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Inspiring change off the court
Cousins' basketball team remembers playing days of the past
The 1965 R.L. Cousins basketball team set an example on and off the court for African Americans, giving the Counsins community am inspiring symbol during the mid-1960s. - photo by Courtesy of The AA Historical Association of Newton County

For the 1965 R.L. Cousins basketball team, its play on the court didn't begin as a symbol or a beacon of hope for future generations.

The 11 players and head coach who made up the team that season saw basketball for what it was – a game shared with teammates, friends, family and community.

Decades later, the program has taken an iconic spot in Newton County history, as the Wolverines carved their way into local lore.

While Newton County went on to fully integrate its school system in 1970, the Wolverines’ legend lives on, giving hope, purpose and identity to a community.

Winning on the court

The 1965 version of the Wolverines turned out to be the most successful group R.L. Cousins put together on the court, reaching the championship game of the Georgia Interscholastic Association Class A basketball state tournament.

Cousins marched its way through the regular season, earning the District VI championship that season before facing Liberty in the title contest.

The Wolverines had already made history – they were the first team at Cousins to play for a state title – and midway through the game, it looked like the Wolverines would bring home the school’s first state title, leading Liberty at halftime.

But, not every story has a happy ending, as Liberty rallied in the second half and topped the Wolverines by nine points. Cousins finished with a 17-4 overall record, but Cousins’ basketball player Lester Lackey Jr. doesn’t remember the wins and losses – he remembers how the game of basketball molded him and his teammates.

“Those were fun times,” Lackey said. “We had a great following. We were a winning team, but the support wasn’t only because of that. People around here wanted something to look forward to. They wanted something to believe in.”

Cousins was established in 1957 as Newton County’s first black school. Named after the former state director of black education, Cousins' Wolverines lived up to their nickname, clawing their way to the top of basketball landscape in the state.

Lackey said that although the winning was fun, it was the bond he created with his teammates that he likes to remember the most.

“We were inseparable,” Lackey said. “We took the same classes together, we practiced together, and we hung out off the court together. We created a bond like brothers.”

Lackey said you could often find him and his teammates in the Washington Street gym in Covington after hours, either working on their game or just hanging out.

“Back then, we’d go in the gym late at night and play, and anytime one of our parents needed us, they knew they could find us all together,” Lackey said. “We were always in the gym. When you go through a time period like that in a close-knit group, you gain that camaraderie. It helped us. We always had someone to turn to.

“We got stronger because of each other,” he said. “We got to the point where we could anticipate what the other person was doing. We knew each other’s moves. When you play together the way we did, as much as we did and for as long as we did, you almost become like one person.”

Battling inequality

While the winning on the court was a great achievement for the Wolverines, things off the court weren’t so easy.

Lackey remembers small social battles – and victories – the Wolverines often had to face that today’s players don’t have to combat.

During the 1960s, Newton County High School was also at the pinnacle of the basketball scene, much like the Wolverines, but the two schools weren’t allowed to play each other.

 Lackey said the Rams and the Wolverines handled business on the court in a less traditional setting.

“We weren’t integrated at the time, meaning that black teams could only play black teams and white teams could only play white teams,” Lackey said. “Newton County was very successful at the time, and we wanted to play them to see who the best team in the county was – but that wasn’t going to work.

“So what we did was we went over and met a few of their guys and played outside at Newton’s court,” he said. “A bunch of us got together and had our own little game. It wasn’t official, but we wanted to know who the best team was. We had a chance to play them and it was a fun experience. We couldn’t play on the same court together, but basketball was basketball. It had a wayof bringing others together.”

Lackey’s teammate Johnny Johnson, who captained the Wolverines in 1965, recalled a meeting with Newton County coach Ron Bradley.

“As we were leaving, Coach Bradley asked if we still wanted to play,” Johnson said in a 2011 article dedicated to Cousins’ coach Jimmy Wright. “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 reminisce today, a smile creeps across my face.”

Along with battling social inequality and being an anchor of the Cousins’ community, Lackey said he remembered some of the strange circumstances that surrounded a few of their games, particularly games played outdoors.

Unique experiences

At the time, not every team on Cousins’ schedule had an indoor gym.

“Luckily we didn’t have to play outside here in Covington, but we did when we traveled,” Lackey said. “I remember playing outside in Sparta … they didn’t have a gym and we didn’t have any other options. I believe we also played outside in Greensboro. That was an experience. We played a lot of sandlot ball, but I have never played an official game on dirt until then. We were like fish out of water – it was definitely an element we didn’t expect."

Lackey said in those days it was tough to always find a nice place to play, but he and his teammates just wanted to enjoy the game they loved, no matter where it took place.

“It was a very unique experience not knowing where you were going to play each game,” he said. “In town we didn’t have to worry about it, but it was a struggle starting up. Before they built our gym at Cousins, we played at the Washington Street gym. We didn’t have home games then and even when we moved over, we still had problems. Our floor had a few issues the first year or so and we actually played our games in Conyers at Rockdale. We didn’t have a home to begin with, but we were happy to just play.”

Relating to today

Lackey said he hoped that the struggles he, his teammates and the black community went through at the beginning of the Civil Rights era have not been lost on those playing the game today.

“Basketball was a sport to us,” Lackey said. “We played for enjoyment and the love of the game. Today, I think families see basketball as more of a business. It has sort of taken the sportsmanship out of the game. That goes from little league on up. Instead of letting kids enjoy the game, they’re preparing for the future. “

The late-night gym sessions, the struggle to find a court, the problems the team faced on the road fighting for respect are pillars that Lackey doesn’t want to see forgotten.

“The love for the game and why we played is lost,” he said. “I think it’s hurting the game and hurting the learning experience you can have playing the game. I wish people would remember that.”