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Lillian Justice Cox blazed the trail for today's local athletes

One of the best kept secrets in the Tahlequah sports scene is that of Lillian Justice Cox.

If you have ever visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, you have likely seen a display that you may have only glanced over.

Getting to your favorite players was probably higher on your priority list. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or maybe it was Kobe Bryant that drew you there, or possibly Wilt Chamberlain. But nestled in amongst these larger-than-life stars is a display of an old out-of-date uniform from a bygone era worn by Lillian Justice Cox.

Chances are you didn’t read enough to see where it was from as you hurried on to your favorite players.

Lillian Mae Justice was born in Westville, OK to Rev. Walter Justice and Freddie Justice, both members of the Cherokee Nation and fluent in Cherokee. They moved to Tahlequah and Walter Justice worked for the railroad and pastored First Cherokee Baptist Church.

Her brothers and sisters were Arthur, James Raymond who retired from Sequoyah High School where he taught from 1964-1996, Mildred J, who married Cherokee Deputy Chief John Ketcher, and Ellen Jean who married Bill Glass. Lillian Justice married Martin B. Cox, Sr. in 1937 and the two had three children and 11 grandchildren. They moved to Louisiana where she helped coach basketball and softball to the local youngsters.

She was a part of some of the first basketball players at Tahlequah High School. She played for four years, 1929-1933, captaining the team in her senior year. As one would expect, statistics are hard to come by from this era.

Her team went 9-1 her freshman year, 15-9 her sophomore year, 11-10 her junior year, and 12-8 her senior year. The highlight of her senior year was helping her team win the Northeastern State College basketball tournament and winning the Sportsmanship trophy.

After her graduation in 1933, she moved on to the Tulsa Business College where she was a member of the Tulsa Stenos AAU team.

The American Athletic Union (AAU) was the only national championship opportunity for women while she played. There were no college national championships as there are now, and there were no professional leagues.

When it came time for the AAU national championship tournament in March of each year, teams came from all over the United States to Wichita, KS where the tournament was held in the Forum.

The Stenos team she played on traveled to 36 states and Canada, playing match games against local teams. This was during the Great Depression when times were hard, and money was short. One could imagine how spartan the living arrangements were on their trips and how difficult the travel must have been.

Lillian Justice Cox played for the Tulsa Stenos, 1934-1936, and the team won three-straight National Championships.

She then moved to Galveston, TX to play for the Anicos, which was an AAU team sponsored by the American National Insurance Company.

She and Nora Cain, who was a teammate of Lillian’s on the Stenos, worked for the American National Insurance Company during the day and played basketball after work. Many companies sponsored teams as a way of advertising.

During her first year playing for the Anico’s, they finished in the top four teams. In 1938 and 1939, the Anico team were National Champions and Lillian Justice was named All-American every year.

As written in a newspaper article, her grandson Martin Cox wrote, “Although basketball was her number one sport, Ms. Cox also played softball while in Galveston where her teams were state champions for three years.”

Jenni Lingor, Alicia Keys, Delaney Nix, Alli Stayathome, Smalls Goudeau, Sierra Smith, Faith Springwater, Kori Rainwater, Jadyn Buttery, Madi Mathews, Talyn Dick, Jersey Retzloff, Paisley Qualls, Lexy Keys, Angel Goodrich, Kylie Eubanks, Melissa Hight, Danita Fields, Jessica Soldier, Sherry Young, Jimmie Weavel, and Paiten Taylor are all names well known locally for their excellence on the basketball court.

These names also demonstrate how this rural, small area in the foothills of the Ozarks and home of the Cherokee Nation produces athlete after athlete. But perhaps the first and most forgotten should be remembered for showing the way.

Tahlequah News Sports Writer Craig Wing also contributed to this article.


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