Before the winds of change swept across the McDowell County school landscape, the 1970-71 Nebo Bears basketball team exited the stage a final time in grand fashion.
Nebo, a 1A high school, played in the McDowell County Conference. In the school's last season ever, they ran off winning streaks that reached 11 and 16 games. Those streaks earned the Bears the McDowell County Conference championship, plus an invitation to Raleigh to play in the round of the elite eight with a chance to win a state championship. It was a rare achievement for a McDowell County Conference team.
Along the way, loyal fans overflowed the small Nebo gym on home dates. The Bears' fast-break-first attitude allowed them to average more than 80 points per game while eclipsing the 100-point barrier four times. A 114-point game against Cane River may be the highest single-game point total in county history.
Nebo, owning a shiny 27-1 record, was handed a disappointing loss in the final round of eight. But the last basketball season ever at Nebo High School turned out to be one to remember.
Part 2: The season
The start of practice for the upcoming 1970-71 basketball season could not have arrived soon enough for Nebo High School.
Hoping to build on the success of two consecutive McDowell County Conference championships, the Bears entered the season experienced, talented and confident.
"We had high dreams," remembered former Nebo coach Richard Laney. "We wanted to win the McDowell County Conference championship, and we wanted to make a deep run in the state playoffs."
The Bears accomplished both of those goals, establishing a reputation early on as a pressure defense and fast-breaking transition team that put points up as swiftly as a fast-moving brushfire.
"All of our players were good shooters," said Laney. "We pressed full-court most of the time. So if we had a fast-break, and if we were playing on the small county courts, it was one pass and a layup. We could score in a hurry."
They did, too. Nebo became one of the most proficient scoring teams in McDowell County history, averaging almost 84 points per game. Four times they eclipsed the 100-point mark. By comparison, the 1991-92 McDowell Titan team that finished 28-1 did it three times.
Charles Buchanan and Danny Castle, two of four returning seniors, were the Bears' top scorers. "We were run and gun," said Castle. "We were running it all the time. We didn't force it, but we pushed it."
Added Buchanan: "We pressed, and we came up with a lot of steals," he said. "We were always looking to fast break. We didn't know what slow down was."
Jimmy Willis, a junior at the time and the only non-senior among Nebo's starting five, said, "Our full-court press was awesome. Danny, Charles and myself would press, and Tommy (Lancaster) and (the late) Richard (Gardin) would stay back. We felt we were not going to lose."
For the first month-and-a-half of the season, Willis was right.
The campaign tipped off on Nov. 6, and the Hildebran Eagles became the first of 11 straight Nebo victims. Buchanan, who averaged more than 27 points in the first four games, scored 29 in the season-opener.
Four games later, Lancaster scored 20 points, and the Bears routed the Marshall Red Tornadoes 91-41. Following an 84-57 victory over East Yancey, Nebo met its first in-county rival of the season - Glenwood - on Dec. 4. Getting 25 points from Gardin, the Bears coasted to a 25-point victory (89-64) over the Dragons.
Nebo improved to 11-0, beating North Cove 90-49 as Buchanan scored 25, and Castle 19, all of their points coming in the first half.
The winning streak came to an end in the last game before the Christmas holidays. The Bears had defeated the Dallas Yellow Jackets 74-67 nearly a month earlier, but in the return matchup, Dallas handed Nebo an 82-67 setback.
Willis, recalling the matchup at Gaston County, said the Bears had to walk the gauntlet in order to get into the gym. "When we went down there, the Dallas fans were waiting for us," he said. "When our bus pulled in, the fans began lining up at our bus door, and they lined up all the way to the gym doors. It was an intimidation thing."
The turn of a new year was also the start of another winning streak. This one went 16 consecutive games. It carried the Bears to the final round of eight in Raleigh.
The streak began with the Bears defeating East Yancey (66-60) for a second time on Jan. 2.
Nebo then ran the rest of the regular-season table.
Over those last 10 regular-season games prior to the conference tournament, the Bears were at their high-scoring best. Nebo averaged 95 points per game, including 100-point outbursts against Union Mills (106-33), Burnsville's Cane River (114-47) and Saluda (108-62).
In the 67-point rout of Cane River, Lancaster scored 30 points, all in the first half.
In the victory over the Saluda Wildcats, the Bears placed six players in double figures, while on the defensive end, were like pickpockets working a festival crowd. They forced 51 turnovers. Laney jokingly told The McDowell News afterwards, that, "if they locked people up for ball-stealing, Danny Castle and Jimmy Willis would get life."
McDOWELL CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
Nebo, standing at 23-1, earned a first-round bye in the McDowell County Conference Tournament, scheduled at Marion High School (now East McDowell Middle School).
The change from the smaller county courts to a larger one at Marion was dramatic. The playing floor itself had a different feel, observed Buchanan. "I liked playing at Marion," he stated. "There seemed to be more spring in the floor."
Lancaster described playing at Marion High, in comparison to the smaller Nebo court, to "like playing in a college gym."
In the semifinals of the county tournament, the Bears easily defeated Saluda 87-50. In the other semifinal matchup, Pleasant Gardens - the third seed - edged second-seeded Glenwood 46-44.
In the championship game played on Saturday, Feb. 20, Nebo dispatched P.G. for the third time, winning 57-46. Castle (19 points) and Buchanan (15) were the Bears' offensive leaders.
Laurel High School of Madison County was no match for Nebo's high-tempo offense in the opening-round of the Class A District playoffs. Castle scored 23 and Nebo broke the century mark for the fourth time, rolling 103-61.
Following the Bear's 77-63 victory over Glenwood, Nebo and Pleasant Gardens - two of the biggest county league basketball rivals at the time - met for a fourth time in the sectional finals (see related story). The Bears advanced, altering their style to use a slow-down version borrowed from Marion High coach Ken Brackett in a 55-40 victory.
The win over P.G. propelled Nebo into the final round of the elite eight, and a trip to Raleigh for a chance to win a state championship. The Bear's dream season ended in an 85-66 loss to Louisburg.
Part 3: Rematch with P.G.
Richard Laney, Nebo's head basketball coach, credited Marion High School coach Ken Brackett with an assist, when the Bears and the Pleasant Gardens Indians met in the Sectional Finals of the state playoffs on Feb. 26, 1971.
Nebo and P.G. were well-acquainted with one another. The two schools had played each other twice during the regular season, and had squared off again in the finals of the McDowell County Conference Tournament.
Nebo had handled P.G. easily in the first three games. The Bears defeated the Indians 87-70 at P.G. in mid-January, and at Nebo in early February, enjoyed an 83-57 win.
Six days earlier than the scheduled fourth and most important matchup, Nebo hoisted the county championship trophy at the Indians expense, winning 57-46. It was, however, the lowest point total scored by the Bears up to that moment.
"It was hard to beat a team four times in one season," said Laney, "and P.G. was coached by Colon Wright. He was the best coach we ever faced at any level."
Enter Brackett, and his slowdown strategy that was used successfully by the Rippers against Avery County and 7-foot-4 Tommy Burleson in February of 1970.
"The way we came about (using the 1-4 set) was when Ken came down to Nebo to watch one of our games," Laney continued. "After our game, Ken and I talked until after midnight, and he asked me to come up to his coaches office where we could discuss the slowdown they had used against Avery."
Nebo added the 1-4 set to its practice schedule, and had experimented with it by the time they faced Pleasant Gardens again. But they hadn’t employed it under the glare of such a spotlight. After all, the Bears hadn’t seen a need to alter their fast-paced style.
In the sectional finals, unlike the previous three games, P.G. never let Nebo get its patented fast break into gear. Playing in front of nearly 1,200 fans at Marion High School, the score stayed tight throughout.
The Bears led 9-7 after the opening quarter, and were ahead 25-21 at intermission. With the same soft cushion of four points (36-32) entering the final eight minutes, Laney called for the 1-4 set, used by Marion High School in the infamous 'freeze game' against Avery (won by Marion 16-13) a year before.
"It was a close game going into the fourth quarter," said Laney, "so we decided to use it."
Danny Castle, Nebo's 5-foot-8 guard, was the key to the slowdown. He was a star down the stretch.
"We were going to hold the ball," recalled Castle. "I was to dribble while our other four players were in the four corners. Well, I was a little nervous. If I lost the ball, it was on me."
Castle didn't turn the ball over. Instead, with the game clock winding down, P.G. was forced to foul him. At the free throw line, Castle didn't waver. He was nearly perfect, hitting 11 of 12 pressure-packed, fourth-quarter free throws, including an 8-of-8 showing in the last 4:04.
"It worked out because Danny kept getting fouled," said Lancaster. "Danny Castle was the last person you wanted to put at the free throw line."
"They (P.G.) couldn't get the ball away from him," said Laney, "so they had to foul him."
Castle's memory is: "I remember the P.G. fans screaming at me (at the foul line). They were giving me the Devil. But I'm sure our fans did their share of that, too."
The Bears outscored P.G. 19-8 in that fourth quarter, pulling away for a 55-40 decision.
Castle finished with game-high 25 points. His late-game performance drew praise from the late P.G. Coach Wright, who told The McDowell News after the game that, he (Castle) was, "One of the finest guards I've seen in a long time."
Reflecting back, the strategy to slow the game down was risky, said Laney, since the Bears were a fast-paced team. "It sure would have made me look bad (if the strategy had not worked).
"Our players did a great job in the fourth quarter," said Laney, his 83rd birthday just a month away. "I was very pleased with the way we played that night. Danny was clutch. I remember Dean Buff (Nebo assistant coach) turning to me after the game, and all he could say was, "whew."'
"Along with the way our players responded, Ken Brackett probably won that game for us," Laney said.
The outcome sent the Bears into the final round of eight in Raleigh.
Part 4: Louisburg ends playoff run
For Nebo, a small high school from the Western North Carolina foothills, the trip to Raleigh to participate in the final round of eight in early March of 1971 was an experience like that no other.
"It was the first time Nebo did anything like that," said the Bears' Tommy Lancaster. "We were really proud of what we had accomplished throughout the season, and we were really excited about it (traveling to Raleigh)."
But somehow the top two-rated teams in the state 1A rankings were paired off in the opening round. Nebo was scheduled to play Louisburg, a local powerhouse. The Bulldogs were considered the best Class A team in the state.
Louisburg won the game 85-66, and went on to capture the state title.
"We went down there to win the state," said Nebo's Jimmy Willis. "But when I saw them warming up, I said to myself, 'Oh Lord.'"
"They were tall, and they were real good. It seems like they were all 6-6, 6-7 or 6-8, and very athletic. But (at the same time) we were a confident team."
Charles Buchanan, one of Nebo's top scorers, said, "I thought we had a good chance. But Louisburg was taller, and they were more athletic."
The Bears led 9-7 before a combination of Louisburg's size and quickness, along with Nebo foul troubles, began to siphon any hope from the McDowell County Conference champions.
The Bears caught the attention of the game's officials from the opening tip. A few of the calls are questioned even today. "I got three charging fouls in the first quarter," said Buchanan. "They did a better job of scouting. They knew I liked to drive."
Lancaster, about the foul situation, was more direct. "The Louisburg game has always stuck in my craw," he said. "We got hoo-dooed in that gym."
Lancaster recalled that a Louisburg player did a flop, before the flop became popular. "Charles (Buchanan) was our best player, and he got three charging fouls called on him in the first two or three minutes. One of the fouls came when he was dribbling up the court and was called for a charge. The player guarding him was two or three feet away. The Louisburg player just fell back.
"Things like that are hard to overcome. It was a letdown to lose that first game."
By the time the final buzzer sounded, all five of Nebo's starters had already fouled out. Willis remarked that it was the only game he ever fouled out of.
"The game was over before we got into a groove," said Castle. "It was tough."
As far as drawing Louisburg for the first game, Laney recounted what was asked of him. "A sports reporter from the Raleigh News-Observer (newspaper) contacted us, and he was wondering why we were scheduled to play Louisburg right off the bat," Laney said. "He was curious about it since we were the top two teams in the state.
"Louisburg was picked the No. 1 team for 15 straight weeks, within a 75-mile radius from Raleigh, and that included all classifications, " Laney said.
In the end, Lancaster posted a double-double, scoring 15 points while hauling down 16 rebounds. Buchanan had 17 points as the Bears closed out the year – and their basketball history of their school – going 27-2.
Part 5: Noteworthy
How close was Richard Laney, Nebo's head basketball coach, to becoming the first ever coach at McDowell High? Close enough that he was being urged to consider the position by Marion High School's Ken Brackett. Meanwhile, Old Fort's Ken Griffin thought Laney was his main competition for the job.
The end of the 1971 school year saw the closing of all six McDowell County high schools due to consolidation. Marion, Old Fort, Glenwood, Nebo, North Cove and Pleasant Gardens, were all merging to form one school - McDowell High.
Brackett, the highly-successful Marion coach, was widely accepted as the frontrunner for head coach, but he stepped out of the picture. According to his friends, Brackett, who passed away seven years later at the age of 38, did not want to the job, citing local politics as one of the main reasons.
Griffin, the coach at Old Fort High School, wanted the McDowell position.
"Ken Brackett was a friend of mine, and he asked me to apply for the head coaching position at McDowell High," Laney recalled. "He told me that he could get me the job."
Laney had spent 15 years at Nebo as head basketball coach for the boys, and 14 years coaching the girls’ program. He said he told Brackett that he was done with coaching at the high-school level.
Days later, Laney said, "Ken Griffin came down to my house one Sunday night. He said to me 'that it looks like we will fight for the job (at McDowell High).'''
"I told him that I did not want it, and that I would not accept it," Laney said. "I felt there would be too much politics involved."
Griffin, who passed away in 1997, was named the first ever coach for the Titans. He remained there for the first three seasons.
Laney opted for the ninth-grade boys' basketball position at East McDowell Junior High, where he stayed the following 10 seasons.
Griffin and Laney eventually did fight it out. Griffin later became the West McDowell Junior High boys' ninth-grade basketball coach.
-- Jimmy Willis was at Nebo High School in its final season. He played for both Laney as a junior at Nebo, and following consolidation, as a senior, under Griffin at McDowell High.
Willis noted the differences between the two veteran coaches.
"Everyone knew that there was going to be a lot of pressure on whoever was to be the first coach at McDowell High," Willis said.
"Ken Griffin was so soft spoken. He never raised his voice. He could not get the team together, that first year, for sure. Players would not listen. It was lax. We had John Logan and Todd Swepson on that team. We were a good team," Willis said.
The Titans finished with a 21-6 record in their initial season. Willis was named Most Valuable Player in the conference tournament.
As for Laney, Willis said, "He was a motivator, and a leader. He was a disciplined person. I admire him. I grew up a lot around him."
-- All six of the schools (Glenwood, Nebo, North Cove, Pleasant Gardens, Saluda, Union Mills) of the McDowell County Conference had small gyms. Besides the court dimensions being shorter in length and width compared to current gymnasiums, places to sit or stand were at a premium.
The seating capacity was taxed even more at Nebo in 1970-71 because of the excitement generated by the Bears’ winning ways. It was standing room only at Nebo, said Charles Buchanan.
"When we played at Nebo, the bleachers were packed," he commented. "People were standing everywhere. There wasn't much baseline. It was always a full house."
Danny Castle said the crowd kept inching onto the playing floor. "There were no corners," he said. "The playing floor was oval. The fans were standing on the playing floor."
Said Nebo's Tommy Lancaster: "People were standing everywhere. If you went chasing after a loose ball (heading out of bounds), you would run into people instead of the wall."
-- Interest in Bears basketball spread beyond the Nebo community.
"Fans packed the seats, and everywhere else that season," Lancaster said. "It was a big thing on Tuesday and Friday night to come to the gym. That season, the fans were really behind us. People from Glen Alpine (from neighboring Burke County) would come up to watch us."
Willis said the Bears were pulling fans from Marion. "That season you could not get into the gym," Willis said. "We had a great following all the time, that year more so. People from Marion were coming to watch us play instead of the Rippers."
-- Willis said Brackett offered him a chance to play at Marion High prior to his sophomore season. "Ken Brackett came to my house," Willis said. With consolidation just around the corner, Brackett told Willis that it would make him a better player from a competition standpoint if he played at Marion.
Willis worried over the choice. "I didn't know what to do'" he said. "I talked it over with Coach Laney, and I ask him what I should do. He (Laney) told me I would come off the bench, and would not get as much playing time (compared to at Nebo). I stayed at Nebo. I benefitted from staying. I don't regret it a bit."
-- It was no secret that Nebo considered the P.G. Indians their chief rival. "The games against Pleasant Gardens were always tough," said Buchanan.
"I loved to beat Pleasant Gardens," said Lancaster. "Hands down, they were our top rival."
On occasion, the heated rivalry was on fiery display. In the first game between the two schools on Jan. 5, tempers flared between Lancaster and Mike Joiner, Pleasant Gardens' leading scorer. Both players were ejected after a confrontation.
"I had a hot temper," said Lancaster. "We got into it going for a rebound. He got me in a headlock. I came out swinging. I never made contact with him. That's my version of it, anyway."
Lancaster presently resides in Pleasant Gardens.
Attempts to locate Joiner, as well as Pete Nelson, his teammate, were unsuccessful.
-- Ironically, Lancaster and Joiner lived in the same county in Kentucky as youngsters. "We both came from Christian County," said Lancaster. "Most of my family still lives there (Hopkinsville)."
-- Castle, the pastor at Shining Light Baptist Church in Burke County for 16 years, still likes to play basketball. He plays in the church basketball league, as well as the over-40 league.
He remembered the summer following his high school graduation. Castle was working alongside Robert Norton and Jimmy Clontz for the McDowell Recreation Department. He said one day he was in the same gym with Marion Coach Ken Brackett.
"Coach Brackett said, 'I hear you are pretty good at shooting free throws,"' said Castle. He went to the free throw line. "I hit nine out of 10 and felt pretty good. He (Brackett) stepped up to the line, and hit all 10 of his free throws."
-- Castle says religion has been the focal point of his life. "Sports is great," he said. "But the best thing that ever happened to me is when I gave my life to our Lord, Jesus Christ. By far."
-- Castle said his father, Lawrence, "used to go coon hunting with (P.G. Coach) Colin Wright."
-- Lawrence Castle enrolled Danny at Clinchfield Elementary School a year early. He started the first grade at age 5.
"My father worked at Clinchfield Cotton Mill. He somehow slipped me into school a year early," said Danny. "I went to Nebo in the second grade. I graduated when I was 17."
If Castle had started school a year later, he would have spent his final high school season at McDowell High.
-- Laney said Brackett went out of his way to help the Nebo basketball team. "Ken would slip us in, and let us practice on the bigger court," said Laney. "He would also slip us some film, and the use of his camera. It was the first time Nebo was able to use game film as a coaching tool.
"Ken could ask his boosters club for anything, and get it. At Nebo, we had no money, and we had no boosters club."
-- Buchanan said Brackett was, "always good to the county schools. During my junior year, I turned an ankle. He let us use their whirlpool.
"I always remember Coach Brackett trying to get college coaches. He wanted to get your name out there. He introduced me to other coaches and players when they played (at the Marion Civitan Classic) there."
-- In the fourth quarter slowdown Nebo used against P.G. in the sectional finals, Castle filled the role played at Marion by Archie McIntosh. McIntosh was the Rippers' point guard when they played Avery County and Burleson in the infamous "freeze game" won by Marion 16-13 in early February of 1970.
The Rippers put the ball in deep freeze, and McIntosh, had the ball in his possession nearly the entire game. "Both Archie and Danny could handle the ball real well," said Laney. "Danny was probably a better offensive player."
-- Could the 1970-71 Bears have competed against, or even have beaten the Rippers that year? "I don't think so," said Castle. "They had more size. They were a step above."
Willis said not so fast. "I'm not saying we could have (beaten Marion)," said Willis. "But I'm not saying we couldn't have. Brackett didn't want to play us that year. I guess it would have been embarrassing for a 3A school to lose to a 1A school."
-- Laney said he and some of his players visited a Marion High basketball practice at Brackett's request to see a demonstration of the 1-4 set. While there, the players also received a dose of Brackett's colorful vocabulary.
"On one end of the court the boys were practicing, and (the late) Johnny Anderson (Marion High head football coach, and McDowell High's all-time winningest football coach) was practicing the girls on the other end. Our players heard some language they had never heard before," said Laney.
"The Marion boys and girls never flinched from it. They were used to his language. But we weren't used to anything like Brackett's, of course. In our practice, you might have heard a damn or two."
-- Marion High school played in the Northwestern 3A Conference and Old Fort High School in the Skyland Conference, while Glenwood, North Cove, Pleasant Gardens and Nebo were members of the McDowell County Conference the year before consolidation.
-- Laney eventually did become head coach at McDowell High, for the 1985-86 season only. He agreed to coach for one season while the school searched for a permanent successor. He led the Titans to the Northwestern 4A Conference tournament championship. Laney also served as McDowell High Athletic Director for 14 years and was among the first class of inductees into the MHS Athletic Hall of Fame.
-- Ricky Arrowood of Glenwood was selected All-Conference in the McDowell County league. He said familiarity among all the players elevated the competition level. "There was so much competition among the teams that it was unreal," Arrowood said. "Everyone knew each other. When we played, it became personal.
"Nebo was a good team, no doubt about it. Those memories are extremely important."
The Bears traveled to Raleigh (the matchup versus Louisburg was played at Raleigh-Broughton High School) on the same day as they played. After a pep rally sendoff from the Nebo gym, the Bears left for the state capitol in a five-car caravan, it was reported in The McDowell News.
-- More than 60 teams competed in the Class A State Playoffs.
-- Louisburg lost only one game, falling to Apex. The McDowell News reported that Apex slowed the game down. There was no shot clock during that time period.
-- Nebo claimed four of the final six McDowell County championships, including the last three conference flags prior to consolidation.
-- Three Nebo players - Castle, Buchanan and Lancaster - earned All-Conference honors in 1970-71. Lancaster was more than surprised to see his name on the list. "It really shocked me," he said. "Danny and Charles were the stars of our team. I was, and still am, very proud at being picked all-conference."
-- Buchanan moved from McDowell County more than 40 years ago. He resides in Alexander County. "I have been with Duke Energy, basically, all my life," he said.
Buchanan participated in another high school highlight. He attended a basketball camp at Buie's Creek (Campbell College) that featured the likes of John Wooden, UCLA's legendary basketball coach, and future NBA Hall-of-Fame player Pete Maravich. "It was intimidating," said Buchanan, who traveled by bus. "I was just a country boy. I had never been far from home."
-- To Willis, Castle was the Bears' leader. "I looked up to him," said Willis, "with me being the only non-senior starter. Danny was a great player for his size."
-- Willis is dealing with health issues. He suffered a stroke, and also underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. "I'm doing ok," says Willis.
Few people realize that Willis has bad vision in his right eye. "I had to throw my shot to the left," he explained.
-- Nebo mainly used a six player rotation. Sadly, two of the players - Richard Gardin and Jim Thomas - have passed away. Gardin was affectionately known as Gomer because of his likeness to Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle on the classic “Andy Griffith Show,” and on the “Gomer Pyle, USMC” TV series.
Thomas, a post player, was the sixth man. "Jim was a good boy," said Laney. "He did a solid job when he was in.
"Gomer could have played football at Marion. He could have gotten a college scholarship as a lineman. Gomer was 6-4 in the ninth grade. By his junior year, he was a good player."
-- Laney also said Buchanan would have made a great football player. "He was a horse. He was strong, quick and dependable," Laney said
About his other three starters, Laney described Lancaster as a good defensive player and rebounder, while Castle, "believed he could circle the world. He had so much confidence," Laney said. "Jimmy was a very good defender, and a very good shooter."
-- The Nebo players were thoughtful with their praise of Laney. "Coach Laney demanded a lot from us," said Castle. "There was no goofing off. He took it serious. He pushed us hard. We were in better shape (than most other teams). He ran us a lot in practice. It was rigorous.
"In my opinion, it was our coach (who was the key to the Bears’ success)," Castle said. "I probably didn't realize at the time, but I have to give credit to him. He had a lot of wisdom."
Said Buchanan: "It was a good experience to play for him, and (assistant coach) Dean Buff. But he worked us hard. He would run us in suicides, and keep running us until we had enough.
"If Coach Laney had asked me to run through a brick wall, I would have tried. He has meant so much to me."
Lancaster said the players simply did not want to disappoint their coach. "We were scared," he said. "Not of Coach Laney, we all liked him. We just didn't want to let him down."