Gregory Everett Sr. Credit: Jennifer Michelle Everett

The world doesn’t know a lot about Gregory Everett Sr., but he meant the world to me and a group of Black boys coming of age in Rockingham, North Carolina during the late 1970s.

If it weren’t for integration, I’m pretty sure I would have been a starting guard for the Leak Street High School Tigers.

Instead my hoop dreams ended prematurely when Richmond Senior High School coach Roy “Sonny” Clayton  cut me from the basketball team.

This is a story about a different kind of love. It’s a story, first and foremost, about brotherly love. It’s also a story about community love and pride of place.

Visiting my hometown now is heartbreaking. There are few good-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. The textile mills that made for a boom economy shuttered their doors decades ago. The modest, well-kept homes are dilapidated, and way too many of the once-proud structures are uninhabitable. Far too many young people have guns and have resorted to drug dealing as a means of earning money.

Once, we had sports teams. The textile mills that were responsible for thousands of well-paying jobs were also great civic neighbors. The mills’ corporate bosses built baseball parks so that the children of their workers could play on the Little League teams they sponsored. The mills and other companies also sponsored the basketball and football teams with kids from all over Richmond County eagerly participating.

After integration, kids from all over the county attended the newly built Richmond Senior High School. Like most all-Black schools during that period, Leak Street briefly served as a middle school. Looking back, it seems ol’ Clayton cut the kids from the team who stayed closest to Leak Street School. My parents’ front door was about 75  yards from the campus. My friends lived even closer.

Clayton told us that he really had no choice. He said we were being cut from the basketball team because the school board had decided that there had to be a certain number of white players on the team. We were pretty pissed off about the school board’s decision, but what could we do?

It couldn’t have been more than a week or so later. I was playing in a pickup basketball game at the Leak Street School gym, and ballin’ my ass off. I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. The gym was packed. I was wearing a pair of pink, cut-off jean shorts and a white T-shirt. Barry Saunders, my cousin, and fellow writer who I grew up with was home from college.

“You make the team?” he yelled at me from the sideline, where he stood watching the game.

“Naw,” I replied.

What?” he answered in disbelief.

That pissed me off all over again. I had to do something to express my frustration and youthful indignation. So I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, The Daily Journal, tearing the school board a new one for its own brand of reverse affirmative action.

“I do not eat jump shots for breakfast, nor do I need behind the back dribbles to sustain me,” I wrote at the end of the letter.

The community response was considerable. Kids at school looked at me differently the day after the letter was printed in the paper. I heard from my former teammates on the basketball team that Coach Clayton told them he didn’t believe I wrote the letter. A school guidance counselor, Clifton Davis, pulled me into his office one day and suggested I go to college and major in journalism.

The trajectory of my future plans shifted. Instead of appearing in the newspaper with my beaming parents signing what used to be called a “grant-in-aid” to play basketball at a small college, I began writing really bad poetry and entering speech and writing contests.

But I still missed playing on the basketball team. 

Enter Greg Everett, a Vietnam combat veteran, and his decision to form a youth basketball team with the guys in the neighborhood who were cut from the Richmond Raiders.

I’m still not sure why Greg decided to coach us. But his decision was significant. First, it increased the chances that a group of boys in the community with loads of potential would stay on the right track. Second, despite ol’ Clayton’s decision to cut us from the school team, we could still play organized basketball, and third—for me at least—it fulfilled my dream of wearing a Leak Street Tigers basketball uniform.

Greg managed to get his hands on those old gold, blue and white basketball uniforms worn by our uncles, fathers, brothers, and cousins during Jim Crow. We pulled on those warm up togs with the gold snap buttons that trailed along the side of the trousers and those equally beautiful blue jackets with gold trim that featured a white flap in the back with the abbreviated word, “RHAM,” and couldn’t have been prouder.

Playing for Greg, and with my closest childhood friends, was beyond rewarding. Greg was my first basketball coach since junior high who had confidence in my ability. Greg showed us how badly things could go for us if we chose the wrong path when he scheduled away games to the Cameron Morrison reform school. It was a place where no kid who had the unfortunate fate of being sent there by a juvenile judge was ever reformed.

We played our home games at the Leak Street gymnasium that was built by students enrolled in Mr. Johnson’s bricklaying class. And truly it was home. During the 1960s, whenever there were school events, light spilled out of the gym’s tall windows and it would glow at night like a glittering diamond. It was our Madison Square Garden.

My father knew I was crazy about basketball, but had never seen me play. One night, he showed up at the Leak Street gym and leaned against the wall near the front door. That night, I scored over 20 points and had the game of my life. It was one of those instances where I saw my publicly shy father smile.

Greg married my cousin Jennie. This week his daughter, Jennifer Michelle, told me the man never stopped coaching youth teams in the community. She sent me an old picture of him posing with a youth football team. Jennifer said her dad also coached a coed softball team that she played for in the 1980s.

He told me that his family moved to Rockingham from Chester, Pennsylvania in 1969. He was drafted into the Army in 1970, one year after graduating from the town’s first integrated high school class  at Rockingham High School. When he got home from Vietnam he started working with the community’s Boy Scout Troop 113, and eventually became the troop’s scoutmaster.

“That really got me involved with young men,” he said.

No one paid Greg a dime for serving as a mentor for a goodly number of young people. He did it for the love of the game, and most of all, for the love of his community.

I just want to pause for the cause and tell him “thank you for being there, Greg, when we needed you. It was like divine intervention.”

Love, every time Black man.

A slightly different version of this story appears in our print edition this week.

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