Duck’s Boys (BOOK REVIEW)
The story of the Southwest Patriots—the best high school team in Georgia history.
by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
Henry Goss remembers it all. The extraordinary collection of talent, the sold out 8,000 seat arenas, the most demanding practice sessions one can imagine, and the realization that something special was unfolding with every day that passed. The no nonsense, cigarette-smoking-in-the-gym, father-figure coach whose retribution would certainly be swift, and in many cases, demoralizing. The outside expectation of excellence, and the ability not only to meet said expectations but to set the bar at unfair heights. The back-to-back state championships, the natural bliss of amateurism, the pride of representing your school—and your state—on a national stage.
The memories are vast and indelible, as they should be.
In his new book Duck’s Boys, Goss tells the story of the ’78-79 Southwest Macon Patriots, the story of the best high school basketball team in the history of Georgia, and quite possibly of all time. A team that averaged 85.3 points per game…without a three-point line. A team that went 28-0 and easily repeated as state champs. A team that shot 55 percent from the field, won by an average of 28.8 points, and finished with the No. 1 overall ranking in the country. A team loaded with athletes, sharpshooters and bullies, with the mental toughness of a military unit.
While the players put on the show, in Duck’s Boy’s Goss—who was the team’s backup point guard—explains how Southwest’s successful approach started with Don “Duck” Richardson, a skinny, mini-afro wearing, well-dressed African-American coach who, then in his mid-40s, was the harshest disciplinarian in all of high school basketball. Duck had no place for egos on his team, and he had neither the time nor the tolerance for self-pity.
“Duck wouldn’t push you in the back or physically hurt you,” Goss says. “But you could be rest assured that if you made a mistake, he would be within two inches of your face, and he would take you to church and undress you in front of G-d and country. If you couldn’t handle that, you weren’t tough enough to be on our team.”
Entering the ’78-79 season, every team in the state (and maybe even the country) was aiming at Southwest. Even still, the Patriots steamrolled through their national schedule. Led by three of the best players in Georgia history—Terry Fair, Michael Hunt and Jeff Malone—Southwest packed arenas across the East Coast and put on a show—a barnstorming tour if there ever was one.
A 6-8 physical specimen and McDonald’s All-American selection, Terry Fair could run like a deer and finish above the rim on offense, and roam the lane and alter shots on defense. Fair went on to play at the University of Georgia, where he set several scoring and rebounding records, and led the Bulldogs to the 1983 Final Four.
Hunt was the unquestioned leader of the Patriots. A 6-4 gritty swingman, Hunt was the coach on the floor and an extension of Duck, and he took extreme pride in his role. And Malone, a 6-4 wing who is perhaps the most well-known Southwest alum, would taunt opponents with his silky-smooth jumpshot, riding his automatic stroke to the NBA. Malone went on to break the all-time scoring record at Mississippi State University, was a lottery pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, and a two-time All-Star. In 13 NBA seasons, he averaged over 19 points per game, shot 51 percent from the field, 81 percent from the free-throw line, and was a certified lock-down defender.
Along with the senior trio, 13 of 15 Southwest players went on to play college basketball of some sort. And yes, it all started at Macon, under the tutelage of Duck Richardson.
If you didn’t know much, or never even heard of the Southwest Macon Patriots before reading this, you’re not alone. In fact, that’s why Goss wrote Duck’s Boys—to shed light on a special team with a special coach, whose greatness predated ESPN, the AAU, recruiting services, social media, and the proliferation of influential sneaker companies who have a stronghold on youth athletics.
What Goss remembers, and often reflects on, is the amount of time, sacrifice and hard work required to make such history. Richardson worked Goss and the other reserves just as hard as the starting five, practicing up to seven hours every day in a hot and musty gym. This was not about boys maturing intro grown men. As Goss says, this was about “making us the most conditioned, fundamentally-sound, mentally tough, in-sync team in the history of high school hoops, by any means possible.”
Bold claim, sure. But Richardson, who at the age of 75 passed away in September 2011, dominated the competition. During 21 seasons at Southwest, he posted a 463-90 (.837) record, including six state and 10 regional championships. In essence, his teams put the then-recently integrated South on the athletic map. In the ’78-79 season alone, Macon defeated traditional powerhouses Oak Hill Academy (VA), St. John’s (DC) and Ocala (FL).
Duck used every tactic, fair and unfair, to mentally challenge his players. He would intentionally belittle his star players and ignite intra-team rivalries to get his players angry, motivated and focused. Again, there were no egos allowed. Regardless of which college coach was observing practice, Duck made his kids earn the right to compete every day. He was brutally hard and verbally abusive on many occasions, but the end result was not only winning, but also producing tough kids who understood the price of winning.
SLAM recently caught up with Henry Goss to try and capture the full scope of the ’78-79 Southwest Patriots, the inspiration behind writing Duck’s Boys, the impact of playing for Coach Don Richardson and much more.
SLAM: Aside from you being a part of the team, what was your inspiration behind writing this book, 30-plus years later?
Henry Goss: I thought we had a great, compelling story. We put Georgia basketball on the map. Our practices were legendary, and I think fans of the game can appreciate that. We traveled around the country and routinely blew out the best teams in their respective states. This was something special, and something I needed to write out to fully understand. The story of this team needed to be shared.
SLAM: When you refer to your practices as “legendary,” are you saying they were legendary relative to those times, or that they would be considered legendary even in today’s game?
HG: I think our practices rival any throughout high school history. Duck was focused first and foremost on fundamentals. We would start practice at 2:45 in the afternoon, with jump ropes and weight jackets and ball handling drills, and we would stay practicing fundamentals for hours. Our practices went from 2:45 until 8:30 at night. This was before practice regulations had been set, so there was no limit on how hard or long we could go. Our high school lives revolved around getting through Duck’s practices.
Some of the practices we had, we called them “ball breakers”, because we were trying to kill each other in practice. We wouldn’t take water breaks because in our minds that was a sign of weakness, and we’d get on each other for not being “tough enough.” Every one of us was good enough to play college ball, so our natural tendency to compete—along with Duck’s coaching tactics—made for some legendary times.
SLAM: How do you think the tough practice conditions translated into success during games?
HG: I think we were mentally tougher and better conditioned than everybody we played. We dominated teams. We bullied teams out of the gym. We just played at a higher level than other teams, based off releasing our aggression from practicing so hard throughout the week. We were in such good condition that we’d have just as much energy in the fourth quarter as we did at the start of the game. I honestly think our team is one of the best four or five high school teams in history.
SLAM: That’s a pretty bold statement.
HG: We were like the Harlem Globetrotters, Eldon. During pre-game, the music would be playing, and the entire crowd would watch me, Bobby Jones—the starting point guard— and Terry Fair. Bobby and I would do the globetrotter stuff, and Terry, who was 6-8, 215 pounds and chiseled, he’d do some of the baddest lock-and-pop moves ever seen. The crowd would just explode. Either they would go nuts over what me and Bobby were doing—handling and spinning the ball, and making crazy passes—or the dunks Terry was doing. You know who Jason Williams—White Chocolate—is, right?
HG: Our guards were the precursor to White Chocolate. Other teams would stop their warm-up drills, come to half court and just watch us do our drills.
SLAM: Wow. Is there any video footage I can watch?
There’s very limited videotape. I retrieved some from the school when they were tearing the gym down a number of years ago, and I donated it to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Downtown Macon. That’s the only footage I know of.
SLAM: I’m having a hard time grasping how good this team really was. It’s kind of hard for me to fully understand it, just because 1978 is such a long time ago.
HG: Well, I can say this: we were a high school with three of the top players in the country on one team. Terry Fair was a McDonald’s All-American, one of the top 24 players in the nation in 1979. And the class of 1979 is arguably the best high school class in history—Dominique Wilkins, Sam Bowie, Ralph Sampson, John Paxson, Byron Scott, Sidney Lowe, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Antoine Carr and others.
SLAM: As good as you guys were, it seems Coach Richardson was the driving force behind the success. As a player during those times, what were your thoughts on Richardson’s coaching style? That hard-body, no blood no foul intensity.
HG: It helped us win and it made us successful. It was very tough, but we all wanted to prove to Duck that we were tougher than him. Not one person on our team quit, and I think that speaks volumes. His style made us mentally tougher, particularly when we went on the road and played talented teams in hostile environments. Duck was absolutely the toughest coach, the most vocal coach, and the most physical coach there was.
He would get in your face, and back then you could smoke in the gym. And he smoked two packs of cigarettes every day. So he’d take a long pull of a cigarette, and he would get up in your face and drill into you until no end. And you would smell the cigarette, something you could never forget. He was extremely hard to play for, but it was all for our betterment.
SLAM: But how did you—and how do you—feel towards that kind of coaching? Some people are certainly averse to it. Did you always understand it was for your betterment, or were there times when you wondered if he was a little too harsh?
HG: We thought he was out of his mind, but we knew what to expect. With Duck, you had to hear the message but ignore the noise. Duck is going to be hard on you, yell at you, even curse at you from point-blank range. Duck wouldn’t push you in the back or physically hurt you, but you could be rest assured that if you made a mistake, he would be within two inches of your face, and he would take you to Church and undress you in front of G-d and Country. If you couldn’t handle that, you weren’t tough enough to be on our team.
We didn’t always like it, but we were good with it. I don’t think kids today could withstand playing for him.
SLAM: Interesting. Why not?
HG: I think kids actually want discipline, but they don’t fully understand how put themselves in a position to be disciplined. High school kids want to win, but most of the time they’re not willing to do the things to become a winner. What does that mean? That means you can’t be a drunk, you can’t smoke weed, you can’t be in a gang, you have to say “yes sir” and “no sir” knowing that doesn’t mean you’re subservient to someone. You have to be willing to trust a coach to do what’s right by you. You gotta hone your skill, you gotta work on your fundamentals, you gotta work on going left, you gotta work on going right, you gotta work on your jumpshot—until your fingers bleed. You’ve gotta run wind-sprints when nobody is telling you to run wind-sprints. That’s what was required to play for Duck, and I don’t think kids are doing those types of things to the necessary degree anymore.
SLAM: How did Duck’s coaching play a role in you and your teammates’ lives outside of basketball? Has the mental toughness aspect translated into other areas of your life?
HG: Absolutely. Like today, if I have a bad day at work, I will think to myself, “Henry, you can either throw in the towel, or you can suck it up, try to keep your focus today, and have a great day tomorrow.” That’s the way I think, and it’s all because of Duck. His lessons that each of us 13 young men went through, back in the 1978-79 season, I promise every one of those boys—even today—still holds onto them. It just makes you tough, and you learn not to quit, you learn to persevere, you learn that you can do things you never thought you could do.
SLAM: After you finished playing, you coached all across the world before transitioning into the corporate world. So, are you a writer, are you a coach who can write—how do you classify yourself? And I ask because this book was extremely well written.
HG: I’m a guy who took advantage of his athletic gifts that G-d gave me. I had to use my academic skills to get through college, but my athletic skills always played a role in my life. I love to write, it’s a passion of mine. But most of all, I loved my teammates. It was a story that I felt needed to be told, and my goal was to tell it, and to bring honor and satisfaction to my teammates.
SLAM: Do you still keep in touch with the guys on the team?
HG: I talk to Jeff [Malone] once every couple of months. Michael [Hunt] and I spent a number of years coaching together at the college level, but I haven’t spoken to him in a while. Bobby Jones and I talk every so often. The guys in Macon, when I see them it’s all love. I would love to get all those guys back together, because some of them haven’t spoken since high school.
SLAM: You still live in Macon right now. How do you compare the enthusiasm surrounding basketball in 1978 to the enthusiasm today?
HG: Back then, in the 1970s, just before integration took place, Macon was a football hotbed. But when Don Richardson became the basketball coach, when they integrated the schools and he was the only black head coach, that’s when the legend of Southwest was born. Southwest immediately became a basketball sanctuary. We regularly played in front of 5,000 fans, and if we had a game that started at 8 p.m., and you arrived at 6, you couldn’t get in the gym. At 17, 18 years old, we were the biggest show in town because of how dominant we were. Even to this day, everywhere I go, people in Macon still ask about our team. As a group, we were truly that special.
For the full story of the Southwest Patriots’ memorable season, be sure to pick up a copy of Duck’s Boys, available at amazon.com.
Following his time at Southwest, Henry Goss earned an athletic scholarship to Chattahoochee Valley Community College (AL) before transferring to Georgia College. After college, Goss spent 10 years coaching basketball across various levels, including Division I and II college basketball, the CBA and internationally in Kuwait City. He has worked for several Fortune 500 companies, and he currently resides in Macon, GA.
Photos courtesy of Henry Goss.