In every gym, fieldhouse and arena he visited as a high school basketball player, Macon native Sharone Wright walked in with a reputation to uphold. Never did Wright nor his Southwest High School teammates step onto a court in America without everyone around knowing exactly who they were and where they came from.
One man, known by many as coach and others simply as “Duck” was responsible for that fame.
Don Richardson, the architect of a Southwest boys basketball program that garnered national attention during the 1970s and ’80s, died Sunday morning at The Medical Center of Central Georgia of complications from pneumonia. He was 75.
“A lot of us are heavy-hearted right now because he was the only father we had,” said Wright, who played at Clemson and in the NBA after playing for Richardson from 1988-1991. “He is the greatest high school basketball coach ever, and I don’t say that just because I played for him. He meant so much to all of us and our school and this city.’’
They were never strangers, not in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas or any other town the barnstorming Patriots visited.
‘‘You could go anywhere in this country and bring up Southwest basketball, and people knew what you were talking about,” Wright said.
Richardson coached at Southwest for 21 years until 1991, when he left to start the basketball program at then-Macon College.
During his run at Southwest, Richardson won one mythical national championship, six state championships and 10 region championships. He sent numerous players on to college basketball, including a few who made it to the NBA. He was the state coach of the year six times, the All-Middle Georgia Coach of the Year seven times and the Middle Georgia Coach of the Decade in the 1970s. He was 463-90 in his career.
Many high school observers believe Richardson’s 1979 team is the best in state history. The squad, which was led by future NBA standout Jeff Malone and Terry Fair, went 28-0. The team won the national championship, and Richardson earned national coach of the year honors.
“He had a lot of great basketball teams, but that team was special,” said Raynette Evans, a Southwest alum and former Bibb County Schools athletics director.
Ron Taylor arrived at Southwest as a 25-year-old in 1978 and took over the ninth-grade team. Taylor didn’t need much time to see why Richardson found success.
“First, he was a people’s person,” said Taylor, who served as an assistant until Richardson left Southwest. “He could pull the best out of someone.”
Taylor said Richardson immediately commanded respect from his players, and after he received that, then the hard work on the court began.
Richardson taught fundamentals first and foremost. The team didn’t use a basketball for the first few weeks of practice while it was drilled on the fundamentals of the game.
The coach was a meticulous planner. Opponents rarely surprised him during a game because he and his assistants watched hours of game film.
He stayed reasonably calm during games, Taylor said, because he didn’t want his opponents or his team to know he was ever flustered.
“He was a stickler for precision, and he wanted to be correct,” Taylor said. “But he was successful because of his concern and love for the kids. He wanted them to be successful.”
Richardson’s talented teams raised the level of interest in basketball in Macon and Middle Georgia.
The county moved Northeast-Southwest games to the Macon Coliseum to accommodate larger crowds. Central-Southwest games were eventually moved there, as well.
Evans said students would leave directly from school to get to the Coliseum at 3 p.m. to get tickets. Fans would arrive early and watch the early games before the boys took the court at night.
“It was one of the greatest atmospheres any kid could want to play in,” said former Northeast girls basketball coach Alvin Copeland, who squared off against Richardson as junior high coaches at Appling and Ballard-Hudson. “It was a sellout every time. If you didn’t get there around 3, you wouldn’t get in.”
Former Southwest athletics director Edgar Hatcher watched in awe during many of the hotly contested matchups between Northeast and Southwest.
“He made basketball a rallying point for everyone,” Hatcher said. “People would just come to watch them play; it didn’t matter what school they went to. They would come to watch probably the best high school basketball in the country, and when it was Southwest and Northeast, that’s what they got.”
During the height of its basketball prominence, Southwest grew into one of the largest schools in the country. With a giant student population, Patriots players became stars on campus and also household names around town.
Norm Nixon, Malone, Ivano Newbill and Wright all went on to NBA careers. Fair and Walter Daniels had solid careers at Georgia. Malone and Nixon were eventually inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Richardson was enshrined in 2007.
But with the added attention, Richardson put added pressure on his players to live up to his expectations. They had study hall immediately after school. He demanded respect, and they acquiesced or left.
“He told our players that they would be the leaders on our campus and in the community,” Taylor said. “They would set a good example and be respectful. He believed in his principles, and he wanted the kids to believe in them, too. He thought he could give them the best chance at being successful in life by teaching them how to carry themselves.”
Telegraph writer Daniel Shirley contributed to this report.