This Blog of the Day
post is courtesy of ACC
a daily look into the world of ACC basketball.
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
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
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
High School to a
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.
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
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.
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.
carry the ball.
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
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
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.
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.
to play for BIGHOUSE”, I remember telling him.
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.
Carolina? Not then and, at least for the
next few days, not now. For me, it is pretty simple:
Worthy, there was Wilkins.
Heels, there were Rams.
euphoria at the
Center, there was wonder at the
was Coach Smith, there was Big House Gaines.
making a boys dream come true, Coach, even if only for a few afternoons a