Basketball: South legend Lentz gets Hall call from L-R

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 20, 2023

By Mike London

CHINA GROVE — Larry Lentz scored the last of his college buckets 30 years ago in Kansas City, so he’d stopped thinking about the Lenoir-Rhyne Sports Hall of Fame.

But the call to the Hall finally came from Hickory a few weeks ago for a South Rowan graduate who has a number of claims to fame, including being the only male in South’s hoops history to score 1,000 career points.

“The call from L-R definitely was a shock,” Lentz said. “I’d heard rumors that something might happen a few times, but it’s been 30 years now, so I didn’t think it ever would. But I’m humbled to be elected. I’m honored. I’m grateful.”

Lentz was a 6-foot-8 post man who combined a physical presence with finesse. He shot terrific percentages.

He is second in Lenoir-Rhyne history in career shooting percentage. He made 57.7 percent of his shots. In his senior season in Hickory, he and the Bears went out with a bang with championships. That was the season Lentz torched the nets for 61.4 percent from the field.

Only five men in the history of Lenoir-Rhyne men’s basketball can say they were All-Americans. Lentz, who scored 1,035 points for the Bears, is one of those five. He is regarded as one of the finest low-post players in program history.

“Larry had huge hands and a soft touch,” said Shane Valley, a South Rowan teammate who is still friends with Lentz. “Nothing about Larry was goofy or uncoordinated. He was a smooth big man.”

Lentz wasn’t one of those guys who had a miraculous late growth spurt. He grew up big and tall in China Grove.

“Every school picture, I’m standing head and shoulders above my classmates,” Lentz said with a laugh.

Junior high was seventh through ninth grade when Lentz was coming along, so he didn’t arrive at South until his sophomore year.

South was a big school then and had just transitioned to the 4A Central Piedmont Conference, taking on the Winston-Salem and Greensboro schools. Lentz’s sophomore season at South was 1986-87.

“We played our league games in the CPC with Parkland, RJR, Mount Tabor, schools like that, and our non-conference games were against the Charlotte schools like North Meck and South Meck,” Lentz said. “Going from junior high ball to playing against those city guys was a big jump.”

Lentz joined a South team led by senior John Davis. Lentz averaged 10.6 points as a soph and the Raiders went 9-5 in the CPC for a third-place finish.

Lentz became South’s go-to scorer as a junior, averaging 18.9 points per game. He scored 34 points in a Christmas tourney game against A.L. Brown and had 37 against Davie County. South, coached by Bob Parker, went 14-13 and repeated its third-place finish in the CPC.

Lentz also played football for South. He was a towering tight end, but the Raiders didn’t throw it to him much. Lentz was mostly a blocker in the running game, an extra tackle for head coach Larry Deal.

“We were run first, run second and run third,” Lentz said. “I actually was on some big Watch Lists in football because of my size, but basketball was always where my heart was.”

Teens always think big. Lentz had such a successful junior basketball season that he was still dreaming about being recruited by his favorite school — UNC.

When the early signing period arrived in the fall of his senior year, Lentz had offers from Navy and Coastal Carolina but didn’t take either. He wanted to see how his senior season would play out.

“AAU ball wasn’t as widespread then, and college coaches still did a lot of their recruiting by going to watch high school games,” Lentz said. “My senior season (1988-89), we had a physical team with Avery Moore and Brad Brown and I knew we’d be good. Most of the teams in the CPC played really fast, but Coach Parker always stressed that we take our time and beat the ball down inside. It was a great system for me to play in and we had success.”

South won all eight CPC games it played that season. Unfortunately, that was the season of the measles epidemic. South’s season was only 18 games. Lentz led the county in scoring (18.7 points per game), was Rowan County Player of the Year and finished with 1,122 points, but those D-I offers he had in the fall were no longer there in the spring.

“My options were Catawba, Pfeiffer and Lenoir-Rhyne,” Lentz said. “I went to the Catawba camps growing up and I liked Coach (Sam) Moir and Coach (Bill) Haggerty, but Catawba was a little too close to home. So I went to L-R.”

He learned the ropes quickly and earned a starting spot for coach John Lentz (no relation). He worked until he became the same sort of dominant post man for the Bears that he had been at South Rowan.

“The SAC was a great basketball league — Presbyterian, Gardner-Webb, Elon, Catawba, Carson-Newman, Mars Hill, Wingate and L-R,” Lentz said. “Everyone had good players. The games against Catawba in Salisbury meant a lot because I’d have quite a few fans in the crowd, but our biggest rival at L-R was Presbyterian because they were the team you had to beat to win the league.”

The Bears won at least 20 games every season Lentz suited up for them, but his final year (1992-93) was the most memorable. That season would be the final chapter for all the SAC teams as part of NAIA. The next year the SAC schools would become members of NCAA Division II.

L-R had a three-pronged offensive attack in 1992-93 with Lentz and guards Tyrone McDaniel, who set some steals records, and Jeff Haddock combining for 50 points per game.

“Tyrone was a local guy who was a Division I talent, but he wound up playing for L-R after things didn’t work out with the big schools,” Lentz said. “Haddock had transferred from D-I Delaware.”

The 1992-93 Bears are a team that many L-R fans still consider the best in program history, but it got off to a 5-5 start. The fifth loss was a brutal one to Gardner-Webb in mid-January. That led to a team meeting where the team philosophy took a dramatic shift and the results changed.

L-R coach John Lentz arrived at the same conclusion that South Rowan coach Bob Parker had five years earlier. The Bears were trying to play too fast. The solution was a more patient approach — to establish Lentz in the post and let him go to work. If teams doubled Lentz, then the shooters had to make them pay.

“We started taking what the defense gave us,” Larry Lentz said. “And we started winning.”

There were two epic battles with Presbyterian late in the season, the first to decide the SAC tourament championship and the second in the championship game of the NAIA District 26 tourney. That was usually the toughest district in the South. L-R had to beat High Point, Pfeiffer and PC to win the district.

Those three triumphs propelled Lenoir-Rhyne to the national tournament in Kansas City for the first time in 34 years.

Lenoir-Rhyne stayed hot in Kansas City and beat Wisconsin Stevens Point and Oklahoma City in the first two rounds.

But L-R lost 79-76 to Hawaii Pacific in the Elite Eight. That was Lentz’s last college game.

“Hawaii Pacific had a great team and they went on to win the national championship,” Lentz said.

The Bears, who had started that season 5-5, finished 25-7. Lentz was L-R’s leading scorer and rebounder.

Lentz’s teammate McDaniel got the call for the Hall of Fame many years ago, while Haddock was inducted by the Bears in 2020.

Now it’s Lentz’s turn. He will be inducted in late September and will be re-introduced to L-R fans at halftime of a football game.

He earned a degree in business administration at L-R and he was able to return to China Grove to live and work and raise a family. His children went to South Rowan.

“Lenoir-Rhyne was good to me,” Lenz said. ” I met my wife (Kim) at Lenoir-Rhyne. I earned a degree. I got to play for four good college basketball teams (88-30) and with a great group of guys.”

Lentz remembers playing against Pfeiffer guard Tony Smith and recalls him pushing the ball at incredible speed. He is certain things wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well for him if he’d signed with a fast-break program.

Lentz needed a place where the offense set up and let him do his thing on the block. He found it.

“I was in the right system for me at South Rowan and then I was in the right system at Lenoir-Rhyne,” Lentz said. “My coaches and teammates gave me an opportunity to be productive.”