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Basketball legends we'll never forget
Shirley Says
Shirley-Gator-1b
"Gator's" fans know no age limit. Having just attended a Golden Girls luncheon, these ladies heard "Gator" was in town and had to see him. Mary Helen Arnsdorff, Larry"Gator" Rivers, Jackie Mitchum and (seated) Annie Lamond. - photo by Photo by Richard Bates
'Basketball doesn’t build character, it reveals it.'
                Author unknown

It was a typical early Saturday morning – or so I thought. As it turned out, it was anything but ordinary. It began in an empty Walmart parking lot, when a handsome, physically fit man asked me for directions. At first glance, I sensed this man was somehow “special.”
He was on his way to Riceboro to speak to a youth group, GANG (God’s Anointed New Generation). One word led to another, and before long I became aware I was talking to a basketball legend – Larry “Gator” Rivers. He played with the Harlem Globetrottters for 16 years before retiring in 1987.
I immediately gushed, “Oh my! Do something!” Without a word, he reached into his SUV and pulled out a red, white and blue basketball. In the early morning sunlight, he began to handle the ball in true Harlem Globetrotter fashion. The basketball was spinning on the tip of his finger.
To my surprise, Gator looked at me and said three words that gave me a huge “rush.” “Relax your hand,” he said.
He skillfully slipped my relaxed hand beneath the spinning ball. It seemed so natural for it to continue swirling on the tip of my long fingernail. I needed to know more about this incredibly talented man.
Later, Gator explained the phenomenon, “When you relax, then you are in control. There are two forces involved, centrifugal and centripetal. One force pulls in and one pulls out.”
The former Globetrotter, Gator Rivers, now takes a stand against youth violence in Savannah.
He’s conducting “Gator Ball Academy Summer 2010” at St. Pius X Family Resource Center. His academy is headquartered at the Harambee House on Habersham Street. For more information, visit www.theharambeehouse.com.
The mission of the academy is to provide activities that are entertaining and educational. Under Gator’s supervision, the supervision, the students learn character-building traits that include: honesty, integrity, loyalty, respect, teamwork and sportsmanship.
Gator added, “I conduct a work education and job training program – the basketball is just a ‘hook.’”
Richmond Hill has its own basketball legend, Jimmy Hires. Since Jimmy was a kid , he has known of Gator Rivers.
“I’ve followed Gator for as long as I remember,” he said. “I read everything I could about him. Gator is a great player…an outstanding person.”
Jimmy Hires had a notable career as head Wildcat basketball coach in Richmond Hill for 23 years. He retired last year with a combined total of nearly 38 years teaching and coaching.
At Richmond Hill High School this year he will be the assistant football coach, head boys golf coach and a part-time teacher. He said, “I still enjoy working with young people and coaching.”
Excited about coaching football, he’s not lost the love of the game he played throughout his high school years.
With expectation in his voice he added, “There’s a lot of school pride in Richmond Hill. The football program is on the upswing and I’m glad to be involved.”
Mild mannered off-court, Hires has been known to roar out of a locker room as a ferocious “Wildcat,” hell-bent on taking down the opposition.
He led teams to three state basketball championships in 1988, 1993 and 1994. There were also 12 regional titles, one state runner up and a final-four appearance. He has an amazing record of 647 wins and only 185 losses.
When I mentioned his “unique” coaching style, he responded, “You need to have your own style. I expect to win rather than lose.”
I don’t think he’ll change his coaching technique – if he did, he just wouldn’t be Jimmy Hires.
Johnnie Miller, former Bryan County High School basketball coach, and Gator Rivers grew up together in Savannah. Throughout the years, he and Gator have maintained their close friendship. Although Gator is only two years older than Johnnie, he has always been his inspiration.
Johnnie explained, “I’ve always admired Gator and looked up to him. After his fame with the Harlem Globetrotters, he didn’t have to come back here. He could have stayed in Chicago or anywhere, but he returned. He’s giving back to the community.”
Living in Pembroke since 1967, Johnnie has always been interested and involved in community affairs. He coached basketball for 34 years, served on the city council for 16 years, and is currently mayor pro-tem.
There is so much to know about Gator Rivers. He was born in Savannah in the late 1940s to a beautiful 12-year-old girl on East York Street.
“We grew up like brother and sister,” he said. “My grandmother raised us. After my grandparents died, my mom bought a house near Crawford Square. That area was basically for blacks at that time.”
Graduating from Beach High School in 1969, Gator will always have a tender spot in his heart for his old school.
“Beach is not just a high school, but the first black institution built to educate the freed slaves back in 1867,” he said. “Beach should be where they house the history of basketball.”
For Gator’s 7th birthday, his mom took him to see the Harlem Globetrotters and a movie. They went to the Star Theater on West Broad Street and saw “Go, Man, Go,” which told the history of the Globetrotters.
At the Globetrotters game he saw Marcus Haynes and it changed his life – he wanted to be just like him. Marcus was known for his remarkable ability to dribble the ball and keep it away from defenders.
Gator elaborated, “The great thing about God is you never know where your blessings will come from. The guy who inspired me to play basketball on a high level and discovered me for the Harlem Globetrotters was Marcus Haynes.”
Gator explained how it happened, “I was in college in St. Joe, Mo., and playing on a radio station team in the old city auditorium. We played the game before the Globetrotters took the court. During our game I saw them come in and watch us finish our game. When I spotted Marcus Haynes, I stole the ball from a team mate and did the Marcus Haynes old dribble routine…sliding across the floor.”
He continued, “I saw Marcus in the doorway slapping ‘five’ to a guy and pointing at me. I knew right then I had his attention. After the game, he invited me into their dressing room.” As they say, the rest is history.
Gator’s mom gave him his first basketball lesson. With pride he said, “She taught me if you want to be really good with a basketball, you have to teach each one of your fingers to handle the ball.” Yes, he listened to his mom.
Why the name “Gator,” I asked? He explained, “I’ve been called Gator since I was 8 years old. I was told I had feet like an alligator. I used to punt for the football team barefooted – I couldn’t punt with shoes on. I used to kick extra points with bare feet. I ran the half- and quarter-mile and high jump all barefooted.”
If it wasn’t for Gator’s high school basketball coach, Russell Ellington, his Globetrotter career may not have happened. As a teenager, Gator’s ambition was to be a pool hustler- shark. He was on his way toward that end. At the age of 13, he was running a poolroom on Montgomery Street.
When his Mom discovered he had been skipping school for a month, she had a talk with Coach Ellington. It was then she learned about the poolroom. Gator will never forget what happened next.
“My mom came to that pool room and broke a pool stick across my butt,” he said. “She brought me home and intended to put me in a juvenile home. Russell was sitting on our porch at the time and stepped in. My mom agreed to let me live with him.”
Gator credits Russell Ellington with changing his life. “He moved me into his home and my life took a new direction. There, I developed study habits and the desire to go to college. I lived with him for five years…until I graduated high school.”
Gator Rivers spoke philosophically, “I think people are born with ability. The key to talent is potential. Potential is like a loaded gun…its ready to go but you have to pull the trigger. It has no value without desire. You have to work to develop it.”
We salute Gator, Jimmy and Johnnie.

Shirley Hiers was born and raised in Richmond Hill. You can reach her at shirleyhiers@comcast.net.
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