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‘An honor of a lifetime’ for Arizona men’s basketball team legends Ernie McCray and Al Fleming Jr.

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Elijah Bia | The Daily Wildcat

A front facing perspective of McKale Center located off of the UA Mall. Taken during sunset on Aug. 10, 2020.

Arizona men’s basketball team legends Ernie McCray and Al Fleming Jr. are two of the 74 NBA draft picks to have stemmed from the Wildcats’ historic men’s basketball program. It can be easy for one’s name to get lost amongst an extensive list that features some of the greatest Arizona athletes of all time. 

But on Feb. 27, McCray and Fleming will be honored as more than just a number in a group. They will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime of Saturday’s game against Washington and have their jerseys hung from the rafters of McKale Center.

“I have to admit … it's big for me,” McCray said. “To think that somebody 30 years from now could be up at [the University of Arizona] and look up and go, ‘Who is that guy?’ … . That's something.”

McCray played for the Wildcats from 1957-1960 where he averaged 17.8 points and 10.8 rebounds in his collegiate career. The unanimous First Team All-Border Conference selection in 1960 also became the first African-American men’s basketball player to graduate from the University of Arizona, an accomplishment that McCray does not at all take lightly. 

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“To be honored … it puts my life in historical perspective,” McCray said. “We're a nation that doesn't appreciate history that much. But lately, because of things that have gone on, we're talking more about what the past used to be and how we can correct things, and this Ring of Honor kind of does that for me. How it honors my history … It's an honor of a lifetime to me.”

McCray always strived to be a role model for other young athletes during his time in Tucson. Similar to the UA players that came before him, McCray remembered always making himself available to younger athletes from the local high schools in Tucson and constantly making it a goal of his to become an example for others to follow.   

“[The induction] honors not only my athleticism as a basketball player, but it honors my life,” McCray said. “I always wanted to be a contributor, and I found through sports … you have kind of a standing in the community, a little respect and if you use that wisely, you had an influence.” 

McCray was the first player in school history to record 1,250 points and 800 rebounds in a career and was inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. He also set 12 school records during his senior season in 1960, but his most memorable milestone, which still has not been broken to this day, is his single-game scoring record of 46 points that he accomplished against Cal State on Feb. 6, 1960.

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“I couldn't miss. I tried to miss one time,” McCray said. “I remember just going in just kind of lackadaisical. … The crowd was yelling, and I didn't realize I had broken a record until after the game, and then I was mobbed by all these kids. … I always remember these kids and they were just holding on to my arm. I couldn't sign their autographs because they were hugging my arms. … That was just an incredible evening.”

McCray will be the other half of Arizona’s induction ceremony on Feb. 27 as Fleming, who passed away in 2003, will also have his name recognized in the Ring of Honor on Saturday.

“It's really a culmination of his whole life,” Evelyn Fleming, Al Fleming’s older sister, said. “We're eternally grateful, and we knew if he could be here right now, he would be saying thank you for all that you've done for him. … I think he's looking down on us, and I thank you, we all thank you so much.”

Al Fleming played at Arizona in 1972-76 and holds the school record for career double-doubles (53) and career rebounds (1,190). He became one of Arizona’s most memorable players during his years under head coach Fred “The Fox” Snowden and competed alongside his closest friend and Ring of Honor member Bob Elliott. 

Fleming finished his college career shooting 58% from the field, averaging 15.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and is No. 10 in the program’s all-time scoring list (1,765 points). He was named First Team All-WAC and NCAA First Team All-District 7 in 1975 and 1976, being inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.

McCray and Fleming were never able to form a relationship during their playing careers as they each passed through the city of Tucson at two different times. In fact, the two had never even met. 

Of course, that never stopped McCray from admiring Fleming’s generational talent from afar.

“I saw him play once when I was visiting and had gone back to Tucson, but I didn't get to see the guys after the game,” McCray said. “But I knew who he was and I knew Bob Elliott and all those guys were. I was their biggest fan.”

The total number of men's basketball players in the Ring of Honor is now at 28 with the additions of McCray and Fleming. The 2019-20 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Zeke Nnaji, also qualified to be inducted but has not been scheduled for an official induction date up to this point.  


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