ST. MATTHEWS — Driving in on S.C. 6, visitors to this quiet Calhoun County town are greeted by a green Department of Transportation sign announcing the home of the Calhoun County High Saints, 2000-01 state basketball champions.
The sign is an indicator of a community’s pride in its youngsters’ sports accomplishments. It also is four titles out of date.
“Yeah, I need to go by the Highway Department and see about getting that done,” said Zam Fredrick, Calhoun County’s coach since 1989 and the architect of seven state crowns — four in Class 2A, plus the past three in a row in Class A — and a state-record 78-games-and-counting win streak.
Fredrick also has local pride, the kind you would expect from a homegrown basketball talent who, 30 years ago, helped then-St. Matthews High to two state championships, then returned 20 years ago to resurrect that tradition and take it to unprecedented heights.
At 49, the former USC player who led the nation in scoring in 1980-81 is a local institution. His son Zam II, aka Buck, will be a senior at his father’s alma mater this coming season, while back home the elder Fredrick will see how far the Saints can run that winning streak.
He admits, with a laugh, that most of his current players know nothing about his own playing days, or how he averaged 28.9 points as a senior while helping revive a dormant Gamecocks team. But on Sundays, when Fredrick attends New Mount Zion Baptist Church in nearby Orangeburg, he reminisces with his pastor, Jerome Anderson, a 6-foot-7 forward on those mid-70s title teams.
“I think I was pretty good back then,” Fredrick said, grinning. “We won titles, but I’m sure there were some in town who didn’t know that” when he returned as coach.
Doesn’t matter, though. In this town nowadays, “everyone knows me; it’s like being among friends all over again. I’m one of them, just older.”
Naturally. Everyone loves a winner — especially one of their own.
FROM PLAYING TO COACHING
From the time he finished at USC, through nearly a decade of professional basketball in Italy after turning down a non-guaranteed deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, Zam Fredrick was a player.
Coaching? “I didn’t see it, never thought about it,” he said. But he kept in touch with friends here during that time, wondering why the high school teams didn’t win more. Then fate — and injury — stepped in.
“I hurt my knee playing in Belgium, and didn’t think it would recover in time to finish that season,” he said. Buck was a toddler, and the idea of rearing him (and, later, daughter Zandria, now a sophomore at USC, and 8-year-old son Zamuel) in his hometown was appealing, so he and wife Debra moved back to their roots.
He knew plenty of folks, naturally: Calhoun County principal James Blasingame, local S.C. Rep. John Felder and most of all Ernest “Bucky” Stokes, the school district superintendent who would help him fulfill his destiny. Calhoun County’s coach, Howard Davis, had won titles at nearby St. John’s High in Cameron, but four wins in two seasons had him ready to retire, Fredrick said.
“It wasn’t a ‘hostile takeover,’” he said. “But it was perfect timing.”
That first season, Fredrick struggled with his new players’ mentality that “it was OK to lose.” The Saints lost eight of his first nine games because, he said, “they didn’t know how to finish games.”
Fredrick knew how: by working harder than the players ever had before.
“I told them, then I showed them,” he said. That first season, Calhoun County lost in overtime at top-ranked Saluda, missing late free throws. Afterward, “I told them they had the skills and will to win those games. It took that game for them to realize it.”
The Saints won eight of their final nine games and “never turned back.”
That first state title season, 1995-96, Fredrick’s team finished 31-2. “Success breeds success; now they believe they’re supposed to be champions,” he said. Since the turn of the 21st century, Calhoun County has played for a state title every year but 2005, and won six of eight times, finishing Class 2A runners-up in 2002 and 2003.
In fact, Fredrick said with a laugh, he believes fans have come to take for granted a Saints title each season.
“We’ve spoiled Calhoun County,” he said. “(Fans) come to a couple of early games; then they wait for the games in the (Colonial Life Arena),” where state championship games are decided.
Blame that hubris on the coach. His system churns out tenacious, aggressive, running teams that often blow away the competition. A year ago, in the state quarterfinals, Calhoun County crushed perennial powerhouse Great Falls, 69-49.
“I’ll have to give credit where credit is due,” coach John Smith said afterward. “I don’t think there’s anybody in Class A that can handle them.”
St. Matthews had won back-to-back 2A state titles heading into Fredrick’s senior season, but black students boycotted classes for 40 days that fall over perceived slights, notably a white homecoming queen and runner-up at the predominantly black school. “Instead of a vote, (school officials) made it which girls raised the most money,” he said.
The student body president, a friend of Fredrick’s, enlisted athletes to give the boycott teeth. When the Yellow Jackets finally returned to the court, officials denied them a spot in the region tournament, keeping them out of the playoffs.
Fredrick heard the “militant” label during recruiting, and at USC he sat on the bench as a freshman. He averaged 13.9 points as a sophomore, but his junior year he was back on the sidelines, often at odds with soon-to-retire coach Frank McGuire.
New coach Bill Foster arrived to find few veterans and limited talent in 1980, but he had an eager, driven Fredrick determined to go out in style.
“We had no one with experience behind Zam,” Foster said. “He didn’t have to worry about coming out (of games); I think that’s what he worried about” as a junior.
After a slow start, Fredrick lit up Furman for 30 points in December. Then against Marquette, he scored 31 in a 91-89 upset, and the “Zam Slam” was in high gear. During a 13-game stretch he averaged 36 points per game, rising to first in the nation.
“I don’t think there was ever a better shooter at Carolina,” said former radio voice Bob Fulton. “Think what he could’ve done if they had the 3-pointer then.”
He finished his career with 43 points vs. Georgia Southern, giving 10,477 at Carolina Coliseum plenty to cheer about and clinching the NCAA scoring title. From there, he was off on his extended “European vacation,” but somehow he always knew he would wind up back home.
At Calhoun County he has found kids much like he was 30 years ago — kids such as Charles Ben, who had “that old-school mentality, that toughness,” and who Fredrick can see as an assistant coach someday. Gym rats are harder to come by than skilled players these days, he said, but he finds them anyway.
In his playing days, “you couldn’t keep me away” from the gym, assuming someone like Oscar Dayson was there to let him in while doing team laundry on Sundays. Other times, the Guinyard Elementary School playground was “our Coliseum, every day of the week,” he said.
“I had to get my ideas across to today’s kids, about hard work and studying the game, doing the little things right.” He laughed. “My first class thought I was from Mars,” he said.
Nope. As anyone who’s been around a while knows, Zam Fredrick is from right here.
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.