Jo Jo English had no idea where his coaching career was headed – if anywhere – on Jan. 26, 2012. The former South Carolina basketball star who played parts of three seasons in the NBA was more intent on establishing his academic credentials by pursuing a master’s degree.
Yet, English had accepted more responsibilities as an assistant girls basketball coach at Scott’s Branch High. His duties had increased to the point that head coach Ruth Coard had asked him to direct an entire practice that Thursday afternoon.
“You got it, right?” English recalls Coard saying as she departed the gym before practice.
Within hours, the 41-year-old Coard was killed when her car reportedly ran into a wayward horse on U.S. 378 east of Sumter.
“I had never been through anything like that, where you see somebody alive during the day, and three hours later they’re not living,” English said. “I had never experienced anything like that.”
Nor had he experienced anything like the following day when the 20-plus members of Scott’s Branch girls basketball team waited for him in a hallway outside the gym. Suddenly, the responsibility of guiding a group of young women through a difficult time fell on English.
“That taught me a lesson about, for one, just being thankful that you can see that day and how powerful it is to be entrusted with the lives of young people,” English said. “It’s bigger than basketball.”
English was named the Scott’s Branch interim coach for the remainder of that season, one in which dealing with the emotions of his team far outweighed any teaching of basketball fundamentals.
For the first home game following Coard’s death, English invited her son, Adrian, to sit with the team on the bench. During one timeout late in the game, English entered the huddle to find a team broken down in tears.
From that day forward came a recognition to English that there is more to coaching than teaching the game. That convinced English he had a calling in coaching, and that he would charge forward with the belief that he could influence young athletes in basketball and beyond.
English is in his second season as coach at Sumter High. A season after the Gamecocks lost in the Class 4A Lower State final, they will play Friday for the state championship.
It is not where English thought he would be six years ago when his alma mater, Lower Richland, refused to grant him an interview for the school’s vacant coaching job. English had served as an assistant coach on the varsity and head JV coach the previous six seasons at Lower Richland.
So, English changed his career course. He entered the Teaching Fellows of South Carolina program to work with special needs children in Summerton. For one year, he stayed away from basketball. Then, at the coaxing of Coard, gradually got back into the game.
When the Sumter job opened, English applied. Sumter took a chance on an inexperienced coach, but one who offered not only a great knowledge of the game but also a desire to nurture athletes through a crucial stage of their lives.
English also wanted to win. Upon arriving at Sumter, English immediately removed all trophies, banners and photos from the team’s locker room, except one. He kept a photo hanging of Sumter’s lone basketball title team, the undefeated 1985 Gamecocks.
He said he needed to instill the same championship mentality at Sumter that he learned while playing on two state title teams at Lower Richland. That also meant learning to live by one of his credos: A championship wall is built by laying a perfect brick every day in practice.
At the end of every practice when the team huddles, English repeats the same question for his team that Coard did for her squads at Scott’s Branch. When they huddle before Friday night’s championship tipoff at Colonial Life Arena he will do the same as a way of making certain everyone is OK and as a lasting tribute to the late coach.
“Are all hearts and minds clear?” he will ask.