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Remembering Clarence "Big House" Gaines

By ACC BasketBlog

April 20th, 2005

Remembering Clarence "Big House" Gaines




This Blog of the Day post is courtesy of ACC BasketBlog, a daily look into the world of ACC basketball.


Everybody who meets me or knows me tangentially through the Basketblog knows that I’m a dyed in the wool Carolina guy. No doubt about it: I’m a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bread, etc. etc. When I was a child growing up in Winston-Salem, however, I was a fan of a different ram then Rameses: I idolized the Mighty, Mighty Rams of Winston-Salem State University. For me, there was no better school or team (and no better band). The cheerleaders were pretty, the basketball team won a whole lot, and they had this giant of a man leading them. This guy would unlock the gym for me and some of my elementary school buddies if we were over on campus in the afternoon so that we could shoot at the rims of our idols.


That “guy” was Clarence “Big House” Gaines.


Let me be perfectly honest. My buddy’s dad, Sam Cary, was friends with Coach Gaines at the time and a coaching legend in his own right. Mr. Cary was also my dad’s high school basketball coach, leading Adkins High School to a North Carolina Black High School state championship and a runner-up appearance (of which my father was the starting point guard). Sadly, as often happens, that ability didn’t fully pass to me, but I digress. Coach Gaines softly recruited my father to play at WSSU. During those times, Coach Gaines had adopted a policy of not recruiting kids from Winston-Salem (he didn’t want them running home to mama every time he raised his voice at them which, legend has it, was often and quite loudly). To be a kid from Winston-Salem and get a passing look from Big House was a big deal! Alas, pop was relegated to the bench at then perennially powerful North Carolina Central University under the tutelage of another legend, the great John McClendon. So to be clear, Coach Gaines opening the gym for us was no “thanks, Mean Jo” moment.


But he didn’t have to do it, and he did. I’ve only gotten chills on a basketball court in three venues: every time Coach Gaines opened that gym for us at WSSU, whenever I put on the blue and gold in Carver High School's gym, and every time I took the court at the Smith Center during my year on the freshman team at Carolina (I actually cried the first time out of the tunnel of the Smith Center, but that’s for another day). The feeling was exactly the same: disbelief, excitement, and a feeling that there was a certain way I had to conduct myself in the home of a giant. Basketball had to be played a certain way: the right way.


He didn’t open the gym up every time we asked. Sometimes he shooed us away like the 8 year old pests that we were. But when he did open those doors for us, man, I could see myself in the red and white of Winston-Salem State University. For me, before there was James Worthy, there was the #88 of Sydney Wilkins. Was there anybody who ever laced them up better than Sydney Wilkins? Not in my book…..not in the book of any 8 year old boy who only sees the good plays of a guy who he has elevated to hero status for no apparent reason. Sydney was my guy for no other reason then the fact that he wore the number of my other favorite player at the time: Lynn Swann. Sydney Wilkins, Lynn Swann, same number, same guy. Completely logical! The fact that Sydney was also a star wide receiver on the football team helped as well.


The fact that he played for Coach Gaines and my favorite team sealed the deal.


“Boy, you’re too big to be letting those little fellas take the ball from you like that. You gotta keep the ball high.” Yep, that was the lesson he boomed down on my head one day as he quietly watched us play from the landing in the C.E. Gaines Complex. Scared me to death….I thought we’d never get back in the gym again. The rules were simple:


We had to try to shoot it with our left hand when shooting from the left side of the basket. We couldn’t double dribble or walk with the ball.


We couldn’t carry the ball.


We couldn’t jack shots from our waist so that we could “pretend” to shoot a long range jumper. Close shots at the goal is how he insisted we do it.


As you can imagine, there were lots of rebounds from the bottom of the rim. When he watched, we played the right way. When he would see us start playing “our” way, he’d say “ok, you boys are tired. Time to lock it up.”

That was the end. In time, the message got across: my way, or the highway. That was Big House Gaines. Sometimes he was curt. Sometimes he could be downright mean. Most of the time, he was unapologetic. More times then not, he was right. All of the time, he was a legend in the making. I often wondered why the people of Winston-Salem took so long to embrace this living legend. There was not a coach alive in North Carolina between 1946 and 1993 who accomplished as much with as little, against the odds and despite the circumstances as Coach Gaines did. And yet, until perhaps the last 10 years of his life, he walked around Winston with relatively little fanfare, even in the Black community where I sensed a somewhat grudging acknowledgement of his greatness.


As with any iconic figure, I’m sure there where those who didn’t like his methods, his frankness, or his intimidating stature. Certainly there were those who didn’t like the fact that he won so early and so often. There were others who would never allow his accomplishments to equal, in the public eye, anything that a coach at Wake Forest accomplished. Billy Packer has said it many times: If the Wake/WSSU teams of Packer and The “Pearl” had played, it would have been a one way slaughter of a victory for the Rams and Coach Gaines.

I remember hearing the snide comments made about him during his last two years at the helm of WSSU when it was apparent that, perhaps, he had held on for too long. I also remember the feeling of awe I had when one of my friends, a three point specialist from East Forsyth named Monty Gray, signed with WSSU in Coach Gaines’ last recruiting class. I was going to Carolina and knew that I would have a chance to play for a legend if I survived the program for two seasons. He was going to play for a legend right now, in the gym that I once believed was sacred ground.


“You’re going to play for BIGHOUSE”, I remember telling him.


Yes, indeed. For me, Winston-Salem State University was my introduction to the glories of college basketball and the proper reverence bestowed a legendary coach. I knew the fight song of the Mighty, Mighty Rams long before “Hark the Sound” brought a tear to my eye.


Gone to Carolina? Not then and, at least for the next few days, not now. For me, it is pretty simple:


Before Worthy, there was Wilkins.


Before Tar Heels, there were Rams.


Before euphoria at the Smith Center, there was wonder at the Gaines Complex.


Before there was Coach Smith, there was Big House Gaines.


Thanks for making a boys dream come true, Coach, even if only for a few afternoons a year.



This Blog of the Day post is courtesy of ACC BasketBlog, a daily look into the world of ACC basketball.





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