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Farragut’s Dodgen connects with Harlem Globetrotters

What’s been described as the latter day version of former Harlem Globetrotter star Meadowlark Lemon — ex-East Tennessee college star Paul Gaffney — is no fan of the movie “Arachnophobia,” with all those spiders.

Donald Dodgen and his wife, Mary Ann, know proof of that was in the cake batter.

“Here’s a big, grown man afraid of spiders, and Mary would bake cakes and put these rubber spiders down in ’em. Then he’d cut the cake and there’d be those rubber spiders and he’d jump,” coach Dodgen said in recalling a lighthearted story typical of his close relationship with Gaffney. The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder starred as a point guard for Dodgen’s Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs in the late 1980s and early 1990.

“He’s the star of the Harlem Globetrotters now, he’s the one they call ‘Showtime,’” said Dodgen, now in his 11th season as boys varsity coach at Farragut High School.

At the same time, “He was just like an older son to us,” Dodgen added. “He was our adopted son, and he was just a great kid to be around.”

Gaffney, who Dodgen said still keeps in periodical contact with his college coach, will lead the Globetrotters into Knox County Friday, Jan. 12, for a 7 p.m. performance in Thompson-Boling Arena.

As for skills, “I think he’s probably the best player I’ve ever coached, he could play every spot on the floor,” Dodgen said. “He could shoot the lights out, he could run the floor like a greyhound. When he got to college I didn’t realize he could handle the ball as well as he could handle it.”

Averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds as a point guard in three seasons (1987-90), Gaffney led TWC to a Volunteer State Athletic Conference title while earning league MVP and Honorable Mention All-American honors.

He also led in babysitting minutes.

“He used to come over to our house and baby-sit our kids,” Dodgen said. “A great babysitter, always good with kids.”

Having stumbled onto Gaffney as a junior while recruiting another player at Cumberland (Ky.) High School, “We knew Paul was a player, he had all the tools,” Dodgen said of what became a two-time All-state honoree and high school Honorable Mention All-American.

Opting for Division I school Jacksonville (Fla.), Gaffney “spent a semester there and wasn’t real happy,” Dodgen said. “He called me late one night and said, ‘coach, I’d really like to transfer. I told him there was always a home for him. … When we were recruiting him out of the Harlan, Cumberland, Kentucky area, we told him that if he ever wanted to leave he was always welcome at Tennessee Wesleyan.

“I got the call about twelve o’clock at night. I was happy. He’s a very intelligent young man. Worked hard for us.”

After receiving his degree in business management at TWC, “He tried out for some N-B-A teams, he got on with the Houston organization, the Houston Rockets, and got pretty close to making the program but didn’t,” Dodgen said.

Saying the Globetrotters likely had a “some type of base” near Houston, “He tried out and made their travel team,” Dodgen added. “Next thing you know, this is a rags-to-riches story.

“Next thing you know, he’s THE show.”

Having started with the Globetrotters in 1994, Gaffney, 38, extended his tribute to boyhood idol Magic Johnson in jersey number (32) and nickname (“Showtime”).

“He asked me when he transferred to Wesleyan if there’s any way he could wear thirty-two?” Dodgen said. “And I said, ‘yes.’”

As a TWC senior, Gaffney met his hero courtesy of Dodgen. “We were in Atlanta, and I introduced Paul to Magic,” Dodgen said. “It was the biggest thrill of his life.”

Hardly surprised by Gaffney’s success, “He can do the fancy stuff, exactly what the Globetrotters want,” Dodgen said. “I’ve been to quite a few of his Globetrotter games.

“He’s married and has a family now, and they live in Houston. But he still loves East Tennessee and the Kentucky area. He comes back as much as he can.

“But the demand on him is just so much right now.”

The official Globetrotters Web site lists Gaffney as “One of the funniest showman in team history, adding that in 1996 he earned the “Mr. Globetrotter Award” as voted on by teammates and staff “in recognition of the player who represents the true Harlem Globetrotters spirit.”

However, “he hasn’t changed a bit — he’s still the same loveable, kind-hearted, full of life, full of fun Paul Gaffney,” Dodgen added.

Just limit the spider fun.


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