Playing in a gym that is now home to Holbrook Middle School teams, this high-scoring duo was the hottest ticket in town in the mid-1950s
By Richard Walker
If you like watching high-scoring prep basketball, Lowell High School was the place to be in the mid-1950s.
Two of Gaston County’s greatest highest school basketball players graced the court for the Lions and set records, some of which still stand to this day.
Both players, Joe Ladd (2010 induction) and Gayle Waldrop Fulbright (2008), have been inducted into the Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame.
Ladd became the first boys basketball player in county history to surpass 2,000 career points and eventually was a collegiate standout at Wake Forest and Lenoir-Rhyne.
At Lowell, Ladd led the team to some of the greatest years in school history.
The Lions went 81-17 overall and 63-12 against league competition as Lowell won only its second and third conference regular season titles in 1954 and 1955 and won the school’s first two conference tournament titles in 1954 and 1955.
Lowell also advanced to the 1A district finals in 1954 and 1955 while making its gym – currently home to Holbrook Middle School teams – the hottest ticket in town. (Holbrook and Gastonia’s Ashley High School were closed after the 1969-70 school year to form Ashbrook High School.)
“To get a seat, you needed to be here at least an hour before the game started,” Ladd told The Gaston Gazette before his 2010 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame induction. Frank McGuire’s veteran University of North Carolina assistant “Buck Freeman flew in to Charlotte to come see me play one time. He got the Stanley gymnasium 15 minutes before the game started – and they turned him away.”
That recruiting interest picked up even more after Ladd scored 2,035 points in his career and 702 points in his senior season of 1955. (Both would stand as Gaston County records for 15 years until another future Wake Forest player, Bessemer City’s Tony Byers, broke both in 1970.)
After his high school career ended, Ladd won named the most outstanding player in the Kiwanis Classic at the old Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangles’ Coliseum) in an All-Star game matching high school stars from the Carolinas.
After receiving recruiting offers from 30 college, among them Clemson, North Carolina and Wake Forest of the ACC and Tennessee and Vanderbilt of the SEC, Ladd chose to play for Deacons head head coach Murray Greason and then-assistant Horace “Bones” McKinney.
The leading scorer – 18 points and 12 rebounds per game – for the Wake Forest freshman team in 1956, Ladd was a key reserve on the 19-9 varsity team in 1957 that saw its season end in a 61-59 ACC tournament semifinal loss to North Carolina; It was the fourth loss (by a total of 18 points) to the eventual unbeaten NCAA champion Tar Heels that season.
Ladd would then transfer to Lenoir-Rhyne where he helped the Bears go 42-18 in two seasons, including advancing to the 1959 NAIA national tournament quarterfinals.
Fulbright’s scoring records are still intact and likely never be challenged.
At a time when college opportunities were extremely limited and North Carolina girls basketball employed old 6-on-6 playing rules, she scored 3,613 career points and had two seasons of 1,000 or more points – 1,119 in 1955 and 1,252 in 1956. She also had 22 games with 55 or more points, including a county record 102 points against Sacred Heart in 1956.
In the Feb. 7, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated, she became the first local athlete featured in that internationally acclaimed magazine for her high-scoring exploits.
“Nobody had ever seen anything like her,” Dwight Frady told The Gaston Gazette before Fulbright’s 2008 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame induction. “And we will probably never see another. We have just never had such a scoring machine as she was.”
Frady inducted Fulbright at that ceremony.
Fulbright’s first high school coach, Irene Waldrop Guthrie (no relation) said she discovered the high-scoring talent as a tall eighth-grader and began working to develop her talents.
The result was in turning the Lady Lions from a one-win team in 1953 into teams that won 36 games in Waldrop’s last three seasons – and at a school that had previously suffered through eight winless seasons.
Fulbright never played basketball beyond high school since very few colleges offered the sport until the Supreme Court’s 1972 landmark Title IX athletic gender equity decision; She married her high school sweetheart Tony and had four children.
“I have no regrets about my own life,” Fulbright told the Gaston Gazette before her 2008 GCSHOF induction. “The regret of missing basketball probably hit me as a senior because I started realizing it was soon to be over. Because I just loved being a part of the team and the group.”