St. James Sports Center Director and Coastal Crew Rebels founder Ernie Walthour recalls the first time he met Rebels player Hakeem Golden. The now 17-year-old first crossed Walthour’s path in 1996.
"He was a member of the Kool Kids for Christ after-school program," Walthour said. Golden also participated in the group’s summer camp.
Golden is a native of the Holmestown community in Liberty County. From the time he picked up his first basketball as an elementary school student, the athlete has been very involved in Holmestown and activities at the St. James Sports Center.
Now a senior at First Presbyterian Christian Academy, the Rebel and Highlander is contemplating his future and preparing to leave the only community he’s known.
"I’ve met a whole bunch of people that came through Holmestown, left Holmestown and I’ve done basically everything while living here," Golden said.
He said he started playing sports when he was about 9 years old. "We always came here (St. James Sports Center)," Golden said. "My older brother, Keyoun Golden, he didn’t play or nothing, but he always came here to work and to hang out. I came here with him one day and I met people who played basketball and I just started playing."
Walthour said the more Golden practiced, the more he flourished on the court. More importantly, Walthour said, the basketball standout developed a strong sense of responsibility and a solid work ethic off the court. He became a camp counselor when he got older.
"We put a lot of trust in him as far as taking care of the facility, handling the younger kids and other aspects of our program, and he’s never let us down in any way," Walthour said. "I can leave this facility in his hands and not worry about something happening. He ran our summer camps and took the kids bowling, swimming and skating. He handled everything."
Golden said it’s hard to think of basketball and not think of the St. James Sports Center, which serves as the FPCA Highlanders’ home court."Every time we have a game here I feel like this is my gym a lot of people are stepping into," he said. "I had my first dunk here, and everything that I’ve done in basketball, I had my ‘first’ right here at the St. James Sports Center."
"I’ve known Hakeem since he was about 12 years and he is a very focused young kid," said Jay Osteen, whose law firm, Osteen and Osteen, sponsors the Rebels and the center. "He is focused on his academics and he’s focused on the basketball court, and being that focused and paying attention to what matters has paid off for him. I think what he’s done up to this point is going to get him into college. He’s got good grades, he’s good on the basketball court and he’s had a lot of basketball coaches notice him, and I know there’s three colleges looking at him right now."
In fact, Golden said he recently met with coaches from Emory-Oxford College. They spoke with him after the Rebels’ final four game in Milledgeville.
"He (the coach) was very interested in the way I played and I became interested in their school, too, and I’ve kind of stuck to that school," Golden said.
He said he is working with his coaches, Emory’s coaches and administrators to see if the school fits his educational and athletic needs.
When Golden first started looking at colleges he admits he didn’t want to go too far from home. "I want to be able to come home every now and then," he said.
Golden had been enrolled in public school when he said his mother informed him she was transferring him to First Presbyterian Christian Academy. In retrospect, he said, the move likely prepared him to leave the comforts of home.
Golden said the smaller class sizes helped him get more out of each class. It also afforded him the opportunity to meet and network with local business owners. "These were people in the community I never even knew," he said.
His time at FPCA opened his eyes to the options that are available to him but, Golden said, the Holmestown community and his family’s support will make it difficult to leave.
"I’ve had so many people it would be hard to mention all of them," the athlete said of the people who’ve supported him. "I’ve had family members. I have Ernie (Walthour). I’ve had some of the church members, like Andy Mims, he was one of my first coaches and we all played together. Basically, the whole Holmestown community and my family are behind me. I have my mom (Delores Golden). She didn’t know a lot about basketball but she kept pushing me. She kept me on track. She would tell Ernie and my old coach Darrell (West), ‘If he doesn’t do well in school then he’s just going to be in school, working. He’s not going to be at practice, not going to be at any of the games,’ and she meant it."
Golden’s mother, who cares for her family while juggling a tough work schedule and several other commitments, doesn’t get to watch her son often, but she was thrilled to see him shine during the Highlanders’ battle against Bethesda for a third consecutive state title.
"It really shocked me," Golden said.
Golden said his mother had told him she would not be able to attend the basketball game.
"She told me she wasn’t coming, so I just told myself I just need to focus on the game now," he said. "We were on defense and the play was coming back to our side of the court. I tend to run with my head down, and I looked up and I saw her and the whole family was behind her just waving at me, and that put a smile on my face. I scored and they were smiling and jumping up and down and it just seemed like the whole gym went wild. It meant a whole bunch to me that they actually came to see me."
Golden describes himself as a good listener who is receptive to others’ needs, and he said while most people perceive him as quiet, once people get to know him, they realize he’s the type to help others work through their problems. He said he’s looking into a career in psychology.
Walthour said it’s important for Golden complete his education. The sports center director said Golden is capable of adapting to life outside of Holmestown.
"He adjusted well when he went from public school to private school," Walthour said. "He transitioned well from being in our after-school program here in St. James to working for us and I would really like to see him go to college and get his degree. He is a complete person. He is consistent. He’s humble and thankful for the opportunity he was given. The St. James Sports Center has done a lot for Hakeem, but Hakeem has done a lot for the St. James Sports Center as well."
"I’ve never seen an individual … work as hard as Hakeem Golden and he’s very quiet in doing so," Rebels’ coach Mike Brown said. "I’ve known this kid for about seven or eight years and I’ve been coaching him for about the same amount of time, and he is a beast under the basket. If he had about another 2-3 inches, there’s no doubt he’d be a Division I player. Wherever he goes, he is going to be an asset to that team."
"He needs to remember what his mama taught him," Osteen said when asked what advice he would give Golden as he begins his college career. "Be loyal to those who have been loyal to him and keep focused on his academics and his sports."