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50 years later, the Atkins 4-A state basketball champions recall magical 23-0 season

50 years later, the Atkins 4-A state basketball champions recall magical 23-0 season

CLEMMONS — That silky, smooth jump shot that turned Willie Griffin into a schoolyard and high school legend is still a thing of beauty.

At age 69, Griffin still plays pickup basketball at least twice a week with other players in his age group at the Jerry Long YMCA. The fluid stroke that helped Atkins High School win the 4-A state championship 50 years ago is still on display despite the passage of time.

“I love to play,” said Griffin, who was one of the best players in North Carolina during the 1968-69 season.

During a morning of pickup basketball last month, one of his teammates from that team, Teddy East, dropped by the YMCA. East, who prefers to play golf these days instead of basketball, couldn’t resist offering a scouting report on his longtime friend and former teammate.

“Look at that, Willie still doesn’t pass the ball,” East said laughing as Griffin made a long jumper on the right wing during a full-court game.

That Atkins team, which went 23-0, was as dominant and talented as any team that’s ever played in the city limits. It was that good.

During that time in the late 1960s, the battle over integration was at the forefront, and the tension was high throughout Winston-Salem.

East, who went on to play basketball at Guilford College, where he was part of an NAIA national championship, doesn’t sugarcoat the divide that existed between blacks and whites in the late 1960s.

“There was some tension,” East said about integration and the racial climate, “but once we got on the court, it was all about basketball. Everybody just tried to play, and we tried to make our parents and the school proud.”

Coach Robert Moore, who would later get into college coaching at Virginia Union and Johnson C. Smith, was entrusted to make it all work.

And Moore, who died in October of 2015, helped his players get through the troubled times off the court as best that he could.

East remembers one time he and several teammates were in the same car in downtown Winston-Salem.

“We played North Forsyth in football over at Bowman Gray Stadium and a fight broke out after the game,” East said. “It was unsettling, obviously. We were on our way home and Coach Moore was taking myself, Willie Griffin, Greg Noble and Cliff Hill home and the police pulled us over. He wanted to know why there were so many of us in the car.

“And Coach explained to them who he was and that he was taking us home and that was it. So we felt a little something then.”

What they mostly remember, however, were the good times they had on the court and the bond that has lasted through the years.

The point guard of that team, Steve Joyner Sr., is a legendary coach at Johnson C. Smith, where he is still coaching the game he grew up with.

Joyner said there’s a lot he remembers about that state championship season.

“I would say it was very unique what we had on that team,” said Joyner, who averaged 19 points per game that season. “And sometimes when you are going through experiences like that, you don’t know how good it is until you’ve had time to reflect back on it.”

Several members of the team started playing basketball together in the third grade, and that carried over into junior high school at Kennedy and eventually to Atkins.

“Winston was very strategic in how the schools operated back then throughout the city,” Joyner said. “Each community developed its kind of own athletics with where you grew up. We had some (racial) tensions then, no doubt. But now that I look back, I can remember the influence of Big House Gaines, Mary Garber, David Lash and how all those people worked in the community to make sure those student-athletes were getting their due.”

According to East, Joyner and Griffin, schools did not travel to East Winston to play at Atkins gym due to the tense racial climate at the time. That led to Moore helping arrange for games to be played at the old War Memorial Coliseum. But moving the games to a neutral site allowed more fans to attend games.

“Everybody could come watch, and we put on a good show, so it was a lot of fun,” said Griffin, who after that season signed to play at Wake Forest as the first black athlete from Winston-Salem to play on scholarship on the basketball team.

The ‘Super Sub’

Even though Atkins was a dominant team, its best player, Griffin, never started a game. He began coming off the bench in his junior season, which carried over into the next season.

Mary Garber, a pioneer sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, referred to Griffin as the “Super Sub.” It stuck.

“When ‘Super Sub’ Willie came off the bench, you know his first shot was going in the basket,” Joyner said about Griffin, who averaged 24 points per game that season.

Griffin said he often wanted to feel comfortable before coming in the game.

“That’s just the way I liked it,” Griffin said. “Watching the game start and seeing the flow of it got me in the right frame of mind.”

Despite playing in the era before the 3-point line, Atkins averaged 93 points per game.

“He never passed it,” Joyner said with a chuckle about Griffin. “But he’s one of the best shooters I have ever seen. If he passed the ball, something was wrong.”

East, who was an NBA scout during the 1980s for the Boston Celtics, says Griffin is still the best shooter he ever saw. At Guilford, East played with M.L. Carr and World B. Free, who both went on to star in the NBA.

“I’ve never seen a better shooter than Willie Griffin,” East said. “He could get out of the bed hot, and he was never cold as a shooter. And he never saw a shot he didn’t mind taking.”

Everybody knew their role

Because the players knew each other so well, there was never any doubt as to what needed to happen for Atkins to win.

“We didn’t have any plays,” Griffin said. “We just played.”

Joyner was the consummate point guard. Cecil Bradshaw and Greg Noble were the rugged rebounders. Bradshaw and Noble averaged 14 and 11 rebounds per game, respectively. Michael Copeland, who also was the starting quarterback on the football team, was a starter most of the year and contributed to the team’s success.

East said there was no jealousy among the players, and Moore made sure the team stayed together through the long season.

“We never got in each other’s way,” East said. “When I look back that it’s been 50 years, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. But that bond is still there.”

Joyner said that when they lost to West Charlotte in the playoffs during their junior season, there were tears in the locker room. Atkins had won 20 games that year but had come up short.

“Coach Moore then says, ‘Why are you juniors crying? You guys get to try again next season,’” Joyner said. “And we kind of took that to heart because he was challenging us.”

Griffin said the expectation to win the state championship wasn’t something they shied away from.

“That was our dream at the beginning of the year — to go undefeated and win the state title,” Griffin said.

The consummate

point guard

Steve Joyner Sr., who carved out his legendary coaching career at Johnson C. Smith, was the natural ringleader of that Atkins team. As the point guard, he was the coach on the floor that Moore trusted even though the team didn’t have many set plays.

Joyner, who has more than 500 career victories at Johnson C. Smith and is in the CIAA Hall of Fame, says it was Moore who gave him his shot at coaching. The court at Johnson C. Smith’s Brayboy Gym is now named for Joyner.

After Joyner’s playing days ended at Johnson C. Smith, he joined Moore at Virginia Union as a graduate assistant. And it wasn’t long before Joyner returned to his alma mater as a coach and has been there ever since. He’s also the athletics director.

“The day I got out of college, he brought me up to Virginia Union to be an assistant,” Joyner said about Moore, who was the first black coach to win an NCHSAA state championship in basketball. “He knew I wanted to coach, and he thought I had some possibilities and he did that for me. But he did that for all of his players whenever he could help us; even after high school and college, Coach Moore was there for us.”

Joyner says the bond the team shared was most evident when Joyner became sick with mononucleosis and almost didn’t play that season.

“We went 23-0, but what stands out to me personally is I became ill,” Joyner said. “I had mononucleosis and was not scheduled to play at all that season. And I can remember Teddy, Cecil and Mike Copeland and others would come down to my house during their free period and pull me out of bed.

“I made it back, and they were very supportive of each other and of me, and that was obvious on the court as well.”

An early bond

in grade school

During their days as elementary school students, the players were together in recreation centers around the city. They met each other through basketball.

“Steve Joyner, Cecil Bradshaw and myself started at Skyland Elementary school,” East said. “Griffin, Michael Copeland and myself then got together at Kennedy (in middle school), and we played basketball, football and baseball.”

East said the city had many good basketball players around the same age and that they played against each other during the summer and in junior high.

“We played against Danny Traylor at Wiley back then,” East said about a junior high game between Wiley and Kennedy. “And there was one game when Kennedy played against Wiley, and it was jam packed. Those were some great memories even before we got to Atkins.

“That kind of set the stage for when Reynolds High School and Atkins played later when we got older. Those Reynolds teams were very good also.”

The numbers are impressive

Griffin says one of the beautiful things to watch during that season was when teams attempted to hit Atkins with a full-court press. Often, the ball wouldn’t hit the floor as the players passed it to each other as if their opponents weren’t there.

“We knew each other so well, and we knew where to be,” Griffin said. “Teams didn’t press us much after we broke it two or three times in a row.”

Griffin was a perfectionist with his shot and became upset if he missed three shots in a game.

“I didn’t take any days off,” Griffin said about practicing his jump shot. “(Team manager DeValdean Penn) would come with me to the gym, and I’d shoot for hours because I didn’t like when I missed any shots.”

Penn said the makeup to that Atkins team was perfect.

“They were good, and they knew it,” Penn said. “It was fun watching them practice, and it was fun watching them in games. They had a lot of blowouts that season.”

That list of blowouts includes beating West Forsyth by 35 points, beating West Charlotte by 33 points, beating East Forsyth by 30 points, and winning two games against Durham Hillside by 52 and 66 points.

East said one of the key ingredients was good defense.

“We all played as one defensively, and you could always take that defense on the road,” East said.

Mary Garber’s influence

There was a constant during that run to the title, and it had to do with Mary Garber, who was on the scene covering most of the team’s games.

Garber, one of the first female sportswriters in the country, showcased the team on the pages of the Journal and the Sentinel, which was the city’s afternoon newspaper.

“Ms. Garber deserves the respect, and we all respected her beyond belief,” East said while getting a little choked up. “She was an outspoken advocate for us and for black athletes in Winston-Salem. She was unbelievable, and you can’t give her enough praise for what she did because she got our stories in the newspaper when it wasn’t happening in other cities.”

Joyner said that without Garber, nobody would have known much about the black high schools in the late 1960s and what they accomplished in athletics.

“Ms. Garber was a big advocate for us, and we loved seeing her around at our games,” Joyner said.

East said Garber’s dedication to what went on during that season is something he’ll always remember.

“You had to know her to know what kind of special person she was to all of us,” East said.

Griffin’s life after basketball

The plan for Griffin after winning that state championship was going to Wake Forest and playing at a high level.

Griffin chose Wake Forest instead of Purdue thanks to the dogged recruiting pitch of Billy Packer, who was an assistant coach for the Deacons.

Griffin’s first three years playing for Wake Forest were exceptional, and in the 1971-72 season, he led the Deacons in scoring at 15 points per game as a junior. But a coaching change was made before his senior season. Carl Tacy was hired in 1972 to coach the Deacons, and Griffin spent his senior season on the bench.

He did not graduate from Wake Forest, but a few years later, he went back to school at Winston-Salem State to earn his degree in 1984. He went on to be a teacher for nine years and then was an award-winning firefighter for the city until his retirement in 2005.

“I’ve been blessed, and we’ve got two grown daughters (Carmen Lennon and Sabrina Griffin) and my wife and I (Ernestine) have been married for nearly 44 years,” Griffin said. “Our daughters are very successful, so life has been good to me. God is good.”

Griffin says those days at Atkins were special because of his teammates and coaches.

The team didn’t receive championship rings, but maybe it’s time somebody got together and planned a ceremony where they could receive those rings.

“I think that would be great,” Griffin said, “and I know the guys would love it.”

jdell@wsjournal.com (336) 727-4081 @johndellWSJ

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