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That famous goatee in the middle of the intense look that Reggie Henderson wore on the sidelines as varsity boys basketball coach at Rocky Mount Senior High in the 1970s and ‘80s has shifted into grandfatherly smile these days.
At age 83, Henderson still beams at the memories from those days when he coached the Gryphons, leading them to state 4-A championships in 1978 and again in 1982.
With the exception of four years with the U.S. Air Force and another four years at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, Henderson is a Wilson guy through and through. He was born and raised in Wilson, played basketball for Charles Branford at Darden High, from which he graduated in 1952. When Henderson returned to Wilson 1961, he took his first coaching job at the all-black Spaulding High in Spring Hope and has lived here ever since.
Henderson then spent a few years as a teacher and coach at Parker and Wilson junior highs in Rocky Mount before landing the Rocky Mount Senior post in August 1976. He coached the Gryphons until 1983, when he stepped down after realizing that his eldest daughter, Lisa, had graduated from Beddingfield and gone on to college at the University of North Carolina and he missed out on spending some time with her. With youngest daughter, Karla, still in high school, Henderson decided to take a break from coaching.
“I don’t get to see them, to do things as a family,” he told The Wilson Daily Times in 1983. “I said to myself, ‘Well, if I’m going to enjoy the kids any at all, now’s the time.’”
Henderson continued to teach at Rocky Mount High and then, in the fall of 1988, he began a second stint coaching the Gryphons. However, things weren’t quite the same and Henderson left the coaching ranks for good after the 1992-93 season.
“I don’t think the game changed,” said Beverly Henderson, his wife of 56 years, on Tuesday morning in their longtime home in the Bel Air neighborhood in Wilson. “The families, the kids did. He never had problems with parents all those other years he coached but when he came back, it was a different group.”
While he spent his entire career as a physical education teacher and coach in Nash County, Henderson never thought of working in his hometown.
“He got what he wanted, everything he needed and wanted so there wasn’t any need to change when you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Beverly Henderson.
Instead, Reggie Henderson matched wits with his Wilson neighbors, the late Harvey Reid Jr. and Willis Peppers. Reid coached at Elm City Douglass High and Elm City High before moving over to Fike while Peppers was the coach at Darden High and then Fike before finishing his career at Hunt.
“At Fike, we beat him over there and he couldn’t stand that!” Reggie Henderson said with a grin at the recollection of getting the best of Reid.
Beating Reid was especially gratifying since he had already won six of his eventual seven state championships at Douglass and Elm City and was on his way to becoming the all-time winningest coach in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history. His 818 victories still ranks No. 1 in NCHSAA annals.
While students and fans, as well as the local media in Rocky Mount and Wilson, may have made much of the rivalry, there really wasn’t much personally between Henderson and his neighbors.
“It was just friendship, when you’re talking about Harvey Reid,” Henderson said. “And he was winning everything every year. He would have these programs down in Georgia and things like that and take players. I would have some of my players go down there when he was doing it.”
Like Reid, Henderson preached up-tempo offense and defensive pressure that required his players to be in tip-top shape. Henderson spent just as much, if not more, time teaching his players the value of an education and developing strong work habits.
“You had to be a student and along with that, there’s some things that you don’t do,” he said. “If you wanted to play, you had to do your best. Do what you have to do and then you have to hit your books. A lot of times there were players who were athletes but they didn’t have the grades.”
Beverly Henderson pointed out that her husband would have his players do their homework in the bleachers while waiting for the girls team at Rocky Mount to finish practice.
“They went along with it,” Reggie Henderson said. “We had a program set up and they enjoyed it. You had to be a student, just couldn’t be an athlete. So it turned out well.”
“He always told them that not one of them might turn professional so they had to have something else to fall back on and get good grades,” Beverly Henderson recalled.
However, the Gryphons coach didn’t quite get that one right. Two of his players actually did turn pro. Henderson was Phil Ford’s coach in junior high before Ford went on to become an All-American at North Carolina and then the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1979. Charles “Buck” Williams, the star player on the Gryphons’ state-championship team in 1978, was the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year at Maryland a year later and then the NBA Rookie of the Year with the New Jersey Nets in 1982.
Williams’ recruitment was something the Hendersons haven’t forgotten. As one of the top high school players in the country, Williams was attracting attention from the likes of Norm Sloan from N.C. State and Dean Smith from North Carolina. But Williams ended up signing with Lefty Driesell at Maryland, which didn’t sit well with some high-profile Wolfpack fans.
“When Buck didn’t go (to school in state), I got to be the bad guy,” Henderson said.
“It was a contentious time,” Beverly Henderson said.
Reggie Henderson insisted he didn’t have that kind of power but, were it not for him, Williams might not have ever played basketball. Reggie Barrett, the point guard on the Gryphons’ 1978 championship team, recalled that Williams was more interested in spending time with his girlfriend and working at a local wholesale story than playing basketball in ninth grade. Williams, said Henderson, also preferred football at the time.
“I told Coach, ‘We’ve got to get Charlie Buck on the team,’” said Barrett.
Henderson tracked down Williams, who had never played organized basketball, and got him to go out for the team.
“It took some influence to get him to come out there,” Barrett said. “When he came out there, he recognized how dominant he was over everyone else and he also recognized the popularity that comes with being a star basketball player.
“Once he got under Coach Henderson’s leadership, he never looked back.”
Several of Henderson’s players went on to play collegiately, including George McClain, who was a freshman on N.C. State’s NCAA championship team in 1983, and 1978 RMSH graduate Jeffrey Battle, who played at Memphis. McClain was considered one of the top players in the state as a senior in 1982, when he led the Gryphons to the NCHSAA championship. Rocky Mount lost to Chapel Hill by three points in the 1981 state 4-A title game but the Gryphons returned the favor the following year, beating the Tigers by three points in the state final.
STUDENT OF THE GAME
Yet for all the talent at Henderson’s disposal, it was his ability to develop it that led to those state championships in 1978 and 1982 and a runner-up finish in 1981.
“He was such a student of the game,” said Barrett. “People talk about Xs and Os but he was a true student of the game. The preparation that we had, depending on who were we playing, he had us prepared for every team we played.”
Barrett recalled Henderson spending most of a practice session on an inbounds play prior to the Gryphons playing Cary in the championship game of the Raleigh Times Holiday Invitational (now the John Wall Invitational).
“Sure enough it came into reality in the championship game!” Barrett marveled.
Williams took a last-second lob pass and dunked it to send the game into overtime and the Gryphons won 81-76.
“He taught us the fundamentals,” said Barrett, who now resides in Durham. “Everybody on the team knew how to block out and rebound. He made sure we had the fundamentals from defensive footwork to using the right shooting mechanics to dribbling.”
But that wasn’t all Henderson taught his players.
Oie Osterkamp, now the executive director of Ronald McDonald House of Durham and Wake counties, was a reserve on the 1978 championship team.
But Henderson took great pains to ensure that every player on his bench knew his role.
Osterkamp recalled Henderson sitting him down in his office and telling him: “I just want you to know how important you are to this team.”
“Nobody was treated any differently from anyone else,” Osterkamp said. “Buck got no special treatment and here I was on the end of the bench and I was treated the same as Buck.”
In the turbulent ‘70s when integration was still fairly new, Osterkamp credited Henderson with imparting a valuable message to his players.
“He would say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, it’s your value on the inside that matters,’” Osterkamp said, “and it was a message everyone needed to hear back then.”
Growing up during the era of segregation in Wilson wasn’t something Henderson has forgotten.
“Up to the railroad was as far as you could go,” he said.
However, basketball proved to be greater than the racial barriers of the time.
“I remember over to the center, some of the other (white) players at the time would come over there on Saturday and play at the gym and we would play,” Henderson said, noting that former Fike High coach and athletic director Gilbert Ferrell was among those weekend ballers.
While Henderson was a no-nonsense coach when it came to basketball and school, he had a compassionate side.
“Coach was a father to a lot of us,” Barrett said. “For those who might not have had a father in the home, he was a father. You could go to him to talk about personal stuff. … If you didn’t have lunch money, he would help you out.”
With just daughters at home, the many players that Henderson coached were like sons.
“That’s what I liked about it, because I did have sons through them,” Beverly Henderson said. “Even now, he is such a good mentor to them.”
Reggie Henderson pointed with pride to a photo on the wall of his den covered with mementos from his career. It’s a recent photo of the players from his 1978 team superimposed alongside a larger image of him. They surprised him with it during an impromptu team reunion in Wilson in 2015.
The old ball coach’s intense stare was long gone, replaced by a big smile.
“He certainly made his mark on a lot of us,” Barrett said.
The feeling seemed to be mutual.