As the Martins Mill Mustangs were tearing through basketball opponents in March, before the COVID-19 emergency curtailed their season, a state title appeared likely for the perennial small school power. The Van Zandt County team was hoping to duplicate the run of the 1949 crew that took the Class B crown. The team was led that year, featured guard Leon Black, who at 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds was usually the smallest player on the floor.
A 1953 Athens Review story has a lot to say about the hoops star from 18 miles up the road. Black, along with future Minneapolis Laker, Oneal Weaver, raced through the East Texas competition to the state tournament. Black was a unanimous choice for the All-Tournament team.
Black was a starter from his freshman season and once scored 35
Black lettered his first two Texas seasons, then took over the starting role.
"Leon's reaction and movement are as quick as I've seen on the court," Texas Coach Slue Hull said. That makes him an outstanding defensive man and creates scoring opportunities for him."
The Review story refers to Black as a ball hawk and close to the vest defender.
"He was as good a competitor as I ever coached," Hull said.
Despite his short stature, Black pulled his share of rebounds, nearly matching his tallest teammates.
After his playing days, Black tried his hand at coaching the Van Vandals, Black headed to Austin, where he spent more than a decade at Gregory Gym as coach of the Texas Longhorns. Black coached two Southwest Conference champions at Texas. He took over the program before the 67-68 season, but struggled at first to find the winner's circle. Success finally came in 1971–72 when his team finished 19–9, won a share of the Southwest Conference title. The Longhorns defeated the Houston Cougars 85–74 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, where they fell to the Kansas State Wildcats.
Black's legacy at UT is more than the sum of his wins and losses. He came at a time of transition for the school, recruiting the first seven African-Americans to play basketball for the Horns.
The best known was Johnny Moore, who went on to play a decade for the San Antonio Spurs.
Also, during his tenure, Texas made strides to advance the status of the basketball program. When Black arrived, UT only guaranteed visiting teams $1,300 a game to battle the Horns in Austin, making it nearly impossible to get one of the east or west coast powers to make the trip to decaying Gregory Gym. Before he left, work was underway on the Frank Erwin Center, often called in its early days, "The Super Drum."
Black, who is now 88, was elected to the UT Hall of Honor in 1988. Today, Black is in declining heath and according to family members has been in an Austin hospital for the past few weeks.