On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we remember a team that embodied his message: The 1967 Ashley High basketball state champions

By Richard Walker

Ashley’s 1967 N.C. Class 4A basketball state championship team.

In Gastonia high school athletics, Larry Rhodes is one of the most respected and successful coaches in history.

A football assistant coach and head coach in basketball and golf at Ashley and Ashbrook high schools, Rhodes coached eventual basketball Hall of Famer James Worthy in the late 1970s.

But Rhodes’ greatest memory in coaching – and arguably his greatest contribution to the profession – came during the 1966-67 school year.

Certainly guiding Ashley’s basketball team to a state title is the accomplishment that will never be taken away.

After all, it’s the first high school basketball state title in the city’s rich athletic history.

Yet, what sets the 1966-67 Green Wave apart from many others is what the team’s players and coaches endured during that historic season.

In storylines comparable to Hollywood movies “Glory Road” and “Remember the Titans,” Rhodes pulled together a community in the first year of mandated school integration in the city.

The formerly all-African-American Highland High School had been closed and most of those students were to attend Ashley, including four returning starters from the Rams’ 1965-66 basketball team that went 12-5.

By the end of the 1966-67 season, those four players and another African-American player formed the starting lineup of the first team in N.C. High School Athletic Association history with five African-American starters.

Four white teammates had started as underclassmen at Ashley in 1965-66 as the Green Wave went 4-15.

Ironically, an injury in the first game of the 1966-67 season to one of Ashley’s returning starters, 6-foot-5 center Dicky Tate, is considered a turning point in the season. Not because Tate couldn’t play – he went on to play collegiately at Pan American University – but it changed how the team played for the better.

“Coach Rhodes told me the offense was geared for me to touch the ball on every possession,” Tate told The Gaston Gazette in 2007. “But I got tripped (in a 68-40 win) at Lexington and wrecked my knee. I’ve always wondered if we would’ve won it if I hadn’t gotten hurt. Because, in all honesty, me being out helped create the lineup that won the state championship for us.”

Tate would need knee surgery to repair torn cartilage and missed games until late in the season. Without him, Rhodes tried different lineups before settling on guards Ronald Henry Phillips and John Costner, forwards Harold Rhyne and Ronnie Lee Phillips and center Bobby Parks – or the team’s five African-American players – when the team had a 3-2 record.

Twenty-one straight victories later, the Green Wave was a state champion following a 51-44 victory over Wilmington’s New Hanover High in a game played at the University of North Carolina’s then-one-year-old Carmichael Auditorium.

“In all my years of coaching, I was blessed to have some great teams,” Rhodes told The Gaston Gazette in 2017. “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.”

Former coach Larry Rhodes with some photos from the 1967 Ashley High School basketball team.

When students, athletes and coaches at Ashley and Highland high schools found out they were going to be one school, administrators and teachers pursued multiple ways to help pull the two schools together that clearly paid dividends for the 1966-67 school year — and beyond.

The reason for their concern was simple: There was initial, sometimes emotional resistance and resentment to consolidating two schools that had become sources of pride in their respective communities. And in some schools in this state and in the region, there were violent clashes.

Some whites simply didn’t want to see the schools integrated. And some African-Americans didn’t like seeing their school being closed and their students sent to a previously all-white school.

Parks admitted as much in a 2007 interview with The Gaston Gazette.

“We wanted to stay at Highland, but we couldn’t,” Parks said. “It was kind of hard to understand at the time. I talked to my parents about it and they said, ‘Well, this is how it’s got to be.'”

Rhodes received threatening phone calls and letters from fans “disappointed” at his lineup decisions during that season. But he kept those to himself, assistant coach Jerry Carpenter, other Ashley coaches and a few other close friends.

Rhodes says he never felt threatened enough to call the police and didn’t tell his players about the threats until many years later — and only when they asked.

“Some guys came to a basketball game early in the year and I understood from friends that they got up and left because they were ‘fed up with the situation,'” Rhodes said in 2007. “I think the worst thing was the phone calls. You’d get the ‘Well, your so-and-so’s won again’ or worse. I could take that. But I didn’t like it when my daughters or my wife would answer the phone and get the same thing.”

In the end, Rhodes coached his players as he had done throughout a career that landed him in the Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame (1979) and NCHSAA Hall of Fame (2012).

“I just took the attitude that I was going to coach the same way I’d always coached and just play the best players,” Rhodes said.

The strategy and the team’s success drew appreciation and respect from his players – then and now.

Said Ronnie Lee Phillips: “I really wasn’t too much aware of what was being done at the time. I did hear some things before the season had ended. But coach Rhodes showed no fear. He coached every day like the first day.”

Added Tom Bryant: “If we had critics, I don’t know what they could criticize. If you watched us play and were still critical, I think it just showed you were ignorant of the sport.”

Costner offered the most pragmatic view of all, as it related to the 1953 Supreme Court case that led to the integration of schools nationwide.

“The story that it was separate but equal was just never really the case,” he said. “So it (integration) was needed. Some people went into it with animosity. I think we went into it with an open mind. We thought, ‘Let’s go along and get along.'”

Early season losses to Charlotte’s Myers Park and Garinger high school were the only blemishes on a 14-2 Southwestern Conference championship-winning record.

After winning the conference tournament, Ashley was the underdog in the three straight games it won in the eight-team N.C. 4A state tournament.

The Green Wave beat a Burlington Williams team featuring eventual Elon University Hall of Famer Tommy Cole and University of North Carolina player Dale Gipple 56-49 in the quarterfinals. Then Ashley beat Winston-Salem Reynolds and eventual University of South Carolina forward Danny Traylor 46-42 in the semifinals before beating Wilmington New Hanover and eventual UNC player Kim Huband 51-44 in the championship game.

Parks had 14 points and 11 rebounds and Rhyne had 11 points and nine rebounds in the title game.

Highland (1952) and Ashley (1955) had finished as runner-up in the city’s only previous title-game appearances in the respective black and white high school athletic association championship games.

The 1967 Ashley Green Wave began a tradition of basketball excellence that has continued in the city ever since.

While Gastonia high school basketball teams had won or shared 10 conference titles – five apiece by Ashley and Highland – in the 50 years before 1967, Gastonia teams have won or shared 36 conference titles in years since as Ashley added two more titles, Hunter Huss (which opened in 1962) has won or shared 19 league titles, Ashbrook (which opened in 1970) has won or shared 11 titles, Forestview (which opened in 1998) has won or shared five titles and Highland Tech (which re-opened on the site of old Highland High in 2001) has shared one league championship.

Perhaps more importantly, a city which 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.