Shawan Robinson will always remember the first time the Leesville men’s basketball team played in the NCHSAA 4A state championship.
“We worked all year long to reach our goal,” said Robinson. “It was an experience that we will never forget.”
This year, the Pride men’s basketball team returned to the state championship for the first time since Robinson played in it in 2001.
The success the 2000-01 team had wasn’t a one-time thing. Each of the two seasons prior, the Pride advanced deep into the state playoffs. The team was talented and had experience playing in high-profile games.
Joe Giglio, a sports writer for the News and Observer, said that Leesville was a very well-coached and skilled team.
“Like all good teams, they knew how to play together as a group,” said Giglio. “They were experienced.
A Talented Group
The 2000-01 team was built on great talent, including five players who went on to play basketball at the collegiate level.
Among those elite players was senior Anthony Richardson, who stood out as one of the best high school basketball players in the country. At 6-foot-7, Richardson had great height and size, but could also handle the ball and shoot from the outside. He was also a talented dunker and seemingly always had a dunk each game that would impress the crowd. Richardson was named a McDonald’s All-American and was listed as one of the top high school basketball recruits in the nation, eventually playing at Florida State University.
Mike Land, a senior, was also a very important contributor to the team. As point guard, Land, who played college basketball at Elizabeth City State, controlled the offense and averaged 16 points per game for Leesville.
The team also depended on Shawan Robinson, a junior, who later went on to play at Clemson University. He averaged 15 points per game and was a star at the guard position.
Leesville was coached by Darryl Robinson, father of Shawan. He had been a great player at Appalachian State University and was known by many as one of the great coaches in the area.
“Darryl was a teacher,” said Tim Stevens, a member of the National High School Hall of Fame who used to cover high school sports for The News and Observer. “He was one of the best, always teaching.”
Led by Robinson, the Pride played at a fast, up-tempo pace. The team ran various full-court pressure defenses and could control games since they had so many strong, talented players.
Because they were well-rounded, Leesville started their season off on a high note. In dominant fashion, the team won their first 11 games by an average of 23.8 points.
After their win streak to start the season, the Pride faced their first real challenge, playing games against Oak Hill Academy and Mount Zion Christian Academy. That season, Oak Hill was the top ranked men’s high school basketball team in the country. Starring for their team was seven foot forward DeSagana Diop, who went straight from high school to the NBA and was picked eighth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Leesville lost to Oak Hill 79-68 and then lost to Mount Zion 59-50, another top team in the nation.
After the losses to Oak Hill and Mount Zion, Leesville lost a close game to Broughton. The Caps were led by junior Shavlik Randolph, one of the top ranked high school basketball recruits in the nation. Randolph, who later played at Duke University and in the NBA, exploded for 34 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in the win.
With Randolph and Leesville’s Richardson receiving national attention, the rematch between Broughton and the Pride was anticipated to be one of the greatest games ever played in Raleigh.
Rumble at Reynolds
The first game between Leesville and Broughton attracted a huge crowd. Broughton’s Holliday Gym was packed to capacity, with spectators having to be turned away at the doors.
Ahead of the rematch, Marshall Hamilton, Leesville athletic director, and Richard Murphy, Leesville principal, knew that the game needed to be played at a different venue other than the school gym, with the two teams attracting so much attention.
To host the large crowd that was anticipated, Hamilton and Murphy decided to hold the game at Reynolds Coliseum at NC State University. For a regular season high school basketball game, playing in such a large venue was unheard of.
However, the Leesville players were not enthused about playing on a bigger stage with more attention. “When we found out our home game was going to be moved to Reynolds, we were upset we were losing a home game,” said Robinson.
Although the team was disappointed, everyone in the Raleigh area was ecstatic. The News and Observer even ran a front page story the Sunday before about the game. People couldn’t wait to see two of the area’s best teams, led by two of the nation’s best players, square off at Reynolds.
On the night of Tuesday, February 6, 2001, fans rushed in high numbers to Reynolds Coliseum. The traffic was horrific as cars filled the streets of the NC State Campus.
“Traffic was jammed so badly that the chancellor said there would be no more high school games there,” said Stevens.
A crowd of 12,400 people packed into the seats at Reynolds Coliseum, just shy of the arena’s maximum capacity of 14,000. According to the News and Observer, this was believed at the time to be the highest attendance ever to watch a North Carolina high school basketball game. Hundreds more fans didn’t even have the chance to watch, as they were turned away at the ticket windows.
In a game that lived up to the hype, Leesville came away with the victory over Broughton 80-66. Richardson put on a show, leading the team in scoring with 22 points, shooting 10-19 from the field.
Although he didn’t appreciate it at the time, Robinson said that the famous game at Reynolds was a special experience that he enjoyed.
“The atmosphere was like nothing I have ever experienced in a high school game,” said Robinson. “It was one of the best basketball moments I have ever had.”
After the win over the Caps, the Pride won the remainder of their regular season games, finishing with just four losses overall. Capping off their schedule with stellar wins, Leesville had a lot of momentum heading into the state playoffs.
The Road to Chapel Hill
Throughout the season, every Leesville player had their eyes on one goal: winning the state title. Each time the players walked onto the court to play, thoughts of grabbing the top prize danced through their minds.
“Every huddle before the game we would [say] Chapel Hill on three,” said Robinson. “That was where the game was going to be played.”
To get to Chapel Hill, Leesville first had to advance through the rounds of the playoffs. Leesville was able to defeat Jordan and followed the victory with wins against Wake Forest and Fayetteville Seventy-First, advancing to the 4A East Regional final. The team was set to face off against a familiar foe in the final: the Broughton Capitals.
This time, the Pride grabbed the win without much of a fight. Leesville came away victorious 72-50, easily advancing to the 4A championship game at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
In the championship game, Leesville had to compete against RJ Reynolds, who won the state championship the previous year. Reynolds was one of the top teams in North Carolina and was nationally ranked for most of the 2000-01 season.
Leesville desperately wanted to dethrone the champions and steal the title. The players had been dreaming of their one shining moment at the state championship and wanted to make the most of it.
The first half of the title game was competitive. Leesville was only down 36-32 at halftime and most definitely had a shot to win. Coming out of intermission, though, the RJ Reynolds Demons were running on all cylinders. The team went on a 17-6 run at the beginning of the third quarter, putting some separation between them and the Pride. As Reynolds continued to build their lead, it seemed as if Leesville’s stunning season was going to end with a loss.
RJ Reynolds defeated Leesville 94-73, repeating as 4A state champions. Reynolds’ Derrele Mitchell, who late played football at the University of North Carolina, was named the most valuable player of the game, scoring 22 points and hitting 9-11 shots from the field. Leesville’s Richardson scored 19 points before fouling out in the fourth quarter and sophomore Darryl (DJ) Thompson added 13 points.
The loss in the championship game did not overshadow the great success that the Pride accomplished. They played against some of the top teams in the area and played some of the best basketball the Leesville community had ever witnessed.
Sixteen years after the legendary 2000-01 season, Robinson still has a strong bond with his past Leesville teammates. DJ Thompson is even the godfather of his children.
“I still talk to those guys from all of the teams that I was a part of,” said Robinson. “We all get together and we talk about different dunks and games.”
After he finished his basketball career at Clemson, Robinson journeyed to play professionally overseas in Germany, England, and Czechoslovakia. Once his basketball career ended, he decided to go into teaching, a profession that he studied in college.
Currently, Robinson is a healthful living teacher at Panther Creek High School. He is also the head varsity men’s basketball coach at Panther Creek and is assisted by his father Darryl.
In 2012, a reunion game was held to commemorate the great players that competed in the legendary game at Reynolds Coliseum between Leesville and Broughton. Many of the players from the 2001 team, including Anthony Richardson, Thompson, and Robinson, competed in the game. The game was named the Richard J. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Charity basketball game in honor of former Leesville principal Richard Murphy, who passed away in 2011. Proceeds from the game went to the Murphy scholarship fund through the North Carolina Community Foundation.
Looking back at the state runner-up season, Robinson is proud of what he and his teammates accomplished.
“We played against and beat some of the best teams this area has ever produced,” said Robinson. “To be a part of that in a Leesville jersey meant the world to me and my teammates,”
The 2000-01 Leesville men’s basketball team built a legacy, a legacy that this year’s basketball team has lived up to. That legacy is something Robinson and his teammates will always cherish.