North Carolina’s Junior College basketball past: The second of a 4-part series starts with Gardner-Webb’s 1960 dominance led by 2 future pros
North Carolina and the National Junior College Athletic Association Region X area that also includes schools from South Carolina and Virginia has a rich basketball history that dates to the 1920s. We’re doing a four-part series on that history.
Part 1: The early years from 1929 to the 1950s when Belmont Abbey was one of the powers. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/north-carolinas-junior-college-basketball-past-the-first-of-a-4-part-series-starts-with-belmont-abbeys-early-dominance/
Part 2: The 1960s when changes were coming fast and furious and Gardner-Webb emerged as a dominant program.
Part 3: The 1970s when Gaston College fielded successful teams and one of them nearly advanced to the national tournament.
Part 4: The all-time great coaches and players of Region X and the two recent national championship teams.
By Richard Walker
Before Eddie Holbrook came to Gardner-Webb Junior College as its basketball coach in 1964, the Bulldogs had advanced to two conference tournament title games – winning one – and had never played in the Region X tournament.
When Gardner-Webb played its last junior college game in March 1969, the Bulldogs were the best program in the conference and the region.
Pretty amazing stuff for a coach who didn’t know anything about the school before he was hired as head coach.
“I knew nothing about the place,” Holbrook said of Gardner-Webb and the small town of Boiling Springs in Cleveland County. “I just knew there was a school there. That’s it.”
But once Holbrook found his way there, he quickly turned Gardner-Webb into a powerhouse.
He inherited a basketball program in which only three of its 13 previous coaches had finished with winning records and had never won more than 17 games in any single season.
The 1963-64 Gardner-Webb Bulldogs had had gone 6-21 overall and were a last-place 2-12 in the Western Carolinas Junior College Conference.
Even as the school had won its first conference tournament championship in 1963, the program had lagged behind others in the league like North Greenville; Gardner-Webb had never won at North Greenville and had recently lost 16 straight games to the school.
Holbrook changed the program’s direction by recruiting standout players, some of them of African-American descent.
Like every school but one in the South, Gardner-Webb’s athletic program was all-white when Holbrook became he coach.
But change came quickly.
Soon after Western Carolina became the first integrated athletic program in the South in 1964 with star basketball player Henry Logan, Holbrook said he got the go-ahead from top school administrators to do the same at Gardner-Webb.
In 1966, he brought in Laurence “Sonny” Johnson from Laurinburg Institute, a private African-American boarding school located 150 miles east of Boiling Springs.
The year Holbrook was recruiting Johnson, Laurinburg Institute had arguably its best team in history as the legendary Earl “The Goat” Manigault, future Hall of Famer Charlie Scott and future Wake Forest standout Charlie Davis were among Johnson’s teammates.
Johnson enrolled at G-W in January 1966 as Holbrook’s first star player, Dennis Childress, was about the finish up his Bulldogs’ career.
By adding talented players like Childress and Johnson, Gardner-Webb won the Western Carolinas Junior College Conference four times in its last five years in the league.
And the best was yet to come, as future Basketball Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore was added in 1967 and future pro George Adams from nearby Kings Mountain was added in 1968.
By 1968, Gardner-Webb would finally reach the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, by downing nemesis Ferrum, Va., in the Region X championship game.
Gardner-Webb went back to the NJCAA national tournament in 1969.
Gilmore, a 7-foot-2 center, ended up leading Jacksonville to the 1970 NCAA championship game before playing 17 years in the ABA and NBA; In 2011, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Adams, a 6-foot-5 forward, became Gardner-Webb’s all-time leading scorer by playing in the school’s last year as a junior college and its first three as a senior college. He would play for the NBA Milwaukee Bucks and ABA San Diego Conquistadors.