Look – I feel bad for not blogging more. So to make it up to you, I’m releasing another excerpt from The Edge of Legend.
Hope you like.
Beddingfield High School in Wilson, North Carolina
The halftime buzzer blared. The teams jogged toward the locker rooms. The fans, strangely, remained still, holding their seats in the surprisingly packed stands. Then, as the teams disappeared into the hallways, a little boy about eight years old, in full uniform, appeared where Beddingfield’s JV team had just exited. His name was Brad Wheeler. The fans started clapping as fans do when welcoming teams onto the court, and Brad ran out.
Then the whispers started.
Here he comes. Here comes Lil’ Ant.
The fans started clapping again. When Ant ran out, surprise hit the fans, upsetting their rhythm like a boulder hurled into a stream. The boy wasn’t wearing a uniform as usual, like Brad. He wasn’t even wearing basketball shorts or shoes. No, tonight he wore black dress shoes, black slacks, and a white short-sleeved dress shirt that stood out sharply against his dark skin. He’d even kept his tie on.
Brad and Ant slapped hands and the game began. The scorekeeper reset the scoreboard, tracking the boys’ points as they played. The games lasted as long as the teams stayed in the locker rooms, usually five or six minutes.
Ant was remarkably entertaining, Wilson sportswriter John Hackney recalls, partially because of how evident his passion for winning was, partially because he knew how to work a crowd. “People would cheer for him louder than they’d cheer for the actual games sometimes,” Hackney says. They didn’t always play one-on-one; some nights, eight more classmates showed up, and they’d play five-on-five full court. Virtually every night, Ant, whether alone or with four teammates, won.
Except for tonight. In his dress shoes, Ant slipped and slid. He couldn’t defend Brad, and couldn’t drive past him. As Brad took and kept his lead, the crowd grew wild, sensing an upset. Ant hit a few jumpers and the game was close, but when Beddingfield emerged from the locker room and the scorekeeper hit the buzzer, Ant was, for the first time, losing. He burst into tears and ran away. That night everyone loved Brad, not him; that night Brad got all the cheers in which Ant usually basked. He was eight years old, he worked at this game more than any kid that age works at anything, and so the loss was devastating.
Later, however, he felt foolish. Of his own volition, he apologized to Brad for not properly congratulating him. Then he made sure Brad would be there next game.
* * *
Of course, it sounds hyperbolic, an eight-year-old drawing a raucous full house to junior varsity basketball games in a small city in North Carolina. But upon asking around Wilson about such stories, it turns out they’re true. Even Hackney—as a reporter, in a profession that demands a certain degree of objectivity, if not cynicism—confirms it. “People wouldn’t go the concession stands at halftime,” he says, amazed even now, many years later. “You’d hear the whispers through the crowds—Oh, here he comes! Here comes Lil’ Ant! People couldn’t wait to watch him, and they wished the games could last longer.”
* * *
As he grew up, with all his teams, no matter the sport, Ant won. From ages six through ten, he played his first organized sports at the Wilson Boys’ Club, including basketball, baseball, and flag football. He was fast with good hand-eye coordination, making him a natural at baseball. In football, he always played quarterback, a natural leader from day one. “He was so sophisticated about it,” says Senior. “They’d hike the ball, he’d drop back, you know, eyes all right, looking around. And he had a good arm.”
“Oh yeah, he was an athlete now,” says Alton Britt, who ran the Boys’ Club back then. Some games, kids yelled for Britt’s assistant, Kevin Lofton, to help them chase Ant down.
The Boys’ Club leagues were split into age groups of six to nine and ten to twelve years old. Ant’s six-year-old season, he played on a team with a boy named Howard Bridgers. “They just killed everybody,” Senior recalls. Bridgers was tall and showed flashes of sensational, albeit raw, talent. Senior began working with the boy whenever they found free time at the club.
By the time Ant turned eight, he’d been moved up to play with the ten-to-twelves. “He was so good,” Lofton recalls. “He had such a good foundation. He could do things the other kids his age, and even some of the ones older, couldn’t—dribbling with his left hand, shooting from long range. He was just as good, good enough to play with the older boys.”
Lofton wanted to wait to move Ant up. He didn’t want to put him on a pedestal. He didn’t want Ant’s ego to swell. But mostly, he says, he didn’t want to demoralize the older players.
“There was no guarding him man-to-man, even double-teamed. He was so quick, and he could dribble. Nobody could guard him,” says Lofton. He adds, about the older guys’ reaction to Ant moving up, “They didn’t like that very much. I mean, they liked him. Everybody liked Lil’ Ant. You couldn’t not like him. But getting beat up on by an eight-year-old? Who would like that?”
Lofton now directs the club, six feet and three hundred pounds of love that he pours into kids day after day. His passion for it is apparent. Britt credits Lofton, at least in a way, for Ant’s growth as a player. “You know,” jokes Britt, “that’s really how Anthony got so good. We told him if he ever missed a shot, he had to run five laps around Kevin.”
* * *
Ant won five Eastern Regional championships, the farthest a Boys’ Club all-star team could go. According to Britt, Ant beat then-future NBA player Shavlik Randolph three straight years in the Eastern Regional. Senior, laughing, remembers watching Randolph’s parents chuckle as Ant guarded him.
“[Randolph] was already five-ten, five-eleven, if not six feet by then,” Senior says. “I’m serious. He was tall. And Ant was probably not even, maybe four feet tall. He may have not even been four feet! But that’s the biggest thing about Ant—he never saw height as anything but a guy on the court that he felt like he should beat.”
For all Ant’s ability and success, he never made games about himself. He didn’t swagger around with his chest puffed out. Lofton’s seen many kids come through the club. He bellows at them for addressing an elder without a “ma’am” or “sir,” or when they get mad and they start throwing basketballs at each other. But that bellow also echoes in approval when they make a good shot or show improvements in their game. He’s seen nobody, though, quite like Ant.
“He knew he was good,” says Lofton. “There’s no doubt about that. He knew he was good. But he got everyone involved. He made everyone better. He was fun to watch, because you could tell he was fun to play with.”