ALL SEASON, Zach Norris talked about restoring the pride that comes with wearing a Keenan High basketball uniform. That meant winning a state Class 2A championship, which the Raiders did Saturday at Colonial Life Arena with a 69-46 victory over Ridgeland-Hardeeville.
Nowhere was that pride more evident than in senior guard Kendric Gathers, who slowly had to work his way into basketball shape after helping take Keenan to the state championship game in football and participating in the North-South All-Star game.
Game by game, Gathers not only worked his way to more minutes of playing time but also took over the team’s point guard position – and, with it, a leadership role. Gathers said it was a privilege to slip a Keenan jersey over his head, all the way to the final game of his athletic career.
“When we step on the court, coach always tells us we’re not just representing ourselves and going out to win, but we’re also playing for the people that played before us, the people who have been at Keenan and know the great things that can come out of Keenan,” Gathers said. “It’s a pride thing, coming from the heart whenever we play.”
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It is precisely that pride that Norris said was missing from his team early in the season. He first extended practices with wind sprints, but to little avail. Then he issued one-game suspensions and made the offending players sit in uniform on the bench.
Finally, he suspended senior Javontae Davis for much of the early season.
“Coach, I’ve got to get back,” Norris recalls Davis saying. “This is all I got.”
Norris allowed Davis back, with certain conditions. An all-out commitment to basketball and a re-gained pride in wearing the uniform was mandated. Davis complied, and he contributed a significant nine points and eight rebounds in the title win.
“We’ve got some kids who are living rough and go through some challenges,” Norris said. “But, you learn that you can survive. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want to do.”
Norris also began inviting Keenan alums to give motivational addresses to his team before games. For the championship game, he called on alums Brian Myers of McCollum-Myers Mortuary in Columbia and Earl Hunter, vice-president of International Procurement and Distribution in Jonesboro, Ark.
Their message to the team was that the three seniors would never get another chance to seize this opportunity. So the Raiders should give it their all and win the championship for Gathers, Davis and Antwan Holmes. They also should play for all the Keenan players who ever have worn the uniform.
In addition to the contributions from Davis, Gathers ran the team’s offense and defense, scored five points and added five rebounds and five assists. He also added a scar to his forehead in the first half when he dived for a loose ball and slammed into a TV camera lens.
Holmes proved to be the game’s star. He scored 27 points on nine-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds, living up to Norris’ declaration that Holmes is a “man amongst boys.”
In winning by 23, Keenan cruised through the state playoffs with an average victory margin of 25 points, giving the Raiders their seventh state championship, including five under Norris.
Afterward, in the victorious locker room, players dug into the duffle bag that held their cell phones and immediately began taking pictures with the state championship trophy. An assistant coach held up a phone to hear Alexander Harper, who played on the 2001 title team, tell the team how proud he was of Keenan High.
Finally, associate head coach James Smith had an announcement for the team. Each player would soon be sized for a championship letter jacket courtesy of Ray Allen, currently a free agent following an 18-year NBA career.
It turns out that Smith coached Allen at Hillcrest High when it won the 1993 state Class 4A title. When Smith led Scott’s Branch to state titles in 1999 and 2002, Allen provided those teams with championship jackets, and he did the same for Keenan’s title team of 2011.
The text from Allen immediately following Saturday’s title triumph perhaps proved that pride in Keenan basketball extends beyond the Raiders’ program.