Coach Henry James "Jimmy" Wright is remembered as a talented basketball player and coach, but friends and family were even more impressed by his loving and generous spirit. After Wednesday's court dedication at renovated Wolverine Gym, Wright will be remembered by all forever.
In honor of Wright, who died last January, the Newton County Recreation Commission is named the basketball court of the remodeled gym "Jimmy Wright Court."
Community leaders including incoming and outgoing Covington mayors Ronnie Johnston and Kim Carter and Wright's widow, daughter and grandchildren gathered to honor Wright, the head coach who guided the 1965 R.L. Cousins High School team to a state-runner up finish.
In his first year as men's basketball coach at R.L. Cousins, the county's former all-black high school, Wright led the 1965 Wolverines team to the state championship game of the Georgia Interscholastic Association.
The team fell short in the finals but earned respect and brought a sense of pride back to their community, said Johnny Johnson, the captain of that 1965 team.
"He was able to bring out the best in all of us. He wasn't the type of person who screamed or hollered; he told you what the job at hand was and what you had to in order to be successful at that job," Johnson said Tuesday.
Lester Lackey Jr., owner of Lester Lackey and Sons Funeral Home, played forward in the 1965 and was part of the "first five," the players' title for the starting lineup.
"He was a good mentor. Coaches Tinsley and Smith put us together, and Coach Wright took us to the championship our last year," said Lackey, who was a senior in 1965. "He took a lot of time with us...He was fresh out of college and brought some things we hadn't seen before. He instilled teamwork in us."
Lackey said Wright introduced the team to the concept of zone defense, where defenders guard a section of the court, or zone, as opposed to man-to-man defense.
Starting guard Walter Grier said Wright taught the team basketball fundamentals.
"We knew how to play but weren't that organized. He taught us the pick and roll, how to set a good screen and brought us up to speed of what most teams were doing," Wright said.
Ironically, Johnson and Wright butted heads at first, but then developed the closest bond of anyone on the team.
"He gave us rules and regulations to follow, but we, being seniors, were under the impression we could do things because of our seniority. It didn't happen that way," Johnson said, and then laughed. "He asked us to do something in practice, I don't remember what it was, but I walked out of the gym. I had no intention of coming back unless he came to me. That never happened.
"In the 1960s, we were a bunch of young men who needed a guiding light, even into college and after that. He was always a part of my life."
Wright's sister Shirley Foster said Wright simply loved God and loved people.
"He was a very loving person, a people person. Anyway he could help you to do anything, he would," she said Thursday. "He was one of a kind; just a great person."
Foster was incredibly thankful for the Wolverine Gym court being dedicated in honor of her brother.
"I'm so thankful people thought so much of him to do something like this. If he had been living today he would have overjoyed him. He never expected people to do anything for him; he always liked to do for other people," she said.
Johnson said the renovation and reopening of Wolverine Gym meant a lot to the entire local black community. Previously, when Johnson, who lives in Erie, Penn., would bring his kids to Covington, he had no way to show them where he went to school and played ball.
"...Other people can bring their kids to Newton County High School, and they can relate their legacy to their children. That's something we couldn't do in Covington, because our legacy was gone. What you guys have done, we're highly appreciate of. You have made Covington the Covington for everybody," Johnson said. "This is no longer the Covington I grew up in, but a better Covington."
The gym served as a black community gathering spot for the handful of years it was opened, hosting dances, gospel concerts and other events, said local historian Flemmie Pitts. He hopes one day it can again be a focal point, but in the meantime, it's great to see children once again playing on the same court as past generations.
Sports Editor Josh Briggs contributed to this story.