Gary Blair: India Lewis lived up to everything

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Friday, August 10, 2018
Arkansas' India Lewis shoots over the top of Alabama's Manisha Redus during the an SEC Tournament game Thursday, March 6, 2003, in North Little Rock. Arkansas won 53-48.
Arkansas' India Lewis shoots over the top of Alabama's Manisha Redus during the an SEC Tournament game Thursday, March 6, 2003, in North Little Rock. Arkansas won 53-48.

FAYETTEVILLE — Former Arkansas women’s basketball coach Gary Blair first began hearing about India Lewis well before she reached junior high.

He and his staff, which included current Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, recruited Lewis to play for the Razorbacks for “years and years,” following her and her family to high school games and AAU events.

Their persistence paid off. Lewis signed with Arkansas after an illustrious multi-sport career at Siloam Springs High School, went on to become a three-year starter and, according to Blair, one of the three best shooting guards he coached in his 10 years in charge of the Razorbacks.

“We always heard about this little tornado from Siloam Springs that could just fill it up,” Blair told WholeHogSports. “She lived up to everything she was in high school and continued it in college.”

She was a regular contributor and finished second on the team in scoring as a junior and senior. The Razorbacks reached the NCAA Tournament in three of her four college seasons. Tuesday, at age 36, Lewis died surrounded by family and friends in Tulsa following a short battle with breast cancer.

Amy Wright, a teammate of Lewis’ at Arkansas and now an assistant coach under Blair at Texas A&M, was at the hospital with Lewis’ family at St. John’s when she passed away. Wright said Lewis always had a divine way of spending her time with people and an amazing know-how and understanding of those that needed her the most.

“She had a great ability to just love everybody no matter who they were or what they were doing,” Wright said in an interview on Thursday. “She never said a bad word about anybody. She just wanted everybody to enjoy what they were doing, enjoy life and get the most out of it. I think that selflessness is a really, really big thing you just don’t find often these days.

“India had a different way of looking at life and enjoying every moment even when you think it’s the end of the world. She looked at the big picture with everything. She was light, fresh and fun.”

An Indiana native, Wright, entering her sophomore season, remembers well learning about Lewis and the star athlete she was coming out of high school. In their first season together at Arkansas, the two butted heads.

Wright quickly realized, though, that the chatter surrounding Lewis wasn’t hype. She had more than enough game to back it up. They then bonded, eventually moving into a Lindsey property together near campus. Their ability to coexist elevated the program, Wright said.

Said to have been a sly trash talker, Lewis could create her shot against anyone, Blair noted. He likened her ability to swiftly launch from deep to one of Nolan Richardson’s standout 3-point specialists during Arkansas’ 40 Minutes of Hell heyday: Alex Dillard.

While some players are shooters and others are scorers, Lewis was the perfect blend of both in Blair’s eyes. But she was more than just that, he said.

“That little shoulder release, all of a sudden you’d be coming down the court thinking you were guarding her and all of a sudden that sucker was going up from 30 feet,” said Blair, who is hosting an Alaskan cruise and will not be able to attend Saturday’s funeral. “She could shoot it very deep. … She always had an assist-to-turnover ratio that was positive, too, and she was always one of the leaders of our team.

“For a local kid from that area, everybody wanted to follow India, both her high school career where she won state her senior year and when she got to Arkansas.”

In addition to Lewis’ game-winning shot against Alabama in February 2003 that made Crimson Tide coach Rick Moody “go ballistic because he knew it was going in,” according to Blair, Wright points to a Christmas-time practice at BYU as one of her fonder basketball memories with Lewis.

Wright, who had no idea why the team went to Utah so late in the year in the first place, and Lewis were matched up against one another for an entire two-hour practice — by Blair’s design – as the team focused on its high-low offense.

“We were running each other into ball screens, we were talking smack back and forth, and literally just beat each other up,” said Wright, who estimates 15 of Lewis’ teammates are traveling to attend the funeral, some from as far away as Ohio. “I remember everybody watching the show of us competing, and we beat BYU the next day, so (Blair) thought that was a good thing, but we were dog tired.”

But most of all, Wright and Blair will remember Lewis’ no-fear attitude, the way she played the game and her personality, which gleamed love and openness.

“It’s tough to lose somebody at 36 years old,” Blair said. “The players who play under you, you remember them for a lifetime. You remember every doggone one of them.

“And India was very, very special.”

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