The story of the 1965 R.L. Cousins team is as compelling if not more than the exploits of the 1964 state champion Rams. But it wouldn't be fair for me to tell it because I wasn't there. But 11 young man and one steady coach were. And so I felt it right to leave the storytelling to team captain Johnny Johnson, who is now a retired teacher and coach himself living in Pennsylvania.
As you read Johnny's words, remember Jimmy Wright and celebrate what his group of players did in 1965. And then let's never forget. - Josh Briggs, Sports Editor
The 1965 R.L. Cousins Wolverines
We were all seniors and we prepared to make this our greatest year. Mr. Tinsley had resigned as our coach and we were getting a new one, Jimmy Wright. We had heard a little about him. He had played for Mr. Smith at Washington Street and had gone to Morris Brown where he played basketball. We went to the district playoffs my junior year and had lost most of our starters. But we had high hopes for this season.
It was 1964 - the beginning of integration and Covington was very resistant to change. The attempt to integrate Strand Theater was futile. The move from the rear balcony to the front door was met with opposition. We were also unsuccessful in integrating the local lunch counter at the Pharmacy.
So the summer of 1964 didn't promise too much for us. It was as though we knew our place and we might as well be content with it. The segregation of the South. A man-made hell for the black man.
Joe Kimball (my best friend) and I got jobs at the FFA-FHA camp working in the kitchen and cleaning cabins. The pay wasn't bad and the gentlemen who ran it were really nice. They treated us like people. After taxes we brought home about $20 a week, which wasn't bad. We worked from 4 a.m. until about 6 p.m. with camp cleanup on Fridays.
The white basketball players we knew worked there also but not in the kitchen. They were more like camp counselors and guides. Joe and I did get a chance to slip in a basketball game every once in a while. We held our own and impressed the white players with our ability, for they had never seen or played against us. We made friends with a couple of them. All the free time that I had was spent conditioning, honing up on my basketball skills and playing baseball for the Porterdale Blue Caps.
This was a great summer, making a little money and playing four baseball games a week against some of the best players in Georgia, players that only black Georgians knew. The exploits of most black athletes unless they were in the top Georgia cities (Atlanta, Decatur, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, Savannah and Athens) never made the white press. So you were unknown but a local hero in your town.
Meeting white people was as new to us as it was to them. But I think we had an "in" because we were taught to treat everyone with respect and color never motivated our treatment of others. Before the end of the summer, the word had gotten to us that the white players wanted to play us at the Library. We weren't allowed in the Library, couldn't walk through the door, couldn't peep in the window and couldn't check out a book. So we were leery of going. But it was summer and we loved basketball so we went.
One of the white players had a key and he let us in. We played for about 20 or 30 minutes before Sheriff Odum entered the gym. We were afraid because the Sheriff had a reputation in the community of not liking blacks. His first comment was, "what are these n*$#@&s doing in here, did they break in?" The white player who let us in was probably as scared of Sheriff Odum as we were, for he remained silent. Sheriff Odum told us to get out and their presence probably prevented a major incident.
As we were leaving, Coach Bradley asked if we still wanted to play. We walked to Newton County High School, where he opened the door and we played until we were ready to go. Probably the only black people that had entered that gym previously were the black workers who helped build it and blacks that cleaned it. As I reminiscence today, a smile creeps across my face.
We had to wait in line at Tastee-Freeze. We had to go to the back door at other eating establishments. We had to drink from "colored only" water fountains in stores but we were the first blacks to play in the Newton County High School gymnasium. We were "barrier breakers".
School started, with us finally having a gym of our own. Prior to that time, we played in a concrete block building at Washington Street High School. I remember that we had to paint the lines on the floor, varnish it and get there early to make fires in the wood heaters that sat at each corner of the gym. I remember many nights making a jump shot and running past the heater to warm my hands. We did have an indoor gym but a lot of teams we played had outdoor courts. That gym had a lot of history. The 1959 Washington Street team went 19-0 and played the Harlem Wizards in that gym. I believe it is gone now, buried beneath its rubble are the memories of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the black community.
I bought a beanie cap and proudly wrote on it "State Champs" and set about making those words a reality. We practiced each day at 5 p.m. The girls practiced before us. We would usually ride the bus home from school and walk with our teammates the two or three miles back to practice. We refused rides almost all the time, we just wanted to walk and talk.
A player represented almost all neighborhoods in the black community (Sand Hill, Frog Town, Needmore, Nelson Heights, Short Street, Almon, Pettis Hill and Harris Town). Truly this was the black community's team.
It didn't take long to jell as a unit and Coach did a great job. Walter (Greer) and Joel (King) at the guards, Lester (Lackey) and myself at the forwards and Walter (Jackson) at center. Our top reserves were Rochester (Pitts), Marion (Height), Douglas (Sawyer), Houston (Cooksey) and Thomas (Cullen). We traveled to neighboring towns, (Conyers, Decatur, Monticello, Winder, Greensboro, Eatonton, Gainesville and Madison) to play their teams. Competition was furious and sometimes losers were not so nice.
We entered the region tourney held in Covington. We won two games and advanced to the district playoffs. We had developed a faithful group of followers, those who remembered the 1959 team that had lost in the Districts. The Districts were held in Sparta. We won the first game in the last second on my jump shot. The Saturday game pitted us against a great team from Thomson. They were bigger than we were. But we battled and with the score tied with about five seconds left, I made a jump shot to secure the first and only District Championship in the history of Washington Street/R.L. Cousins High School.
We were the heroes of our community/ The hopes of Covington's black citizens rested squarely on our shoulders and we passed the test with flying colors. Their pride was shown with telephone calls, announcements in churches and smiles that couldn't be hidden. They were proud of their boys. Even though we lived in the same county, the black and white communities were as distant as the Himalayas or the Arctic Circle. There was no recognition in the newspaper, but a message from the Superintendent of Schools (Mr. Richardson), he was proud.
For the state semi-finals we had to travel to Dublin where we had no problem beating the two teams. Our goal was almost complete, two games to go. The State Finals were held in south Georgia at Darien.
Some of us had never been further than our neighboring counties, but we now had to travel almost hundred miles. Now you have to understand that in this traveling we could not stop for food unless we found a black establishment or use the bathroom unless we stopped and went in the woods. Mr. had to travel almost 300 miles.
Now you have to understand, we couldn't stop for food unless we found a black establishment or use the bathroom unless we stopped and went in the woods. Mr. Stewart (our Principal) had packed chicken for us, the only food we had on this trip. We had developed so much camaraderie that we had our song, "My Girl" by the Temptations. We had heard the song before any of the major games we played.
We had drawn the home team Darien. The game was nip and tuck all the way. With about five seconds left, Walter made a layup that sealed the victory for us. The championship game pitted us against Liberty County. Their center (Peter Walthour*) was 6 foot 9 and their forward was 6'5". None of our players stood over 6'2". We played a great first half and were leading at halftime. But we ended up losing by nine points. Our dream had come to an end but for this year, our town had embraced us and pushed us on.
As captain I went up to receive the runner-up trophy. I thought about all the countless hours of hard work and sacrifice that had gone into making this season and we didn't reach our goal.
With tears streaming down my cheeks, I accepted the trophy and threw it in the crowd. By chance, someone caught it. I told Coach Wright that I didn't work as hard as I did for a second place trophy. In his usual cool demeanor, he asked, "how many teams do you think started this season with the same goals that you had?" I replied, "a hundred or more?" And he said, "then being number two isn't that bad".
After the sadness of the moment had passed we were traveling back to Covington, happy and singing our favorite song "My Girl".
We grew up that year. We were no longer boys, we had rite of passage and backed by our parents, our coach and our town, we were the R.L. Cousins Wolverines.
* I was later teammates with Peter Walthour on the first Fort Valley State University basketball team to win an SIAC Basketball Tournament Championship in 1969.