If not for a few simple twists of fate, Lester Wilder never would have joined the staff at Franklinton High School in the mid-1970s.
Thursday was the final home game of Wilder’s 41-year tenure as Franklinton’s girls basketball coach, and the Red Rams sent him out in style with a 44-43 victory as senior post Chanel Thomas delivered a layup with less than one second remaining in the fourth quarter.
After South Granville missed a free throw with six seconds left, the Red Rams executed one last play. Meaghan Dohnert took the inbounds pass near midcourt before finding teammate Amber Rushing at the free-throw line. Rushing lobbed the ball over a Vikings defender to Thomas, whose shot left her hand with 0.2 seconds remaining on the clock.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better for our seniors or myself,” said Wilder, whose club improved to 7-12 overall and 5-6 in the NCC. “I’m not sure it can get any better than that.”
“It went exactly like we drew it up,” Thomas said. “It was almost like slow-motion. I couldn’t believe it. We knew we had to win this for coach Wilder. How it happened was amazing.”
Wilder spent much of his late-teen and early-20s years not sure about what he wanted to do with his life.
At first, Wilder didn’t attend college after graduating from Franklinton’s Person High School in 1967, but an automobile accident proved to be a reality check that helped him enroll at Kittrell Junior College and, later, St. Augustine’s University.
Wilder starred in baseball at both schools and was hoping to turn professional, only to hear from scouts that his age – he was 24 at the time – was not conducive to starting a pro career.
At the urging of school administrator whom he played softball with, Wilder applied to teach and coach at Franklinton, and the small town of just over 2,000 has never been the same.
“(A career path) was under my nose the whole time, and I never knew it,’’ Wilder said. “I coached youth league baseball when I was 17, and I loved it. At the time, I didn’t know I was being prepared for what I would choose to do later on.’’
Wilder has coached several sports at Franklinton, but he is most noted for his girls basketball work, including a runner-up state finish in 1993. Though he doesn’t know the exact number, Wilder’s best guess is that he has won over 500 games during his hardwood career, including 10 conference championships and nine league Coach of the Year Awards.
“It really doesn’t seem like it has been (41 years),” said Wilder, who tried to step away from coaching in the early 2000s, but came right back one year later. “I’ve just always enjoyed kids.”
Said Thomas: “(Wilder) doesn’t just coach you in basketball – he coaches you in life. When he speaks, there is a (lesson) behind it. What happened (Thursday), I will remember the rest of my life.”
Walk door-to-door in Franklinton, and you would be hard-pressed to find a home that has not been affected by Wilder. When he stops to pump gas at a downtown service station, Wilder is serenaded by the sound of beeping horns as vehicles cruise up and down Main Street.
“When I go to the grocery store, I tell my wife I will be back, but don’t give her a time,” Wilder said. “Just to go in and get one thing, it usually takes 30 minutes because you have to talk to everyone.”
Thursday, dozens of Wilder’s former players showed up for his home finale.
At the conclusion of the game, Wilder grabbed a microphone and gave a brief-but-pertinent speech to cap the memorable evening. When he was done speaking, Wilder accepted a bronze basketball to commemorate his career, along with hugs and handshakes from a long line of well-wishers.