Banquets Bring Us All Together To Talk About The Memories Made…And the Promise Of The Future!
(Winter Banquet Editorial)
By Billy G. Baker
Columbia--Against the headlines of a world wrought with challenges, we gather today (April, 23) in the beautiful banquet room at Seawell's to celebrate the hard work and positive accomplishments of student athletes from throughout South Carolina who excelled in the winter sports of basketball and wrestling during the 2016-17 sports season.
There are around 265 public and independent schools within the 46 counties of our state and young people from nearly 50 per cent of those schools are represented at this gala event today. While we honor nearly 500 athletes and coaches in these two winter sports, keep in mind that these honorees are drawn mainly through a balloting process from a talent pool of more than 20,000 varsity athletes! This means around one in every 40 athletes earned HSSR all-state honors making it a competitive process indeed.
We extend a huge thank you and welcome to our two keynote speakers today. Ricky Jackson who has just completed his 4th season as the head men’s basketball coach at Claflin University located in Orangeburg. Coach Jackson was named the SIAC Men’s Basketball Coach of the Year after his Panthers team posted 17 wins this season as the number one seeded team in their region for the post season. He will share some thoughts with us today before assisting with the basketball awards.
We also extend a big thank you to The Citadel head wrestling Coach Rob Hjerling who has helped build the Bulldog program into a highly respected program in the region since taking over the team in 1999. He is on hand to share some remarks and to help present the wrestling awards.
This event today will attract over 600 people as proud parents, grand parents, coaches and caring relatives, and friends gather to pay homage to the sweat equity and dedication of so many devoted hard working student athletes. This event recognizes the good deeds of so many student athletes representing communities from all areas of the Palmetto state. Our future is on solid footing based on the talents of the young people we honor today. We extend congratulations to all of the athletes and coaches we honor today.
Through the years, and before left hip replacement surgery last August, I was quite known to challenge top prep basketball players from around the state to a game of horse as I stopped by to watch practices, or to visit with a basketball coach. I was only soundly defeated one time and that was by the great Jermaine O’Neal of Eau Claire who beat me “E” to his “H”. He hit 17 three point shots in a row and for a 7-foot tall player I was in awe. I felt great to get one letter on him actually, and I did indeed make 12 three point shots myself as George Glymph looked on that day.
It was at Lee Central around 2002 that I made a fan out of girl’s basketball coach Dorothy Fortune when I beat her entire starting five, one by one, in a game of horse. “Where did you learn to shoot a basketball so well?” asked coach Fortune of me that day.
I will go into more detail here but I shared a small portion of this story with her 15 years ago. This is the fuller version of why I have a love for basketball. My father died of cancer when I was two years old leaving behind 8 children and I was a 7th child born on the 7th day for a double dose of good luck. By the time I was in the 6th grade my mother had issues beyond her control so the Family Court placed me at a children’s home at John de la Howe in McCormick. My job at the school was to sweep the gym floor for five minutes and then I got to shoot basketball seven days a week for the remaining 1 hour and 55 minutes of the work assignment! This experience went on for three straight years!
At the time (1968-69) my idol was John Roche of South Carolina. I tried to do everything just like him on a basketball court. I learned to dribble equally with either hand, and I could drive to the baseline and scissor dribble just like him. I even wore number 11 when I made the varsity team at the school as a 7th grader and we played in the cleanest gym in South Carolina no doubt.
After leaving the school and moving in with my sister Sue in Summerville in August, 1969 I became the captain of the jayvee basketball team my freshman and sophomore years. I often wrote letters to head USC coach Frank McGuire telling him about some players I had seen in the area. He would write me back.
After my freshman year I bagged groceries for two months in order to scrape up $75 to attend the USC basketball camp where I would finally get to meet the coach I admired very much. Out of 320 players at his camp in the summer of 1970 there were two 12 player all-star teams and I was the starting point guard on the all-star team coached by Donnie Walsh.
After every steal I made in the all-star game, and after a couple shots found their mark, USC shooting coach Buck Freeman (sitting by Coach McGuire in the stands) would yell, “Good job Cotton Top!,” in reference to my white blond hair of the day and how I tried to play the game with heart and hustle.
Three years later I enrolled at USC as a journalism student. Coach Freeman had sadly passed away. I joined the student newspaper “The Gamecock” and I begged the editor to let me be the reporter, who got to interview Coach McGuire one- on-one for our special basketball issue published in November, 1973.
Imagine my shock when upon entering his office Coach McGuire looked at me (and my hair) and said, “Are you Cotton Top, the kid Buck Freeman fell in love with at my basketball camp a few years ago?”
Over the next four years Coach McGuire invited me to travel with the team on extended road trips and he often told me to pack my playing shoes and to enjoy shooting with the players at some of the practices. Those were some fun times and Coach McGuire helped ease some of the pain I had experienced growing up. Basketball was a huge aspect of my life in my younger days and even though I was only 5-7 I made up for it by being able to shoot off the dribble, being super quick and being relentless on defense.
So having earned a journalism degree in 1977 I prayed to God to send me on a path to a career that I could use my education to help young people. I had spent ten years in the business world after college, where I made a lot of money, but I was not fulfilled as a lover of sports, and someone who was always going to high school games. Thus, in 1986 I invested a self-made six figure sum into starting the nation’s only exclusive statewide year round media devoted 100 per cent to high school athletics. It has been a journey that has taken me to every community in South Carolina.
I feel blessed to be doing what I do and this banquet today marks our 31st straight such event! Through the years the HSSR has held many banquets and throughout the state one can find well over 22,000 all-state awards and Coaches of the Year awards on the mantles and desks of many people. We focus on the positive and our goal is to recognize the hard work of all the student athletes in South Carolina. These events today help define our purpose and it is important in our society that such events continue to happen on behalf of the young people in South Carolina. My hope is that they will continue even after I have departed this life.
Leave this banquet hall today encouraged that the future of our state and nation is in good hands based on the quality of young people we are applauding today in the great ball room at Seawell's. We sincerely thank everyone for the partnership we are so fortunate to share with the high school athletic programs all across our great state!
(Now, how about a game of horse? Please, spot an old man a letter or two!)