With Oklahoma’s centennial statehood celebration so prevalent in the local news cycle over the past couple of years, there have been plenty of stories written about famous Oklahomans, ranging from politicians to athletes to actors and astronauts, and just about everything in between.
No one can question the widespread popularity and historic significance of Okies like Will Rogers, Mickey Mantle, James Garner, Johnny Bench and Gene Autry. Throw in more recent entertainment figures such as Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith, and one begins to understand just how this state continues to produce diverse talent.
At least one significant Okie sports figure failed to any attention during the centennial festivities. Maybe it’s because Jack D. McCracken has never really been recognized as a sports legend by his home state.
He’s not in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, despite the fact he is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., the National Amateur Athletic Union Hall of Fame and the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
For some reason, McCracken has gone missing in his home state.
DENVER PIGGLY WIGGLIES
Maybe it’s because he died 50 years ago and too much time has passed since he helped revolutionize amateur basketball in this country as both a coach and player. While the Chickasha native cut his teeth on the hardwood, playing for Henry P. Iba at Oklahoma City’s Classen High School, McCracken honed his skills as an AAU player for the Denver Piggly Wigglies and later the Denver Nuggets.
McCracken was a six-time first-team AAU All-America honoree, while helping lead his Denver squad to three national titles from 1937-42. He helped engineer a 12-year dynasty of AAU success, teaming with Ace Gruenig to form one of the best front lines in basketball history.
It was McCracken who perfected the two-handed flip shot from long-range and it was his pinpoint passing and court leadership that caused Iba to describe him “as one of the best players I’ve ever coached.”
Thanks to McCracken and his mates, Denver earned a spot on the national sports map.
But long before that, McCracken helped lead Iba’s Classen squad to the 1929 state championship. The two teamed up again at Maryville State Teachers College in Missouri, where McCracken was the star on a team that won 43 straight games went to the national NAIA championship game.
McCracken was a three-time NAIA first-team selection and was voted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 1954.
But the 6-foot-2 Okie product left school prior to his senior season to take a job working as a Safeway warehouse manager in Denver and to play AAU basketball the company’s team.
It didn’t take long for McCracken to make his presence felt at the next level. His ball-handling skills and court leadership were instrumental in helping the Piggly Wigglies impose their will on opposing teams by controlling the tempo of the game. His leaping ability earned him the nickname “Jumping Jack” McCracken and he could score with the best of them.
“General McCracken took charge and the pyrotechnics started. His passing was perfect, his left-hand pivot shot a revelation and his generalship without fault,” wrote The Denver Post in 1934.
As McCracken’s legend grew and his Denver team experienced great success, The Post went on to describe him “as the most versatile player that ever stepped on a local floor … the idol of every Colorado youth, from the rough-and-ready newsie on the street to the pampered lads of private prep schools.”
In 1939, he was voted the greatest player in AAU history.
But that success has never really translated into much notoriety back in Oklahoma. And he remains an unknown commodity in his home state. “Jay C. Upchurch