Newton County basketball has more tradition than any other sports program in the area, setting national records, winning state championships, being guided by a legendary hall of fame coach and having players move on to the next level.
Tuesday, a part of that tradition became a memory as the Newton High School gymnasium on Brown Bridge Road hosted its final high school basketball game. It was one fit for the Newton basketball legacy, too.
The Lady Rams were down by eight points with 2 minutes to play before they rallied, along with the home court, for a rousing playoff victory. The final sounds heard in the 39-year old facility were that of celebration with the most dramatic victory in its final season.
“I think it was great,” said Newton girls’ coach Tiffani Johnson, who also played in the NHS gym. “It was an intense game to come down from eight with 2 minutes left and win by two, it was a great way to end on a good note in that gym.”
The Newton girls’ team moved on thanks to that victory, playing its next playoff game on the road, and starting in August, the school will move on from Brown Bridge Road as well.
In 1974, the Newton County Comprehensive High School opened its doors at Brown Bridge Road after moving from Newton Drive, leaving behind Sharpe Gymnasium, which was too small for the vast crowds the Rams drew during the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.
During that time, Rams’ fans stood in line for hours to get tickets, sometimes camping out for big games against such teams as Griffin. The bars over the windows at Sharp are even attributed to Newton basketball’s popularity due to fans trying to climb into games.
“We felt like we needed a bigger gym,” said former Newton basketball and hall of fame coach Ron Bradley said. “We were just filling the old one up. They had to chain the doors to keep people out. I even heard when we were playing Price High that someone wanted to pay Mr. Homer Sharp $100 to come in.”
The crowds, which were drawn to such things as a state championship and a national record of 129 straight home wins along with a need for a new school, led to the then-new facility, in which Bradley and other administrators set out to plan the new gym.
“At that time, we had planned for two offices — one upstairs and one in the dressing room,” Bradley said.
The plans didn’t turn out quite the way the hall of famer wanted, but Newton still tipped off on Nov. 26, 1974, when the Rams hosted Cedar Shoals. Bradley led Newton during that first year before leaving Newton until returning in 2003.
Newton, though continued to have plenty to celebrate in its new gym, reaching the final four in 1981, 2005 and 2010. The Rams also made the elite eight in 2000 and the sweet 16 in 1999.
That was Rick Rasmussen’s first year with the Rams, and he has been a big part of the NHS gym’s legacy ever since.
“I’ve been here for 15 years, and all the home games I’ve ever been a part of in that gym; it’s a really special place,” Rasmussen said.
Although the gymnasium’s first regular season game against Cedar Shoals was a loss, and the last one against Druid Hills was a loss, there was no lack of winning in between.
“A lot of success in that particular gym has been recent,” Rasmussen said. “Since coach Bradley came back and coach Hendricks, the gym has been home to a lot of championships and a lot of success. My biggest goal is to carry that success with us.”
To symbolize bringing that success will be Rasmussen’s first task when the school opens on Crowell Road — hanging the banners.
He put up the banners of the 1963, 65, 1981, 2003, 2004-05 and 2009-10 teams at the current gymnasium and will do so after the teams move in to the new one.
In 2003, both boys’ and girls’ teams won the region championship, with Bradley leading the Rams and Mike West the Lady Rams. Since then, West has passed on, making Johnson’s memories of the gym even more special, having played for him.
“Just the memories of him being there, and going to the sweet 16 as a player and a coach,” Johnson said. “It was my home, where my blood, sweat and tears were as a player and now as a coach.”
Both Johnson and Rasmussen, whose wife graduated from NHS in 1993, understands the tradition and are ready to carry it on in new, updated facilities.
“Although I’m looking forward to the confines of the new facility, I’m going to miss the gym and am reluctant to see it go because of the tradition.
“I don’t want to change the tradition; I want to keep the tradition of success going. That’s the part of me that hates to see it go.”