The most recognizable face in the game of poker is of a man who transcends every period in poker history. Known as ‘Texas Dolly’, Doyle Brunson is who the wider world thinks of when they’re asked about a poker player. He played in an era known now as the Wild West. It feels like he’s always been around. But before he was great at the game of cards, Brunson was shooting hoops as a college basketball player. Only a knee injury that prevented him from going on to a career in the NBA.
What would have happened to poker if Brunson he’d been able to carry on playing basketball? What if Doyle Brunson never got injured?
BRUNSON THE BASKETBALL SUPERSTAR
It’s not just our opinion that Texas Dolly could well have been known as the ‘Texas Alley-Oop’. Brunson wasn’t just competent as a basketball player at Hardin-Simmons University, he was in the starting line-up at his alma mater and the All-State Texas basketball team. Tall, rangy and accurate, he was Border Conference Player of the Year in basketball and ran 4:38 mile, winning the state title. He was an exceptional sportsman. Brunson led Sweetwater to the state tournament and it was then that he attracted more attention, only for his career to be dashed by a knee injury that would turn him in another direction entirely.
@ryanposner I CAN'T HATE THE LAKERS. THEY WERE SET TO DRAFT ME WHEN I GOT OUT OF COLLEGE. BUT, I GOT HURT.
— Doyle Brunson (@TexDolly) May 20, 2009
If he’d avoided the basketball game in which he was injured, then Brunson would almost certainly have had a chance to show his worth in the NBA. In the 1950s, the NBA was in its infancy, and Brunson, had he made it in the pro league, would have staked a claim to become one of the MVPs of the early era. If the record books serve us right, Brunson would’ve been on track to get drafted in 1953, the year when Walter Dukes went first overall to the New York Knicks.
The Minneapolis Lakers had the ninth overall pick and took Jim Fritsche who ended u playing two seasons and only 74 total games in the NBA. The best player from that draft was arguably Cliff Hagan who turned out to be a six-time All-Star and Hall of Fame inductee scoring a total of 13,447 points in his 10-year career.
We’ll never know how long Doyle would’ve lasted in the NBA, was he on track to become the next Cliff Hagan or would his career have been closer to that of Jim Fritsche? All we know is that Doyle became a legend in the game that is often referred to as a sport, and at age 85 he’s still competing at the highest level.
What would have happened to poker though if Doyle did not get injured? How much does the game we all love owe a debt to the man in the hat whose silhouette alone sells poker around the world?
COWBOYS AND KINGS
Poker has certainly benefitted from the involvement of Doyle Brunson. The measure of any man is how much he is missed when not there, and after he announced in 2018 that his WSOP tournament career might be over, hundreds of poker fans felt the pinch. Maybe Brunson hasn’t been in every tournament for a number of years, but the World Series of Poker doesn’t feel like the World Series without him. It isn’t just that he won back-to-back Main Events with 10-2 that made him famous. The last time he reached the final table of the Main Event was 1983, where he would lose out to relative unknown at the time, Tom McEvoy. It’s more that whenever Doyle Brunson was in town, you knew the action was there.
From the relative tranquillity of the basketball court, Brunson’s journey to poker icon took in two deaths at the table. Were he not at those tables and the tales not told, poker may have seemed less exciting to poker fans, less dangerously alluring. Poker needs heroes, and if not Brunson, who may have become the cowboy and king of poker?
Who could have filled his space from Brunson’s poker peers at the time of his greatest recognition? Could Johnny Moss or Puggy Pearson have achieved worldwide recognition beyond the extent to which they did? Could it have been one of the players at his 1976 final table, Crandell Addington? Also wearing a cowboy hat, Addington has a name that relates to poker, the look of a cowboy and the attitude of a king, always turning up to the fight. Maybe the book Ante Up with Addington might have been the replacement for Super System? It doesn’t feel right, though, does it? The book that Doyle wrote, however, is a large driving force behind his worldwide fame along with his accomplishments and longevity in the game.
A LATE ARRIVAL
If he’d conquered the basketball world, would Texas Dolly ever joined poker after a career in the NBA? It’s not likely, with Brunson’s dedication to his craft what has marked him out in poker. Basketball is a shorter career to play, but with his Texas drawl and glittering eyes, Doyle ‘Alley-Oop’ Brunson may have moved into broadcasting. Maybe he even would have branched out into other sports as a presenter and commentator as well as basketball. It’s possible that his path may even have crossed with a mindsport at some stage, as that is what poker has loosely become. Maybe the presenter may have picked up some cards himself in a media game and taken to it just like he was destined to in reality.
Doyle Brunson might have been destined to suffer the injury that set back his basketball dreams and realigned them to winning ten WSOP bracelets and becoming ‘the man in the hat’. The poker legend from Texas is a walking, talking buzzer-beater, with a perennial appeal to poker fans. We’re glad to have him.