Nothing but Net: Area alumni game a hit with fans, players
By PATRICK MASON
Saturday, August 4, 2018
Michael Gainey summed up the Rocky Mount High-Northern Nash rivalry in a way that everyone associated with the two schools could understand.
“I knew it was going to be packed,” Gainey said. “Rocky Mount and Northern Nash, man, these guys could play marbles and it wouldn’t make a difference. You’d still get everyone out here.”
Saturday marked the inaugural alumni basketball event. Three games were played in the Rocky Mount High gymnasium. A women’s game between RMH and Northern Nash kicked off the event, a men’s game between Nash Central and Southern Nash followed, and the main event of RMH and Northern Nash men wrapped up the long day of basketball.
Gainey, the RMH athletic director, was one of the organizers of the inaugural event, along with 2008 RMH graduate Jabaris “JKelly” Walker and Rashaun McMillan, a 2001 RMH graduate. All three expect the event to take off in the coming years, with more teams being added, and possibly even securing a larger venue to support the interest that was shown by the community.
“It was a great event and much-needed for the community,” Walker said. “The way it ran, the way it was DJ’d, the way it was played, everything went great. What a great turnout. We’ll try to make it even bigger for next year.”
It didn’t take long for the event to sell out, with the school having to lock its doors by the time the 5 p.m. game began with the gymnasium stuffed to the brim with fans. The gym was packed for all three games, with spectators sitting and standing five deep along the corners.
During halftime of the RMH-NN game, cheerleaders from both teams did a short set that riled up the crowd to an ear-splitting volume.
It was every bit the success organizers hoped for. And the choice to hold the event at one of the high schools brought back a lot of memories for the players.
And honorary coaches, too, like Phil Ford. The 1979 NBA rookie of the year, Ford, a Rocky Mount graduate, sat on the Gryphons bench in a dark polo and blue jeans. He offered a couple tips as a coach, but mostly sat back and enjoyed the evening.
“So many memories came back to me walking in here,” Ford said. “No matter the sport, the intensity between the two schools is something you don’t see often no matter where you go. I remember playing against guys from Northern like Governor (Roy) Cooper, and the rivalry was just as big then as it is now.”
Cooper played at Northern Nash from 1972 to 1975, and had the task of guarding the future North Carolina great. During one of Ford’s big games, Cooper blocked a shot that has stuck with Cooper ever since.
“He got 52 points that night, but I like to say that he didn't get 54,” Cooper told the Telegram in 2016. “We never could beat them. But after Phil left, in my senior year, we beat them every time.”
Ford comes back to Rocky Mount occasionally to talk with kids, or to play in local charity golf outings. But this time, it was basketball that brought him back. And he and wasn’t immune to feeling a bit of nostalgia as he stepped into the gym where a banner celebrating his rookie of the year award hangs. While the new school wasn’t built when Ford was a high schooler, it was all the same to him.
“It’s always good to be back,” Ford said. “It’s not the old school but it’s still Senior High to me. Any time you come back here, the Gryphon spirit gets on you. Gainey is a good friend of mine, and when he called and said they were doing this, I knew I couldn’t miss it for the world.”
As for the game, Northern Nash won, 82-77. The score was tight throughout, and tied at 63-63 with 5:34 to play. But the Knights went on a four-point run and never trailed again.
Jolly Manning, Rocky Mount Prep’s head boys’ coach, was played for the Gryphons out of the 2002 class, threw down a two-handed dunk that made the crowd erupt in cheers. Ford, too, hopped to his feet, and the crowd rarely sat again, fully willing to be caught up in the magic and school pride that this game offered.
“There is a lot of negativity and violence you hear about around here,” McMillan said. “And it was good to see everyone come out and be together, the camaraderie, it was a very intense game that everyone enjoyed.”
Rocky Mount High won the women’s game against Northern Nash, and Nash Central defeated Southern Nash in the first men’s game.
Southern Nash’s oldest player came from the class of 1999 in Steve Hagans. Nash Central’s Trey Sumler came from the class of 2000.
Northern Nash women’s player Clarice Wright was from the class of 1978, while Rocky Mount High had a pair of women from the class of 1993 in Andriea Hinston-Borrego and Tamela Philpot.