By Ed McGranahan
CALHOUN FALLS -- So few of the people in the gym Friday night had an inkling of the treasure in their midst.
Nield Gordon has seen more basketball than all of them.
So after a playing and coaching career spanning seven decades, he sits placidly on a folding chair as the Calhoun Falls basketball team struggles with his half-court offense, impatiently throwing up shots when one, maybe two more passes might be prudent.
"We're very, very young," Gordon says. "I've had the hardest time trying to settle them down and try to get them into some kind of system."
Kids would suggest he's "old school," and at 75 years old it's tough to quibble, but they really don't understand.
In a sport infatuated with individual skill that's forgotten its roots, Gordon appreciates a well-executed fast break, a soft-arcing jump shot from downtown and a blocked shot that lands four rows deep as well as any of the Kobe, LeBron, AI, KG or T-Mac wannabes.
"All they want to do is run and shoot, play street ball," Gordon says. "But they're coming around."
He doesn't stomp, pace or scream. Never did during 14 years at Newberry while building a nationally recognized program. or in eight seasons at Winthrop where he started from scratch and won 25 games the first season.
"I had been coaching the First Methodist boys' team in Hartwell, having a good time," he said. "I did it for two years. We won the championship both years, and I thought, 'Hey, I'm pretty good.' "
Gordon laughs at his own joke.
It's been a little more than 20 years since he retired from coaching, 50 since his first coaching job. A native of Brunswick, Md., he transferred to Furman University after leading the nation in scoring at Wingate Junior College and played two seasons with Frank Selvy, averaging more than 20 points and earning All-Southern honors on a team that scored at a breakneck clip.
A third-round pick of the New York Knickerbockers in 1953, Gordon toured briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters before returning to the south as a coach at Belmont Abby.
"Do you know who replaced me at Belmont Abbey?" he boasts, "Al McGuire."
Selvy, McGuire -- Gordon's career was intertwined with many of the era's greats, and after a few years as an assistant coach at Furman he went to Newberry, where he built one of the most respected small-college programs in the state.
In 1977, Newberry ran the table during the regular season and entered the NAIA national tournament undefeated and the top seed. The Indians lost by a point to Central Washington in the second round.
It was Gordon's final game with the Indians.
Winthrop, the former teachers' college, had gone co-ed. Gordon had a year to put the pieces together, but with the help of five players off his last Newberry team, they won 25 the first season and 31 the third.
Gordon retired after the 1986 season with 160 victories at Winthrop and ran Camp Chatuga in Mountain Rest for several years with his daughters.
Basketball never forgot him.
A member of the athletic halls of fame at Wingate, Furman, Newberry and Winthrop, Gordon has also been honored with induction in the NAIA Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
The itch to coach again -- actually "to help in any way I could" -- came after he saw a newspaper story about how the school was struggling to keep its coaches.
Principal Tommy Hollingsworth, new on the job from Heyward County, N.C., said he was resigned to coaching the team until Gordon's resume "fell into our laps."
"He said he would be willing to take anything ó jayvees, girls, anything," Hollingsworth said. "I asked him, 'How about the boys' varsity?' "
Calhoun Falls has a proud athletic tradition, but the community took a big hit with the closing of the West Point Stevens plant earlier this year.
Mike Johnson, an officer on the police force and a former football and baseball player at Calhoun Falls High, agreed to help revive the athletic booster club, which nearly died on the vine as the town struggled economically.
When the Flashes football team finished with a 1-10 record two years after winning a state championship, Ken Sanders resigned as head coach and athletic director.
"Since the mill closed a lot of people were hesitant to join the booster club because of their financial situation," Johnson said.
"Normally a school our size, we wouldn't be able to afford a guy with his stature and wisdom. We're very fortunate to have somebody like him."
Crescent and Emerald beat them soundly his first two games, but the Flashes rallied to nail Crescent by one point in a rematch the third game. The team is young -- there are two seniors on the roster -- but athletic enough to cover their frequent mistakes and occasionally mask their impatience.
Gordon, who daily drives the 28 miles from his home near Hartwell, can only hope the mental tumblers click into place before the games count toward a playoff seed. He marvels at how different the kids are, how the game has changed.
"It's night and day," he says. "They don't have any discipline whatsoever.
"They show up for practice late. I had two guys come in without their practice gear. When I told them they weren't going to start the next game, they looked at me like I'm crazy."
Assistant coach Ricky Holland, whose son is one of the two seniors, said he's learning right along with the team from the tall, old gentleman.
Gordon smiles, pleased to help out anyway he can.
"We're beginning to come around," he said. "I can see some improvement.
"I'm having more fun, and I just love those kids."