By John Horgan
Spiritus Magis gave three paragraphs to Fred LaCour ’56, but the book didn’t tell the whole story of this gifted athlete. That was left to John Horgan, whose story appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal on Jan. 2 this year.
Fred LaCour. The name is all but forgotten today. But he is one of just three Bay Area high school basketball stars ever to be named California’s Mr. Basketball in two consecutive years. Archbishop Mitty of San Jose’s Aaron Gordon and St. Joseph’s of Alameda’s Jason Kidd are the others.
Younger followers of the sport are probably unaware of who LaCour was. But he was in a rarefied class with few others. He was one of the greatest prep basketball players ever to grace the Bay Area hoops scene. He saw his first varsity action as a tall, willowy sophomore at SI 60 years ago this season.
It was a different era. There was no cable-TV, no Internet, no Twitter, no McDonald’s All-Star Game. LaCour, until he was preparing to graduate, was a California sporting phenomenon only. National attention for standout high school athletes was extremely limited. But, for those who knew him, played with or against him or just watched him demonstrate his myriad gifts on the basketball court, LaCour was something special.
At about 6-5 in height and just under 200 pounds, the 1956 SI graduate was smooth, graceful, multi-talented and supremely gifted with a basketball in his hands. He was the ultimate on-court facilitator.
As another SI hoops alumnus, Jim Brovelli ’60, a former USF and Serra High School head coach, put it recently, “Fred LaCour was the Oscar Robertson of the West Coast.”
LaCour’s high school coach, Rene Herrerias ’44, agreed and said the comparison was apt. “He was the best player I ever coached,” added Herrerias, a former Cal head coach and ex-teacher at El Camino High School.
With his size, court vision, selflessness and array of ball-handling/passing and shooting skills, LaCour could play any position on the floor; his effortless, fluid style made the game look almost too easy. Maybe it was.
In the mid-1950s, LaCour was regarded as the Bay Area’s, and California’s, premier college recruit. After the 1954–55 and 1955–56 seasons, he was named the Golden State’s Mr. Basketball.
Writing in his blog, Tom Meschery, a friend of LaCour’s through much of their lives, stated that, “Aside from Jason Kidd, I can’t think of another prep in all of Northern California who was as skilled at that age.” Meschery is a former Lowell of San Francisco star who went on to further success at St. Mary’s College and in the NBA. A writer, Meschery dedicated a book of poetry in memory of LaCour.
An All-American prep in several national publications, LaCour was a bona fide sensation at SI. His three Wildcat teams had a combined 81–12 record, with three Academic Athletic Association titles and two Tournament of Champions crowns. The TOC, in effect, decided high school basketball supremacy in Northern California prior to the advent of sectional and state tournament competition.
In 1955–56, LaCour broke his own AAA season scoring record. Against Galileo, he had 39 points. Against the Stanford freshman team, he tossed in a shocking 41 in a signature performance that had the Indians’ head coach, Howie Dallmar, shaking his head in wonderment and singing the SI senior’s praises afterward.
Dallmar was quoted by San Francisco News sportswriter Al Corona later: “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a high school kid doing things that would do credit to any collegiate star I have seen.”
When the season was completed, he was named the MVP of the prestigious North-South all-star game held in Kentucky. He was the first Californian to win that coveted award. He was also one of the first players of African-American heritage to participate in the contest. As such, he was something of an anomaly. Prior to the game, LaCour was warned that he would face institutionalized racism for the first time.
Of Louisiana French Creole mixed-race descent, LaCour could never quite come to grips with who he was, according to those who knew him well. He would struggle to fit in as his athletic profile rose. Privately, he was a tortured soul.
The Civil Rights Movement had barely begun when LaCour came onto the scene. His timing was poor. He was born too soon. Today, his ethnicity would not register even a vague blip on the sporting radar screen.
After his SI years, LaCour matriculated right across the street to USF. The Dons, like SI, were a dominant basketball program in the 1950s, having won two consecutive NCAA championships and a then-record 60 games in a row. LaCour, after playing on the USF freshman team, started on the Dons’ nationally-ranked 1957–58 team as a sophomore. USF went 25–2 that year. But LaCour had begun to slide, both in his personal life and on the basketball court.
Friends like Meschery recalled that LaCour continued to drink, smoke and gamble at cards. And he was missing a lot of classes. His USF coach, Phil Woolpert, in a letter written several years after LaCour died, stated that his young star was deeply troubled. His dual racial identity was the root of his problems, according to Woolpert.
“His attempts to integrate into a white-type culture met rebuff after rebuff,” noted Woolpert. And he would not, or could not, identify as a black person, Woolpert said. “The poor guy couldn’t win.” Woolpert referred to LaCour’s personal dilemma as “the most difficult and insoluble problem I ever confronted.”
In a private meeting with LaCour’s parents at the family home in the Richmond District of San Francisco to try to discuss the sensitive matter, Woolpert said he was told to leave. The subject was not brought up again.
LaCour, who eventually left USF after an eligibility-shortened junior year in 1958–59, was drafted in the third round by the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks in 1960. That turned out to be an unfortunate career move. St. Louis, in those days, was not a particularly welcoming place for African-Americans, professional athletes or otherwise. Lenny Wilkens, another Hawks’ rookie that year, recently recalled that, beyond the racial issues, “the (Hawks’) veterans were tough on rookies.”
LaCour lasted one full season and part of another with the Hawks. He left the team abruptly during the 1961–62 season. No official reason was given for his departure. Meschery, to this day, suspects prejudice was involved, at least in part. “In those days, St. Louis was not a good town,” he said. “And Fred was dating white girls.… Fred pissed off management. But he wouldn’t talk about it.” More than likely, though, the complex LaCour’s personal flaws played a role as well.
After leaving St. Louis, LaCour played briefly with the San Francisco Saints and Oakland Oaks of the soon-to-be-defunct American Basketball League. He then had an unproductive 16-game stint with the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA. Meschery was one of his Warrior teammates.
Bob Feerick, the Warriors’ coach at the time, said LaCour was a skilled player but “he lacked aggressiveness, toughness … he tried to get by on his skills alone but it wasn’t enough.” He finished his pro career with the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Eastern Professional Basketball League.
After that, LaCour’s sad downward spiral accelerated. There were reports of drug use and bad checks. A short marriage failed. Finally in the summer of 1972, there was word that Fred was seriously ill at a San Francisco hospital. He had terminal cancer. Some of his old friends, including Meschery and Herrerias, visited during those last days.
The end came quickly. Fred LaCour died Aug. 5, 1972. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle was just one short paragraph. He was 34. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.
John Horgan has been writing about Bay Area sports for 50 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted with permission from the San Mateo Daily Journal.