LEGENDARY COACH DIES: Rhodes built basketball power at Ashley and Ashbrook
By Richard Walker
To put in perspective what Larry Rhodes meant to Gastonia high school basketball, all you need to do is look at what had happened before he was hired as head coach at Gastonia’s Ashley High School in 1957.
Ashley had never won a league title against competition outside the county. And while the all-African-American Highland High had won championships, full integration of local schools was a nine years away.
After Rhodes was hired, he guided Green Wave teams to 11 district titles, 10 regular season titles, five league tournament titles and four appearances in the state tournament highlighted by a 1967 state championship that impacted the community in more ways than just sports.
Rhodes, a High Point native, died earlier this week at 88.
Hired at Ashley as a football assistant coach, head basketball coach and head golf coach, Rhodes’ Green Wave teams enjoyed success in all three sports.
He’s most remembered for his impact on basketball.
A 1979 Gaston County Sports Hall of Famer, Rhodes had a 332-174 overall basketball coaching record that included coaching the area’s most honored player in 1982 University of North Carolina NCAA Final Four MVP, three-time Los Angeles Lakers NBA champion and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer James Worthy.
But Rhodes was deservedly given credit for how he navigated the cultural divide during the turbulent 1960s when he guided a team with five African-American starters to the 1967 N.C. 4A state championship.
It was the first season of fully integrated schools in Gaston County and Rhodes combined the teams of Highland and Ashley into a state power quickly.
Injuries to a key starting player led Rhodes to adopt a defensive-minded team that had a storyline comparable to the 2006 Hollywood movie “Glory Road” about Texas Western’s NCAA championship run with an all-African-American starting lineup in 1966.
Rhodes, who never liked to compare teams or players, said this about the 1967 team in a 2017 interview with The Gaston Gazette.
“In all my years of coaching, I was blessed to have some great teams,” Rhodes said. “Winning obviously is great and we won a lot of championships. But to have gone through that year with integration and everything else that was going meant a lot then and still means a lot to me today.”
Later in his career, Rhodes coached Worthy for three years as Ashbrook advanced to the state final one season (losing to crosstown rival Hunter Huss in the 1977 state championship game) and to a fourth-place finish in 1979.
Rhodes impact on basketball in Gastonia is undeniable particularly when you look at what has happened since Rhodes’ title team.
In the 50 years before the 1967 title, Ashley and Highland had won five conference titles apiece.
Including the 1967 championship, Gastonia teams have won or shared 36 conference titles with four state championships – Ashley in 1967 and Huss in 1977, 1985 and 2011.
Additionally, a city that had yet to produce even a single NBA player before the late 1970s has had six former residents go on to play in the NBA since then – Thomas “Bubba” Wilson, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Worthy, Darrell Armstrong and current NBA players Hassan Whiteside of the Portland Trail Blazers and Nate Hinton of the Dallas Mavericks.
Rhodes also was inducted into the N.C. High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2012.