When Keith Holloway toed the free-throw line late in C.A. Johnson High School’s state championship game at Carolina Coliseum in March of 1989, teammates Nate Jacobs and Carey Rich stood shoulder to shoulder near midcourt.
With a big lead over Riverside of Greer, the Green Hornets’ state championship was secure, and Holloway’s two free throws proved to be candle lighting on a celebration that ensued among C.A. Johnson fans in the packed arena.
Jacobs and Rich, friends since childhood who learned to play the game they so loved in Columbia-area recreation centers and on the outdoor courts in various housing projects, stood motionless and soaked in the atmosphere.
The two then patted each other on the back, their smiles as broad as the elephant doors to the Coliseum. They realized, like their teammates, they were on top of a world that had so worked against them throughout their young lives.
Ten of the 12 members of that team grew up in the housing projects around the high school. Eleven were reared in single-parent dwellings, some by a mother, others by their grandmothers. One player’s mother was murdered outside a Two Notch Road motel. Another player’s father was shot, collapsed and died in front of him.
So impoverished were some of these young men, they picked a friend and a classmate to partner in clothes sharing. They swapped blue jeans and T-shirts so it would appear to their peers as if the teammates had more than one of each.
“Seeing all the struggles in the neighborhood you grew up in,” says Bernard Toatley, a junior on that team, “I think pretty much all of us were trying to find a way out.”
That was the makeup of a group of players coach Tim Gates, 38 years old at the time, shaped and molded into a championship basketball team. He did it by striking fear in every one of them. Occasionally, Gates toted a paddle to practice, demanding a player bend over and take punishment for wrongdoing, whether the offense occurred on or off the court, a practice he later discontinued and admits today would not wash.
Gates also fostered an “us against the world” mentality that forced his team to believe the only way to overcome adversity, survive and thrive was for all members to bond as one with a common goal: To win a state championship.
Gates’ charge was to provide discipline for his young men and some semblance of structure in lives that otherwise lacked both. The reward for team members was to be part of a basketball family that won games, perhaps a championship. Then Gates could send them on their way in life, knowing the hard work and perseverance they learned from him would serve them well.
Gates is retired and lives near Lake Murray. One member of the team died in a car crash, and another from complications of diabetes. Of the remaining 10, one is a college assistant women’s basketball coach and another is a sports talk radio personality. Yet another married his C.A. Johnson sweetheart, who three years ago donated her kidney to him.
All who were contacted said that championship season left an indelible mark on them, and most believe today that Gates proved to be the single most influential person in their lives.
Even through a 13-win, 7-loss regular season there were signs C.A. Johnson fielded a pretty darned good basketball team. Two of those seven losses were to eventual Class AAAA state champion Eau Claire. Two more were against cross-town rival Keenan, which was ranked No. 1 in the state all season in the same Class AAA ranks in which C.A. Johnson competed. Two more were to Holly Hill Roberts, a strong fellow-region team. The other was in a Christmas tournament to a Southern High team out of Baltimore.
When Gates gathered his 11th C.A. Johnson team for the first time in November, he knew a change in playing style from the previous season was in the offing. No longer could C.A. Johnson play an inside-outside game, since powerful post player Ben Blocker had graduated. Instead, the Green Hornets would go more to an outside-inside game that featured a talented three-guard alignment of senior Nate Jacobs, and juniors Carey Rich and Bernard Toatley.
Discipline and conditioning were going to be the hallmarks of this team. Gates’ mission was to make his young men physically and mentally tough, and that sometimes meant bringing them to tears in practice.
No player was immune to Gates’ tactics. A few years earlier, Mike Jones had joined the basketball team following another standout season as a linebacker on the football team. Jones later played in the NFL. On this particular day, Jones surrendered a rebound to a smaller teammate and Gates approached the 6-foot-4, 280-pound athlete with paddle in hand.
Jones bent over, pulled his shorts down to his knees and took a couple of whacks from his coach. Jones then righted himself and approached his coach for some private consultation.
“I appreciate all you’ve done for me,” Gates recalls Jones saying, “but is it alright if I just stop playing basketball right now and concentrate on lifting weights for football?”
Jones was the exception. Leaving the team or quitting was not an option for most players. In fact, Gates kept Charles Davis as a sophomore reserve on the ’89 team, to make certain the young man was off the streets and out of trouble. Davis admits today there were many other students in school who were better basketball players and more deserving to be on the varsity team, but Gates stuck by him.
Gates knew well what he represented to his young men.
“When you have kids who are raised by their mothers and grandmothers, they really had a perception of males that you were a threat,” Gates says. “So, first of all, I had to get them to like me. Then I also had to show them that you couldn’t just get away with doing what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it.”
By the time the calendar flipped to 1989 and the second semester began at C.A. Johnson, a couple of players on the team had forced Gates’ hand. They were not responding to his disciplinary measures, and an incident at the school led to their dismissal from the team. Both could have helped the team succeed on the court, but their actions off the court could no longer be tolerated, according to Gates.
It might have been the single action that most bonded the team.
Now, when Gates barked out orders, every one of the remaining 12 players knew he meant business. Headbands were not allowed, nor wristbands. Players responded to all adults with “yes, sir” and “no, sir” answers. Punctuality was mandatory for all. Every player wore the same tennis shoes issued by the athletics department. Oh, and no more haircuts the day of a game because, as Gates told them, “You would lose your concentration trying to look pretty.”
When Gates ordered three-, four- and five-mile runs at 5 a.m. through and around the several housing projects in the C.A. Johnson area, the head coach joined the players. Gates wanted to know all the drug dealers and pimps on the street corners, just to make it known that his boys were off-limits and beyond approach.
Gates was in excellent physical shape, still is today. He consistently ordered the team to run extra wind sprints and suicide drills after practice, thus tiring them out before he challenged a player to a one-on-one game of basketball. With fresh legs, Gates never lost, and in so doing had yet another way to show his players who was boss.
Gates learned his coaching trade from playing basketball and football for legendary Rosenwald High coach Willie Simon in Lexington, then picked up pointers on discipline during one year of service in the Air Force following graduation from S.C. State.
He knew what kind of kid he was dealing with at C.A. Johnson through his upbringing in Lexington’s predominantly black neighborhood on The Hill and also while serving as an assistant coach at old Booker T. Washington High School.
Gates believed that a daily schedule filled with activities meant avoiding the traps of hanging out in the neighborhoods where his athletes lived.
“Kids could go out and make more money selling marijuana than they could staying in school and doing the right thing,” Gates says.
Every basketball player was required to run either cross country or track during the off-season. Players were afforded a 15-minute break following the end of the school day, then attended a mandatory two-hour – sometimes longer – study hall. These sessions were required throughout the school year, not just during basketball season.
“It was harder than school,” Rich says of the study halls. “Naturally, you are decompressing from school, you want to relax a little bit and let your hair down. You know you’re going to have a couple of comedians on the team, and you had to be quiet. We couldn’t wait to get out of there and go practice.”
Practices often stretched beyond two hours. Players dreaded the sessions when Gates showed up without a rack full of basketballs. That meant the coach knew of an off-court transgression, and it had angered him. Running began immediately, and sometimes lasted deep into the night.
One day, the mother of senior post player Keith Holloway showed up at practice and marched onto the court to voice her displeasure at the coach’s presumed mistreatment of her son. After Mom spoke her mind and departed the gym, Gates gathered the team and said, “Someone in here wants to be a mama’s boy!”
Holloway made the colossal mistake of crying. The team ran that day instead of practicing. They ran, and ran, and ran some more.
Gates was determined to knock any lack of discipline out of their very fiber, and to teach them a few lessons along the way. Early in the season, following a close loss to rival Eau Claire, several players opted to skip school the next day rather than face possible teasing by fellow students.
Gates and Henry Young, the C.A. Johnson principal at the time, drove their Volvo and mini-van, respectively, around the housing projects and rounded up the players, bringing every one to school. “You will NEVER not learn to face the music,” senior forward Ronald Hughey says Gates told the players.
The underlying message from Gates resonated with Hughey and his teammates for the rest of their lives: They were wanted.
“We were in a low-income environment. We were surrounded by nothing but projects,” Gates said. “That was C.A. Johnson’s environment. Very few people wanted to do anything to help. The kids were toss-outs, rejects, people that other people didn’t want.”
They did not have a nickname at the time, but a quarter of a century later, this team should forever be known as the Redemption Boys.
C.A. Johnson split its six non-region games to open the season, pummeling an outmanned Terrell’s Bay squad twice and defeating Johns Island St. John’s in the third-place game at the Modie Risher Classic in Charleston. Two losses were expected against a higher-level Eau Claire team led by legendary coach George Glymph, who recorded his 250th career victory in the second game.
By the time region games rolled around at the first of the new year, Gates had better defined roles for his players. The three leaders had been established. Senior Nate Jacobs was the point guard who ran the team. Junior Carey Rich was a tremendous 3-point shooter and scorer from the off-guard position. Junior Bernard Toatley was the team’s most versatile player from the wing position, capable of scoring, rebounding and defending.
At 6-foot-3, sophomore forward Paul Jackson provided C.A. Johnson with its best post presence. He was a tremendous leaper -- a two-time state champion high jumper – who could block shots and rebound. The other starting position alternated between husky senior Keith Holloway and senior Ronald Hughey. Both were 6-1, but expected to play defense well against taller opponents.
The team’s six reserves also knew what was expected of them. Gates wanted all-out effort from them in practice to help the starters improve, and he insisted that reserves be ready to contribute when called upon.
Shawn Adams was a junior forward who had enough quickness to be effective when C.A. Johnson applied full-court defensive pressure, which was most of the time. Adams shuffled between the varsity and junior varsity teams. On March 12, 2008, he dropped one of his children off at a daycare center off Farrow Road, then headed to work. He crashed his car and was killed.
The lone freshman on the team was the aptly named Larry Gunn, according to Gates. Gunn was an outstanding shooter, who in later seasons became a big scorer for C.A. Johnson. “I couldn’t play him too much because he would shoot it from anywhere,” Gates says of Gunn that season. “If it hit his hands, I’d have to yell, ’Don’t shoot.’ ”
Gunn later drove a school bus for Richland School District One. He had a difficult time controlling his weight, according to Gates. Gunn died of complications from diabetes on June 19, 2009.
Sophomore Aries Lovette was known to teammates and family members by his middle name of “Pierre.” He had the misfortune that season of being the backup to Jacobs, who was not coming out of games. Period. Lovette served four years in the U.S. Army, worked for the city of Columbia, then moved to Laurinburg, N.C., where he first worked for WestPoint Stevens and now is employed in the shipping department for Campbell Soup Co.
Senior Fred Moore was the consummate team player, the first to lead cheering on the bench and to offer hand slaps and pats on the back to the starters. Moore’s finest hour was a 16-point outburst in a three-point victory over Aiken in mid-January.
Moore was the exception on this team, growing up in a two-parent family in one of the largest homes on Mercer Street in the neighborhood on the opposite side of Two Notch Road from the high school. Education was stressed in his household by his mother, a nurse, and his father, a Columbia police officer. Moore, an auto mechanic, helped found Three Man Auto off Rosewood Drive.
Eric Baker is the one who stands out in any photo of the team. He gave the Green Hornets an imposing look when he ducked his head to get off the team bus, or walked into a restaurant or gymnasium. Baker was a 6-10 sophomore that season, and would grow to 7-feet during his brief stay on the University of Nebraska basketball team two years later.
Baker lived in the C.A. Johnson school zone, but attended Eau Claire as a freshman. Gates said Eau Claire students teased him because he lacked the necessary coordination to play basketball effectively, perhaps because he had not yet grown into his long and lean body.
Baker transferred to C.A. Johnson where he became the ultimate “project” for Gates. Because of knee soreness, Baker had a difficult time jumping and was unable to touch the rim when he first arrived on campus. Instead of practicing with the team, Gates worked Baker on coordination drills, such as jumping up on a bleacher step and back down or jumping to touch the rim with his left hand, then his right hand. He had Baker squeeze tennis balls to strengthen his hands.
Baker earned the nickname “Easy E” from his teammates. “Any time they put ‘Easy’ in front of your name, it tells you something,” Gates says.
Baker’s biggest contribution that season came, interestingly enough, in the state championship game. When C.A. Johnson switched out of its traditional man-to-man defense and employed a 1-3-1 zone, Baker came off the bench to play quality minutes. His size played perfectly into the middle of the defense where he could stand and wave his arms.
None of Baker’s teammates has seen or heard from him in years, and he is the lone player on the ’89 squad unaccounted for today.
Then there was sophomore reserve Charles Davis, the one Gates kept on the team for reasons outside basketball. A book could be written about Davis’ life.
Davis was 6 years old in May of 1978 when he and his sister were playing at their grandmother’s home in Columbia. Davis says he was in the front yard watching an argument that escalated to the point that his father, Sherman Davis, was shot and killed.
“My Dad walked around, touched me on the forehead and collapsed,” Davis says.
Davis and his younger sister were then raised mostly by their grandmother. By the time he got to high school, Davis said he was hooking up with a friend to exchange clothes. He would wear a pair of blue jeans and a shirt to school, rinse both out in the kitchen sink at night, then exchange them with a classmate for school the next day.
He also developed a close friendship with classmates Tyski Gabriel and Christopher Sharper. Davis says Gabriel taught him how to kiss a girl by demonstrating with a pillow, and Sharper taught him how to use his fists to protect himself outside of school.
One year after C.A. Johnson’s state championship, on the night of Jan. 12, 1990, Davis, Gabriel and Sharper engaged in some verbal sparring with several students from Eau Claire High at the McDonald’s near Dutch Square Mall.
Upon leaving the restaurant, Davis drove his mother’s van onto Broad River Road. When he stopped at a traffic light, two Oldsmobiles pulled up alongside Davis’ vehicle. Shots were fired from the cars and struck both Gabriel and Sharper, according to police reports.
Sharper, an all-region linebacker on the football team, died four days later of gunshot wounds to the back of the head. Gabriel, who was voted by classmates as “most popular,” “most attractive,” and “best-dressed” student, died a day after Sharper of gunshot wounds to the head.
“A lot of people sort of blamed him,” Rich says of Davis.
“They tried to blame him for having anything to do with it,” Gates says.
To escape the C.A. Johnson community, Davis initially transferred to A.C. Flora High. Admittedly traumatized by the incident, Davis says he was saved by a Columbia family that accepted him into their family. A couple of months later, Davis left with the family’s father to travel to Chicago.
The only items Davis took with him were the clothes he was wearing. He even dropped his name, known from that day forward as Tyson Davis. He graduated from George Henry Corliss High School in Chicago.
As much as he ran from his past, Davis says he has never escaped it.
“The two people I considered my family members, all I had at that time, were killed,” Davis says. “I can’t get it out of my head. I miss those guys. I wish I could call them sometimes. I find myself just talking to them.”
Even today, when he drives his car around Houston, where he lives with his wife and works, Davis is paranoid about having any of his children as back-seat passengers. That is when, like a recurring nightmare, the shooting incident from 1990 replays in his mind.
Charles Davis and Ronald Hughey were two years apart in school, but shared a common bond that was unknown to them. Both had a parent murdered when they were young.
Hughey was 20 days short of his fifth birthday when his 22-year-old mother, Doris Hughey, was shot dead on Oct. 18, 1975. Doris Hughey’s body was found lying face down in the office of the Chat ’N’ Rest Motel on Two Notch Road. A second victim, 25-year-old Jacquilin Taylor, was found dead a couple blocks from the motel.
Hughey, his younger brother and sister, were shuffled off to live with their grandmother, Dorethea Hughey, in the Jaggers Terrace housing project. For the remainder of his childhood, Hughey was among 10 children reared in the four-bedroom apartment by his grandmother, then a part-time custodian at old Logan Elementary School.
Hughey also had six uncles who looked after him, including Carl Hughey, who at 6-5 was somewhat of a street basketball legend because of his amazing ability to step just across the half-court line and swish a jump shot through the nets. Carl Hughey taught his nephew how to play the game, sometimes long into the night, even after the street lights on the Jaggers Terrace courts were turned off at 9 o’clock. The reflection of porch lights illuminated the courts’ metal nets so the two could see the basket they were shooting at in the dark.
Four of Hughey’s six uncles played basketball for coach Gates at C.A. Johnson. By the time Ronald Hughey reached W.A. Perry Middle School, Gates knew all about him. One day after a middle-school practice, Gates approached young Hughey.
“Aren’t you Carl Hughey’s nephew?” Ronald Hughey recalls Gates saying.
“Yes, sir, I am,” Hughey responded.
“Well, you’re already doing better than him because you said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
When Hughey reached the varsity team as a junior, he selected jersey No. 42 because he had just been introduced through reading books to Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Fame player who broke baseball’s color lines.
Hughey was among the more versatile players on that 1989 squad. He was asked to guard opponents’ post players, even at 6-1, but he could just as easily step out into the wing position and shoot 3-pointers.
After college, Hughey went into the brick mason business and, one day, was bricking a driveway at Gates’ home in Lexington. Gates suggested that Hughey needed to get into coaching and arranged for him to be hired as an assistant women’s basketball coach at S.C. State. Today, he is an assistant women’s coach at Florida State University.
He admits to having come a long way from his days as a confused young boy who walked up and down Barhamville Road searching for his mother, who was unable to return to him.
Paul Jackson was the team’s center. He was 6-3. That often meant having to guard opponents who were five and six inches taller. Jackson made up for his lack of size, for a post player, by being the most athletic player on the team. He could run with tremendous body control, and, oh, how he could jump.
“Great rebounder,” coach Gates says of Jackson by way of giving a scouting report. “Great team player. Didn’t say a whole lot, just got the job done. He was deceptive because he blocked a lot of shots. They thought they could shoot over him.”
Jackson was athletic enough to make the varsity team as a 10th-grader. He, perhaps more than any other teammate, benefitted from Gates’ requirement that all players participate in cross country or track in the offseason.
As a ninth-grader, Jackson placed fifth in the high jump at the state high school track meet. Gates then hooked Jackson up with coaches at USC, who began working on the high jumper’s technique. He won the state high jump titles during his sophomore and junior seasons and placed second during his final state meet.
The goal all along was to break the state record of 7 feet in the high jump. While he fell well short of the record, it was still quite remarkable that Jackson could top out at 6 feet, 8 inches.
Jackson played basketball briefly at Benedict College, served three years in the U.S. Army, landed in Kentucky and now is back in Columbia where he does small construction work, anything from cabinetry to plumbing.
Twelve games into the season, C.A. Johnson’s ledger stood at seven wins against five losses following a heartbreaking 93-92 defeat at the hands of Holly Hill-Roberts. If the Green Hornets were going to make a move toward any postseason success it needed to happen now.
South Aiken was a formidable region opponent, having lost by only three points in their previous meeting with C.A. Johnson. South Aiken also featured one of the top scorers in the state in 6-foot-6 senior Steve Franklin, who topped 30 points the previous time the teams had played and was averaging 26 a game.
Keith Holloway was given the assignment to shut down Franklin. That was OK with Holloway, a three-year starter on the varsity who previously had been assigned to cover 6-foot-8 Eau Claire star Joe Rhett, and held his own.
Holloway was 5-foot-11 in the ninth grade and possessed the kind of muscular physique that made Gates believe he would grow into a tall, hulking player around the basket. Gates began teaching Holloway how to play with his back to the basket. Unfortunately, Holloway only grew four more inches, but he possessed the skills of a post player, which was necessary on a team where he was the tallest starter by his senior year.
“My role is to be the backbone of the team, help get rebounds and score inside when they need me to score,” Holloway told The State that season. “We have some good outside shooters so we don’t look inside too much. . . . I’m definitely not flashy. I just get the job done quietly.”
Which is what he did that night at South Aiken, holding Franklin to 18 points in another three-point decision for C.A. Johnson. The win sparked a 6-2 finish to the regular season and gave the Green Hornets momentum heading to the playoffs.
Holloway also had a keen interest in the C.A. Johnson girls basketball team at the time. He has been married to one of its players, LaTasha (Wilson) Holloway, for 23 years and the couple sell legal plans through LegalShield Co., out of Zebulon, Ga. They have two children. Three years ago, LaTasha donated a kidney to her husband.
Nate Jacobs could score if that was needed, like in the final regular-season game at Dreher when he put up 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter of an 81-75 win. But that was not him. His job was to direct the team. Drive the bus. The engine starter.
Jacobs, the spindly 5-foot-11 senior point guard, also was “tough as nails,” and “mean as a rattlesnake,” according to teammate Carey Rich.
Jacobs was tough enough to play through a badly sprained ankle during C.A. Johnson’s state semifinal victory over Keenan, and three days later through the championship game against Riverside of Greer. Turns out, the ankle was broken, and surgery a week later had him in a cast for two months.
Toughness came to Jacobs by playing against older and bigger kids wherever there was a game on the Columbia housing project courts. It was Saxon Homes one night, Jaggers Terrace the next. Then maybe to Pinehurst Courts, or Valley Park.
“Nate was a park legend at a very young age,” coach Gates says. “He was so unselfish. People tried to (full-court) press us, which didn’t make any sense to me because we had Nate Jacobs. He knew how to pass. He knew how to dribble. He knew how to retreat. He did a lot of things you didn’t have to teach him.”
Jacobs also was brash. Gates says he learned to accept Jacobs’ daring style of play, occasionally having to turn his head when a behind-the-back pass found a spectator in the stands instead of a teammate.
Jacobs also was the team spokesman, his talk often in the form of trash aimed at the opposing team. Even in huddles, Jacobs was the one who would chastise a teammate for not being in proper position or for taking a bad shot. Occasionally, Gates would turn a timeout over to his leader.
“I wasn’t stupid,” Gates says. “Sometimes coaches have to understand that you’ve got to shut your mouth and let it happen.”
Jacobs made it happen much like Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics or Sherman Douglas of Syracuse, point guards he watched religiously on TV and studied fervently. Jacobs handled the ball. He directed the offense. He forced turnovers with his quick hands and feet on defense.
“I was in my world,” Jacobs says, “and all I had to do was get it to the shooters and everything would fall in place.”
Anyone who saw him play believed Jacobs had a future in college basketball, at the very least with a lower-rung program. Then, at school shortly after the season ended, Jacobs was engaged in a verbal spat with a girlfriend and punched his fist through a window. All the ligaments in his right wrist were shredded, and his basketball playing days were over.
On the night of April 13, 2002, Jacobs was riding his Kawasaki motorcycle on North Main Street when he was bumped by a car from behind, slid off the road and broke his hip, among other injuries. His days as a plumber are done, and he remains disabled.
Jacobs walks with a limp and recently had difficulty navigating the steps to the old gymnasium where he was a star at C.A. Johnson. Yet, there he was amongst his old teammates still directing everyone into position on the court as they re-created a play from the state championship game.
When the state playoffs began the second weekend in March, C.A. Johnson knew it faced a difficult path to the title game. The Green Hornets were sent to North Charleston for the opening round, then could see enough down the road to know that Holly Hill-Roberts and Keenan would likely follow.
The team and cheerleaders were dismissed early from school that Wednesday and arrived on the school bus early enough for a pregame meal at a Charleston Ryan’s Steak House. Then coach Gates decided to start a tradition that the team would continue all the way through the playoffs. He took the boys to Northwoods Mall in North Charleston.
Gates wanted his team to relax, look around and get their minds off of basketball for an hour or so. There was a beneath-the-surface message in their strolls through the mall as well.
“We would see people with nice shoes and all those things, all those things we wished we had,” says senior Ronald Hughey, who remembered what Gates had told them.
“You keep doing the things you are doing the right way, embrace the community, always look to give more than you receive, and you’ll have the things you want in life,” Hughey recalls Gates saying, “but you’ve got to have discipline and work hard for them.”
It was yet another way of Gates making his team believe it was all alone in its fight against the world. He painted the same picture with the media, which he never believed gave C.A. Johnson proper coverage, and with game officials, whom he believed gave C.A. Johnson the short end of the stick in their calls.
The masterful mental strategy had Gates’ team believing no one gave it even the slightest chance to advance in the playoffs, let alone win a state championship. As a result, C.A. Johnson played with a chip on both shoulders. It was an angry group of Green Hornets on the court, out to show the world it belonged.
“People in the stands were laughing, talking about how bad the game was going to be,” Gates said of facing a North Charleston team in the first round that started players who stood 6-7 and 6-6.
C.A. Johnson got the last laugh and easily dispatched North Charleston, 75-58. Then came the third meeting against Holly Hill-Roberts, this one to be played at S.C. State in Orangeburg. Once again, the team ate at Ryan’s, then strolled the mall.
Carey Rich put on a show, scoring 25 points in the first half and finishing with 39 without playing in the fourth quarter. Keith Holloway and Paul Jackson put the clamps on Holly Hill-Roberts’ big scorer, Morris Wright, who was limited to 6 points after scoring 31 and 30 in the previous two meetings.
Next up was Keenan, in a game played at Lower Richland High, which meant another pregame meal of steak at Ryan’s and a visit to Richland Mall. It also meant a third meeting with Keenan, which was ranked No. 1 in the state all season, carried a 21-1 record into the game, and had won two hotly contested games against C.A. Johnson during the regular season.
The odds seemed stacked against C.A. Johnson, which is right where Gates liked them. He did not mind that Keenan started a front line that stood 6-6, 6-7, 6-8, compared to the 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 of his club. Those odds immediately grew longer when Rich picked up two personal fouls in the game’s first minute.
Rich remembers looking around the gymnasium and seeing college coaches everywhere. They were there to scout Rich and Keenan’s Andre Bovain, who would later play at Clemson. He also remembers thinking in those early minutes that his chance to shine in front of the college coaches had already vanished when he was sent to the bench for the remainder of the first half with foul trouble.
So, too, did it appear C.A. Johnson’s chances of winning had diminished greatly without Rich and his 26-point scoring average. Keenan jumped ahead 4-2 before the most startling of developments.
Bernard Toatley, a senior guard who in previous seasons had to be coaxed into shooting the ball by his coach, decided he was going to win the game if it meant doing it all by himself. Toatley, who averaged 17 points a game, scored 23 as C.A. Johnson built a big lead in the first half. Toatley did not miss a shot by halftime.
“He was a man-child and didn’t know it,” Gates says of Toatley. “Strong guy. Quiet. Passive in a lot of ways,” except for one half against Keenan in the state semifinals.
Toatley was reared with a religious foundation in Jaggers Terrace housing project, living along with his mother and three sisters in a three-bedroom apartment. His first love was baseball, and not until the summer before his senior year did he participate in offseason basketball games, either on the streets or at the area recreation centers.
Nevertheless, Toatley made himself into an excellent 3-point shooter who could also dribble to the basket and score. His quickness and strength allowed Toatley to defend against opposing guards as well as forwards.
Toatley, who later played three years at S.C. State and now drives a truck for USF Holland Freight in Columbia, put all parts of his game together for one glorious half of basketball at the most opportune of times for C.A. Johnson.
“This proves that something is wrong with the rating system in South Carolina if C.A. Johnson can have as good a team as we had and, for some reason, we couldn’t get any rating,” Gates told the media after the win over Keenan, building yet another force against his team. “I thank all those people who didn’t think that we were the kind of team we were.”
Toatley might have carried C.A. Johnson on his back against Keenan, but there was little doubting that junior guard Carey Rich was going to be the Green Hornets’ meal ticket in the championship game against Riverside of Greer at Carolina Coliseum.
More than anyone else on that team, Rich represented what C.A. Johnson stood for. He, too, was reared in a single-parent environment in the Saxon Homes housing project. He was told from his early days playing basketball on the streets that his only way out was to transfer to another school, where scholarships to college and a better lifestyle could be found.
Not only that, other schools in the area were winning state championships with the likes of legendary coaches George Glymph at Eau Claire, Carl Williams at A.C. Flora and Ben Trapp at Keenan. Why would one of the best young players in the state want to remain at C.A. Johnson?
“As a 15-year-old without any guidance,” Rich says, “I fell into it. I believed them.”
For his sophomore year, Rich transferred to Keenan High. He lasted one week. He found himself in a foreign land, unable to adapt to a different social climate. Rich could not afford nice clothes. He was most embarrassed to learn that he was among only a few students who received government-subsidized free lunches.
“At C.A. Johnson,” Rich says, “we all were eating free lunch. It was the norm. It was alright.”
Rich first called coach Gates. Then he called Robert Cleveland, the C.A. Johnson guidance counselor. Rich wanted to transfer back “home.” Moving back to the C.A. Johnson zone to live with his grandmother was the easy part, and he could transfer by enrolling in an ROTC program that was not offered at Keenan.
Gaining basketball eligibility was more difficult. Three times, Rich and Gates went before the South Carolina High School League board for hearings. Three times their appeal for eligibility was denied. So Rich sat out that entire season, although he was allowed to practice with the team.
“That move alone kind of personified us winning the state title,” says Rich, who played three years of basketball at South Carolina, serving as team captain his final two seasons, and later coached two seasons each at Allen University and at his alma mater. Today, he is a sports talk radio personality whose calling card is “The Captain.”
“There was so much negativity, people telling us you couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that,” Rich says. “Why are you going back to C.A. Johnson? You’re dumb. You’re going to be just like the rest of those guys.”
Rich convinced himself he wanted to be a pioneer, to lead C.A. Johnson where it had never been in basketball. You can be assured that when he walked onto the Carolina Coliseum court for the state championship game, he was not about to miss that opportunity.
Once again, few believed C.A. Johnson could win. Gates told the team that no other coaches would help him with scouting reports on Riverside. That might have worked as another motivational tool, but everyone – including Gates – knew Riverside was making its sixth consecutive appearance in the state title game. The Warriors had won three of those championship games, including the year before. Riverside also had a McDonald’s All-American in Sean Golden, the 6-3 senior son of longtime coach Louie Golden, who later played at Georgia.
On one of the game’s first plays, Golden blew past Bernard Toatley on the wing, cupped the ball on the way to the basket and slammed it in for a thunderous dunk. The Riverside fans in the Coliseum were delirious with excitement. C.A. Johnson and its fans were stunned.
The Green Hornets could not slow Golden. When Riverside beat C.A. Johnson’s pressure defense, instead of pulling the ball outside and running set plays, the Warriors attacked the basket with zeal. Golden led the charge.
Riverside led throughout the first half. Just before halftime, Gates called a timeout. He had his team back up on defense and play a half-court, 1-3-1 trapping zone. He liked what he saw on those couple of Riverside possessions, but called the defense off because he did not want the opposition to use halftime preparing to play against it.
Meanwhile, C.A. Johnson had closed the first half with eight quick points that trimmed Riverside’s lead to five points. The Green Hornets returned to the locker room with momentum.
Gates rarely gave individual instruction during games. That was reserved for practices. He talked in terms of team concepts, and used halftimes to plot strategy for the second half. On this night, he told the team that it would play the 1-3-1 zone trap defense in the second half and force Golden to pass the ball rather than take it on drives to the basket.
As the team filed back onto the Carolina Coliseum floor, Gates grabbed Rich by the arm and forcefully whispered in his ear.
“You need to take over the game,” Rich recalls Gates saying. “You need to take over.”
C.A. Johnson’s defense baffled Riverside. The 1-3-1 defense forced Riverside to pass from side to side, and 6-foot-10 reserve Eric Baker waved his long arms high and wide enough to prevent any passes into the middle of the court. Suddenly, wayward passes were turned into fastbreak layups. Steals were converted into 3-point baskets.
C.A. Johnson opened the second half on a 13-1 run to take a 43-36 lead. The Green Hornets outscored Riverside 28-13 in the third quarter with Rich scoring 12 of C.A. Johnson’s points. Riverside never challenged again, and C.A. Johnson coasted to an 81-67 victory.
Rich finished with 30 points. Nate Jacobs, hobbled by the ankle injury, did not score in the first half, yet managed 12 points after halftime. Bernard Toatley scored 19 and Paul Jackson added 10.
As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, Gates shook the hands of each of his players for the first time all season. C.A. Johnson fans cheered wildly as a gold medal was hung around each of the players necks. A celebration for the fans carried back to the school’s parking lot and went to the wee hours of the morning.
When the team retreated to the locker room, they each signed their autograph on the chalkboard, hugged one another and shouted loud enough to be heard beyond the closed door.
Gates completed his postgame interviews with the media, then joined in his team in the locker room celebration. He was greeted at the door with a Gatorade bath courtesy of Ronald Hughey. Gates had purchased a new suit to wear during the playoff games. That was ruined when the team ushered him into the showers and turned on the faucets.
The players then slipped on their warmup suits and headed out the back door of the Carolina Coliseum, state championship trophy in Hughey’s hand. They did not yet know the impact on their lives from the discipline and hard work their coach imparted upon them.
They had overcome too many obstacles to count along the way, perhaps more in their personal lives than on the basketball court. Yet for one shining season and for one glorious game, they found themselves on top of a world that had fought so hard against them.
They were champions.
|Record||17-7 overall||10-4 in 4-AAA|
|Nov. 29||at Terrell's Bay||W,107-62|
|Dec. 2||Eau Claire||L, 72-78|
|Dec. 10||Terrell's Bay||W, 84-36|
|Dec. 13||at Eau Claire||L, 63-76|
|a-Dec. 28||vs. Southern (Baltimore)||L, 81-83|
|a-Dec. 29||vs. Johns Island||W, 77-62|
|Jan. 6||at South Aiken||W, 72-69|
|Jan. 13||Columbia||W, 78-73|
|Jan. 17||Aiken||W, 72-69|
|Jan. 20||Keenan||L, 63-68|
|Jan. 24||at Strom Thurmond||W, 78-43|
|Jan. 27||Holly Hill-Roberts||L, 92-93|
|Jan. 31||South Aiken||W, 65-62|
|Feb. 3||Dreher||W, 79-68|
|Feb. 7||at Columbia||W, 82-67|
|Feb. 10||at Aiken||W, 84-63|
|Feb. 14||at Keenan||L, 75-84|
|Feb. 17||Strom Thurmond||W, 80-51|
|Feb. 21||at Holly Hill-Roberts||L, 72-80|
|Feb. 24||at Dreher||W, 81-75|
|March 8||at North Charleston||W, 75-58|
|b-March 11||vs. Holly Hill-Roberts||W, 93-75|
|c-March 15||vs. Keenan||W, 77-55|
|d-March 18||vs. Greer Riverside||W, 81-67|
|a - at Charleston|
|b - at Orangeburg|
|c - at LR H.S.|
|d - at Carolina Coliseum|