Updated: Aug 8, 2022
A memoir written and shared by,
Dondre' "Donnioh" Phoenix
Six Degrees of Separation... It's said that there are, at most, six degrees of separation between every person in the world. As I live, the more I experience and the more people I meet, I believe that to be true.
Even before attending the historically great HBCU institution of the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (formerly Maryland State), home of NFL greats Art Shell, Emerson Boozer, Carl Hairston and 24 other NFL players, I heard stories of the school's rich history in football.
UMES' RICH FOOTBALL HISTORY...
You're probably wondering what does football has to do with a basketball article?....... Nothing.
I just wanted to take a moment to brag about UMES' GREAT FOOTBALL HISTORY.... Ok, lets move on
Now.... great basketball history at UMES?.... SOME, but not so much.
In its history, five UMES players have been drafted into the NBA, Levi Fontaine (San Francisco Warriors), Jake Ford (Seattle Supersonics), Talvin Skinner (Seattle Supersonics) and James Morgan (Seattle Supersonics).
The Influence of Coach Lefty Driesell's Basketball Camp and Len Bias...
Let me give you my backstory as to how I chose to attend UMES over Boston College and how going to UMES connected me to the great, legendary, iconic, Bill Russell, the "Six Degrees of Separation" way.
Oh.... and as I was writing this piece, trying to tie in history, many of my personal basketball memories began to resurfaced. I shared quite a few of them, so I hope you enjoy my trip down memory lane...
We'll start in the summer of 1985, at age 13. It was just prior to entering my freshman year of high school, as I was attending my second year at Lefty Driesell's Basketball Camp at the University of Maryland.
My camp coach was the Terps' talented wing man, Tom "Speedy" Jones. Fresh off of winning Camp MVP for my age group and beating the great Len Bias coached team for the camp championship (Us campers called him Coach Len), I felt like I was beginning to hold my own against some of the better competition in the state. Coach Len's younger brother, Jay Bias was there as well. He was a year ahead of me and he shared Camp Co-MVP with Walt Williams for their age group.
In 1986, after completing my freshman year in high school and entering my third year at Coach Lefty Driesell's Basketball Camp, I won another Camp MVP for my age group. However, the 1986 camp was bitter-sweet. Sweet, in the fact that my play began to catch the eye of local college coaches. Bitter, in the fact that Len Bias had just tragically passed away three days prior to camp. Bias was drafted #2 overall to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, June 17th, 1986. He tragically passed away on Thursday, June 19th. Our camp session began Sunday, June 22nd. After beating Coach Len's team in the championship the year prior. Especially, with me being a huge Lakers fan and Coach Len being drafted by the Boston Celtics, I wanted to show him that my game had improved since last summer and beat Coach Len's team again! But, it would not happen.
Most thought the camp would be canceled, but it wasn't. Coach Driesell kept the camp as scheduled. Along with he and Coach Len's family, they decided to have a public memorial at Cole Field House during camp week, on Monday the 23rd, in which all of the campers were invited.
It was a very sad occasion, of course, but at the same time, as a young lad, it was exciting to see in attendance, Red Auerbach, Moses Malone, Rev Jesse Jackson, John Salley and Johnny Dawkins, among others.
Seeing flowers given and hearing letters speaking very highly of Coach Len, from Michael Jordan, Dean Smith and Larry Bird were very moving. As a 14 year old kid, that is something that I will never forget.
Before Coach Len's untimely death, I wore the jersey #22. I wanted to wear #32, for my favorite player Magic Johnson, but it wasn't available, so I took the next closest number. In memory of Coach Len, my final two years of high school, I wore # 34. That #34 became an Easton High School tradition within my family because a few years later, my younger brother, Joel Adams carried on that #34 tradition, as did my younger cousin, Durrell Miller.
Coach Darnell Myers... After that camp in '86, I began to get a handful of letters from local colleges, one in particular came from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Coach Darnell Myers was an assistant there and he kept in contact with me throughout my high school career, after seeing me play at camp. Previous to UMBC, Coach Myers was an assistant of the great John Thompson on that 1984 Georgetown Hoyas team that won it's first and only National Championship.
Of course, John Thompson was a backup to the great Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics from 1964-66.
I know I'm giving you a lot, but stay with me... this all ties into the meaning of this article.
1987-88 JUNIOR YEAR, HIGH SCHOOL = FINAL FOUR BOUND...
Five Star Basketball Camp Put Me On The National Map...
Fast forward to the summer of 1988. Founded by the legendary Howard Garfinkel, Five-Star was the premiere national basketball camp where the best players in the country learned and competed. Which in turn, attracted the top college basketball coaches in the country.
It was an amazing week. Amongst many, having the opportunity to talk to Dick Vitale, Rick Pitino and Howard Garfinkel himself, were definite highlights of my week.
Michael Jordan Put His Name On The National Map at Five Star Basketball Camp
Michael Jordan vs Len Bias at Five Star Basketball Camp
Myself and a few other Eastern Shore high school basketball players were selected to attend the nationally renowned (invite only) Five Star Basketball Camp. My fellow Eastern Shore players included Tyrone Travis and Ernest Payne (Cambridge), Sheron Mills and Richard Milbourne (Snow Hill) and Jeff Chambers (N. Caroline).
McDonald's All-American Nomination...
Travis, Mills, Chambers and I were all selected as nominees for the 1989 McDonald's All-American game. Largely due to our stellar play against the top players in the country at Five Star's camp, as well as us all having GREAT senior years in high school.
***A quick side note
My camp roommate and teammate, Monty Williams, was from Maryland as well. He went to Potomac High School. Monty attended Notre Dame, was then drafted by the NY Knicks and had a very solid NBA career. He is the reigning NBA head Coach of the Year, as he coaches for the Phoenix Suns.
I had a very successful showing at Five Star Basketball Camp. I even made the all-star team at the premiere camp that featured High School All-Americans Grant Hill, Allan Houston, Bobby Hurley, George Lynch, Monty Williams, Jamal Faulkner, Adrian Autry, Bill Curley, Khalid Reeves, Craig Amos, Ariel McDonald and Jerry Walker, just to name a few.
I began to have letters pouring in from schools up and down the east coast, such as Maryland, Boston College, Seton Hall, Rutgers, Central Florida, Penn State, Delaware, Fordham (NY), George Washington and South Carolina, just to name a few.
Through all of the progress along the way, with the camp MVPs, High School State Final Four, Five-Star Basketball Camp All-Star game, McDonald's All-American nomination, Top 500 in the nation, etc etc.. Outside of my high school coaches, Coach McKinley Hayward and Coach Donald Sampson, one person remained constant from 1985-1989....
Coach Darnell Myers.
During the spring of my senior year in 1989, after my high school all-star game, being nominated for the McDonald's High School All-American game and receiving numerous awards, I still hadn't chosen a school.... time was ticking, as most seniors had already chosen their college destination.
Back to Coach Darnell Myers...
My high school coach McKinley Hayward was pressing me, because time was getting short. After one of our games during the season, he told me he would prefer me to choose a smaller school, so I could make an immediate impact and wouldn't have to sit the bench for a year or two. With that advice in the back of my head, as I made my decision, I was STILL leaning heavily towards the Big East's Boston College.
Just before I went to make my Boston College visit to solidify things, I received a call from Coach Myers, saying that he and Head Coach Steve Williams wanted to meet with my mother and I at her beauty salon. At this point, Coach Meyers had left UMBC and was an assistant at UMES.
Coach Myers and Head Coach Steve Williams sold me on being an important piece to the puzzle of keeping local 'Shore talent at home by helping the growth at UMES. I pressed upon them, there were a lot of untapped talent at Easton High School and the 'Shore at large. UMES, being the Shore's only Division I basketball program, needed to tap into that 'Shore talent. They even promised to include Easton High School and "The Shore" in that growth by playing pre-season "exhibition" games in Easton, to draw interest and create a 'Shore to UMES pipeline. For their one year at UMES, they held true to their promise.
Needless to say, that meeting and conversation was successful. Coach Myers would call it, "The talk off of that Boston College ledge". Instead of visiting Boston College, I rerouted and visited the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and decided to attend there in the Fall.
VIDEO: Coaching History of Darnell Myers
During my first year at UMES, there were two names that I heard quite a bit, John Thompson and Bill Russell. Again, Coach Myers coached under John Thompson at Georgetown. John Thompson was the backup center to Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics, and of course they remained friends for life. So hearing two names John Thompson and Bill Russell made sense. I mean, I knew Coach Thompson from coaching the Georgetown Hoyas and I knew Bill Russell from calling the NBA games on CBS and TBS. Being so young, I knew very little about his playing career, and I knew absolutely nothing about his backstory. That was about to change.
So as Coach Myers was trying to get points across through many of our "thick" teenage skulls, he would pull out the stories told to him by John Thompson about Bill Russell. It wasn't always about basketball, it was sometimes social issues, sometimes about girls and sometimes just about life itself.
Me being a 17 year old in college, I didn't fully grasp some of the "game" Coach Myers was putting us onto. It wasn't until years later, well after school, until some of those stories began to register.
Going into my second year of college, I would experience a norm for HBCUs. Something that the larger universities don't experience quite as often... coaching turnover.
After years of recruiting me and one year of coaching me, all of a sudden, Coach Myers is gone, along with Head Coach Steve Williams.
New Head Coach Bob Hopkins Steps In... With a new coaching staff, it was like starting all over again. My returning teammates included Darrick Purnell, Kenny Thoms, Leland Kent, Jose Sandoval, Sean Salisbury, Mike Dabbs, Bobby Spears and Demetrius Jones. Our new head coach, Bob Hopkins (Coach Hop as we affectionately called him) and assistant coach Bobby Wilkerson, arrived with a new philosophy and different coaching style than the previous staff. Eventually finding out, both Coach Hop and Coach Wilk were LEGENDS in their own right.
Coach Hopkins had previously coached at Prairie View, Alcorn State, Xavier and Grambling University, as well as the NBA. He coached the Seattle Supersonics (for you younger folks, that team is now the OKC Thunder). Coach Hopkins was an assistant from 1974-1977. He became head coach during the start of the 1977-78 season. He also was an assistant with the New York Knicks.
Coach Bob Hopkins attended Grambling State as a collegiate and left as its all-time leading scorer at 3,759 points (averaging 29.8 per game for his career. Coach Hopkins was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. He was also a former NBA player with the Syracuse Nationals 1956-60 (who would relocate to Philadelphia in 1963 and change their name to the 76ers). A severe leg injury cut his NBA career short.
Assistant Coach Bobby Wilkerson... Assistant Coach Bobby Wilkerson, affectionately called "Coach Wilk" by the players, at the time, was still a beast on the court. Coach Wilk was a member of that undefeated 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers team coached by the legendary Bobby Knight. Coached shared a many stories about the iconic Coach Bobby Knight. Coach Wilk previously coached at Colorado.
VIDEO: 40th Anniversary Press Conference With The Undefeated 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers
Coach Wilk was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 1977. He also played with the Denver Nuggets, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers.
VIDEO: Bobby Wilkerson while playing with the Chicago Bulls vs Larry Bird and the Celtics. Game 4 of the East Semis. Bill Russell is on the call as color commentator
I mentioned that there were glaring differences in coaching style and philosophy from the previous coaching staff at UMES, right? However, there was one thing they had in common.............................................. BILL RUSSELL You see... as stated earlier, Coach Hopkins was an assistant with the Seattle Supersonics from 1974-1977, under the Head Coach who was there from 1973-1977. That head coach was Bill Russell. His cousin, Bill Russell. Yes......... cousin. Bill Russell stepped down from the head coach position just before the start of the 1977-78 season. Russell would handpick Coach Hopkins to be his successor. Hopkins had a rocky start at 5-17. Hopkins stayed on the staff, but was replaced as head coach by Lenny Wilkens who then led the Sonics to the NBA Finals vs the Washington Bullets that very same season. The Sonics lost that series, but would return to win the NBA Finals in 1979. Bill Russell won 2 State High School Championships, 2 NCAA Championships, 1 Olympic Gold Medal, 8 straight NBA Championships, 11 in 13 years. Even won titles as a player/coach, all while being the first black head coach in any major sport in America to win one. Through college, the Olympics and the NBA, Bill Russell was also 22-0 in "close out games". His resume shows, without a doubt, he was the GREATEST winner EVER in all of team sports. His on court achievements were impeccable, but it was his activity off the court that separated him from the rest. Obviously playing in the 50's and 60's Bill Russell had seen lots of prejudice and racism. He didn't allow it to consume him. As matter of fact, Bill Russell faced it and fought the ills and injustices he faced, head on. He was on the front line of fighting social injustices in sports and in society. Russell would go from publicly supporting Muhammad Ali, to marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, among so many other acts of activism. Coach Hopkins would share some of those stories to give us some perspective as to how fortunate we were at the time, compared to "yesteryear". Pressing upon us to not take what we were afforded for granted. A few stories that always stood out to me included when Bill Russell and his black teammates were denied a hotel room by white hotel owners. During that same period, he and his black teammates were also denied service at a white owned restaurant. Nothing new, that was the standard, particularly with the Jim Crow laws down south. Another one was when Russell went to the Cleveland Summit to publicly support Muhammad Ali, who at the time refused to join the U.S. military in its fight against Vietnam.
By far, the most inhumane incident happened while Bill Russell was playing with the Boston Celtics. Brace yourself, but during an away game, someone broke into his house and defecated in his bed. Yea..... I know.
There was another time that we shared together that was a little light fared, during one of my visits to Coach Hop's office. In between classes, often times, I would stop by Coach's office to pick his brain and just chop it up for a few. Anyone who knew Coach, knew that he would use "adult words" like most people inhaled and exhaled air. It just flowed easily.
As we were talking, his door was open and a staff member walked by and made a comment about his "choice of words". Coach Hop said, "If I talk like this when I'm around you, that means I like you." "You better be lucky I'm not like my cousin Bill Russell, he shows how much he likes you by sticking up his middle finger at you". We all just busted out laughing and the staff member said, "Well keep cussing then."
The significance of Coach Hopkins sharing the Cleveland Summit story was to give us an example of rallying around your brother, supporting your brother, even when the odds are stacked against him. He used that example for us to lock arms in unity, the same way on and off of the basketball court.
Again, Coach Hopkins had many stories that he shared. Coach would refer to us players as "jakes". Some would say you "jokers", you "rascals", but coach would affectionately (I guess?) call us "jakes". He would spend about a third of the practice sharing stories and experiences. Whether it was Bill Russell, Slick Watts, Dennis Johnson, "Downtown" Freddie Brown, Muhammad Ali or whomever, coach was always well worth listening to.
One of the most impactful examples that Coach Hopkins spoke about, when it came Bill Russell on the court, was his unwavering confidence. Going against the great Wilt Chamberlain and being as successful as Russell was, he had to be confident.
Coach Hopkins instilled that confidence in me. He always gave me the green light, but me being the unselfish player that I was, I often over-passed, when I should have taken the shot. Even with his first year coaching me (and me NOT being a recruit of his), he had seen enough of me to know I could come through in the clutch.
Below is a newspaper clip from a game in which I wasn't expected to play. The practice before the game, I got an offensive rebound, pump faked my teammate, he jumped up and as he was coming down and I was going up, his tooth rammed into the front hairline area of my head and got stuck. When he was able to dislodge his tooth from my head, blood shot out of my head like a faucet! I was taken to the hospital where I received eight stitches. I had some major swelling around that area as well. So with that being so fresh, the coaching staff wanted to give me a couple of games to help that area heal. I told the staff that I feel fine and was ready to go, it's not like we're playing football or I'm boxing. I still suited up for the game and was prepared to play at some point, if I was called upon. It was during this game when I knew Coach Hop and Coach Wilk really believed in me. Read below...
When I read the article and seen where he called me "cold-blooded", knowing what a GREAT player he was and how many GREAT players, he coached and witnessed in his years of playing and coaching, and he called ME "cold-blooded??" that gave me the confidence I needed to come through in clutch moments. All in which, allowed me to earn All-MEAC and Male Athlete of the Year.
Coach Wilk Takes Over...
I mentioned Assistant Coach Bobby Wilkerson earlier. Heading into my third year at UMES, Coach Wilkerson would relieve Coach Hopkins of his duties, becoming the Interim Head Coach. A new coach would replace Coach Wilk the following year, making it 4 coaches in 4 years at UMES. At this point, I had become the only player left from my freshman year. Only a few players were brought back from the previous year, my roommate Simon Edwards, Bobby Hopkins, Jr, Vincent Huger and Ray Moreland.
It was a gift and a curse. It was great in the fact that through three coaching staffs they valued my talent enough and kept me, as they brought in players they had recruited from previous programs. However, it was also the third head coach in three years, which did not yield any consistency.
Through it all, the ups and downs, the good and the bad, I'd seen how real the "six degrees of separation" was. As I received the news of the passing of the great Bill Russell, I was reminded of the six degrees of separation. Although I had never met him personally, I feel like I knew him from the stories told from those that knew him, like Coach Darnell Myers, Coach Bob Hopkins and even Coach Bobby Wilkerson. That 'Shore connection, connected me to Bill Russell without him even knowing.
At an early age, it most certainly was a blessing to learn the game, learn basketball history, learn social history and learn life lessons from three iconic basketball/life trees of knowledge:
*Bobby Knight.. via extensions of their tree, Coach Darnell Myers, Coach Bob Hopkins and Coach Bobby Wilkerson.
Bill Russell's impact will be forever, through those that knew him and passed on to those that didn't. Through basketball, social issues and lessons of life, Bill Russell is the example of living life to its fullest, making the greatest impact, to the fullest. That's what life should be about, right? Bless his family, friends and fans with many blessings of comfort, love, peace and healing. May the great humanitarian, Bill Russell, rest in peace.