Next weekend, in my hometown, my high school basketball coach is to be honored at a banquet organized by some of his former students and athletes. I can’t be there, but several years ago, I did write this account of a remarkable basketball team on which I was a reserve player.
Almost 40 years ago, I had the dubious distinction of being the worst player (by far) on the best basketball team that my hometown has probably ever seen. The Louisville High School Eagles of 1976-77, coached by Mr. Isaiah Thomas, compiled an astonishing 26-2 record. Our two heartbreaking losses that season were by one- and two-point margins. With just five more points, our record would have been perfect.
The Eagles finished as the second-best Class B team in Georgia. If memory serves, Isaiah Thomas was named CSRA Coach of the Year. Point guard Dennis Lofton, an All-State selection, was heavily recruited by Georgia colleges. His teammate William Washington, who played forward, was named to the All-State second team. There may have been other awards, but anyone who remembers that team will agree that the numbers and awards don’t tell the whole story. For Louisville, the Eagles’ win streak – after December 1, we won 23 games in a row – provided incredible excitement. Just seven years after school integration, all of Louisville seemed to rally around that remarkable basketball team.
In addition to Lofton and Washington, the LHS starters included guard Willie Moseley, forward Frank Reese, and center Johnny Lee Mitchell. They were all talented and exciting players. Lofton had a lightning-quick first step. Washington was strong in all aspects of the game. Mosley’s jump shot, launched almost one-handed, was deadly. Reese was a fierce rebounder, and six-four Mitchell was an agile big man who could always find the open man with his passes.
From my spot at the end of the bench, I watched as my teammates won basketball games in almost every way imaginable. Many teams were simply outclassed. Scores of 75-49 (Hephzibah), 78-47 (Boggs Academy), 81-61 (Wrens), 78-34 (Gibson), 78-36 (Wadley), and 76-44 (Sardis-Girard-Alexander) were not uncommon. On one memorable night, we led 23-5 at the end of the first quarter.
Other schools we narrowly escaped. In mid-January, Lofton dribbled through the entire Waynesboro team to tie the game with a scooped lay-up at the buzzer. LHS won in overtime by a score of 64-61, beating Class AA Waynesboro for the first time ever and avenging a one-point loss earlier in the season.
Two weeks later, Jenkins County fell 46-45. The Millen team had gone ahead by one point with just three or four seconds left in the game. During a time out, Thomas sketched out a play in which the ball would travel the length of the court without touching the floor. It was passed from the baseline to half court, down the half-court line to the opposite sideline, and then down the sideline to Moseley, whose rainbow jumper from the corner was a thing of beauty.
Just a few days later, it was Washington’s turn to be the hero. Lofton got the ball to him in the center of the lane, and his short jumper in the final seconds of the game beat Aquinas 61-60.
The victories piled up. Our starting players eventually established a reputation that unnerved our opponents. Before one game late in the season, as we waited to take the floor, the other team passed a message down to us: “Please ask Johnny Lee to go easy on us,” the message said. He didn’t.
The success of that LHS team was due partly to the talent of the five players I’ve mentioned, including some steady reserves, among them Eddie Dixon and Darryl Davis. But the lion’s share of the credit belonged to Isaiah Thomas. By 1976-77, Thomas was near the end of his coaching career. As a basketball coach, he had a deep knowledge of the game, refused to accept anything short of our best effort, was unnaturally calm even in the most pressure-filled moments, demonstrated infinite patience, and was genuinely interested in young people.
I think Coach Thomas realized early on that he had a terrific set of starting players that year. He seemed determined to make the most of it. Shortly after practices began that fall, he asked us to take a seat in the bleachers. He made clear to us that we had an opportunity to have a very special season. He went on to say that we would certainly not lose any games for lack of conditioning. And then he blew his whistle for the first suicide drill.
Years later, I occasionally have a nightmare in which I hear that whistle blowing. The only way I survived those grueling practices was to fool myself into thinking that I would run just one more wind sprint and then, if he blew that whistle again, I would have to quit the team. Somehow, though, I always found it in me to keep going. Once, only a few minutes into a practice that was not going well, with a lot of foot-dragging and sloppy play, a quietly furious Coach Thomas sent us all home. I have rarely been more dismayed. I knew what the next practice would bring: something like a near-death experience.
Coach Thomas always stayed one step ahead of the competition. Early in the season, we relied heavily on a devastatingly effective fast break. He knew that his starters would be more athletic than most other teams, and the fast break was designed to take advantage of that fact. Later in the season, though, teams learned to scramble back and slow us down. When the fast break became less effective, Thomas drilled us in our half-court offense, which featured the skillful play of Mitchell and Reese in the post. Some coaches believed that a full-court press might work against us, hoping to trap Lofton as he tried to dribble out of trouble. But once again, Thomas anticipated that tactic. He kept us late at practice, teaching us how to break the press with passes.
The product of all that excellent coaching and sheer talent was a brand of basketball that was a keen pleasure to watch. My father came to the first couple of games on the remote chance that I might play a little. As time went by, however, he came to watch Lofton, Washington, and the rest of the regular players. Basketball fans appreciated the hard-nosed defense, the passing, the jump shots that seemed drawn to the basket like metal to a magnet. On the best nights, the action on the court was like clockwork. One moment saw Lofton drive into the lane and dish to Mitchell, who banked in a short jumper. Another saw Mosley steal the ball and pass to Washington for an easy lay-up. Another saw Reese battle for an offensive rebound and tip the ball into the hoop.
LHS finished the regular season with one loss, trounced SGA to win the Region 4-B East title, and easily defeated Lincoln County 65-48 to win the Region 4-B championship, pushing our record to 23-1 and earning us a trip to the state tournament in Macon. By then, the excitement in Louisville was at a high pitch. Supporters of the team arranged for us to travel to Macon by motor coach instead of our old yellow school bus. We had new warm-up clothes that were, I think, paid for by boosters. Pep rallies were wild. All the state tournament games were carried live on local radio, and not much teaching and learning happened during midweek games.
Arriving at Macon Coliseum for our first practice was exactly like that scene in Hoosiers, if you’ve seen that movie. After playing in cramped gyms all season, we hardly knew what to make of that vast space. Our shots clanged off the rim, because we could not get used to looking through the glass backboards and seeing nothing but empty space behind the goal.
For me, the memory of those tournament games is just a blur. I remember the seats rising up and up into the gloom of the arena’s upper sections, the intensely bright lights focused on the court, and my dread that our fabulous five would finally meet their match. After all, what could a team from little Louisville do against all those powerhouse teams from other parts of the state? We were so self-conscious of the fact that we were from a small town in rural Georgia that before the tournament began, we put together a new, snazzier warm-up routine.
Far from being intimidated, though, Louisville kept winning, though none of the tournament games was easy. We held on to beat Jefferson in the first round 72-65, after building up lead of 41-27 at the half. In the quarterfinal game against Palmetto, Lofton scored 32 points to lead the Eagles to a 78-75 victory. Clay County’s “dandy dunkers” were our opponents in the semifinal. They would win the state title in the next year. Washington scored 26 points in this game, before fouling out with less than four minutes remaining, and Lofton hit two free throws to seal the hard-fought 70-69 win.
In the Class B championship game on Saturday, March 12, 1977, we played Greater Atlanta Christian, which was 24-3 and had won two state titles a few years earlier. GAC featured six-eight Lee Goza at center. He looked taller than that, though, and he would later play for both Georgia and Georgia Tech, where he still holds the season record for field goal percentage. Each of GAC’s forwards that year was at least three inches taller than ours. In sum, the GAC team was everything you would expect from a private school that recruited players from throughout the Atlanta area. They were big, and they were good.
The game was close. Over time, it became obvious that our players were in better condition. In the final quarter, exhausted, GAC spread the court and stalled, trying to conserve some energy for the final push. With less than a minute left, the score was tied at 61.
Incredibly, Mitchell had outplayed Goza – that at least is how I remember it – and since we had possession of the ball with just seconds remaining, it seemed that Louisville would cap its dream season with yet another last-second win and a state championship. This time, it fell to Washington to take the final shot. With 20 points, he was our leading scorer for the game, and of course everyone remembered that he had beat Aquinas a month earlier in a similar situation. This time, though, his final shot danced around the rim but refused to fall. GAC rebounded. At the other end of the court, from the top of the key, their guard banked in a jumper with five seconds left. Somehow, inexplicably, four seconds ticked off the clock before we were given a time-out. We lost 63-61.
Thirty years later, I can still close my eyes and see Coach Thomas calmly walking down the line of our players. He stopped in front of each one of us, looked us in the eye, and shook hands. I can still see him standing close to William Washington, talking to him, consoling him. Asked by reporters to comment on those crucial lost seconds near the end of the game, he said about the timekeeper, “I’m sure he is an honest man and wouldn’t do anything to hurt the kids. And he said he stopped the clock as soon as he recognized the official’s hand go up.”
As regular readers of Traces know, I am a teacher. In 1984, I dropped out of law school and found a job teaching Latin at a private school. It was a difficult decision, but I have never regretted it, not once.
That does not mean it’s been easy. Being an educator — a successful educator, I mean — may be the most demanding job there is. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of people fail at it. Plenty of smart people who probably thought teaching would be easy.
There are lots of reasons why being smart and working hard do not guarantee success in education. But I want to focus on just one reason. And it happens to be a facet of education in which Isaiah Thomas excelled. In fact, in all my years, I have never come across anyone who is better at this than Isaiah Thomas.
As a teacher or coach, how do you get more out of a student or athlete than he thinks he is capable of giving? How do you get more out of her than even her own family, her other teachers, and her friends believe she is capable of?
That’s the real challenge in education. It’s not hard to push someone along in the same direction he was already headed. What’s hard is to get a young person to look at himself and his potential in a completely new way. What’s hard is take a young person who is looking down at his feet and convince him to lift his eyes and look ahead, into the distance, toward a land of limitless opportunity.
On that long ago day in March 1977, Coach Thomas didn’t hang his head. He didn’t look upset or disappointed. He didn’t treat me any differently than he did our best players. In that moment, he showed me how to handle adversity, and what it means to put the needs and interests of other people ahead of your own. By his example, he helped me to become a better teacher, a better father, a better husband, and a better person over all.
I could say a lot more about Isaiah Thomas as a coach, a teacher, an administrator, and a public servant. With the benefit of my own experiences in the classroom, I think I can see how he drew from us more than we thought we could give. Instead, I’ll simply conclude by saying this:
Thank you, Isaiah Thomas, for showing us how to conduct our lives according to the highest standards, with dignity, with due respect for others, and with love in our hearts for our fellow man.