Remembering a N.C. basketball icon: Littles dies at 78

By Richard Walker

Pioneering basketball player and longtime coach Gene Littles died at 78 on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Gene Littles during the inaugural Carolina Cougars season of 1969-70.

Littles was a pioneer as a one of the first African-American college players to play in the state when he went to High Point University from 1965 to 1969 before playing six years of professional basketball, including all five seasons of the old ABA Carolina Cougars’ history.

Later, Littles was an assistant coach at Appalachian State, a championship-winning coach at North Carolina A&T and a NBA head coach for three teams including the Charlotte Hornets.

High Point University’s news release didn’t give a cause of death of the school’s all-time leading basketball scorer. The release said that details of a memorial service will be announced later.

A three-time NAIA All-American as the first African-American to play at High Point from Washington, D.C., Littles scored 2,398 career points and helped the Panthers go 29-3 in the 1968-69 season and the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Mo.

After being drafted by the old Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA and the New York Knicks of the NBA, the Cougars acquired his draft rights in their first season.

The only player to play on all five Cougars’ teams (from 1969-70 to 1973-74), Little was an ABA All-Rookie selection in 1970 and averaged 9.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 450 games of a pro career that ended with him being on the Kentucky Colonels’ 1975 ABA championship team that also included another North Carolina small college performer – eventual Naismith Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore of Gardner-Webb.

Littles’ coaching career began in the summer of 1975 when he was hired on head coach Bobby Cramins’ staff at Appalachian State.

Littles was later was hired as North Carolina A&T head coach. After guiding the Aggies to two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and earning league coach of the year honors in 1979, he began a long NBA coaching career.

An assistant for the Utah Jazz (1979-82), Cleveland Cavaliers (1982-86), Chicago Bulls (1986-87), Charlotte Hornets (1989-90) and Denver Nuggets (1992-97), Littles spent all or parts of four seasons as a NBA head coach for the Cavaliers, Hornets and Nuggets.

When Littles replaced Dick Harter as Hornets’ head coach on Jan. 31, 1990, he became the second head coach in team history. Charlotte went 37-87 in 1 1-2 seasons with Littles as head coach.

A 2015 North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Littles also is in the High Point University Hall of Fame and his Panthers’ No. 14 jersey has been retired.