On Saturday one of the former great Louisville Men’s Basketball players of all time was laid to rest. Felton Spencer was a hometown hero, a former All-State performer at Eastern High School, a UofL standout and a player who personified humility, hard work and dedication. As a person, he personified the same and so much more.
After hearing of Felton’s passing, like many others, I was in shock and disbelief. Immediately I began thinking about his family and friends and how they must be feeling in such a trying moment. I then thought about his teammates and those who we as Louisville fans knew were close with him: his former roommate Craig Hawley, the Honorable Derwin Webb and many, many others.
On a personal fan level, I started the process of recollecting my own memories of the “Chief” as this past week waned on. I’d like to write about those now.
My earliest memory of Felton Spencer came in 1985. Every year my father and I would attend the Boy’s Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament. We normally went to support teams from our local Region. But it was always a huge bonus if there was to be a potential UofL recruit playing. The 85 tournament featured a first round matchup between Louisville Eastern and Metcalfe County. I remember being in complete awe of Felton’s size as I walked down near the crowd during pre-game warmups.” I remember telling my father something along the lines that I hoped and prayed that Felton would ultimately stay home and choose to play his college ball at UofL (he would commit on November 14th would sign his LOI to the Cards that year). My Dad assured me that Cool Hand Luke Hand would close the deal (he would).
As history would go on to show, Metcalfe County proceeded to shock and defeat Eastern on that day 60-58. Felton scored a meager fourteen points and grabbed only six rebounds. I was crushed. So, I did what any normal rabid ten-year-old basketball fan would have done at that time – I shifted all my focus toward praying that Louisville would somehow land Rex Chapman.
Fast forward roughly 20 months later and Felton Spencer would be a freshman center on the 1986-87 Louisville roster playing back up to a then already legendary guy by the name of Pervis Ellison. But although a decent amount of time had passed, Spencer still looked pretty much the same from my perspective.
The remainder of Felton Spencer’s playing career at The University of Louisville following his freshman season would become one of an upward trajectory. A trajectory so steep and impressive that even today it’s hard to comprehend. The stories of Felton’s dedication and amazing drive to get better are now legendary.
Spencer took boxing classes with former heavyweight Greg Page. He changed the way that he ate to lose weight but in contrast gain much needed body muscle and mass. He took ballet and dance classes in the old Crawford Gymnasium to improve his balance and footwork. He spent countless hours riding a stationary bike to strengthen his cardio capabilities. Essentially, there isn’t anything Spencer DIDN’T do to become the player he had always been told he could be.
The outcome of Felton Spencer’s blueprint for success is one that would cement him as one of the all-time best big men to ever wear a Cardinal uniform. Impressive stats aside, Felton became a player that his teammates, coaches and fans absolutely loved. And what was not to like about a gentle giant who excelled in the classroom, on the court and in the game of life.
In April of 1990, former Courier-Journal sports journalist Rick Bozich asked Felton following his senior season at UofL what his thoughts were regarding the 1990 NBA Draft and what types of items he would consider purchasing once he was drafted. It would shock no one affiliated with UofL that Felton’s response was as follows: “All I want is a job. I think back to four years ago, and it’s hard for me to believe some of this. I remember people telling me I belonged as a walk-on at Austin Peay. I remember kids in my neighborhood yelling across the street and telling me I was a scrub. They told me to give it up.”
Thankfully, Felton Spencer never gave up. Instead, he persevered and became a 1990 NBA 1st round Lottery Pick going 6th overall to the Minnesota. He would put together a successful 12-year NBA career playing for six different teams with the New York Knicks being his last stop in 2002.
During his playing days in the NBA Felton always made time for his family, friends and community back home in Louisville. There are countless photos and articles of him speaking to youth at the Park Duvalle Community Health Center, posing for photos with admiring fans and signing autographs for young kids and adults alike.
In retrospect, I had no idea how fortunate I was back in March of 1985. I was witnessing the early stages of a young guy who was viewed as being “too nice” on his way to morphing into a grown man who opponents legitimately feared. Felton Spencer provided me and countless other Louisville fans with the perfect example for what selflessness and focus looks like. I can’t even begin to recall how many times through my years of watching Louisville Basketball that I would catch myself thinking or saying aloud, “If that kid had the heart and determination of Felton Spencer, there’s no telling how good he could be.” In fact, I still find myself thinking as such even as recently as this past season. And therein lies the legacy that was and will always be the great Felton Spencer.