Garner High boys basketball coach Eddie Gray says that he is a football coach who coaches basketball. He says it flippantly, with a laugh.
"I'm a football coach, always have been. I just happen to coach basketball," he said, grinned and shrugged his shoulders
But when he is serious, he says that he is a teacher who uses coaching to help students. He plans to teach longer than he plans to coach.
As a coach, he is all energy. The coat comes off and the voice gets louder. It is the way he used to coach when he had charge of the linebackers in football and when he was defensive coordinator.
But there are different ways to coach and different paths into coaching.
A different path
Eddie Gray never intended to coach.
He graduated from Garner in 1970 and after graduating from N.C. State with degrees in political science and history, he wanted to teach. He was hired as a social studies teacher at his alma mater. He only turned to coaching when he was asked to help out.
His competitive fires ignited when he began coaching. He saw the influence a teacher could have a student’s life. He learned how a coach has a chance to know students on a deeper level.
“I love coaching, but the reason I still do it is that I love the kids,” he said. “That’s the part that I would miss if I wasn’t coaching.”
He was an assistant basketball coach under J.C. O’Neal, who believed basketball games are won with defense, and was an assistant football coach under Hal Stewart, who believed football games were won with emotion and desire. Gray learned from both.
He has a winning percent of almost 70 percent (452-202) and in his 26 years his boys basketball teams have won 14 conference championships.
Few coaches in the state can match the all-star team that he could assemble with players he has helped develop, including All-NBA David West and John Wall, NCAA Final Four MVP Donald Williams, and international player James Mays.
But he still sees himself as a teacher who coaches rather than a coach who teaches. He was his school’s teacher of the year 2007-2008. He cherishes that honor as much as any plaque or trophy.
Returning to campus
While everyone in Saturday's high school basketball championships are happy to reach the finals, veteran Chapel Hill coach Sherry Norris is especially glad to have her team playing in Carmichael Auditorium.
“I have a lot of happy memories of Carmichael,” said Norris, who watched some of North Carolina's best teams play there when she was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I've always wanted to play a game and win a championship in Carmichael. It's been many years since the state championships have been there. Now we're getting that opportunity.”
It was at UNC that Norris began her transformation from a former cheerleader at Bladenboro High School, which didn't offer girls sports when she was there, to a public school teacher and one of the state's most successful coaches.
Norris retired last spring from the classroom after 37 years of teaching and 540 basketball wins, having just coached Chapel Hill to a 32-0 record and a second state championship. She also had coached Chapel Hill's volleyball team to a state record 732 wins and two NCHSAA championships.
“It’s nice being retired,” she said. “When you’re done with your coaching duties you can just go home. You don’t get stressed preparing to teach eight to nine classes the next day.”
But Norris, AP's 2014 girls basketball coach of the year, remains a teacher at heart.
“That's what I'll always do,” she said. “It's important to be able to break things down for your team, show them how it works, and then put it all back together in a game.”
She said her current players rank among her best students ever.
“They're the best I've ever had,” Norris said. “And I'd rank them at the top with any other team in the state in any sport.”
Teaching the basics
Nicole Sampson was a 6-foot freshman at Rocky Mount High School who doesn’t remember ever touching a basketball when girls basketball Pam Gainey spotted her.
Gainey talked to Meyers (then Sampson) about playing basketball for the rest of the year and began teaching her the basketball basics.
“With Pam, it was all about fundamentals,” Meyers recalled. “This is the way you do it every time. You have to have the discipline to do it the right way every time.”
Meyers played as a sophomore and progressed enough to earn a basketball scholarship to UNC-Asheville in 1997.
She loved the game, but coaching wasn’t a part of her future plans. She wanted to go into social work. Eventually, she rejoined Gainey at Rocky Mount.
Meyers became consumed by the game.
“I have to remind myself that I need to have a life beyond basketball,” she said.
She will study game film four, five hours a day, looking for tendencies, breakdowns in techniques and anything that might give her team an advantage. She watches tape on her team, opponents, college teams, any place where she thinks she can pick up something that will help her club.
“My whole coaching philosophy reflects Pam,” Meyers said. “When she was teaching me how to play, she’d tell me that you don’t have to be an all-America to be successful. You do have to do the little things the right way.”
N.C. High School Athletic Association basketball championships
At the Smith Center
Noon: 2A girls: Kinston (19-10) vs. Wilkes Central (25-4)
2:30 p.m.: 2A boys: Kinston (25-4) vs. East Lincoln (24-0)
5 p.m.: 4A girls: Southeast Raleigh (26-3) vs. Charlotte Myers Park (28-1)
7:30 p.m.: 4A boys: Garner (27-1) vs. Charlotte Kell (28-1)
At Carmichael Arena
Noon: 1A girls: Riverside (Martin County) vs. Winston-Salem Prep (23-3)
2:30 p.m.: 1A boys: East Carteret (27-2) vs. Winston-Salem Prep (20-7)
5 p.m.: 3A girls: Chapel Hill (24-2) vs. Hickory (26-0)
7:30 p.m.: 3A boys: Fayetteville Sanford (26-3) vs. Gastonia Ashbrook (23-3)