Hall-of-Fame basketball Coach Johnny Carter celebrated the release of his second novel, The Pressing Champions, with a book signing last Tuesday at Texas Burger on Main Street.
The new book is a followup to Carter’s first publication, The First Season, which chronicled the incredible true story of how he led the Kennard Tigers to their first State Championship in school history as a rookie coach. Not to be downplayed, he did this during the first year of racial desegregation.
Carter’s instant success led to a fruitful basketball career, but he was well known for his use of the full court press defense. Carter first used the defense in a tight Regional Finals matchup in his first year and never looked back.
“I gave them a pretty loaded question,” said Coach Carter. “I asked them if they wanted to win this game or just keep it close.”
The Tigers, of course, told their young coach that they had every intention of winning, which was exactly what they did. Kennard won by just 1 point, and the press was the difference.
“After that, we are on our way to the state tournament in my first year, but all I could think about that night was how I could implement the press on a more consistent basis next year,” said Carter. “That was really the beginning of my career, because we always pressed after that.”
A lot of the locals believed Carter had gone crazy when he began pressing early and often the following season. They had won the state title the year before without it, except for the Regional Final, and here he was implementing a whole new style.
“We did not have a very deep bench,” said Carter. “For the press to work like it did, we had to be in tremendous shape, and I demanded a lot from the guys. We wanted to play the final two minutes with the same intensity we played the first two.”
Off of the court, Carter was not sure how he would first be welcomed when he first took over the Kennard job. After looking at the cover of his new novel and claiming he looked about 17 years old at the time, he admitted that he felt as if he would have to work for that respect from his team at the outset. He also admitted that he was mistaken for a player and a manager multiple times throughout his first two seasons.
“The chemistry between and the players meshed right away,” said Carter. “I was the first coach they had who had actually played college basketball, and that went a long way with them. When you are young, you have to show authority and you have to show that you know what you are talking about.”
Carter cited an example of when he showed his team that he was not going to be pushed around. To reiterate a common point to never let an opponent get by using the baseline, he called upon his team’s top physical specimen: Haywood Henderson Jr.
“The baseline is your sixth man on defense, and I never let my man drive the baseline on me when I played,” said Carter. “I told this to my guys and that I would prove it to them. I tossed Haywood the ball and told him to drive baseline. When I put my foot on that line, he ran into me and knocked me over so I slid across the floor. Guys were laughing, and I told them to stop when I stood up. I told Haywood it was a charge and that he could not drive the baseline on me.”
This was the sort of intensity Carter ordered from his players from the start and part of the reason the wins came early and often. Yet another obstacle in the way for the Tigers in Carter’s early days, as well as throughout much of the south, was race. The young coach was asked about this by the superintendent while he was first being interviewed for the job.
“He told me there were probably going to be some issues,” said Carter. “I worked in my father’s shop growing up and he employed a diverse staff, so it was never something I gave much thought to. My mindset was that if you treat people with respect, there is no reason to have any of those problems.”
Considering the time period and newly integrated schools and teams, the lack of racial issues in the Tigers locker room was almost as extraordinary as the instant success on the court. After all, this was East Texas in the 1960s and the Ku Klux Klan operated just down the road.
“I never saw any problems of that kind within my team,” said Carter. “Other teams, of course, were having all sorts of problems. We might have been an exception at the time and maybe winning is the cure for all of that nonsense.”
The only noticeable racial divide from the championship season came at the beginning when the blacks would sit together on one side of the gym and the whites on the other. As the wins came, it washed away and brought the community closer together.
Coach Carter’s legendary career spanned many high school as well as college level coaching spots and culminated with a bid to the Hall-of-Fame. Still, he references that first season at Kennard as the year that defines his career.
For a more in-depth look at Carter’s early days in Kennard and much more, get your copies of the The Pressing Champions and The First Season.