Eleven Years Earlier – Pinopolis, South Carolina
Marcus Witherow just finished his last junior high basketball game. He scored 31 points in a game that his team won 43-27. Witherow sat by his locker in the room that smelled strongly of wet socks, jocks and rotting tennis shoes. Junior high basketball players never wash their socks anyway.
He looked like a praying mantis, sitting on the low pine bench with his long legs angled up toward his face. His legs ached as they always did after a hard game, but that wasn't unusual for a growing young teenager. His buddies and teammates praised him and slapped him on the back as they removed wet uniforms and made their way to the showers. Witherow was left all alone, sitting in front of his locker, his size 13 shoes tossed on the floor. The only sound in the room was that of excited teenagers in the shower; splashing water on everything except dirty spots, and slapping butts with rolled up towels.
"That was a great game son," Marcus Witherow's coach said as he walked into the locker room and sat down on the bench beside the star player, placing his arm around his shoulder. "Have you thought much about high school ball yet, With?" the coach asked the best player that had ever played at R. E. Lee. Coach Clarence Marble had always called his players by their last name, often shortening their names as the case with Witherow, so he could yell at them quickly in the heat of the moment in a game or at practice.
"Naw, Coach. I, I guess I, I, I'll be goin’ to County Central like eb'body else," Witherow replied. “Wh, wh, why you askin’ coach?”
Marble had held every job at R. E. Lee. He was the assistant principal. He took up tickets at school events, worked the concession stand for other team’s games, ran basketball camps and provided hall security – always toting a large fraternity house “butt whuppin’ board” as he called it, as he walked the dark wood corridors of the school building. Everyone had respect for Coach Marble, and Marcus was no exception.
"Marcus, I've been coaching basketball for 30 years – I even played here when I was your age – and you’re the best basketball player I've ever coached . . . the best I've ever seen. You've got the natural tools to be a great player – in college or even as a pro."
"Aw, na, na naw coach, y'all dreamin' now," Marcus said, bowing his head, embarrassed by the words of the coach.
"No Marcus, I mean it. But the greatest asset you have is your heart. Son, I've never seen a kid work as hard as you do. You've got the desire and the physical tools and that's why it's important that you start to think about some things . . . now.
"County Central is a great school for most of the kids in this area, Marcus," the coach continued, "but you are not a normal kid. Do you realize that if you work hard on your game and keep your grades up, you can earn a college scholarship that can be your ticket out of all of this . . . out of Pinopolis."
"Aw Coach, ain't nu, nu nutin' wrong with the P’nop."
"You're right Marcus, there's not anything wrong with Pinopolis. There's a lot of fine people here . . . hard working people, like me and your momma. If you get a college education, you can get a good job. If you play pro basketball, that would be even better. You could get your momma out of all that hard work she does. You can get to the big time and live a good life with a big salary. You can be somebody special, Marcus. And you can help others."
"Coach, ya , ya you really think I can ma, ma make it as a player?" Marcus asked the coach, his dark deep eyes meeting the eyes of the coach. "And if I da, da do make it, I can make 'nough ma, ma money so Momma don’t have ta work?"
"Son," the coach said, leaning toward the player and putting his two big hands on the shoulders of the sweating star, "there's a whole new world out there just waiting for a winner like you."
"Hey Marcus, what you doin' huggin' the coach? Is they sumpin' wrong widge y'all," the first player out of the shower interrupted the coach and player. “Is y’all some of ‘em gurly boys?”
"I'll have yo' butt boy," the coach yelled as the half naked laughing player ran around the corner of the lockers. "Marcus, there's some people in my office I want you to meet when you get showered and dressed. I think they can help you turn that dream into something real."
. . . .
Shorty Smitherman and the Reverend waited anxiously in the small junior high school gymnasium office. Both were dressed in three piece suits – the Reverend in his standard black, Smitherman in his usual light tan slacks with a blue and white seersucker coat. Both men looked important enough, especially to a junior high school kid.
"Do you think the kid’ll listen to us?" Shorty asked the Rev. His finger ran around the inside of his collar, which was a little tight. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
"I think so," the Reverend said. "You just let me talk to his momma. That’ll be the key."
"Gentlemen," the coach said as he returned to the office. I spoke to Marcus and he'll be in as soon as he gets cleaned up. He's a good kid, that Marcus."
"Yes sir Coach," Smitherman said as he paced in front of the small trophy case in the office. "That's why we think it’s very important for a kid like Marcus to get connected to the right people. People who can help his career advance. Get him into the right high school."
"Coach, you know that our travelling AAU team is one of the finest in the Southeast," the Reverend interjected. "It is our charter to help develop young men, not only in South Carolina, but anywhere in the country. With the help and generosity of businessmen like Mr. Smitherman here, and others, we have the financial means to take these kids where they could never go on their own."
"Y'all know that last summar, we took a team of ten boys from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia to tour in Europe. Now how many kids from Berkeley County do y'all know that’ll ever get the chance to experience a trip like that?" Smitherman said.
"Well here's one that should get that chance," the coach said as Witherow walked into the room. Even as an eighth grader, Witherow made the room get smaller as soon as he entered.
The coach introduced Marcus to the gentlemen and they all sat down to talk.
"Marcus, I'm going to get right to the point. We would like for you to play on our AAU basketball team, the Carolina Cadillacs," the Reverend started the conversation. Both he and Smitherman thought the Reverend could get to the kid better than Shorty.
"We are based out of Columbia. We have players from all over the state," the Reverend continued. "We play against the best competition all over the country, and we need a big man like you."
Marcus was excited about the idea of playing on the Cadillacs. He had heard about the team and even asked the school librarian to help him find information about the team in the state newspapers. He always dreamed of playing against players like Fast Eddie Price, Jumping Johnny Rodgers and the Mad Bomber Jabbo Fordice. Now that dream was turning into reality.
"Sir, I'd la, la love to play for the Ca, Ca Cadillacs. But I don't think I ca, ca can play with 'em. They're ma, ma much betta than me," Marcus told the Reverend. "And I don't know ha, ha how I can get to Co, Columbia. I can't drive and my Ma, Ma Momma works all the ta time and she can't take me . . . "
"Marcus," Smitherman decided it was time for him to talk, "we'll take care of all the travel. That's part of the program, son. We help players like y'all. We understand that y'all may not be able to get to Columbia and back. But there's one thing for sure, son, y'all can play with any player we've got. And don't ever doubt that fact."
"Marcus, these gentlemen would like to meet and talk with your momma," the coach said. "I think these men can help you. And playing on the Cadillacs can only help you sharpen your skills as a ballplayer,"
The player stood and thanked the men for their interest in him. "Coach and ma me will talk to ma my momma first -- if that's all ra, ra right with y'all -- and we'll la let y'all know."
Marcus shook hands with all three men and left the room with a new spring in his giant step.
"Coach, you'll be in touch with us?" the Reverend asked as he and Smitherman left the room.
The coach nodded yes and smiled. Smitherman and the Reverend walked across the old gym floor and out of the building. Both men were grinning from ear to ear, like dead pigs in the sunshine.
"The trap's been baited now Rev," Smitherman said. "If we get our hooks in the kid, the sky might be the limit."
"Amen, brother. Amen. I’ll have a meeting with Ms. Witherow and let the spirit of the Lord go to work."
. . .
The next week a meeting was set up with Shorty, the Rev, Marcus and Mae Witherow. The two men met in Charleston just after church service on Sunday and drove to her house in the Rev’s black Cadillac Fleetwood. The four were going out for dinner at a local diner in Pinopolis.
Shorty agreed to let the Rev do most of the talking. They thought him being black, and a preacher, would be a comfort to the mother.
The Witherow house was a five-room, wooden frame shotgun house. It stood about four feet off the ground on several old, red brick pillars, one at each corner and four across the middle under the structure, which needed paint. Most of the light yellow pigment had cracked or peeled off the wood years ago. The roof needed repair. Shingles were missing, probably from the last hurricane that came through the area a year earlier. One of the four original green shutters on the two front windows was also gone.
Mae’s faded, pale blue Chrysler sat under an oak tree in the front yard. There was no driveway or garage, just a worn dirt path where cars pulled in and out of the yard. Two shrubbs guarded the front steps and a row of hedges divided her yard from the closest neighbor on the right side. The yard was kept neat – the grass cut short with no junk, trash or toys on the property. The backyard was dominated by a hundred-year-old magnolia tree, whose limbs covered nearly the whole yard with shade. A clothes line ran along the left side of the house, still filled with Saturday’s wash.
“Well, here we go,” Shorty told the Rev as the car pulled into the yard. “Go work y’all’s magic.”
The Rev got out of the car and walked up the three steps to the saggy, wooden porch. It creaked as he walked to the front door. He opened the torn screen door and knocked. Mae Witherow came to the door, dressed in her Sunday best and the Rev went into action.
“I didn’t know there was a Witherow daughter,” the Rev said, flashing a bright smile. “Is your mother at home?” Mae Witherow was a fine looking woman. Even after three children, she had the kind of body that could drive a man crazy.
“This might not be so bad after all,” the Rev thought as he looked over the lady who would become his next girlfriend.
“Oh, get outta here,” Mae replied, blushing at the Rev’s attempt at flattery. “I’m Mae Witherow. And you are . . . ”
“The Reverend Bobby Lee Hunt at your service.” He extended his hand and the two shook. “I can see where that son of your’s gets his good looks from,” he continued his light sexual banter.
“Now you’re gonna have to stop that,” Mae said, quieting the Rev’s kind words, although she did like to hear them.
She turned to call Marcus and the Rev quickly looked her over from head to toe. “What a nice little ass,” he thought as she called Marcus. She jestured for the Reverend to go outside. He offered his left arm as support as the two walked down the steps. She continued to hold the arm as he led her to the car, where Smitherman opened the front door on the passenger side for her.
“Why, thank you,” she said to Shorty as she got into the car.
“Shorty Smitherman, mam,” he said, introducing himself and shaking her hand after she was seated. “It’s so nice to finally meet y’all.” He closed the car door. The Rev had walked back to the driver’s side of the car while Mae was seated. He gave Shorty a big wink and smiled at his partner just before the two men got into the car.
Marcus bounded out of the front door, took two running steps – the first one in the middle of the porch, the next one on the dirt at the bottom of the front steps – and eagerly ran all the way to the car. He was excited and his mother knew this.
At the diner, Shorty and The Rev discussed the plan with Mae to get Marcus involved on the traveling basketball team. There was a weekend tournament the next week in Columbia and they wanted Marcus to play.
“I don’t know if I can let him travel like that alone,” she said, concerned about her first born leaving home for the first time.
“You would be welcome to travel with us,” the Rev invited her. “You can bring the younger boys too, if you’d like.”
“I can’t afford that,” she said, looking down at her lap as if ashamed.
“That’s all part of the program,” Shorty interjected. “We don’t want to separate chil’en from their parents. Our whole program keeps the families involved.”
“But my job,” she said, referring to her weekend work.
“That’s another thing I want to talk to y’all about. We can fix that job situation of y’all’s,” Shorty explained. “I have several places that y’all can work at. It would do my heart good to help out a single mothar like yo’self. It would be the least I could do aftar all the hard work you have done to raise yo’ family.”
Mae didn’t know what to think about the proposal at first, but the more she listened, the better it sounded. The opportunity for Marcus alone would be too great to pass up, and if she could quit her second job, that would be a blessing for the whole family.
She agreed to go along with them to the first tournament.
When the group had finished eating, The Rev and Shorty took the Witherows back home. The Rev walked Mae to the door.
“I would like to invite you to visit my church,” he told her just before he said goodbye. “I could sentd someone out to pick you up.”
“I would like that,” she said. “Thanks for everything.” She thought about how nice it would be to have a male influence around for the boys. I think I’m gonna like this Reverend, she thought as she entered the house.
The Rev turned and walked off the porch and back to the car. As they drove out of the yard, he looked over at Shorty. “The trap’s set, my friend. After next weekend, she’ll do anything I want her to do.”
Causes John Haslam Supports
I support the Constitution of the United States of America.
I support St. Jude's Hospital.
I believe in GOD.