Ex-Jayhawk Hightower dies at 62

J-W Staff and Wire Reports

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Philadelphia Former Kansas University basketball great Wayne Hightower, the 29th leading scorer in Jayhawk history, died of a heart attack last Thursday at the age of 62.

Hightower, a slender 6-foot-8 forward out of Philadelphia's famed Overbrook High, was an all-Big Eight selection at Kansas in both 1960 and '61.

He averaged a league-leading 21.8 points and grabbed 11.6 boards in 1959-60 for the 19-9 Jayhawks, then finished his two-year career with averages of 20.7 ppg and 11.6 rebounds in 1960-61 for 17-8 KU.

"He was a very good athlete, a very good player," said Jerry Waugh, an assistant coach for Dick Harp during Hightower's KU career. "At that time to find a kid 6-8 who could move around like he could was pretty significant. Today almost all the kids can do that, not then.

"He was not a strong post player as we know today, but he was very nifty around the goal. He could turn over, face up, jump and put it in. He could score," Waugh added.

Hightower went on to play with five ABA teams in five years, averaging 14.9 points a game. He played with five NBA teams in three seasons, averaging 9.0 points.

"He was really an outstanding player at Kansas," said former KU athletic director Bob Frederick, a college teammate of Hightower. "He had a lot of ability. He was a legitimate 6-8, 6-9 who could score inside, rebound, a very good athlete."

Hightower hit 40.4 percent of his shots and 67.4 percent of his free throws at KU.

"I remember he was a very skilled big man at a time when KU had some pretty good teams," said Bill Mayer, former executive editor of the Journal-World who has regularly written a sports column since the fall of 1950 and covered KU basketball during Hightower's career.

"He and Bill Bridges teamed together. They were outstanding players. He (Hightower) was 6-foot-8, but thin. In modern days he'd have been a small forward. He was pretty frail. He was a talent. He had good skills. He played street ball in Philadelphia with Wilt (Chamberlain) and had a good background. In those days, big men from the East were able to move around a lot and do things your traditional forwards didn't. He could take his man, go outside, go inside and rebound pretty well," Mayer added.

Hightower was a member of two of Overbrook's greatest teams the 1957 and '58 squads that went 20-1 and 22-0, respectively. Both won the city title, and the latter produced three NBA players Hightower, Wali Jones and Walt Hazzard.

In April 1991, the Daily News selected that '58 squad as the No. 2 team of all time, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 1955 Overbrook team.

"He was one of the three best players to ever play at Overbrook," said Howie Horenstein, who captained both the '57 and '58 teams. "Wilt was No. 1. Jackie Moore, who went on to play for the (Philadelphia) Warriors, was No. 2. And I'd put Wayne third. I think he was one of the first big men who could handle the ball well. He could pass and he could dribble. He was the Magic Johnson-type player of his day."

Hightower left KU after his junior year of college, electing to play pro ball in Spain to support his wife and new baby daughter.

"He was kind of a loner. He came to practice, kind of did his job and then left," Waugh noted. "I would say he left his mark on Kansas basketball. I don't think he finished. He had the potential to be one of the very good players we had here, but perhaps he didn't stay focused. I think he became disenchanted here. His last year he was not a happy camper and I don't know why that was the case."

On May 10, the Overbrook High School Hall of Fame will honor its championship teams from the late 1950s. Now, instead of an award, Hightower will receive a moment of silence.

"He was a very soft-spoken man," said Jim Sadler, a member of the alumni's board of directors. "We were planning the event last Thursday and someone said that they'd heard that Wayne died. We later found out that he'd died that morning. He'll be missed."

Hightower had some medical problems the past several years. He did not return to KU often, if at all, during his post-college days.

"I've been in touch with him the last four or five years. I'd get a postcard from him," Frederick said. "He said he was coming to two different reunions we'd have, but did not attend."

Hightower is survived by a daughter, Paula; sons Wayne Jr. and Anthony; one sister; two brothers; and four grandchildren. His former wife, Pearl, from whom he was divorced for many years, also survives.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday at St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, 57th and Summer Streets. Friends may call at 10 a.m. Burial is private.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Heart Association, 625 W. Ridge Pike, Building A, Suite 100, Conshohocken, Pa. 19428.