MACON, Ga. — Macon Coliseum, a no-nonsense box of concrete planted about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta, has hosted seemingly every form of entertainment known to man since it opened in 1968, including arena football, professional wrestling, monster truck rallies and Elvis Presley.
Perhaps the kindest words that can be written about the Coliseum are that it was built for function. No act has ever had to worry about being upstaged by the venue, whose most redeeming qualities include good, effective lighting and enough seating for nearly 10,000 people. It is otherwise a blank canvas.
On Saturday, the Coliseum served its purpose as an epicenter for basketball, as the Georgia High School Association held six state championship games before crowds that shook the old building. The teams were from big schools and small, city schools and country, private schools and public. But they had the same goal.
“Winning a state championship,” said Eric Johnson, a senior guard whose layup with 4 seconds left lifted Jenkins High School to a 62-60 victory against Morgan County High School in the Class AAA boys’ final. “I told Coach, ‘Give me the ball.’ I was going to make him happy.”
Suffering from cramps, Johnson left the court on the back of an assistant coach, Jerry Hampton, who carried him to the locker room.
Consider, also, Te’a Cooper, a point guard and a McDonald’s All-American whose 26 points were enough for McEachern High School to prevail in overtime, 58-51, against Norcross High School for the girls’ title in Class AAAAAA, the division for the largest public schools in the state.
And then there was Otis Smart, who has won more than 700 games in 31 seasons as the coach at Laney High School — but had never clinched a state title until Saturday, when Aliyah Collier collected 24 points, 19 rebounds, 8 assists and 7 steals as the Wildcats eased past Beach High School, 70-55, in the Class AAA girls’ final.
“When you’ve been here this long, they start saying that you can’t win the big one,” said Smart, 63. “So this is the big one.”
Afterward, Smart found a chair outside his team’s locker room and quietly wept.
While some past championship games have been held at other venues across the state, this was the third straight year that the Coliseum hosted them all — 15 games for different school sizes and classifications, spread over three days. Saturday was the finale, and it would have been impossible to cram more basketball inside the Coliseum.
It turned out to be a 13-hour affair. Three of the six games were decided by 2 points or less. A fourth went to overtime. Each championship team received 24 commemorative hats and 24 commemorative T-shirts, although they might as well have been superhero capes.
“I’ve been thinking about this for four years,” said Jaylen Brown, a senior whose free throws with 0.5 of a second remaining lifted Wheeler High School to a 59-58 victory over Pebblebrook High School in the Class AAAAAA boys’ final, which ended just shy of midnight. “I’m tired,” he added.
Shortly before 11 a.m., ahead of their Class A private school girls’ final against St. Francis High School, with fans beginning their slow trickle into the Coliseum, the Warriors from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy opened the festivities by taking the floor for warm-ups in maroon T-shirts that detailed their mission in big sparkly letters: “WE LEFT IT ALL ON THE COURT!!”
Southwest Atlanta Christian is a small school, with an enrollment of about 44 students. It is known as Dwight Howard’s alma mater and as something of a basketball factory. The Warriors were hoping to defend their state title, despite dressing just seven players. It was nearly enough.
The game was tied late in the fourth quarter when Maya Dodson, a sophomore forward from St. Francis, stole a pass near midcourt. She threw the ball ahead to Nichel Tampa, a sophomore point guard who had dazzled all morning — until, with the clock winding down, she lost control of the ball going behind her back.
“She makes that move all the time,” Dodson said, “but it didn’t work this time.”
Dodson reacted instinctively, plucking the ball off the court and tossing it up toward the basket. It rolled across the front of the rim before dropping through as time expired: St. Francis 47, Southwest Atlanta Christian 45. Dodson’s teammates mobbed her along the baseline.
“When I saw the red light go on, I said, Oh my God, it’s good,” said Aisha Kennedy, the coach at St. Francis. “This team deserves this. They worked truly hard for this.”
As a player, Kennedy made a trip to the Coliseum, winning a state championship at Wheeler in 1998. The experience never gets old, she said. There is a mystique about this place that defies easy description. The smell of popcorn, the ebb and flow of the crowd, the small stage set up for Georgia Public Broadcasting — all the small stuff matters.
“I never would have thought we’d be on TV,” Dodson said. “It’s almost like we’re in a college game with college players.”
People here will remind you that Georgia is a football state, but the basketball is decent, too. The rosters of the teams that played Saturday were cluttered with players who had committed to high-level Division I college programs: Georgia, Florida State, Virginia and Mississippi State, among others.
Kobi Simmons, a junior guard, had 27 points and 5 assists to lead the St. Francis boys to a 96-81 victory over Greenforest Christian Academy in their Class A private school final — a game that doubled as a dunkfest. James Forrest, 42, a former standout at Georgia Tech, watched from the third row.
“Those guys are talented, man,” said Forrest, whose son Justin, a sophomore guard, scored 19 points in the loss. “I told him to cherish this, because a lot of people don’t make it this far.”
Forrest was an exception. In 1990, he helped guide Atlanta’s Southside High School to a state championship. The next season, as a senior, he finished with 55 points and 19 rebounds in a semifinal victory before Southside — now Maynard Jackson — fell short in the final. There are no guarantees.
For Brown, a 6-foot-7 forward whom several scouting sites rate as the second-best senior in the country, Wheeler’s game against Pebblebrook was an opportunity for him to punctuate his high school career in style, even if Pebblebrook had other ideas.
Pebblebrook arrived wearing T-shirts that read, “FINISH THE DRILL!” (Inspirational warm-up attire was a theme.) The players also wore snappy fluorescent sneakers. Not to be outdone, their coaching staff was outfitted in matching turquoise dress shirts.
Still, for all the emphasis on fashion, the first quarter was like two boulders colliding. Nobody could score. Wheeler went into halftime with a 28-25 lead, but Brown had three fouls and found his path to the basket impeded by Derek Ogbeide, an imposing center who affected countless shots.
The game continued that way — a mishmash of turnovers (33), fouls (36) and missed jumpers (a combined 2 of 20 from 3-point range), which is not uncommon when two talented but defense-minded teams meet.
And perhaps taking its cue from the rest of the day’s events, the game hinged on the final seconds, when Brown drove to the basket and drew a foul with his team down by 1. It was a borderline call — Pebblebrook was not pleased — but Brown made both free throws, and Pebblebrook’s desperation heave was off the mark.
The final buzzer sounded at 11:33 p.m. Minutes later, with the championship trophy safely in their possession, the Wheeler players broke out their own T-shirts: “Quest Completed.”
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