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STEELE CREEK --
You’d need a big map to find a more impressive postseason resume than what these Olympic High School Trojans just submitted. USA Today ranks them No. 19 in the country. The Charlotte Observer lists them No.1 in the region. Their schedule has them undefeated at 22-0.
Least impressed by all the hoopla, though, may be the Steele Creek team itself. Boys coach Ty Baumgardner, in his ninth season at Olympic, just won his fifth straight regular season conference title. But ask him how the team addresses that lone remaining prize – a first state championship – and it’s as if we’re talking two different sports.
“We don’t,” Baumgardner tells me. “We haven’t talked about it one time.”
I show up on a Wednesday toward season’s end. Calls for ball and sneaker squeaks ricochet off concrete and pullout bleachers. They set up four defending five, then runouts. These are grown men. But the best in Charlotte?
Charlotte is the biggest city in North Carolina, a state familiar with great basketball. Enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame are five players, three coaches and a contributor who hail from North Carolina. A famous college coach once concocted a tar-heeled game plan essentially taking the air out of the ball for entire halves at a time, and people still watched.
Then there’s this guy who grew up in-state, who most reasonable people call the greatest player ever and who happens to own Charlotte’s pro franchise.
We’re not talking about a hoops-starved region.
“It has, over the years, grown to the point where no other state can compete with it,” says Don Fish, executive director of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
Baumgardner calls my number. I’m doing him a favor of sorts. He’s working set pieces and defenders know the litany of numbers, state names and hand signals as well as the offense. It’s easier getting a fair look from someone who isn’t anticipating every cut or ball screen.
Where I’m looking is straight up at B.J. Gladden. At 6-foot-5, the all-conference senior isn’t quite tall enough to improve my cell phone reception, but he’s close. He’s also quick. He’ll play at the University of Akron next season. My team of white shirts can’t be happy with this matchup.
“We play fast,” Baumgardner says. “We’re pressing from the tip to the final buzzer.”
One play in, a pass to the wing and it’s dumped down low to Gladden on the right block. Before I can body up he’s by me. Big man launches and it looks like he’s about to bring the iron back down with him. At that critical, flushing moment most men only imagine, something changes. Gladden reconsiders. He lays it mercifully in, to slight grumblings from his teammates.
“I thought you were playing,” he’ll later describe the moment. “And when I saw you guarding me I said, oh man, I’ve got to score. I can’t risk coach screaming at me.”
If there’s any hope for me, it’s old man basketball. We all know the drill. That decked out in Rec Specs guy in every gym, who spends the first few runs stretching and then resuscitates the full repertoire of bounce passes, baby hooks and set shots.
I stick a little tighter. We spend time on the perimeter. A shot goes up and clanks. I box my man out. Gladden gets the board anyway, and the putback. Several possessions and I’m not sure we’ve stopped the red jerseys, including at least one thunder dunk right in my grill.
“They told me I had to dunk it,” Gladden says of his teammates, “so I had to.”
Baumgardner calls for a zone defense. Now we’re talking. He puts me in the middle. Wait, what? I’m sliding with the bigs down low and we finally get a stop. Guess Baumgardner isn’t conference coach of the year for nothing. Another couple possessions and I grab my first board. The reds still score more than we stop, but we’re improving.
I haven’t been here an hour and my guys are high-fiving and help-defending like I aced tryouts right along with them.
“All they care about is winning,” Baumgardner says. “It’s very uncommon. They love each other. It’s the closest-knit group we’ve ever had at Olympic.”
Coach isn’t the only one saying so. Langston Wertz Jr. is a name synonymous with Charlotte prep sports. He’s been with the Charlotte Observer since 1988 and votes in the Sweet 16 poll of coverage area schools, which has Olympic at No. 1.
And even among the past few nationally ranked Olympic squads, Wertz calls this one by far the best.
“They have three or four guys who could be that monster, but they’re sacrificing their game and their stats for something bigger,” he said.
All-conference performer Deriece Parks leads Olympic with almost 16 points and three steals per game, but five Trojans average double figure scoring. Gladden leads the team with eight rebounds per game. The only player on any area-wide stat leaderboard is senior point man Jevon Patton in, go figure, assists.
“We don’t really care who scores,” said Dante Simmons, one of six seniors on the squad. “We just care about wins.”
The white shirts take offense. I navigate the arc, passing and replacing without threatening the basket. Then it happens. I’m rotated to the right elbow. A shot goes up, misses and I’m staring down my one shining moment.
The rebound leaks out and I nab it just ahead of converging defenders. Four arms race to swallow me whole. There’s no time to think. There’s barely time to react.
I finger roll. That’s right. From the floor, a good dozen or more Pythagorean feet from the rim. Call it a shot, call it a prayer, because it’s coming up short. Suddenly a leaper in a white jersey takes flight. He expunges the ball from the air ahead of his own trail defender and lays it in mid-twist for two. The place erupts.
Old man basketball, baby.
Chris Paul makes that play and it spends a month on SportsCenter. I make it and bench guys keel over laughing like I just got drafted to the skins squad. It’s all Baumgardner can do to keep a straight face. Clearly he hadn’t game-planned for that one.
I’m getting constant shout-outs and high fives as we transition into shooting drills. I’m sure these guys are intimidating to opponents, but they sure take care of their own. They’re spending their precious few back-of-the-line seconds on a pass and layup drill explaining what I should do. By the time I take a pass, deliver one, screen around Baumgardner and pop a top of the key three ball, we nearly have to shut down practice.
“You might see something like this in a rural, smaller area where everybody grows up playing together,” Baumgardner says of his team’s closeness. “You usually don’t see it in a big urban school.”
Especially considering only two starters returned from last season’s near-state title run. Simmons came back after a freshman year at Olympic and two elsewhere. Gladden came from a charter school. Patton was the Gaston Gazette’s player of the year last year at Highland Tech. That may be why Baumgardner isn’t obsessing on a state title with so many seniors.
Great basketball brings great players.
“It already is sustaining itself,” Wertz says of Olympic’s success. “I don’t see why what they’re doing has to end.”
We all take the baseline and Baumgardner calls me out for a free throw. I miss, and we all sprint the length of the court and back. He calls me again. I roll one off the rim. I get a redo. One more shot to avoid another sprint. One more shot with a team whose one more shot already is upon them, but doesn’t seem bothered by it.
I sink it. You’d think we all just raised a banner. We gather midcourt one last time, hands in the middle.
A fitting way to end practice for a dozen young men who couldn’t be closer.
On Your Marks Scoreboard
Competition: Olympic High School boys basketball team
Contest: Five-on-five practice at the school
Score: With an assist but no scoring from Marks, his white jersey squad scored two buckets. The red jerseys scored at least six. Final score: Trojans 12, Marks 4.
On Your Marks is a monthly column where Lake Wylie Pilot reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, email firstname.lastname@example.org.