Origins of the Jump Shot

Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball

University of Nebraska Press

ISBN 0-8032-6394-5


The Murder of Joe Fulks

Early in the evening of Saturday, March 20th, 1976, Joe Fulks went out the front gate of the castle-like Kentucky State Penitentiary in Old Eddyville, where he worked as the prison recreation director. Joe's car had broken down, and without changing out of his prison guard pants and a T-shirt, he had a friend drive him two miles to New Eddyville and Beckett's Trailer Court, where he spent occasional nights in the company of an attractive widow named Roberta Bannister.

That afternoon, Roberta Bannister's twenty-two year old son had arrived at the trailer court with his wife Sharon. "Greg Bannister thought the world of his daddy," friends said, and he also resented his mother's relationship with Joe Fulks. Now, the young Bannisters, along with Roberta and Joe, visited for an hour until Joe persuaded Greg, who was handy mechanically, to help him fix his car.

Despite the tension between them, the two left at 8:30 p.m. in good spirits and didn't return until 10:00 p.m., bearing two unopened half pints of Tvarscki vodka.

For almost five hours, at a cramped kitchen table of the mobile home, the two drank their vodka and talked. They were a stark contrast. Greg was young, slight of build, and unathletic, with a hard and wild look about him. "I knew that kid would kill," a friend described that look later. "I knew that much about him. He was a daddy's man." Joe was tall and agile looking. He wore glasses now that made him look friendly and professorial. His wavy hair was graying, but he still kept it neatly parted on the left side.

Despite their different appearances and dispositions, gradually with each drink they became more alike--contentious and loud. When it was obvious to Sharon Bannister that her husband and Joe were in a deep, drunken argument, she undressed in the first bedroom off the kitchen and went to bed.

At 3:00 a.m., a weary Roberta Bannister told her son and Joe to go to bed. A .38 caliber pistol that belonged to Greg's wife Sharon lay on the kitchen table. Joe rose, grabbed the pistol, and headed down the narrow hallway to the bedroom in the back of the mobile home.

Greg Bannister followed, arguing that the pistol belonged to him.

For twenty-five minutes, the two remained in the back bedroom, arguing over the pistol. Finally, Greg Bannister went back down the hall of the mobile home, and out to the trunk of his car, where he kept a double-barreled, .20 gauge shotgun.

Meanwhile, groggy with alcohol, Joe sat down on the bed and struggled to undress. He managed to put his shoes and socks under the dresser. He stood shakily to place his billfold, a cigarette lighter, and miscellaneous change on top of it. Then he sat down on the bed again, still wearing his guard pants and the T-shirt.

At 3:40 a.m. Greg Bannister returned to the back bedroom and stood holding the shotgun over Joe.

"Go home!" he shouted at Joe.

" . . . no."

With his finger on the trigger, Greg pointed the shotgun at Joe and began screaming at him to go home.

In the front bedroom, awakened by the loud voices, Sharon Bannister got up and was putting her clothes back on when she heard the shotgun blast.

Almost immediately, Greg Bannister bolted from the back bedroom and met his wife and mother in the narrow hallway.

"I didn't meant to do it!" he shouted. Then he grabbed hold of the two women. "Don't go back there!" he cried.

That night Joe Fulks's former Kuttawa teammate Carrots McQuigg was on duty as part of the county's volunteer emergency ambulance service. Carrots was sound asleep at 3:45 a.m. when his phone rang. He picked up the phone and listened sleepily as his partner explained that the county's dispatcher had just directed them to respond to a shooting at Beckett's Trailer Court.

Minutes later, McQuigg's partner arrived with the ambulance, and unaware of who was involved, the two raced off toward Beckett's.

They were the first to arrive at the scene, and Roberta Bannister rushed from her mobile home and met them at their ambulance.

"What happened?" McQuigg asked her.

"Greg shot Joe!" she cried out.

His mouth suddenly dry, McQuigg told her, "I'm goin' on in."

McQuigg and his partner went inside. In the back bedroom, they found Joe, his feet still over the side of the bed but lying on his back with his head turned. The point-blank blast had severed the carotid artery in his neck, and a massive pool of blood had gathered under the bedboard.

McQuigg stared at the body of his old teammate. It was obvious he was dead, and finding no pulse or vital signs, McQuigg and his partner went back down the hall. The .20 gauge shotgun lay on the floor outside the front bedroom. Through the closed door, they could hear Greg Bannister sobbing and shouting. "I didn't mean to do it! Somebody please help me! I didn't mean to do it!"

Two hours later, after Kentucky State Trooper Ron Anderson had arrived and questioned Greg Bannister and the two women, Joe Fulks's body was removed from the bedroom and taken to a local funeral home, where the county coroner took photographs of his fatal wound. At 5:30 Sunday morning, Lyon County Sheriff Bill White drove Greg Bannister to the Caldwell County Hospital, where he was sedated. A blood test determined that his blood-alcohol level was .2%, twice the legal limit.

Later that morning, Sheriff White executed a warrant against Greg Bannister for the murder of Joseph Franklin Fulks, and bail was set at $50,000.

Hidden deep inside the few papers that carried it, the news that the NBA's one-time leading scorer and record-holder had been murdered was noticed by few. No one from the Philadelphia Warriors attended his funeral services, and he was buried quietly in a small cemetery just outside the Marshall County town of Briensburg, Kentucky, alongside the relocated graves of the dead from Old Birmingham.

On August 31, 1976, a Lyon County jury in Eddyville delivered a verdict of "reckless homicide" against Greg Bannister. He was sentenced to four-and-one-half years in prison, and after six months in the penitentiary at LaGrange, Kentucky, he submitted a probation appeal.

"Due to the fact that drinking is an invader to the functions of the body, thereby causing carelessness . . ." he wrote Circuit Court Judge Edward Johnstone, "I will never take another drink of vodka, whiskey, beer, or any other alcohol containing beverage."

After serving less than two years of his sentence, Bannister was released on parole. Over the next twenty years, despite his vows of sobriety and his apparent remorse over the killing of Joe Fulks, he was re-arrested and sentenced repeatedly for alcohol related offenses.

On some modern calendars, Veterans Day is subtitled "Remembrance Day." In 1996, Remembrance Day came on a Monday, and early that morning a band of clouds drifted down from the Great Lakes and darkened the skies of western Kentucky. At noon the temperature dropped suddenly and a light snow fell. When the clouds finally passed, the sky turned a bright blue, but a chill remained in the air and the small cemetery in Briensburg, Kentucky where Joe Fulks was buried went unvisited on Remembrance Day.

That weekend the NBA had celebrated its 50th Anniversary by publishing a list of the fifty greatest players in league history. Joe Fulks was not on the list. That 63 point night in Indianapolis had been the high water mark of his fame. From that point on his reputation had receded as slowly as those Tennessee River backwaters, whose rise and fall seemed to mark the design of his own life. On Remembrance Day of 1996, his scoring and his magic shot were as forgotten as his home town of Old Birmingham, which long before had disappeared beneath the waters of Kentucky Lake. Even the stone that marked his grave was a poor reminder of his basketball glories.

"Joseph Franklin Fulks," the simple inscription read, "Corporal, US Marine Corps."