Alton Lister grew up in the heart of football country, Dallas Texas. The problem is he grew, and grew and grew. He grew so much that he grew too tall for football but the gridiron’s loss was the hardwood’s gain.
Lister was six-foot-10 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas and played the trombone, when the basketball coach talked him into forgetting about football and his music career and concentrate on basketball. It was the right choice. Lister was named to the All American and All-State teams and was also inducted to the school’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
Following high school Lister attended San Jacinto Junior College where he again earned All-American honors, leading the nation in rebounds and blocked shots.
Because of all the success the big man had in high school and junior college he was recruited by just about every college in the country. He decided on a school that was best known for its football program but was up and coming in basketball, Arizona State University.
“I was very heavily recruited by a lot of schools, the top schools, Louisville, SC, Syracuse all the Southwest Conference schools but when I came out to Arizona State there was something about it I really liked,” admitted Lister, who grew two more inches after high school to seven-foot. “The environment, the guys on the team, the coaches I really liked. I just knew that this was the place.”
At the time ASU was coached by the legendary Ned Wulk who was the school’s most successful coach compiling a record of 406 – 272 (.599) from 1958- 1982. Also on the team were three other players who were number one picks in the NBA including long time stars Bryon Scott and Fat Lever.
“That was one of the things that drew me to ASU,” Lister said. “I was told that I could go somewhere that was established and just be another good player on a good team or I could start something here and rebuild and do something special. Plus, Coach Wulk said that they would prepare me to get my degree.”
The 1980-81 Sun Devil team, Lister’s senior year, is considered by many to be the school’s best team ever. They registered a 16-2 mark in Pac-10 play, were 24-4 overall and were ranked third in the nation. That season was capped by a win over the top-ranked and undefeated Oregon State; however ASU lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Kansas.
Lister finished his college career with an 8.2 rebound average and 148 career bocks. He was inducted to the Arizona State Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 1980 Lister was named to the United States Olympic team. The games were to be played in Moscow, Russia. The squad boasted a powerful lineup which included, Isaiah Thomas, Sam Bowie, Mark Aguirre, Buck Williams and Rolando Blackman. The team was heavily favored but they never had a chance to play. President Jimmy Carter ordered the US. Olympic Committee to boycott the Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“The hardest thing was we had to go through the whole process of trials, in Colorado Springs and we were preparing as if we were going to go but at the last minute politics got involved,” Lister said. “We felt we had a really good chance. It was a disappointment because that is a dream to play for your country, wear the red, white and blue. Even looking back now that was one of the biggest highlights of my career, being a part of it.” Following Lister’s senior year at ASU he was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, 21st overall, by the end. Milwaukee Bucks. There he played behind Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier, who Lister calls his mentor. He was also under the tutelage of head coach Don Nelson but that according to Lister wasn’t easy and took some time to get used to.
“It was a very humbling experience. You go from all this success in college to being the last on the totem pole,” Lister said, “When I would come out of the game Nelly would meet me at half court and be on me like you couldn’t imagine. A lot of that really built perseverance, made me tougher and showed me what pro-basketball was really about. I wouldn’t have, had it any other way. I really appreciate all the things he did to me but then I hated him.”
There was a method to Nelson’s madness because Lister put up solid numbers during his tenure with the Bucks and the team made the playoffs all five years he was there.
Following the 1986 season Lister was traded to the Seattle Supersonics for Jack Sikma, one of Seattle’s more popular players. Lister compiled maybe his best season in 1987 when he compiled his highest career point average, 11.6. The Sonics also made the playoffs all three years he was in Seattle.
After the three season with Seattle Lister was reunited with Coach Nelson when the Golden State Warriors traded future Hall of Famer Gary Payton to acquire the center.
Up until that time Lister was extremely durable and missed only 11 games in his first eight years in the NBA. But in Golden State injuries caught up to him and he played sparingly with the Warriors during the next four years.
He was waived by the Bucks in 1993 and went on to play for Milwaukee again, Boston and retired in 1997 after playing just seven games with Portland.
“The biggest thing that happened to me once I got traded to Golden State was that I had my first major injury I tore my Achilles and that was devastating to me,” Lister said. “I was so used to playing and being available and keeping myself in shape then all of a sudden I was out for the entire year. That was the beginning of the end. I was never the same. I didn’t have that same spring, balance, running and jumping and all the other things that I brought to the table. In Portland we all decided that the best thing for me to do was to hang up the sneakers.”
During his 16-year career, when Lister thought about what he would do after his playing days were over, coaching was far from the top of the list. That changed when Don Nelson contacted Lister and told him that the Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, wanted a coach for every position on the team. Nelson asked Lister if he would be interested i n coaching the Mavs’ big men? At the end of his career, with all the injuries he had suffered that became Lister’s role, mentoring the big men on his respective squads but he felt that he wasn’t quite ready to become a coach in the NBA. So instead he decided to get some seasoning in college and accepted the head-coaching position at Mesa Community College, in Mesa, Arizona.
“At that time I did not know if I even wanted to coach so I decided to decline that (Dallas) offer,” Lister said. “I recently got married here in Arizona and wanted to spend more time with my family and at the same time I got the offer at Mesa. I thought let me get my feet wet, see if I really wanted to coach and learn all the ins and outs.”
Lister took over the reins at Mesa in 2000. The previous year the Thunderbirds suffered a 9-21 season. Following Lister’s arrival MCC registered five straight 20-plus win seasons. In the seven years Lister was at the helm, 30 players went on to play Division-1 basketball and a high percentage of his players graduated.
“I learned that as a coach you wear different hats. You’re a mentor, sometimes you are a friend, sometimes you are a father figure to them and I wanted to make sure they all graduated,” Lister said. “From all my coaches, I tried to take a lot of what they were trying to do and put it into my own coaching philosophy. I was even rough, very rough on freshman. They hadn’t proved anything. “
Lister continued to gain experience coaching at the Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp for several seasons, which led to coaching a one-year coaching stint in the NBA, with the Atlanta Hawks.
Then in November of 2008, thanks to the recommendation of one of the Arizona State assistant coaches from his time in Tempe, Paul Howard, Lister was hired as the Skills Coach of the San Miguel Beerman of the Philippine Basketball Association.
“Paul had a connection over there. I had never even heard about the Philippines,” Lister said. “In the Philippines it is the number one sport, they treat the players like NBA players and I will tell you, I was compensated very well. They have about 23,000 people at each game. I thought I was only going to be there for a short time but I started liking it.”
Lister has remained in the Philippines ever since and is still coaching there.