Today, in Arkansas prep basketball circles, the words “Arkansas Wings” are synonymous with “winner.” It’s an inevitable association, considering the 12 national championships and multiple NBA players the prestigious AAU program and its 22 total teams have produced over the decades. Two Wings alumni – Derek Fisher and Corliss Williamson – even squared off against each other in an NBA Finals.
It wasn’t always this way, though.
Indeed, in 1980, Wings founder Ron Crawford didn’t even know Amateur Athletic Union basketball existed at the youth levels while coaching a Boys Club basketball team in Benton. Until that time, rules restricted Arkansans in grades 7 through 12 from participating in school sports while playing out-of-season sports off campus. Around 1980, though, this rule was relaxed and Searcy-based Carder Buick became one of Arkansas’ first AAU programs to benefit. Its 13-year-olds team played Crawford’s Boys Club team and “beat us by 50,” as Crawford recalls.
“Now, I don’t like to get beat and I sure don’t like to get beat by 50.” So Crawford learned more about AAU. He liked what he heard. He especially loved finding out the AAU had national tournaments for different age groups and that “you could take a bunch of kids from Arkansas and go compete for a national title. That got me fired up.”
Basketball had inspired Crawford since his early days in Kennett, a southern Missouri Delta town also home to country star Sheryl Crow. Crawford, though, was young for his grade and couldn’t make the school teams he wanted. At 18 years old, he moved to St. Louis and started operating milling machines for McDonnell Aircraft manufacturer.
He also began organizing his own basketball squad, but he dreamed of playing for the company’s prestigious “Wings” basketball team, named after the “Wings Assembly Section,” Crawford recalls. That team played in various leagues including a men’s AAU league. After four years of constant practice and solo training, Crawford finally broke through and made the team. What he felt he missed as a teenager, he was finally getting as an adult. “All my youth experiences that I hadn’t had, I got crammed into four or five years.” To this day, he wants his program’s players to enjoy experiences as teenagers he never could.
Crawford began working more often with young people after he became a power tools salesman and was recruited to start a new company in Little Rock, which had been part of his territory. After moving to Saline County in 1971, he taught Sunday School and was later the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplain at Bryant High School, he recalls.
Through it all, he appreciated how much better behaved Arkansas kids were than their inner city St. Louis counterparts. A safer and more polite culture had originally compelled him and his wife Linda to move to Arkansas. A slower pace and better schools for his children, Linda and Keith, were also pluses. Crawford credits his family’s support and God’s blessing for the success of his 41-year-old business Southland Metals, Inc. and the Wings program it has helped finance.
He adds when it comes to the Wings’ success, good behavior and good grades are more important than high talent. “I’ve sent players home not for doing drugs or beating up somebody, but for missing curfew or being selfish or not being good teammates,” Crawford says. He adds he very proud of the roughly 400-500 college scholarships Wings players have received since 1980. But learning what you don’t know is also important, as Crawford firsthand found out after that 50-point loss when he was putting together his first Wings team.
He called the office of Eddie Sutton, then the Razorbacks’ head basketball coach. “They gave me down to [assistant] Pat Foster, and I told Coach Foster my dilemma, that I didn’t know anything about basketball and could I come up and work for a camp? So Pat let me come work one of Eddie Sutton’s camps and I learned a lot that week from them.
“I was up there learning and when I realized how little I knew, I began to study – and to make sure every team I’ve ever coached on, that I had somebody better than me on the bench whenever possible,” Crawford says.
That lineage of coaches started with Steve Schall, a Razorback in the 1970s, and has continued through Charles Baker, a former Division I assistant college basketball coach, who was at the helm of the 2015 Wings Elite team which played in the prestigious Nike EYBL tournament.
That team included Fayetteville High senior Payton Willis, Van Buren High senior Mitchell Smith and Bentonville High senior Malik Monk. They were able to train in a Springdale gym the Wings own as a result of the program’s statewide spread. The Wings began a northwest Arkansas satellite about five years ago.
Birthed from the sting of a 50-point loss, the Wings have soared high and far.