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Before He Could Box, Douglas Could Ball

The boxing world knows Buster Douglas for knocking out Mike Tyson in February 1990, but nine years earlier he played in a scrimmage against the Jamestown Community College men’s basketball team at the Physical Education Complex. Sports Illustrated photo courtesy of Jim McElrath Jr.

On March 11, 1981, the Jamestown Community College men’s basketball team advanced to the NJCAA Tournament by virtue of a “heavyweight” battle and ultimate victory over Roxbury (Massachusetts) CC at the Physical Education Complex.

That game report, written by late Post-Journal sports editor Jim Riggs, was reprinted earlier this week in these pages as a reminder of how special that group of Jayhawks, led by their coach, Warren, Pennsylvania native Nick Creola, truly was.

But that win, before a standing-room-only crowd, wasn’t the only “heavyweight” experience for the team in the days leading up to its trip to Hutchinson, Kansas.

Jamestown native Jim McElrath Jr. remembers it like it was yesterday.

Then a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Mercyhurst University in Erie, McElrath had a longstanding friendship with Lewis Mack, then a Jayhawk assistant coach and arguably the greatest player in program history.

“Lewis called me and said his guys were bored playing each other,” McElrath recalled the other day. “He asked if I could round up some guys and bring them over and give them a good run.”

So McElrath and four of his buddies, hopped in a car and made the drive to Jamestown. One of the guys in that traveling party was a Columbus, Ohio native with quite a hoops resume. Standing about 6-foot-4, this power forward’s resume included leading McKinley High School to a state title in 1977 and, later, playing at Coffeyville CC and Sinclair CC — where he earned a place in the former’s Hall of Fame — before arriving at Mercyhurst. Although academic issues didn’t allow him to play a game for the Lakers, James Douglas certainly had talent.

And not just on the hardwood.

The son of former professional boxer William “Dynamite” Douglas, “Buster” is best known for what he did in the ring nine years after he ran up and down the court at Jamestown CC. That was the night — Feb. 11, 1990 to be exact — that he delivered a 10th-round knockout of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in arguably the biggest upset in boxing history.

But for one day, Buster, the basketball player, was in Jamestown taking on the Jayhawks.

“We gave them a game for three quarters,” said the 6-4 McElrath. “They were just terrific players. … Buster was very talented, and that level of competition got him going. He was really enjoying it and he made a difference for us. … We didn’t have a lot of height — I may have been the tallest guy other than Buster — but he was rising to the level of the competition.”

That was precisely what Buster — a 42:1 underdog — did against Tyson in 1990 in Tokyo, a bout that McElrath and a friend watched via pay-per-view in Pittsburgh.

“We hoped (Buster) would last a round,” McElrath recalled with a laugh.

Instead, the young man who spent part of an afternoon in March 1981 at the Physical Education Complex on Jamestown’s east side, became the heavyweight champion of the world.

“It was pretty astounding,” McElrath said.

Now 62, McElrath, a licensed clinical social worker living in Maple Springs, said he hasn’t seen Buster since a chance meeting in Columbus, Ohio in 1984, but he would love to reconnect.

“I’ve always wanted to reach out to him,” McElrath said.

Should he do so, the conversation of the men who are bound forever by their time at Mercyhurst four decades ago, will likely include the memories of their trip to Jamestown to play some hoops with a bunch of JUCO kids headed for a national tournament.

“We gave them a game and made it interesting,” McElrath said.

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