I quit talking about Newton County basketball 10 years ago, because if you weren’t there to see it in person you wouldn’t believe what I was telling you anyway. A couple of things happened in the past week, however, that made me decide to tell a new generation — and remind an older generation — what it was like in the Death Valley of the North Georgia Piedmont.
Last Wednesday night I spoke to the good folks at the First United Methodist Church in Hartwell, and there were people present who remembered those classic battles between Newton County and Hart County back in the ’60s. Friday night I attended a high school game between Oconee and North Oconee high schools. The game was well attended and between games my son, who is a North Oconee assistant coach, marveled at the crowd that was still pouring in and hoped out loud that the fire marshal didn’t turn people away. I looked down from the balcony, where our conversation was taking place and saw perfectly formed aisles across the way, and laughed.
“What’s funny?” he asked.
“Jackson,” I said. “Let me tell you about Death Valley.”
I decided to tell all of you, too.
Death Valley was the big old brick gym built in the ’50s at Newton County High School, just a few years before UGA two-sport star Ronald Bradley decided that he would rather be a high school basketball coach than a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., recreation director. Bradley had been a legend at Avondale High School and played baseball for Big Jim Whatley and basketball for Red Lawson at Georgia.
When Bradley came to Newton County he brought with him a hunger and tenacity and work ethic that few coaches have ever possessed, and he immediately turned the Newton County Rams into a state powerhouse. They rarely lost and it began to seem as if they absolutely never lost at home. There was a good reason for that. They didn’t.
After dropping a close game to Baldwin County in Bradley’s first year — it could have been his second — the Rams started reeling off win after win on their home court. People started paying attention and then people started packing the house, every single night.
Let me tell you what it was like for a big game — like one of the epic battles with Hart County — or Griffin — or Athens High.
The girls always played at 7 p.m. No JV games for the really big games. People would begin lining up at noon. I ain’t making this up. They would. By the time the doors opened the lines would stretch across the parking lot and wrap around the Board of Education office next door. If the doors opened at 5, they would be closed by 5:20 — or as long as it took to let the throngs of people assembled to get through the door.
Then the crowd would wait for 100 minutes or so for the girls to play. By the time the girls tipped off, the Newton boys would have arrived and taken their reserved seats in the lower section of the bleachers, next to the school building. They would be dressed in identical blue blazers, grey slacks, white shirts and matching ties and when they got up to go to the dressing room, midway through the second quarter, the stands would erupt as they walked slowly in front of the home crowd before making a right turn, along the baseline and toward the downstairs dressing room. The cheers were always so loud that the girls game had to be suspended until the last player disappeared down the stairs.
The visiting players were greeted by a loud chorus of “Ram Bait! Ram Bait! Ram Bait!” as they descended into the dark, cold visitors lockerroom that was illuminated by a single 40 watt bulb. OK. It might have been a 60 watter.
There might have been some degree of an intimidation factor at work, or maybe times were just hard in the ’50s and ’60s.
After the teams went to the lockerrooms a few hundred more fans were able to sneak in and by the time the two boys teams ran out onto the court, the aisles were nonexistent and fans were lined up three and four deep around the court. The rafters trembled from the noise when the Rams took the court, and I have seen opposing teams try to play defense with their hands covering their ears.
The gym was always hot — perhaps another strategy because Bradley’s Boys were always better conditioned than their opponents and the rims were always tight — because they were better shooters. If a live ball happened to bounce off a spectator’s foot at an inopportune time, well, sometimes things happened, and if the sheriff happened to hit the light switch by mistake and throw the gym into darkness when it looked like things needed to be shaken up a bit — well, like I said, sometimes things happened.
Anyone who ever played against the Rams at home can remember the tremendously loud choruses of “You! You! You!” when charged with a foul — and the way the gym shook from everyone stomping their feet during a visitor’s free throw.
And yes, people did lean long ladders against the windows to watch the game from the outside.
We were from Newton and couldn’t have been prouder, and the streak — for the record — reached 129 straight games.
But I’m glad they had a nice crowd at the Oconee-North Oconee game nonetheless.