrets. I consider myself lucky; it could have been a lot worse. The equipment is different now and they hit the ball a little longer, but the money is unbelievable. I think I could've made it today."
One thing that Heard says has not changed is his putting. His short putts are great and he reads the greens well on the long ones. Heard retired from Tour play by the early 1980s and took a club pro job at the South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island for nineteen years. Born in Visalia in 1947, he was an all-around athlete in football, baseball and tennis. He took up golf at the age of eleven after his father, Bill, a very good fast-pitch softball player, was learning the game. Being a natural athlete, Heard found golf to be a real challenge. "I was pretty bad at first, but then I started spending a lot of time at the Sierra View course in Visalia and getting lessons from Ralph Lomelli, Sr. By the time I was twelve, I was pretty good.” Heard hurt a knee in football at Visalia High, but it only bothered him occasionally. He was a second team All-American at Fresno State and won a number of tournaments.
Tennis icon Lary Huebner has been closely associated with every aspect of the game of tennis for most of his life, but ask him to name his favorite sport and the answer will be basketball. However, when he had to choose in his freshman year at UCLA, tennis was the obvious and smartest choice. He still played championship tennis more than fifty years since he engaged in a serious game of basketball. He also coached, worked in, and then owned a sporting goods store featuring tennis, built tennis courts, and authored a book on how to teach tennis.
In 2003, Larry won the national Father-Son Doubles title with sons, John and Jim, and the Father-Daughter title with daughter, Karen. As a reward for this extraordinary effort in a single year, the United States Tennis Association flew Larry and his wife, Gretchen, to New York in 2004 where the Huebner family received the Tennis Family of the Year Award. In 2005, he added the Grandfather-Grandson National title with John's son, Chase, a member of the Los Gatos High School team."I am more proud of the family championships than the NCAA championships [doubles and two team titles] at UCLA," Huebner said. "I really am. My only regret is that I didn't play basketball for John Wooden when I felt I could Have."
Basketball coach "Barkin" Joe Kelly at Fresno High taught Huebner, an All-City guard, the fundamentals of the game. It was Wooden who expanded on that, but taught him how to live a life with the right priorities. He had a close relationship with the legendary ex-Bruin coach and kept him supplied with homemade jams and jellies. "John was such a mentor and role model."
What did having the skills to play basketball from Fresno's playgrounds to collegiate, professional, and European courts, ultimately mean to Clifton "Cliff" Pondexter? "It was a tour of life," he said. "I was extremely fortunate to play in so many countries and meet so many interesting people."Pondexter's hoop history includes competing for San Joaquin Memorial High School, Long Beach State, NBA's Chicago Bulls, and in the Euroleague.
Pondexter's celebrity began at San Joaquin Memorial where Clifton and older brother, Roscoe, attended from 1969 to 1971 and were the most fearsome twosome in the central San Joaquin Valley. Roscoc, 6'7" and 270 pounds, and Clifton, 6'8" and 235 pounds, were awesome players for SJM coach Tom Cleary. Roscoe secored 2,288 points during a four-season span. Cliff scored 2,215 points during his four years. Roscoe and Ciff combined their skills and power to lead the Panthers to the 1971-1972 Northern California title, and after Roscoe graduated, Cliff guided SJM to a second consecutive NorCal Championship. Clif would also play with a third Pondexter sibling, Sam. Cliff was a prep All-American and acknowledged as one of the nation's top four players during 1973 by Sports Illustrated. Roscoe later played for coaches Lute Olson and Jerry Tarkanian at Long Beach State and was the 17th pick in the third round of the 1974 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. Roscoe chose instead to play ball for ten years in Europe. Meanwhile, Cliff was a 16th selection in the first round of the 1975 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. He spent one year at Long Beach State, three seasons with the Bulls, and the next eight seasons in the Euroleague. During his career with the Bulls, Cliff collected four points and 381l rebounds his first year, 256 points and 238 rebounds his second season, and 88 points and 130 rebounds in his third season in 1977-1978, giving him 778 points and 747 rebounds career statistics.
Cliff logged his first three Euroleague seasons in Paris with ASPO Tours de France. He also played in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, and Israel. The high point of his career from prep to pro, Cliff noted, was winning the first NorCal Tournament of Champions in Oakland. "It happened twice, but that first time was the best. I will never forget it." Following his return to the U.S. from Europe, Clif operated his own construction site cleanup business for several years and currently is doing security work and coaching at a West Fresno middle school. The Pondexter family basketball legacy is not over yet. Cliff's nephew, 67" and 205-pound Quincy Pondexter (Roscoe's son) was a standout for the University of Washington.
Born in Oak Grove, Louisiana, Wayne Thornton was part Irish and part Cherokee. He spent most of his youth growing up in Clovis. By the time he was eighteen, this young man knew what path he wanted to take in the world of athletics: he wanted to be a world champion boxer. Thornton was a friendly, handsome young fighter with all the tools that a champion would need. He had strength and an athletic body to go along with his great competitive spirit and work ethic and, under the tutelage of his manager, Pat Dikuria, his sights were set on his goal. DiFuria had a stable of fighters like "Bandit" Ben Medina, Gabe Terronez, and Mac Foster, all who had reputations as hard-hitting brawlers that went for the knockout at every opportunity. His fighters at the professional level had ninety-five knockouts among them and "Irish" Wayne Thornton had twenty-six of those.
Wayne finished his professional career with a record of thirty-eight wins, nine defeats, and one draw in his ten years in the professional ring from 1958 to 1968. Ten of his fights were on national television and that was largely due to Wayne’s rugged style which attracted big audiences. In 1966, Wayne fought for the light-heavyweight world championship against the great Jose Torres in front of a large crowd and a national television audience at Shea Stadium in New York. It was an incredible fifteen-round slugfest between the two warriors. Incredibly, Wayne was knocked down twice in the first round of this epic battle, but he recovered sufficiently to last the next fourteen rounds without hitting the deck again. That's the kind of gutsy brawler and "no quit" attitude that Wayne Thornton maintained throughout his entire career.
He had great fights with other champions including three wins over ex-champ Eddie Cotton, two in Seattle and the third at Madison Square Garden in New York. He also had three famous bouts, a win. a draw, and a loss to former champ Willie Pastrano in fights that were legendary. The first was at the Convention Center in Las Vegas and the second two were at Madison Square Garden again where he was a fan favorite. Other fighters who Thornton beat in his career were Charley Tombstone `` Smith'' and "Tiger" Al Williams. Another big date for the Clovis lad was a memorable decision defeat to Carl "Bobo" Olson at the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, also another nationally broadcasted main event.
The bottom line to "Irish" Wayne's faithful fans was that he always came out swinging. Due to such high demand by the media, Wayne was handsomely rewarded and he was able to retire comfortably. Wayne came back home to the Valley, opened an insurance company, and provided many insights to the boxing game on radio and television programs.