The first season Phil Freeman went out for the varsity basketball team at Cullman High, he was one of the tallest players on the court. As his prep career carried on, however, he quickly noticed he was “getting smaller” compared to the other growing boys he then had to look up to.
But when Freeman takes the Civic Center stage at this Saturday’s annual Cullman County Sports Hall of Fame banquet, he won’t be looking up at anyone. Instead, all eyes will be on him, as well as on the 10 other inductees comprising the hall’s 14th class.
“I thought it was a very nice honor,” Freeman said. “I was surprised about it. I thought there have been a lot of people that have done a lot more than I have. Maybe they’ll get in eventually, though.”
Before Freeman became a scoring machine at Cullman High, he got his first taste of the sport with the Bearcats’ middle school basketball program. There, he played under legendary coach Dafford Smith, who Freeman said had a great sense of humor and made his early playing days pleasant.
“He was just one of those people who could get you coached, but he could also kind of ease up a little bit,” he said of Smith.
One of Freeman’s most memorable moments while at CMS came when Smith accidentally signed his squad up for two concurrently running tournaments in Florence and Huntsville. Despite the slight overlook, the weekend went smoothly — at least until the team was scheduled to play at the exact same time at both locations.
Ever the thinking man, Smith came up with a quick fix — send half the boys to Florence and the other to Huntsville — and sure enough, it worked.
“It was just wild and crazy, and I think we all knew this was something different,” Freeman said. “We tried our best, and we did OK. We came in second at both of those. I think that was Coach Smith telling us we could do it.”
When Freeman eventually made the transition to the big-boy brand of basketball on display at Cullman High, he went from playing under one coaching great in Smith to another in Oliver Woodard. Freeman, who was quite the brainiac in the classroom — he was co-valedictorian, a National Merit Scholarship finalist and elected president of the Alabama Association of Student Councils — still remembers vividly an on-court exchange he had with Woodard.
“He told me, ‘You’re playing like a 4-year-old — no, like a 2-year-old,’ so maybe I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was,” Freeman recalled with a chuckle.
After graduating from Cullman in 1969, Freeman first attended Birmingham Southern and later transferred to UAB.
No matter the institution, Freeman continued to rake in the academic accolades. He was not only inducted into Phi Beta Kappa but also graduated summa cum laude, earned a Superior Scholarship Certificate from the UAB School of Medicine and was chosen to become a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society in 1976.
Though he didn’t play any varsity sports while at Birmingham Southern, Freeman’s intramural football and basketball teams during his senior year became the first squads not represented by a fraternity to win their respective championships.
Freeman, who works as a doctor in Cullman, has been on the board of the Cullman County Sports Hall of Fame Directors since 2000, making his induction all the more meaningful.
“I’ve gotten to see and learn from so many of the coaches that are working there and have been in the hall of fame,” Freeman said. “That’s been a great pleasure.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.