THE TEAM: Four years of trials and triumphs
Shamarkus Kennedy fouled out. Ross Hardin fouled out. Marquise Foster fouled out.
“It was me and Kalex in the game, and Chris, Ty and Tommy,” Demarcus ‘Peanut’ Jernigan, senior small forward, said.
The basketball team was up against their longtime rival, Bryant High School, in their first subregional game, and the two were evenly matched.
“It was loud...We were tied [73-73] with a little less than five seconds left,” head basketball coach Bob Brantley said. “...And we called a timeout and set up a play. And the play was supposed to be run for Ty because he's the shooter – not necessarily to shoot a three [pointer], but I knew he would be open.”
“When we ran that, they like, they came out on me hard,” senior guard Ty Bright said.
Bright was double-teamed with less than 16 seconds left on the clock.
“...[Ty] found me open, and I turned around. I shot it. I missed, but I got fouled,” senior small forward Chris Golston said.
“So now, we're down to 0.4 seconds, tie ballgame, in triple overtime, and Chris has the ball on the free throw line,” Brantley said.
“So, you know I made the first free throw, real clutch,” Golston said.
“...you know boys on the bench say 'it's over with,' they already knew he hit it, you know,” Brantley said.
“Brantley told me to,” Golston laughed, “I missed the second one on purpose.”
“He thought we were just crazy,” Brantley said. “But if you make it, the clock doesn't run. If you miss it, the clock runs.”
At the sound of the buzzer, the team beat Bryant by one point.
“Everybody just ran up to the court. Throwin’ me everywhere,” Golston said.
“Biggest moment ever. Sweatin’ bullets,” Jernigan said. “...Our fans actually stormed the court, jumpin’ up and down.”
“It took us forever to finally get to the locker room,” senior Shamarkus Kennedy said.
“And even when we got in the locker room, Coach Brantley, Coach Edwards, they’re all jumpin’ around, throwin’ towels,” Jernigan said. “We’re throwin’ water. It’s just crazy. Crazy.”
There’s a saying that the people you start high school with won’t usually be there for you in the end.
Bright said that for his team, this sentiment is not true.
Jernigan, for one, has known Golston since they were six years old.
“...We played on the same Little League football team…” he said. “I was the quarterback and he was wide receiver and I used to always, always pass him the ball. And he used to always score touchdowns. Ever since then, we’ve been friends. Well, brothers, really.”
Their connection didn’t stop at football; Golston started playing basketball in the fifth grade, and he said the two haven’t stopped playing since.
“My momma put me in the church league,” Golston said. “Ever since then, I’ve just been practicin’, just kept going.”
At three years old, Bright started playing basketball – before he learned his ABC’s.
“I’ve known Ty basically all my life,” Jernigan said.
Jernigan, Bright and Hardin, like some of the members of the team, attended the same elementary school together, their bond made stronger through the years.
Jernigan said most of the current members, while they attended different middle schools, were able to play together on a combined Southview/Rock Quarry Middle School team in the seventh grade. When they reached eighth grade, however, the teams were split up by individual schools.
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), though, brought them back together.
“I’ve known Chris since eighth grade AAU,” senior Zey Jackson said. “And we’ve been friends ever since – brothers, brothers for life.”
Golston explained the Union as an organization that allows athletes to travel throughout the year, showcasing their skills in front of an assortment of coaches.
“...[You] get a lot of exposure,” he said.
AAU also allowed for basketball players across district or state lines to become acquainted, as Golston described.
“My first AAU game, I had went over to Ty’s house, and I was gonna ride with him to the game,” he said. “And we just started bonding like that and ever since then, we just been real cool.”
Upon entering high school, some of the members of the team knew each other from AAU.
“...All of us came our own separate ways,” Jackson said.
Chuck Hardin, AAU basketball coach and father of senior Ross Hardin, said the connection he observed in his son’s team “was really special.”
“The thing about Northridge is, you don’t pull from one neighborhood, you don’t pull from one school,” he said. “These kids kinda came together; some live on the West End, some live down 69 South, some live in the Southview area, some live north of the river. And I think that’s kinda unique among the schools that kids from all over the city came together, wound up playing that hard, sharing all these experiences together and really forming a bond, and really becoming a team.
“...I don’t know that teams in the future will have the same type of experience that this team had.”
A ‘ROCKY TRANSITION’
Now seniors, the remaining members looked back on their sophomore year, a defining season that turned their game from “scrappy ball” to the real deal.
“...three years ago, when [the senior players] were sophomores, for one reason or another, we got in a situation where people either quit, or I kicked ‘em off. It was time to clean up the program, and I took nine sophomores and put them on Varsity. And you can imagine how that year went,” Brantley said.
Instead of a smooth transition from junior varsity to varsity, the team made a “rocky” one, going 1-21 in the 2013-2014 season.
“...I mean, you’re gonna be the most talked about topic in the city, only winning one game,” Jackson said. “...Bob Brantley was losing sleep, ‘cause we was losing games. He probably pulled out his hair a couple times, looked in the mirror like, ‘What am I doing here?’”
As the season progressed, the team’s morale was faltering.
“[Losing] affected us a lot,” Jernigan said. “...practice wasn’t as fun, it wasn’t as good… It was a really tough time.”
That summer, the team had their work cut out for them.
“I think that was the hardest running we ever did,” Jackson said. “...I was in bed and I couldn’t move.”
But they didn’t leave, and that is what Brantley said made the team stand out among the others he’s coached throughout the years.
“Somebody could have transferred, could have quit, but they kept fightin’,” he said.
Jernigan, who has known Brantley since his brother was on the team, was able to put trust in his coach.
“I think [Coach Brantley] had to know that everything he was doing and everything he was going through was gonna come to something good,” he said.
“You just learn from it, that’s it,” Kennedy said. “We learned from all our mistakes and everything, and we finally corrected it and showed what we can do.”
“...Sometimes we gotta go through a little storm to see a good sunshine,” Jackson said.
“Bus rides,” Kennedy said.
“The bus rides, they’re hilarious,” Jernigan said.
“Everybody’s serious before the games –”
“– Everybody’s chillin’, just sleepin...’”
“– But after, we’re goofin’ off. Whether we win or lose –”
“– That’s what Coach always gets mad about. ‘Cause if we lose, we’re probably quiet for the first five minutes, then –”
“– We’re goofin’ off. He’s ticked to the max, he’s like, ‘Why are you guys laughin’?’ He’s ready to make us run suicides as soon as we get off the bus! At like 11 p.m.!”
For the team that’s spent bus rides, away games and countless practices together, no one memory stood out in particular.
However, Jernigan laughed as he reflected on one of their games against Bessemer City.
“...we were warming up, and Chris’ auntie is actually standing on the court with the camera recording him, and every time he shoots a layup she’s like, ‘Chris! Chris!’ and he’s like, ‘Man, get off the court! Get off the court!’ She’s standing right in front of the Bessemer City coach and he’s like,” Jernigan copied Golston’s gesture, waving his aunt away, “and she’s just like taking pictures and all. It was so funny. So funny.”
For Jernigan and Kennedy, coming to know their team was the key to their later success.
“...if you know the player that you playin’ with –” Jernigan said.
“– Know their strengths, know their weaknesses –” Kennedy interjected.
“ – Yeah, like ‘I know he’s gonna be here, so I need to pass the ball to him...’” Jernigan said.
Brantley said that he and all 13 players of the current team are “pretty tight.”
“...Sad, nine of them are leaving, they’re seniors,” he said.
Jernigan and Kennedy described some of their teammates’ distinct roles on the team, which were not necessarily their positions.
“Me and Chris are the class clowns,” Jernigan said.
“Max is always the leader, always serious,” Kennedy said.
“Yeah, he’s like the grandfather of the team, the grandaddy,” Jernigan said.” He’s actually the oldest one too.”
Jernigan laughed when he got to senior Marquise ‘Little Bit’ Foster.
“Little Bit is the hot tempered one,” he said.
“Let’s say there’s a foul, and he don’t think there’s a foul, he’ll go at the referee –” Kennedy started to explain.
“He probably led our team in technical fouls!” Jernigan said, still laughing.
“First game of the season, he already mad!” Kennedy said.
They turned their attention to the rest of the team.
“Ross is more or less of the goofy one,” Jernigan said.
“Ty and Tommy, they always playing before the game start. Playing during the game, one on one at halftime and before the game!” Kennedy said.
“BJ was always quiet…” Jernigan said.
After a grueling sophomore year, the team had reached their “breaking point” that next season, winning 20 games in “one of the toughest schedules in Tuscaloosa.”
“You know, we’re beatin’ everybody,” Jernigan said. “Hoover, all the big teams or whatever. So, yeah it really broke through during the summer with us putting in the work.”
The team got used to playing bigger, more experienced players, Kennedy said, and they soon learned to all “pitch in and do their part.”
“It was hard in the beginning because everybody counted us out,” Foster said. “...We just kept our heads up.”
For the boys, basketball is more than just a game.
“...it gets our minds off all the tough things in the world,” Foster said.
For Bright especially, basketball served as a way to get through the circumstances he was facing.
“I don’t wanna say it was like a cover-up, but it helped him get through a couple of obstacles,” Bright’s girlfriend Pricila Lopez said.
Bright’s mother Celeste had been diagnosed with cancer and was going through chemotherapy. His father passed away when he was in the fourth grade.
“[Celeste] was just always sweet to me. She backed up everything we said,” Brantley said. “She was just a – she was a sweetie pie.”
“We called her Candy,” Golston said. “We had a real strong relationship. She was real funny, real cool. She would do anything for you. She was like a second mother.”
Celeste tried her best to make it to the games, he said, even when she had to come in a wheelchair.
“...you know, it was hard for her to be here when she was really sick,” Brantley said. “But she would always get better, you know what I mean? And, so, she would get better, she’d fight that chemo, we thought she was alright. She’d be good for a while, but she had several setbacks over the years. I think Ty thought that this was just another setback – Mom was gonna be okay.”
Celeste Bright passed away on Sept. 17, right before the boys’ senior season.
“Coach Brantley pulled me aside,” Jernigan said. “He had a team meeting, and we met up to be there for [Ty].”
“...It was real crazy, cause like, she died on a Thursday,” Golston said. “I remember, ‘cause I was at hospice with her that Wednesday night before. And it was real crazy, ‘cause I hadn’t never seen her bad like she was then. You know, she usually liked to joke around, you know, talk a lot....”
“When it happened, the whole team met up at [Ty’s] house to support him,” Kennedy said. “We played games the whole night to try and get his mind off it.”
“Ty’s house was full of boys,” Golston said. “Everybody he knew was up there. That’s how you know they had love for her, that’s how you know she had love for them. Some of everybody knows Ty.”
“When we got there, just for a few minutes, we noticed how he was hurt, but he was happy the rest of the night,” Kennedy said.
Lopez and Bright’s teammates noted that he was able to push through the tragedy.
“When his mother passed away, he was, just, really steady. I thought he would go off, but he just stayed positive and he stayed strong,” Lopez said.
“...you know at practice and stuff he was off to himself, you could tell it was on his mind –” Jernigan said.
“– He’s real strong, though,” Kennedy said.
“As a team, we all texted him, checked on him,” Jernigan said. “If he needed anything, our parents, we were there for him.”
The Hardins, who had known Celeste as long as they’ve known Bright, had previously offered Ty a place in their home when his mother was travelling to Georgia for her chemotherapy treatments.
“She trusted me with them. They became like another pair of godparents,” Bright said.
“Ross’ family, they were always there for him,” Kennedy said.
“They not only helped Ty, they helped all of us,” Jernigan said.
The Hardins were responsible for pregame meals, and Chuck has also coached some of the members in AAU games.
“We certainly wanted to do as much as we could for such a special group,” Chuck said. “I love ‘em to death.”
The Hardin family also asked Ty to live with them when his mother passed away.
“I love Ty Bright. I would do anything for that young man,” Chuck said. “I think of him as an adopted son.”
Like the Hardins, Bright’s teammates feel a familial connection with Bright.
“I call all of my teammates my brothers, but he’s one of my closest,” Jernigan said.
While he may seem somewhat reserved to the people who don’t know him, Bright has come to be known as a “team clown,” lightening the mood before tough games.
“Ty does this funny voice before every game that gets everybody energized and pumped up,” Foster said.
“...he has a ‘joke of the day’ that he tells me every day. It’s a little silly...I think he pre-searches them,” Brantley chuckled.
On the court, though, Bright is strictly business.
“He’ll play hard, but he’s got no emotion. He’ll joke around like before and after the game a little bit, in the locker room, but on the court, he don’t really say nothin’,” Golston said.
“I have seen him be verbal, but that’s not his character,” Brantley said. “...I think basketball’s the way he’s expressed himself.”
“There’s no comfort words to just say to somebody to make them feel better, because if you haven’t experienced that yourself, you really don’t know what they’re going through,” Jackson said.
Jackson and the team all shared this feeling – that they couldn’t truly know what Bright was going through unless they shared his exact circumstances. Halfway through the season, though, those circumstances became a reality for Golston as well.
“Ty… he knew his mother was sick and struggling, but with Chris’ mom, It was just out of the blue,” Chuck said; he had known Golston’s mother from his job at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, where she worked as a judicial assistant.
On Saturday, Jan. 30, Golston’s mother Alice White passed away at DCH Northport.
“...this was the last thing I expected. You know, before [Chris’ mom] passed, I had just gave her a hug like four or five days before,” Jernigan said.
“Ty was just on the phone with [Chris’ mom] the other day before it happened, and I was just sayin’ hey to her,” Kennedy said.
“That really shocked me, cause I still have messages in my phone from Chris and her,” Jernigan said.
Shortly before her death, White had a severe toothache, forcing her to get medication for the pain.
“...we didn’t know the severity of what happened to her,” Jackson said.
In actuality, he said, White was battling a full body infection.
“...it just made her weak, real, real, weak,” Jackson said. “...they said her heart kept stopping and restarting, stopping and restarting…She actually kept fighting...we all thought she was going to be okay because we were up in [the hospital waiting room] laughing, joking around.”
White coded 11 times.
“And then the doctor walked in, and I thought he was going to tell us that she pulled through,” Jackson said. “...but he told us she died… It turned from a moment of…us being happy and just cracking jokes and stuff like that… to sadness and just – deflation.”
“We all sat in the hospital, for probably –” Jernigan said.
“ – all night,” Kennedy said.
“Probably ‘til about one, two something in the morning,” Jernigan said.
The waiting room was full to bursting, Golston said, and it “wasn’t no ordinary [sized] waiting room.”
“All my teammates were there. Family there. Friends there. Some people I didn’t even know were there. Everybody showed up. Couple from Central, couple from Bryant,” Golston said. “My momma knew a lot of people. She knew a lot of my friends, she had a good relationship with them too.”
Like Golston, Brantley and math teacher Scott Johnson all recalled that the waiting room was full of life, reflecting Golston’s mother’s personality.
“[She was] a goofball,” Golston laughed. “She loved everybody, she was real caring, real loving. She’d do anything to help somebody out. She worked hard.”
“Chris’s momma...had one brother and eight sisters. And all eight of those aunts were there,” Brantley said. “It was a big wild – I’m talking about when that whole family got together in that waiting room in that hospital, listening to all those stories…”
“...She was a very well loved lady. She was a great person, a really good mother,” Johnson said.
Johnson had known White through his wife, Dana, who worked with her at the courthouse for 20 years.
“They were good friends,” he said.
The Johnsons have also known Golston since his childhood.
“I been knowin’ Mr. Johnson since I was a baby, he been knowin’ me since I was a baby,” Golston laughed. “He cool forreal! He cool. Not that he ain’t cool in school…”
After White’s passing, Johnson said that he and his wife wanted to help Golston in his preparation for college.
“[Chris] was looking at possible athletic scholarships, and his mother was in the process of helping him with that and getting his ACT scores and all that stuff when she died. So we wanted to make sure we got him through that,” Johnson said.
They then had the idea to start an account on Go Fund Me, a fundraising website, for Chris and his brother Renard Blount, who is 16. They spread word of it through social media and emails, and it also went out to PTA members.
“...it ended up raising several thousand dollars for him and his brother,” Johnson said.
The Johnsons have continued to support Golston and Blount by getting groceries for them on occasion, either using money from the fund or from their own pockets.
“They know they can call us whenever they need us or anything,” Johnson said. “You could tell from the support that [Alice] was really doin’ right by the kids, and we just wanted to kind of continue what she had started and give them somebody that they could lean on if they needed to.”
Jackson said that seeing support from so many people showed the magnitude of the bonds Golston and his mother had.
“From that experience, I think Chris has really, truly seen the love that he has around him,” he said. “So we ended up going to both funerals the same way, as a team. We picked a time that all of us should be there, and we sat together, as a team, for both of them.”
Golston’s teammates described him the same way Golston described his mother.
“[Chris is] goofy, all the time! A lot. Very playful. And always, always laughing. Never really too mad or upset...he really always has a smile on his face and is laughing a lot,” Jackson said.
In the game, however, Golston’s personality reflects his dedication.
“When it comes to basketball… He’s very serious,” Jackson said. “Sometimes, I won’t lie, we have our goofy times… but this is something he really wants... It’s not just in his actions, like when you talk to him, sit down and talk to him, you can hear it in his voice, you can tell by his body language...this is what he loves to do.”
Jackson said that Golston, like Bright, is more of a shower than a teller.
“I’d say he isn’t that much of a vocal person...he’s just more action...he’s leading by example instead of leading by his words,” he said.
In Jackson’s view, Golston relies on intuition.
“...it’s better for him to play, rather than him trying to do plays. Just give him the ball and let him go to work,” he said.
Golston is known to do well when the pressure’s on, Brantley said, and that made all the difference in that subregional game against Bryant.
“[Ty and Chris] both have the winning attitude, I would have to say, on the court,” Tommy Bryant, senior small forward, said.
The boys found more motivation in the tragedies they suffered, rather than letting them take over.
“…I think after Chris’ mom died, we hadn’t lost a game,” Jackson said.
“We all knew that [Chris’] mom was proud and that she would have been there for that game if she could. He made her proud, and he made us proud too by stepping up like that,” Bright said.
Bright’s and Golston’s teamwork in the game-winning play against Bryant was an “unplanned situation,” Brantley said.
“...the ball was in the hands of the two guys that lost their momma to send us to the state playoffs,” he said. “Ty, being unselfish, when he caught the ball, he was supposed to shoot it... So he passed, Chris catches it, and it's just the craziest thing ever.”
Neither Bright nor Golston were starters on the team, but their contributions were certainly acknowledged after that night.
“For two young men who had worked so hard and maybe not had the recognition of being starters, to win that game and overcome, I just think is a tremendous tribute to them,” Chuck said.
A “self-motivated” player, Bright stayed humble – something he learned from his family.
“They’re a humble family. They know where they come from...If Ty ends up being something big, they know that he knows where he came from,” Lopez said.
Much like Bright, Golston stayed grounded, his mind always on the team rather than himself.
“The outcome of the game was probably more important than his own glory,” Brantley said.
Fueled by their win against Bryant, the two were ready to take on Homewood High School in the regional championship in Montgomery, AL.
“They went in like they were on a mission,” Bryant said. “I think Chris was playing for his mom that night. They went in with something on their mind.”
The team had always talked about winning state, and this was their last chance before they moved on to college.
“When… we became seniors, we knew that that was the next step for us,” Jackson said. “See, the scary part is, we had [tried to] knock on that door our junior year… we didn’t even reach to like the semis or the championship game.”
When they got to Montgomery, though, they knocked on that door, but “they didn’t push through it,” he said.
“I mean, if we wouldn’t have met them right there that day… we would have had the chance to win the regionals,” Brantley said. “Just had to run into the wrong team at the wrong time.”
Homewood beat the team by seven points and ended up winning the entire state championship, Brantley explained. He hinted that the team may have had a shot if they hadn’t played Homewood so early.
“We played hard, just came up short in the end,” he said.
The bittersweet ending to the team’s high school careers was a testament to not only their skill, but to their support of each other in the good times and the bad.
“I think the best thing for Chris and Ty...was just playing basketball. Because, if that hadn’t happened really to take their minds off the pain, all the suffering, you don’t know what could’ve happened,” Jackson said. “Having that family support, your teammates, because ...when stuff like that happens to you, your mind is just thinking crazy things. Like you’re probably thinking, ‘Why me? Why her?’”
Bittersweet because of the struggles, the memories, the losses and the wins, the bonds they kept through things larger than just the game.
“The way they cared for each other. It was just a special group of boys that, for the most part, put the team before themselves,” Brantley said. “It wasn’t one person. It was all of them.”
If being on the team taught him anything, Jernigan said it was how to find a family with those of whom you share no blood.
“It really taught me how to be a brother, how to be a real good friend, you know,” he said.
Over time, we’ve come to realize that the best way to approach journalism is to let the stories tell themselves. We are only meant to translate them into something everyone can enjoy – or maybe not enjoy. Stories could also make you upset about things that are lost, angry about things you can’t change, or simply indifferent about an unknown truth.
In journalism, the use of the word ‘family’ when describing those who aren’t literally one is considered a cliché. But as seniors, we know the importance of having people who feel like a family to lean on for all those hours you are away from your real one. Many of us have found that ‘family’ through clubs or sports, a common connection that keeps its members close. When writing the last story of our high school careers, we wanted to highlight one such of these ‘families,’ and the basketball team was a perfect example. We couldn’t possibly tell the story of every ‘family,’ but if we had to tell one, we’re glad it’s this one.
We hope that you’ve felt that same connection that we’ve felt throughout the years with our friends, and that Peanut, Little Bit, Chris, Ty, Tommy, Max, Zey, Ross and Shamarkus have felt with their team and those who support them. If we’ve learned anything from writing this story, we’ve found that these families are stronger than you might expect. And if they, themselves, do not last, knowing that bonds that strong can be formed with people you may not have even known a few years ago is something very valuable to take from these few years we've had together at Northridge High School.