COALING | When Charles "Boonie" Russell drove 125 miles to Tuscaloosa for a reunion in early March, he had no idea it would lead to him being reunited with a cherished object that he hadn't seen for more than three decades.
Russell, a former University of Alabama basketball standout, traveled from his home in Hartselle to the Alabama-Auburn basketball game, where members of UA's 1974 team were recognized on the 40th anniversary of winning the Southeastern Conference championship. He was hanging out with his old teammates and coaches when a woman in the stands approached him.
"I have something that belongs to you," Martha Ann Wyatt said.
Russell didn't know what to say. He had no idea what she was talking about.
"I have your SEC championship ring," she said. "I want you to have it back. I want to give it to you."
Russell hadn't seen that ring since the late 1970s, when he loaned it to a friend who needed money. The plan was that the friend would pawn it, then buy it back out of hock and return it.
Before that happened, Russell left the country to begin a 20-year career playing basketball in South and Central America. By the time he returned, the ring was long gone.
For that matter, so was the pawnshop on Main Street in downtown Hartselle, which is now a gun store.
"To be honest about it, I had just totally forgotten about it," he said. "It was like it didn't even exist anymore."
Last week, a couple of months after Russell met Wyatt, he drove to her house in Coaling on his 61st birthday to collect his long-lost ring.
One side of the gold ring is inscribed with his last name and his jersey number, 32. The other is etched with the SEC logo, the team's 22-4 record and "Bama Crimson Tide." The top has a red stone emblazoned with "SEC."
"That's it," Russell said, studying the ring as she presented it to him. "Boy, that's a blessing. Thank you. That's it."
Russell, a 6-foot-4 forward with a nice outside touch, won a high school state championship in Hartselle and signed with Alabama Christian College in Montgomery, a two-year school now known as Faulkner University. He earned junior college All-America honors and had his number retired when his career was completed. The school later inducted him into its athletic hall of fame.
"I remember he was the first star athlete I ever saw in person," said Ken Roberts, city editor at The Tuscaloosa News, who attended Alabama Christian's affiliated high school. "When he was on the court, your eyes were riveted on him. There were other good players around him, but when he had the ball, the crowd was buzzing, and you knew he was about to go to the basket.
"He could just control a game by himself. The differences in levels of athletes, you could tell he did not belong in junior college. He belonged in Division I. You could tell he was at a different level than all the other players."
Alabama's basketball coach, C.M. Newton, saw the same thing. He scouted Russell at a game in Selma where Russell scored 54 points, making 19 of 21 shots from the field.
"I think I had a pretty good game," Russell said. "They recruited me, and I ended up signing with Alabama."
Newton, according to UA's media guide, said he wouldn't sign a junior college player unless he thought that player could become an instant starter. Russell did just that. Along with guys like Leon Douglas, T.R. Dunn and Charles Cleveland, Russell played on back-to-back SEC championship teams, bringing UA its first league basketball titles since the 1950s. Russell averaged 11 points and 5.8 rebounds as a junior and 15.3 points and 5.6 rebounds as a senior.
The teams stood out for more than just their success.
"There (were) probably just a couple of blacks playing in the SEC, and we were from Alabama, and a lot of times we were starting five black players," Russell said. "We had to take the SEC road and go to different places - we had to go to Ole Miss, to Oxford and Mississippi State - and the other teams, most of them were all-white.
"That didn't matter to us. We came there to play ball. We wanted to play basketball, and we were all from Alabama, all our starting players, and it was special."
Russell was drafted in the fifth round by both the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association and the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. He had two leagues vying to sign him to a contract, but his professional hopes were derailed by an injury sustained when he was trying out with the Lakers. He packed his bags and came home to Hartselle.
"I kind of gave up on basketball there for a minute," he said.
Five years later, Russell gave it another try. He got a tryout with the Kansas City Kings of the NBA and made it to the last cut but did not land a roster spot. Soon after, Kansas City assistant coach Frank Hamblen called with an opportunity.
"He told me a team in Mexico was looking for a player, a swing man who could come in and start," Russell said. "He highly recommended me if I was interested."
Russell took the position. Before he left, however, he tried to help out a friend.
"One of my friends needed some money, so I took my ring and let him have it," Russell said. "The guy at the pawnshop knew me, so he confirmed it (with me).
"(The friend) was going to go back and get the ring out of pawn. I left, and I didn't come back for 20 years. I really didn't know whether he went and got it or not."
Russell's professional career took him from Mexico to Argentina to Chile, and to more international tournaments than he can remember.
"I got to Santiago, Chile, which is the capital, and Buenos Aires, Mexico City - and their population at the time was probably larger than New York. I'm looking at skyscrapers and all kinds of stuff, and it was just amazing," Russell said. "I thought I was going to a Third World country, and when I got there I said, 'I don't see nothing Third World about this.' It looked more like that Hartselle was a Third World country."
During the early years of his two decades as a globetrotter, Russell sometimes thought about that missing championship ring - he still had the one from 1975 - but after a while he just forgot about it.
Wyatt, 76, grew up in Coaling, a rural community in eastern Tuscaloosa County.
"We had the only television in Coaling in my daddy's store," she said. "He had the only telephone in Coaling at the time."
She enrolled at Alabama and lived in student housing across the street from Foster Auditorium, where UA played basketball at the time.
"I would walk over to the games," she said.
UA's "Rocket Eight" team coached by Johnny Dee won the SEC title in 1956, a couple of years before Wyatt graduated. She got the basketball bug and became a longtime fan. When Alabama built Coleman Coliseum in 1968, Wyatt became a season ticket holder.
"I was in Row 26," she said.
Over the years, she migrated to the front row, right behind Alabama's bench. In the 1970s, she watched Russell's teams and others take the program to new heights, with more success to follow.
Wyatt got a premed degree and worked as a medical technologist and at a formal shop that rented and sold tuxedos and wedding dresses. She continued to live in Coaling, in a rustic home hidden by trees.
That antique wooden telephone from her father's general store is mounted on a wall in her living room. ("It cost 23 cents to call home from the university on the old crank phone when I was in school," she recalled.) She filled her shelves with Alabama mementos and memorabilia: bound editions of old football programs, a commemorative football, elephant figurines and, in a handmade case, an SEC basketball championship ring.
Bart Latner, who grew up friends with Wyatt in Coaling, was serving at a church in Hartselle in the 1970s.
"There was a particular store that I used to visit," he said. "I kind of like old things, unique things. I'd go in that store every once in awhile and just look.
"When I saw that ring, I thought, now of all the things I've seen that are unique, that ring was unique. In fact, in the 40 years since, I've never seen another ring like that."
Latner knew Wyatt was an Alabama fan and thought she'd be interested.
"I called and asked her if she'd like to have it," said Latner, now pastor at Gilgal Baptist Church. "She said yes, so we got it to her."
Wyatt paid $50 for it. She went to a craft shop and built the case for it.
"I displayed it," she said. "It's been well worth the $50 to me as a conversation piece. I've treasured that thing for 40 years almost."
Wyatt expected to one day return the ring, even though she had no idea where Russell was or how to find him.
"All these years, I've been thinking I would run into him again," she said.
Russell returned to Hartselle around the turn of the century and got a job with the city's park and recreation division, maintaining baseball, softball and soccer fields and other athletic facilities.
At some point when Mark Gottfried was Alabama's coach in the early- to mid-2000s, Russell drove to Tuscaloosa and visited UA's basketball offices. Maybe it was because he had been away for so long, or maybe it was because he played only two years as a junior college transfer, but he found himself forgotten.
He looked at the office walls and saw photos of his contemporaries - Dunn and Douglas and Cleveland and Anthony Murray - and of others.
"I did not see one individual photo of me in the whole facility," he said. "I was like, 'Can this be true?' Maybe it's here or maybe it's over there, but I never did see one. I was in the team picture, but I was looking for that individual snapshot: Where is my photo with that big afro?
"When I saw all my teammates, some of these players - not knocking them, but at one time they probably weren't even starters - and I saw individual photos of them, it was like they were special players, and I feel that I was special, too. It just kind of surprised me. When I left, I wasn't angry, but I really didn't have a good taste in my mouth."
Gradually, Russell reconnected with the program, driving to games occasionally with a longtime friend, the late Dr. Robert Sittason. When UA invited Russell to attend the 40-year reunion of his championship team this spring, he accepted.
Wyatt, too, took note of that reunion that was scheduled for the Auburn game. She went hoping to see Russell and approached him when she did.
The forgotten man had been remembered by the person who had, for so long, held onto his championship ring.
Wyatt wrote Russell's phone number and address on her game program that night. They made plans for her to return the ring but had to postpone them.
Finally, last week, he drove down with Ben Garth of Decatur, an old high school classmate.
"He was really excited," said Garth, who wore an Alabama baseball cap signed by former UA quarterback Kenny Stabler, "especially this being his birthday."
Wyatt made the presentation as soon as he walked in the door: "That's your ring. See how I treasured it," she said.
Even as he held it, Russell found it hard to believe.
"I had given it up for a loss," he said.
Russell said he has long forgiven the old friend who failed to retrieve the ring from the pawnshop. He doesn't know how much the ring was pawned for and doesn't even remember why his friend needed the money. Russell said he hopes to run into the man soon to tell him the ring ended up with its rightful owner.
Wyatt and Russell celebrated with cake and homemade vanilla ice cream before he departed.
"It's unbelievable," Russell said. "They always say the Lord works in mysterious ways, and that's one of the most mysterious things I've ever seen."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.
See photos of a 1974 SEC Championship ring being returned to Charles "Boonie" Russell: