Sports psychologist Dr. Shaun Tyrance, attorney Brian Meacham, former Major League baseball player Pat Watkins and Broadway star Jeremy Woodard fondly remember their days playing in the Garner Optimist Club basketball leagues.
They have followed different paths in adulthood, but cherish the memories of shooting hoops on Friday nights and Saturdays in the rec league.
“Playing in that league was one of the best things about growing up in Garner,” said Meacham, who was a basketball standout at Garner Senior High before playing two years on the University of North Carolina junior varsity. “The league is all about community.”
The Garner Optimist Club, which was founded in 1966, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a reunion on May 7. The recreation youth basketball league has been around since 1969.
The league cranked up again in January with more than 200 players, pushing the total of career participants to well past 10,000.
“That league was the first time I had been in involved in competitive sports,” said Tyrance, a sports psychologist in Charlotte and the author of two books about youth transitioning into adulthood.
“It was the first time that my athletic ability had been recognized. It was the first time that I felt the expectation of using my talents, the pressure of playing well. I learned that it was OK to be competitive and to try to win, to try to do your best.”
Watkins played for the Cincinnati Reds and the Colorado Rockies, but his first team was in the Optimist League.
“I remember buying my first basketball shoes and getting sweat bands,” he said. “I still remember my first coach. It was my first team.”
Woodard, currently on Broadway in School of Rock and a former star of Rock of Ages, said winning an Optimist League championship still ranks among the biggest thrills of his life.
He has had his image plastered on the sides of New York City buses, has been a Broadway star, has performed at the Tony Awards, has been named as an outstanding alumnus of East Carolina and has heard the roar of enthusiastic crowds after more than 1,000 Broadway performances.
But he cherishes the league title won years ago before friends and family on the North Garner Middle School court.
“We won the title,” Woodard said. “It may be the only championship I’ve been a part of. It was a big thing. I learned a lot in that league.”
‘I told them I was quitting’
Woodard, Meacham, Watkins, Tyrance and thousands of other players almost missed having a chance to shoot hoops in the league.
The Garner Optimist Club almost folded in 1978. The club was doing little other than running the basketball league and meeting every Monday at Garner Green Grill, the current site of Angie’s.
There were only seven members in attendance at one meeting.
“We weren’t doing anything,” recalled Nick Sarocco, a founding member. “Some of the guys asked me about being president the next year and I told them that I was quitting the club. I was going to join the Civitan Club. We were not active in the community and they were.
“I wanted to be a part of something that was making a difference.”
Elwood King, Bill Weathersbee and Sarocco contacted, in one day, all 30 or so Optimist Club members and asked if they wanted to continue to meet or stop.
Sixteen men, including new president Sarocco, signed on and agreed to give it at least a year.
“We knew we had to change if we wanted the club to survive,” Sarocco said. “We started being more involved in the community and inviting new members.”
Bob Harvin said the goal of helping youth was too important to abandon.
“I always felt that we had to have the club to help our kids,” Harvin said. “Something would be missing without it.”
By the end of the following year, the club had rebounded with an active membership of over 100.
The club got a loan to buy eight acres of land on Vandora Springs Road and Rex Kelly gave the club a cinderblock house with the condition that it be moved to the new site.
The old cinderblock house is still at the site, but now is part of a 4,600 square foot clubhouse.
The club annually awards $9,000 in college scholarships to area students, sponsors baseball and softball teams and holds a law enforcement appreciation banquet each year. The approximately 90 members sponsor an essay contest and support the Boys & Girls Club.
The club recently made its annual contribution, $7,000 this year, to fight childhood cancer.
They also help the Town of Garner with its annual downtown Christmas celebration and its Easter Egg Extravaganza. The club also sponsors a Girl Scout troop and holds a youth golf tournament.
The group was the host organization for the Pony National Girls Fastpitch Softball tournament in 2012 and 2013. More than 60 teams from around the country participated each tournament.
“Our mission is to help young people,” Harvin said. “That’s what we do. It is hard to not get emotional when I talk about it, but the whole things comes back to helping children.”
The club does many things, but is best known for the basketball league.
More than hoops
The league doesn’t have a structure to teach citizenship and responsibility, but players learn about those character traits, and others, in subtle ways.
Meacham said he was helped in ways difficult to articulate. He loved playing the games, but said many of his most lasting memories in the league involve adults.
“To me that was one of the biggest things,” he said. “I read recently that it is important for children to learn how to relate with adults outside of their family. That is something the league did for me. I got to know men and see how they related with each other as well as with us.
“I still have relationships with the men that coached me and who were involved in the program.”
He and Tyrance remember the league as a place for family and community.
They each had younger brothers in the program and their fathers helped coach teams.
“We had time together and I remember my mother sitting in the stands,” said Tyrance, a four-year football quarterback letter winner at Davidson College.
“There were all these kids from the different neighborhoods and we were playing together and our families were sitting together. That’s not always the case in society.”
Meacham said the league helped teach him about community.
“We didn’t have all of the club teams and church league basketball teams back then. This was it,” Meacham said.
“We were all there, kids from all over the community, playing together and enjoying each other. Looking back, it was all about community and family. It was just a great part of growing up in a small town.”
Watkins, who debuted with the Reds, said he never forgot a simple lesson he learned in the Optimist League.
“I saw proof that working hard in practice could make you a better player,” he said. “My dad was a high school basketball coach, then I was around basketball all of the time. I was always shooting and dribbling.
“But it wasn’t until I started playing that I realized that all that work was paying off.”
Woodard, the actor, remembers riding his bicycle to games and the excitement he felt as he pedaled to the gym.
When Mayor Ronnie Williams recently asked Woodard what he remembered best about growing up in Garner, Woodard mentioned the high school arts program and Optimist League basketball.
He had lost touch with his old league and was surprised to learn that children still are playing in the same program that he enjoyed.
“That league is still around?” Woodard said. “That is so cool. I hope the kids enjoy it as much as I did. I had a blast.”