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Happy accident? Broken arm led to 'Toonie' Cash developing legendary shot

Jeff Birchfield • May 17, 2020 at 1:50 AM

Before becoming one of the most well-known evangelists in the Tri-Cities, Charles “Toonie” Cash earned a reputation for making big shots in big moments during his basketball career at Boones Creek and Milligan.

In February 1967 during his senior year of high school, the 5-foot-10 guard hit a shot near the top of the key to give the Bars a win in a seven-overtime game at Happy Valley. Just a year earlier, he hit an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer in a 59-57 overtime victory over rival Lamar, which offset a 39-point performance from all-state player Kelly Aldridge.

The 72-year-old Cash said his legendary shooting skills — which led him to become Milligan’s all-time leading scorer — came as the result of an injury.

“Between my eighth-grade and ninth-grade year, we were going to Tullahoma with the Babe Ruth all-star baseball team,” he said. “I was waiting on somebody to pick me up and I was shooting ball in the old rec building. I didn’t have shoes on, just socks, I tried to put on the brakes and my feet flew out from under me.

“My arm went over my head and it broke my left arm bad. I had to get a specialist to reset it, but I never got the strength back in it. I’d squeeze rubber balls, lift weights and all that. I had that cast on about nine weeks. It went above my elbow and it’s how I developed my shot.”

His left arm out of action, Cash learned to shoot with his right arm extended way above his head. He used his fingertips and wrist to control the ball and make it go where he wanted.

His passion for basketball was just building at that point. He played in the fifth grade but sat out the next couple of years when he became more interested in baseball. It wasn’t until high school coach Bobby Snyder talked to Cash that he decided to go out for the eighth-grade basketball team.

Cash said he wasn’t a star at first.

“People have said about me, ‘Toonie is just one of those natural- born shooters.’ ” he noted. “I’m like, ‘Natural-born nothing.’ I didn’t even start on my eighth-grade team. My freshman year, I didn’t start on the B team. About the third or fourth game, I started and fell in love with the game.

“From then on, every Saturday morning, I would get up and jog over to Jerry Tucker’s home. His place had a lopsided court and I would go down there — shoot ball, shoot ball and shoot ball. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Once a court was carved out at his own home, Cash spent as many as 10 to 12 hours a day honing his skills. He recalled many times after midnight he was still outside shooting ball.

“It wasn’t one of those natural- born things,” he reiterated. “Some-times you may have more ability than the next guy, but if you don’t work and develop it, it doesn’t happen. I fell in love with that game so much that I scored 25 points in a varsity game against Sulphur Springs my freshman year. I didn’t even start on the B team at the first of the year, so there’s no way to explain that I’m on the varsity scoring 25 points except hard work, dedication and loving the game.”

As Cash improved, so did his coach’s confidence in his abilities. With his team down by one point to Fall Branch, Snyder drew up a play for the freshman to take the final shot.

“He calls time out and he looks at these seniors, juniors and says, ‘We’re one point behind and we’re going to have Toonie shoot it,’ ” Cash recalled. “We’re about half-court and one of our players gets the ball and he throws it over here (on the right wing) to me. Here comes this big boy from Fall Branch towards me. I took a couple of dribbles almost to the out-of-bounds line and jumped and shot it. As I recall, it hit nothing but net.”

From there, Snyder’s biggest challenge was getting Cash to leave after practice so the coach could go home and eat supper.

Not that that slowed Cash.

He found a way to sneak inside the gym by slipping through a window in the locker room. He then would take a screwdriver to open the door to the equipment room where he would grab a ball and go out to the gym.

The team reaped the rewards of that dedication.

Cash led Boones Creek to wins over Science Hill in two of three games his senior season, including a 58-52 victory over the Hilltoppers for the district championship. Overall, the Bars went 25-2 after being upset by Bluff City in the region tournament.

Cash became even more of an offensive force at Milligan, scoring more than 40 points in five games. Among those efforts was what was at the time a school record: 49 points against Wofford. He also scored 44 against Carson-Newman, 41 against Mars Hill, 41 against Maryville and 40 against College of Charleston.

Without the aid of a 3-point line, Cash averaged 25.1 points over his college career. While it all seemed to come “natural,” a shot created out of necessity and developed through many hours on the court was what paved the way to a record-breaking career.

“ ‘Toonie is one of those natural- born shooters’ — no, no, no,” Cash said. “I worked very hard and God used all of that to help me be where I’m at today.”