Richland County’s athletic tradition includes athletes who have won Olympic gold medals, baseball Cy Young Awards, Super Bowl rings, NBA players of the year and college All-American honors.
One man above all embodies the best of athletics and humanitarian work away from his playing venue.
Alex English began his basketball career at Columbia’s Hand Middle School, where he admits to playing one minute over two seasons.
“I wasn’t good enough,” he said bluntly.
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He got better at Dreher High, where he grew into a star, and South Carolina, where he displayed the ability to score against the best competition in the country.
In the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, he scored more points than any player in the 1980s. That was a big reason why the 6-foot-7 English was elected to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, his first year of eligibility.
But his basketball exploits are only part of the man.
The other part includes the time in 1985, when he encouraged his fellow NBA players to donate their shares from the all-star game to aid in Ethiopian famine relief.
Or the time this month he spends in South Africa with Basketball Without Borders, teaching youths about basketball and life.
Or the time he spent last month speaking to coaches from Richland School District One during their Coaches Convocation.
“He’s almost,” Dreher athletics director Mike DuBard said, “a Renaissance man in many ways.”
Maybe most amazing is the story English shared last month about his life’s crossroads, when as a young boy, he found himself in a situation that could have prevented any of the above from becoming true.
“This,” English said, “is one of those life lessons that sticks with you.”
English was smitten for a neighborhood girl who was the younger sister of his older brother’s girlfriend. To catch her eye, he decided to show off his athletic skills.
The problem came because instead of on the basketball court, he did so in a nearby car lot.
“I remember showing off for her by jumping from car to car to car, not realizing that these were brand new cars we were damaging,” English said.
Soon after, while English was visiting a cousin’s house, Columbia police arrived at the door.
“We’ve got to take you to jail,” one of the officers said.
Scared, nervous and facing charges for damaging property, English sat in jail until his mother picked up him.
On his day in court, English stared up at the judge.
“Well, Mr, English,” he recalls the judge saying, “you’ve done about $20,000 worth of damage. We need to know how you are going to pay for this.”
Tears welled in English’s eyes.
“I was a little kid,” he said. “I didn’t have any money, no 20 grand.”
The judge asked English’s mother if she could pay for the damages, but she admitted that her $2-an-hour job at a laundrymat left her short of that kind of cash.
“Well sir,” the judge turned to English and said, “since you don’t have any money to pay for this you are going to have to pay in a different way. You are going to have to go to jail.”
At this point, English said, he began to cry. Jail at his age in the 1960s meant the Department of Juvenile Justice’s John G. Richards facility.
“I’m sitting there thinking I’m going to John G,” English said. “How long was I going to be there and who knows what I would be like when I came out?”
But what English did not know as he sat there was that his mother and his social worker had met privately with the judge to work out an agreement.
English had to get As, Bs and Cs in school. One D or F would land him at John G.
“Twice a month,” the judge said, “you’ll report to your court officer. If you have done well, we’ll let you off the hook.”
English saw that he had caught a break.
“Thank you, God,” he said to himself. “Thank you. I’m not going to John G. Richards.”
He never came close again.
“From that time on,” he said, “I went to class and I did what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t the greatest student but I knew I wasn’t getting a D.”
Doing what he was supposed to on and off the court, English became an NBA scoring champion and eight-time All-Star who won the league’s Walter J. Kennedy Award in 1988 for his community service work.
He is now 54 and beginning his fifth season as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors. His next goal is a logical one: to be a head coach.
“With the coaching profession you can be in one day and out the next,” English said. “But I would like to be a head coach. I’ve put the time in and learned a lot. If the time comes, it will happen if it’s meant to be.”
English was meant to do more than spend his youth in a home for juvenile delinquents. When he received a chance to reverse his course, he did it.
“He knows education is the key and he’s always helped disadvantaged people,” DuBard said. “There’s a lot of pros that don’t do that. Alex is above board and a great citizen, a great role model.”
Reach Wiseman at (803) 771-8472