Editor’s note: This edited and shortened article first appeared in the winter 2012 Edition of Liberty Life Magazine. Coach Sam Harris passed away Jan. 12, 2020.
The 1965 Liberty County High School basketball team has never received the attention it deserves.
The Tigers played during the era of segregation, when state law forbid athletes from Georgia’s black schools from competing against white schools in the Georgia High School Association until 1967. As a result, the Tigers were ignored by white-controlled media outlets throughout the area, even after they capped an undefeated season with a state championship win.
The players and their coach, the late Sam Harris, do not own state championship rings.
“We didn’t have any money back then to buy rings,” team member Charles “Chuck” Harris said
Chuck Harris —no relation to Sam Harris— said the school did have some ballpoint pens that were sold with every player’s name on them.
The players and their coach do not have scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings about their achievements because their games were never covered.
“Nope,” said Henry “Spark” Baker, who was a guard on the team. “We’ve looked. We’ve gone through newspaper archives at the public library.”
The 1965 Liberty County Tigers held the record of being the only basketball team in the school’s history to win a state championship until the new Liberty County High School Panther team won in 2016. The difference is the 2016 Panthers garnered plenty of media coverage.
The legacy of the 1965 team has been kept alive by the players, their coach and opponents who played them or fans who witnessed them. None of the people interviewed for this story could recall what Liberty County’s final record was that season.
“I don’t know the exact record,” Baker said. “We were pretty dominating. I can’t recall many close games. The crowds were excellent. A lot of times, they had to stop the games to try to back the people up off the edge of the court.”
In 1954, the segregation of public schools in Georgia and other southern states was declared unconstitutional with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed major forms of discrimination, including racial segregation in schools.
In 1965, the boys’ basketball team at Liberty County High School, which now is called Old Liberty County High School, was on the brink of accomplishing something that remains a source of pride for the community.
“At the time, there were two high schools,” said Coach Harris. “Bradwell was the white high school. It was during the time of segregation. Liberty County High School was the black high school.”
Liberty County High School existed from 1951-72. It merged with Bradwell Institute during the 1972-73 school year. The school system decided that Bradwell would keep its school colors, royal blue and gold, but change its mascot from Lions to Tigers. The Liberty County High School Tigers’ school colors changed from purple and gold to royal blue and gold because of the merger.
The Liberty County High School that today sports Panther pride in black and gold was built in 1999 in Flemington. Some refer to is as New Liberty County High School.
In March 1965, Liberty County High School’s athletics teams competed in the Georgia Interscholastic Association (GIA), the governing body for black schools until integration. GIA schools were forbidden by state law from competing against white schools in the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) until 1967. GIA schools joined the GHSA in 1971, according to GHSA.net, the official website of the GHSA.
Liberty County High School’s boys’ basketball team won the 1965 Georgia Interscholastic Association Class A state championship. The players and their coach still wonder how they would have fared against the white state champion, Perry High School, which beat Cass High School, 56-53, to win the GHSA Class A state championship.
“We wondered and we wanted to play (the white schools),” Baker said. “We wanted to play them in basketball and football, but it wasn’t happening.”
Before the start of the 1964-65 season, the Liberty County Tigers’ head coach moved to California, and assistant coach Sam Harris took over as head coach. He held that position until 1969, when he was transferred to Bradwell, where he eventually became assistant principal.
Harris’ players say they were not apprehensive about inheriting a rookie head coach.
“We had taken into Coach Harris,” said Richard “Hump” Bacon, a team member. “We had taken into him because he used to do practices with us (when he was an assistant). He was there. It was not like (having) a stranger. We knew him.”
Harris taught his players an up-tempo, offensive-minded style of play.
“I’ll never forget, Coach Harris always wore a tie and he always wore a short-sleeve shirt,” Charles Harris said. “And if we were dragging during practice, he would take off that tie and get out there on the court. And he could run step for step with every one of us players.”
“I was an offensive-minded coach,” Harris said. “And most of the teams that we played, we blew them out of the gym. And even though it was during the time that we didn’t have the 3-point shot (which was instituted in 1987-88), we used to beat people (by a large margin). My players nicknamed me ‘Bust the clock’ Harris because if we didn’t score 100 points — even if we beat you— we didn’t feel we beat you.”
Baker said scoreboards never short-circuited, although not for lack of trying.
“That was his goal, 25 points per quarter,” Baker said. “We had to have it. I can recall a couple of teams that we scored 100 and we caught them. Like, say if they had about 30 points, we scored 132.”
The Tigers were considered a small team. Their tallest player was Peter “Stretch” Walthour, a 6-foot-7 center who later played at Fort Valley State University and was selected in the 16th round of the 1970 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, who cut him before the season. Because most of Liberty County’s players were smaller, Coach Harris knew his team would have to be well-conditioned and rely on its quickness.
“Run and gun,” he recalled “We used to get (the ball) and lay it up before you even knew what had happened. Most of the teams didn’t realize or recognize what kind of defense we played. I played a 2-1-2 zone. And if they had a good shooter, I moved to a 1-2-2. And press only after free throws. If you had two free throws and you missed the second one, we’d put the press on you.”
Charles Harris recalled: “That was his philosophy: full-throttle, full-court pressure. No three-quarter press, just full-court press. That was just his style.”
Bacon added, “We didn’t have that height advantage, but the conditioning, we had that conditioning. We would run you until you couldn’t keep up.”
In October 2002, the GHSA’s executive committee unanimously voted to list the 1947-70 state champions from the GIA in its record book.