When asked for a few comments for a story about Bobby Jack Sumler, his old high school classmate, SportsCenter anchor Neil Everett thought that a clarification was needed: “You mean, The Legend Of Bobby Jack?”
It was almost as if the “legend” were separate and apart from the person. It’s something to consider. In time, a point of divergence is reached when legends continue to grow and even expand, while the person follows the natural course of life for mortal humans.
Bobby Jack Sumler’s story surely qualifies as legendary, as validated by his Thursday induction into the Hooptown USA Hall of Fame, which recognizes top local contributors to the region’s body of basketball lore.
Sumler was a shooting star, dazzling but only briefly visible by the general public during two seasons at Lewis and Clark High School and another at Community Colleges of Spokane. The remaining mythology consists of gasping recollections from observers at local parks, rec centers, and on the streets of Spokane during Hoopfest.
The consensus: Bobby Jack (surname not required) did many things on the court that observers had never seen, and he made them look ridiculously easy while playing with an audacious style and a contagious joy.
He had mastered the mechanics of the game to such a degree that he started creating his own impediments to make it interesting; playing in work boots or sandals, sometimes wearing gloves. And when pickup teams were selected, he always pointed to the four least-likely souls left unchosen. How else to test how much he could influence the play of teammates?
His arms spread 6-foot, 10 inches – 8 or 9 inches greater than his own height. It led some to believe he could fly.
No, actually, everybody agreed that he could fly.
Legends develop best with a touch of mystery. And there was plenty of that with Bobby Jack, such as his five-year absence from organized basketball after high school, and his Zen-archery explanation for his uncanny shooting accuracy.
Asked to identify comparable players, those who knew him confect a point-guard hybridization including parts Stockton, Curry and Magic. At that point, most slightly hedge their assessment, since, of course, Bobby Jack never got the chance to prove himself in the NBA like those others.
In truth, tales of the legendary rarely need this much nuance, and almost never carry a bittersweet subtext of potential going unfulfilled, or being widely unrecognized to the public.
But the rarest part about Bobby Jack, and the enduring legend attached to him, is that the extravagant athletic qualities that spawned the legend may be, in the view of an army of friends, less impressive than the personal attributes of the man himself.
Even the caretakers of the legend agree with that.
• • •
Bobby Jack Sumler: “Actually, I learned to shoot in the dark. My brother (Clifton) played a big part in that. We would go to Liberty Park and play until dark; even after dark, we’d keep playing. He would rebound the ball and pass it back to me. I learned you always need to know exactly where the rim is, if somebody bigger is guarding you, or somebody’s got their hands in your face. I always knew where the rim was. Shooting in the dark is how I learned.”
• • •
When his family moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Spokane, Bobby Jack pictured himself a star in track, his sport of preference at that time. Track never had a chance.
“Bobby Jack was an amazing player, with unbelievable skills even at a young age,” said Larry Walker, Sumler’s coach at Lewis and Clark. Sumler led the GSL in scoring (18.2) his senior season (1979), and defended so well that Walker thought it was as impressive as his scoring.
“He was too unselfish a lot of the time,” Walker said. “He should have shot the ball more than he did, but he was always trying to get everybody involved.”
Walker remembered a game at Coeur d’Alene High more than 40 years ago, when his Tigers went to five overtimes and were getting severely homered by the officials. “Bobby Jack just took over the game; there was a 5-minute stretch that left everybody in the place just shaking their heads in amazement. Never seen anything like it.”
Everett was a year younger than Sumler at LC, and grew up the stepson of a high school basketball coach. He knew greatness when he saw it, and has never forgotten it.
“Bobby Jack could really sling it,” Everett said. “This was pre-Steph Curry, but there was some elements of (Curry) in the distance he could shoot from and the way he could get the shot off.”
The recollections led Everett to add a popular catch phrase to his ESPN broadcasts when he responds to highlights of shots from great distance with the call “Step back, Bobby Jack.”
“He was a character and he was funny the way he could talk some trash.”
Comparisons to contemporary point guard John Stockton are natural. Stockton, at Gonzaga Prep, was a year younger than Sumler. “I don’t try to compare myself to John; he’s one of my good friends and he was a great, great player,” Sumler said.
Walker was more emphatic. “Bobby Jack could play with anybody at any time. He was right up there with Stockton and those guys who went on and played (in college).” He added that he had heard of a summer-league game in which both Stockton and Bobby Jack played and “Bobby Jack had about 50 (points).”
College coaches’ interest in Bobby Jack were cooled by his transcripts. “It was just a matter of him struggling in school,” Walker said. “They couldn’t get him into school.”
Sumler doesn’t quibble with that assessment. “I’m always honest with people and I’m honest with myself. I struggled in school. I liked to go to school, but it was hard for me to follow some classes. If things were different, maybe I would have worked a little harder and studied longer, but it is what it is.”
• • •
Bobby Jack: “I didn’t really think about going to college because my dad was sick (throat cancer and then heart surgery) and I needed to stay home and help take care of him. My dad was more important to me than college. My mom and dad had taken care of me growing up and I felt like it was my opportunity to help them.”
• • •
During five years away from organized basketball, Bobby Jack worked at a warehouse and played rec and playground basketball, sometimes showing up at the court in his work clothes, boots and all.
CCS coach Sam Brasch had followed Bobby Jack all the while and lured him onto the roster for the 1984-85 season. Mike Roth, who would go on to a long career as athletic director at Gonzaga University, was Brasch’s assistant at the time.
“Watching him play was such a great experience; he was a consummate teammate, a monster on both ends of the floor, a monster off the glass, and he was always looking to pass the ball. I guarantee he led the league in steals and blocked shots, and with those long arms, he could guard anybody on the floor.”
One aspect of Bobby Jack’s play reminded Roth of Magic Johnson. “He’d rip down a rebound and he’d be off to the races. He was not as flashy as Magic, but so effective. I’ve seen a lot of basketball in my life, and there have been a lot of great players out of Spokane. There’s three I would say stick out – John Stockton, Adam Morrison and Bobby Jack.”
John Stockton, NBA Hall of Fame.
Adam Morrison, NCAA co-player of the year.
Bobby Jack Sumler, Legend.
• • •
Roth: (Recalling a CCS game at Blue Mountain when, during the halftime of the preceding women’s game, Bobby Jack picked up a ball and started shooting). “He goes out, in street clothes and hard shoes, starts shooting at about the free-throw line, and he starts putting them in, one after another, stepping back further and further. And he’s not even hitting the rim. Net. Net. Net. Net. And the crowd is counting, and now he’s way deeper than NBA 3-point distance. Twenty, no, maybe 30 in a row – real Steph Curry kind of stuff.”
Bobby Jack on the Blue Mountain shooting spree: “That’s a true story. Everybody was counting. I got to 30, didn’t miss, and just put the ball on the court and walked over and sat down.”
• • •
Shann Ferch, author and educator (at Gonzaga), was just starting a career as a basketball player that would take him to Montana State, Pepperdine, and Germany as a pro, when he came to Spokane looking for games with tough players.
“East Central (Community Center) was really good, and Bobby was there all the time and we became friends immediately,” Ferch said. “His game was beautiful, very fluid, and he could hit from all three levels; great deep shot, great midrange and he could really finish all the way to the rim. I saw him play wearing sandals, and just totally dominate the game.”
Ferch played with and against Bobby Jack for years, and considered him one of the few whose great street game translated to organized basketball.
“He was very much into giving and sharing, kind of like what you see with the (Golden State) Warriors now. He could take over a game, but he was more than happy to take a backseat to get somebody else going.”
Ferch has no problem envisioning NBA success for Bobby Jack. “I played against hundreds of NBA players, and he was better than many of them, in my opinion,” Ferch said.
How many people did Bobby Jack impact while playing those years far from the main stage? DaShawn Bedford is one.
“I started watching Bobby Jack when I was in fifth grade,” said Bedford, who went on to play at SCC and is now a filmmaker working on a documentary about Sumler. “I would go to West Central every Sunday to watch him play. He finally let me play and he taught me so much.”
Bedford’s in-progress documentary isn’t entirely about Bobby Jack’s play.
“For a lot of kids, Bobby Jack was somebody for us to look up to,” Bedford said. “Bobby Jack didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. He treated people fair and I loved that about him. He was just a beautiful man.”
• • •
Ferch (on the customarily peaceful Bobby Jack adding some intimidation to his game): “He had a massive vertical, massive, surely in the 40s (inches). And this was one of the legends that’s been verified: He finally did get upset with a guy who had been talking some trash. He came down the middle and smashed on the guy and broke the backboard. The same thing happened two weeks later. That’s a great legend … he could fly.”
• • •
After an NBA scouting camp with 220 prospects, Bobby Jack was one of six chosen for tryouts with teams. Before he could show himself for the Lakers, he broke an ankle when somebody undercut him at Corbin Park. He couldn’t attend the tryout.
Does Sumler, 61, have regrets?
“My mom and family told me that I didn’t let them down, but I always thought I had the talent to go further,” he said. “I would have liked to have done that for them, that would be my one regret.”
Roth countered that by referencing all the people who light up even at the mention of Bobby Jack’s name. “The thing I like to talk about is the type of man he is. He is such a good soul, such a good person. People who have been touched by him over the course of their lives love to stay in touch with him because he makes you feel good.”
Roth said every conversation with Sumler ends with “Bobby Jack saying, ‘I love you.’ ”
Everett echoed Roth’s feelings: “I’m so happy he’s getting recognized. I hear Bobby Jack’s name and it reminds me of growing up in Spokane … an easier day, a simpler time. When I do the ‘Step back, Bobby Jack,’ he will text me and say ‘I hear you.’ People ask me about him and I say, ‘Oh, yeah, he was a baller.’ ”
Everett sponsors camps that Sumler is trying to get rooted.
“Aside from all the myths and fairy tales, the amazing thing is the way people smile when you mention Bobby Jack’s name,” Bedford said. “He’s so great with kids, he always says, ‘Come here young man, let me teach you some things.’ ”
Sumler is calling it: The Step Back Bobby Jack basketball and conditioning camp for underprivileged kids.
“Kids bring such joy to your heart. It’s an honor to be a part of young people’s lives,” he said. “It’s more than basketball; it’s showing them that others see worth in them.”
If that’s not part of the legend, it’s surely the most meaningful part of the legacy. Sharing the lessons with new generations. Yes, step up, Bobby Jack, step up.
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