The Spoils of Victory

“McNeil head coach Karry Easley said a veteran coach told him once that there was ‘high cotton basketball in south Arkansas. I picked a lot of cotton in my days and I knew what he was about. I don't take anything away from the rest of the state, but there’s a different level of basketball down here.’” -- Chris Gilliam, Magnolia (AR) Banner News, March 12, 2004

In Waldo they started young, with pick-up games on the outdoor court near the wooden building that housed first grade classes. Kids, mostly black, often in street clothes, yelled and dribbled and shot. The chain nets rang whenever a ball dropped through. From the second-floor classroom of the 1925-vintage brick schoolhouse where he taught science, Joe Bridges watched the action through a large window. As coach of the high school boys, he was trying to see into his own future. How did the up-and-coming talent look?

The son of one basketball coach and sibling of two others, Bridges had come to Waldo in 1982 out of college, fresh-faced and dark-haired, to be the girls coach. In the years since he’d seen enough athletic talent to know what it looked like. Nurtured right, he knew its power to transform the lives of kids growing up poor. One of his players, Sytia Messer, had gone on to lead the Arkansas Razorbacks to a women’s final four. After that she’d coached at Georgia Tech and Baylor.

Basketball talent was one thing the rural community of Waldo could still produce. It was a situation Coach Bridges liked fine. Truth be told, he wasn’t much interested in climbing the ladder to the bigger schools. He’d seen enough of that sitting in the stands as a kid in places like Pine Bluff, watching his father’s teams, hearing the comments of parents who thought they could out-coach his dad. In Waldo, though his skin color may have been different than most of the players, most of the students even, people let him do his job.

But if Coach Bridges had really been able to look through that classroom window and see the future, he’d have known that none of those boys tussling on the court below would ever play for him. He’d have seen the gym where his teams ran up and down the floor become a field where goldenrod grew. He’d have seen the building he stood in consumed by fire, the low-slung high school next door half demolished. He’d have known that in only two years Waldo schools would no longer exist.

Full story in May 11, 2017 Magnolia Banner News