Nat Frazier was fiery, animated and — to his players at Morgan State University — an inspiring basketball coach who led the Bears to a national championship in 1974.
“He was a master at playing mind games,” said Joe McIver, a guard on that team and now the school’s senior associate athletics director. “Once, when I did something real stupid on the court, coach pulled me over and said, ‘If we lose, it’s going to be you and me afterward.’ He’d say things to shock you back into [normalcy]. Anyway, we won, and from then on, I made sure that when I passed off, the other guy was wide open.”
Frazier died Sept. 22 of complications from heart disease at Howard County General Hospital. The Columbia resident was 84. To the end, he had a bone to pick, his son Kevin Frazier said.
“He was mad that he wouldn’t make it to 100,” Kevin Frazier said.
A native of Savannah, Georgia, and distant kin to former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier, Nat Frazier arrived at Morgan State in 1971. The Bears had had one winner in six seasons; Frazier produced a national title in three years, his team capturing the 1974 NCAA Division II championship with a 28-5 mark.
“The good Lord is shining down on us,” said Frazier, named the College Division Coach of the Year. His star center, 7-foot-1 Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster, was named top player.
Those were heady times for a savvy coach who’d grown up poor, attended Tuskegee Institute and served as an assistant coach at Illinois before taking over at Morgan State.
“Discipline was the key. He wanted us to be the smartest team on the court,” McIver said. “He’d say, ‘I can tell the type of person you’ll be by the way you play the game. If you’re undisciplined on the court, you’ll be that way in life.' He was right.”
Protective of his players and driven to win, Frazier went 173-131 in 10½ years at Morgan State (1971-77 and 1985-90). But that passion could boil over into rhubarbs with officials. In January 1975, he was suspended by the school for cursing and touching a referee during a game against Brockport State, but was reinstated a week later, following two forfeits, when the Bears refused to play without him.
In a 1987 game against UMBC, Frazier received three technical fouls and was ejected but refused to leave the building, earning a two-game suspension. Two years later, he was ejected at Florida A&M, then sat in the stands and refused to budge. Officials forfeited the game and Frazier was put on probation for a year by the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“He was a genius tactician who let his temper get the best of him, and that was his fatal flaw,” said Kevin Frazier, co-host of “Entertainment Tonight.”
As a youngster, Kevin Frazier said he sat on the Morgan bench beside his father and was privy to the coach’s outbursts "when he thought officiating was not on his side. Many a day, as a 10-year-old, I had to corral him, calm him down and literally make him talk to me.
“Part of [that anger] was the vestiges of a man who grew up in the Jim Crow era, lived on a dirt road and owned two shirts and a pair of pants when he left for college. He was always fighting the inequities of life and that’s what stopped him from being, I thought, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.”
Frazier resigned in 1977, became an assistant coach with the NBA’s New York Knicks for one year, then coached the men’s team at Bowie State and a women’s team in the Women’s Professional Basketball League before returning to Morgan State in 1986 to try and resurrect its then-moribund (3-25) program. Four years later, the Bears went 16-12, their first winning season in a decade. Frazier was fired in January 1990, ostensibly for his on-court behavior.
Kenneth Frazier of Baltimore, then a Morgan freshman, played for his father that season and saw “how much he cared for his players. He touched so many lives. Even now, I’ll meet people on the street who’ll say, ‘Your dad helped my son do this or that.'
“He loved basketball, but his big thing was helping students develop into young men.”
In retirement, Frazier enjoyed visits from his old players.
"He’d call me all the time and say, ‘Guess who’s at the house? Guess who’s at the house?’ " Kevin Frazier said. “Once I was home in Los Angeles, talking to Angelina Jolie when he phoned to tell me that the trainer from one of his Morgan teams had stopped by.”
His father is likely now drawing up plays in heaven, he said — and, perhaps, giving officials fits, “though he doubted he’d bump into them up there.”
Besides his sons, Frazier is survived by his wife of 57 years, Alice; brothers James Frazier of Savannah and Timothy Frazier of San Francisco; and five grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Tuesday, Oct. 1, at Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2201 Argonne Drive. The viewing will be held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and the funeral will begin at 11.