The pulsating bassline of Sheck Wes' "Mo Bamba" bounces off the walls of the Porter-Gaud School gymnasium. Fourteen basketballs dribble in unison as Wes' ode to his friend, current Orlando Magic center Mohamed Bamba, seems to send a charge through an excited group of varsity basketball players.
No motion or movement is wasted. This group of current Porter-Gaud Cyclones ballers works through their pre-practice routine as if they had been doing this since birth.
In truth there are just three seniors on this year's team.
Still, the excitement in the air is palpable. A small group of parents take a seat atop a trainer's table in a far corner. They laugh and joke — the song has everyone feeling good.
It's late November and the Cyclones are currently 3-1 with their only loss coming to Class AAAAA powerhouse Goose Creek in a Thanksgiving tournament. Two days earlier, they defeated rival First Baptist School at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, where the Hornets play. After the game, parents and players from the boys and girls teams stuck around to watch the home team take on the Milwaukee Bucks.
James Island native Khris Middleton, Milwaukee's All-Star small forward, helped organize the entire thing.
Middleton played basketball at Porter-Gaud, in the gym where practice is getting started.
- Brian Principe
- Josiah James is one of the top college recruits in the nation
Coach John Pearson — "J.P." to most — crosses the floor as players stride down the court, continuing their dynamic pre-practice stretching. He talks to his assistant coaches, then pauses to watch 6 foot 7 inch point guard Josiah James, who will soon be named a McDonald's All American and is one of the top college prospects in the nation. Next season, he'll play for the University of Tennessee in the SEC.
J.P. is loose and relaxed. Winning three straight championships gives you the right to be.
The coach spots the parents in the corner and makes his way over, a grin spreading across his face.
As he gets closer, he performs a reenactment of a monster slam dunk. One of the parents laughs, "I knew someone was going to say something." J.P. is thrilled, in a way that only a parent or coach would be.
That parent is Bernie Nesmith, the coach of Porter-Gaud's eighth grade boys basketball team and father of a former star, Aaron Nesmith, one of the state's top recruits last year behind Zion Williamson. Now a freshman at Vanderbilt, Aaron filled the stat sheet with a 20 point, 13 rebound, 2 block, 3 steal performance earlier that week in Nashville. One particularly emphatic dunk was already blowing up on social media and ESPN.
- Ruta Smith
The Secret Sauce
To say John Pearson has merely been successful on the basketball court would be a disservice, an understatement of who he is as a person; one who is having an effect on many lives in and outside Fishburne Gym on James Island.
Sure, Pearson has more than 230 wins in his coaching career. Sure, he has won three state titles in boys basketball and another with the girls team for good measure — the only one in school history. He won three other titles as an assistant under the late former coach Randy Clark. Sure, in just two short years, he could have three former players in the NBA at the same time. All from a private prep school that has just over 400 high school students.
Those are all great accomplishments, but coach Pearson is very clear about what matters to him the most.
"I absolutely love the fact that our players stay in touch with us and come back and want to stay a part of our family."
Family. This word is often used when describing sports teams and truly successful programs have figured out how to build this philosophy into their culture, but J.P. lives and breathes family beyond practices and games.
- Ruta Smith
- Jim Scully helped craft the offense that has pushed the cyclones to win multiple state titles
J.P.'s longtime friend and current assistant coach Jim Scully is part of helping to develop that sense of family.
"J.P. is truly a generous person. He is willing to give so much of himself to these kids and parents," Scully notes. "He will do anything to help you. He came from that Randy Clark system of family. We create a family environment where our kids are welcome to come back and be a part of the program."
"Khris [Middleton] comes back every summer and works out here. He knows the names of all of our players," Scully says. "Every time Aaron [Nesmith] comes home he comes to watch a game. They're a family. It's important to maintain that sort of atmosphere."
Scully and J.P. have been coaching together for 10 years. A former player for Siena College in New York, Scully asked to be a part of Pearson's program because he liked what he saw. Scully is credited with designing Porter-Gaud's current offense, which is less technical and more about understanding the game. It's based on chemistry and trusting your teammates to move as one.
You know, the way that a family tends to operate.
J.P. makes it a point to support his players in their endeavors away from basketball. He watches their baseball games. He will show up at track meets and football games. And he will be there to support their artistic pursuits. The players know that when they become a player on the basketball team, they become a member of J.P.'s family.
The Junkyard Dog Mentality
It's December. Porter-Gaud had gone down by 10 against the Hammond School in Columbia, but was in the midst of mounting a 20 point swing. The chants of "overrated" by the crowd had done nothing but aggravate Josiah James as he proceeded to drop 30-plus points.
J.P. smiled on the bench as the final buzzer sounded, his team victorious. He wasn't gloating, far from it. He had seen something in his team that he had been looking for.
"That's what I wanted those guys to see. That they have it," the coach said. "They're not last year's team. They have to get their own identity."
"Last year's team" referred to the 2017-2018 starting squad of James, Nesmith, Jake Lanford, Harrison Whatley, and Jack Nutley. Lanford and Whatley now play for Yale and NYU, respectively.
That 2017 team played against and beat teams from around the country and possessed what J.P. calls a "Junkyard Dog Mentality."
- Brian Principe
- Coach Pearson has more than 230 career wins — and several state championships — under his belt
If you spend any time around a Porter-Gaud practice, you will undoubtedly hear that phrase, "Junkyard Dog." J.P. and the assistant coaches preach it daily and are quick to remind players that this approach must be a part of their game.
"No matter who we play, we have to do it like a junkyard dog would do it. Even if someone is better than us, they will know they have been in a tough basketball game after they've played us," J.P. quips.
This mindset is contagious among the players and parents. Diving for loose balls. Never quitting on a play. Playing high-pressure defense with intensity and tenacity. "Possessing that dog," as J.P. would say, is what can be found at the core of every player on the team, regardless of how many stars or accolades they may have.
J.P. thinks for a moment, adding, "It's about development. We know that we aren't going to have the so-called basketball thoroughbreds that many of our opponents may have ... But what we will do is figure out what is in our control, we will. We want to let our opponents know we are here to fight."
Culture Over System
It's mid-January, and the Cyclones are headed into the biggest game of the season so far, again versus First Baptist School. This will be the second of three meetings between the schools with the winner holding the keys to the regional crown and the playoffs.
Last season, these two teams squared off on the Cyclones' home court and J.P.'s squad had already put up 92 points with four minutes left to play in the contest. Students cheered. School officials watched with anticipation. No one had seen it happen before, but it seemed inevitable: Porter-Gaud was about to score 100 points.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Cyclones won the game by more than 30, but the century mark had not been reached. Some in the crowd thought that J.P. just wouldn't score 100 points against an opponent out of respect.
Asked about that 2018 game, J.P. speaks frankly. "I don't have an unwritten rule that I won't score 100 points. If it's necessary or just happens, that's OK. I will never try to do it though."
This year though, Porter-Gaud would lose to First Baptist, setting a course for the tie-breaker two weeks later. They would lose that match-up as well.
Pearson is quick to praise his assistant coaches for their dedication to the "culture" they have built at Porter-Gaud. "I am fortunate to have this group of guys around."
J.P. cites Clark, the former Porter-Gaud coach and College of Charleston assistant as his mentor and biggest influence. "He was an excellent Xs and Os coach. He knew how to win games. But he was more than that. He knew how to treat people ... He championed his players at P-G. He was an icon."
Time will tell, but that's how many already view coach Pearson himself. More than a basketball coach, he is a culture changer.
Porter-Gaud isn't a basketball factory. Their culture isn't built on bringing in players to perform at a high level and then have them move on to college. Their culture is homegrown.
Aaron Nesmith started at Porter-Gaud in middle school, as did Josiah James. Jake Lanford attended since kindergarten.
"J.P. is responsible for turning Jake Lanford into a Division I basketball player," says assistant coach Alex Irwin. Lanford just wrapped his freshman season at Yale.
"He has instilled a mentality into the program that all of the kids have bought into," Irwin says.
Irwin, a former walk-on forward at South Carolina, has been a part of the program for six years. After his first year, Irwin took over the junior varsity head coaching duties. He now serves as an assistant working with Pearson and the big men on the team.
- Ruta Smith
- JV head coach and varsity assistant, Travis Smith
Perhaps no other former player embodies the Porter-Gaud culture like current JV head coach and varsity assistant, Travis Smith. A member of the historic Porter-Gaud squad along with Khris Middleton and Jamal Curry, Smith has a history with P-G. His older brother, R.J., was himself a star and helped lead the school to three consecutive state titles while Clark was coach and was just a hair away from a fourth.
The younger Smith, who played at Presbyterian College and Mercer, before embarking on a professional career overseas, has had a front row seat to J.P.'s rise. "My mother and J.P. worked together [before he was coaching]. J.P. watched my brother during Hurricane Hugo," Smith says. "I've known J.P. my entire life."
As a strength and conditioning coach, Smith is often the first to arrive and the last to leave. He's quick to credit Pearson for making him into the player that he became. "He gives you the necessary space and allows you to figure things out on your own," Smith says. "He does the same thing with his coaches," he adds.
From the outside looking in, one can't help but wonder if Pearson is grooming Smith for something bigger, much in the way that Randy Clark groomed him. The players love Smith and the praises from parents are high. J.P. is clear about his intentions, but he has options. "I'm still coaching. I still love it," he freely admits.
The End Is The Beginning
It's now late February and the final seconds are ticking off the clock in Porter-Gaud's semi-final game versus Cardinal Newman, the Columbia school that would eventually win the state title. The tears are flowing. The hugs are long and tight. This is the way a family gets closure and says goodbye.
Pearson, Smith, Scully, and Irwin linger outside of the locker room. J.P. has said his piece and the players are now sharing their own feelings. Josiah James will be gone next year and so will some of the fanfare that has surrounded the team for the better part of the last five years.
In the days ahead, James will be named a McDonald's All American, and local sportswriters will tell tales about his loyalty to the school, the program, and his teammates. Many wanted him to leave the small school in James Island for bigger schools. Bigger opportunities. More exposure. But he stayed.
"You have to actually genuinely care about the guys. Our job is mentorship. It feels like a home," coach Smith says. He knows why James stayed. He had seen the star along with Aaron Nesmith, when he would come back during his offseason. The relationships in the Porter-Gaud family run deep.
- Khris Middleton returns to Porter-Gaud every summer for workouts
Come March, the sting from that loss is beginning to subside. J.P. is stopping by the JV team's end-of-season gathering and attending tryouts for TMP, the AAU team he founded with his friend and fellow coach Antoine Saunders. (The name comes from their sponsor, Trademark Properties.) TMP says they have sent 84 players to college for basketball and four others for football. Porter-Gaud stars like Middleton, Nesmith, James, Lanford, Smith, Curry, and others are among them.
Pearson balances his coaching with his duties as the director of diversity at Porter-Gaud School, where he and Terra Burke, the director of multicultural affairs have helped usher in a more economic, racial, and ethnically diverse and inclusive student population at the school.
For now he is focusing on his TMP players and watching his daughter Elise, a Porter-Gaud junior who is a star in her own right, continue to develop. "She's turned out to be a really good player. Doesn't listen to Dad, but she listens to others. She's always liked basketball," he says.
The excitement in J.P.'s voice shows he's nowhere close to stopping, despite how taxing it would all be on most other people.
There will be track meets to attend and baseball games to watch. Then basketball camps, conversations with current and future players, and before long, it will be time to begin all over again.
As if it ever ended.