How a Man Named 'Duck' Put Georgia Basketball on the Map
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he put high school hoops on the map in the South.
By James Simpson
Don “Duck” Richardson was a menace to society.
Merciless, physically and verbally abusive, Richardson built the greatest high school basketball program in Georgia history at Southwest-Macon High School. From 1971-1990, he compiled a 463-90 record (an 83.7 winning percentage), and captured six state championships, 10 regional and 15 sub-regional titles.
Two other stellar and underrated feats: Southwest never had a losing season under Richardson’s guidance, and he helped get 92 of his players full-ride collegiate basketball scholarships, of which 90 percent were starters as freshmen.
Richardson’s true legacy was making prep basketball more relevant and omnipresent in the South. Through his coaching, he showed that there was just as much quality basketball being played as quality football at the high school level. With national-level success, he made hoops matter in gridiron country.
Richardson, who coached with unrelenting Bobby Knight-style rage, was borderline bat-shit crazy. He cut a striking figure: a cigarette-smoking Black man with a well-groomed mini-Afro who wore shaded sunglasses and ’70s-style suits on game days.
“If I had to say so, he was a father figure and a coach that you loved to hate,” says Myles Patrick, a varsity member from 1971-1974. “Very demanding. He wouldn’t accept no and [was] probably the most difficult person I ever had to deal with.”
“His work ethic … I’ve never seen anything like it,” recalled Terry Fair, a starter from 1976-1979. “I call him the Black Hitler … That man was so crazy that he once made me get out of the shower and do line drills butt-naked, when I thought practice was over.”
“I did it to let [Fair] know that you’re good, but not that good,” Richardson told ESPN in 2009. “I don’t like the teams that stand around and watch one player because he’s that good. They might have been that good, but I didn’t let them know I thought that.”
His intensity helped awaken basketball in the South. Before Richardson and Southwest ignited a region, the South was consumed with football, especially SEC football, while basketball was far in the background.
Just as Southwest was one of the first high schools sponsored by Nike, Richardson was one of the first coaches to work the famous Nike All-American camps. He coached in the 1979 Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the first national high school All-Star basketball game that was co-founded by Sonny Vaccaro.
Southwest-Macon’s hegemony stemmed from Richardson’s knack for recruiting talent from throughout Middle Georgia. Once Richardson caught the eye of players in junior high he wanted on his squad, he made it his mission to pursue them. Among the players Richardson coached were former NBA players Norm Nixon, Ivano Newbill, Sharone Wright and Myles Patrick.
Ron Taylor, the junior varsity coach in 1979, says Richardson’s teams watched game film before the practice became widespread at the high school level. When Southwest players went on to college ball, Taylor says, “they didn’t teach our players the fundamentals. We would send our players to teach them the fundamentals.”
Richardson’s 1979 team was his crowning achievement and warrants consideration as one of the greatest high school basketball teams of all time, alongside Baltimore’s Dunbar High (1982), Chicago’s Proviso East (’91), Detroit’s Southwestern (’90), New York City’s Power Memorial (’64) and Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy (’93).
The 1979 Southwest Patriots finished as undefeated state champions (28-0) and became the first Southern prep team to win the national championship. They averaged 85.3 points per game — without a three-point line — with an average margin of victory of 28.8 points in the regular season and 27.5 during the state playoffs. Thirteen of the 15 players on the roster went on to play college basketball.
They were led by Fair, a 6-foot-8 McDonald’s All-American senior who was one of the best in a loaded class of prep stars and later starred at the University of Georgia, leading the Bulldogs to the 1983 Final Four. “Coming out of high school, Fair was every bit as highly talented of a prospect as [future Hall of Famer] Dominique Wilkins was in Georgia,” says Bill Eichenberger, the high school sports writer at The Macon Telegraph from 1976-1979. “It was just as big of a deal to sign him as it was to sign Wilkins.”
Joining Fair in the lineup was 6-foot-4 senior shooting guard Michael Hunt, 6-foot-4 senior small forward and two-time NBA All-Star Jeff Malone, 5-foot-10 junior point guard Bobby Jones and 6-foot-3 junior power forward Henry “Hook” McCarthy. “Hunt was an all-around player. Malone was an incredible scorer with this unbelievable jumpshot. Jones ran the show and McCarthy was the garbage man,” says Eichenberger.
Southwest played out-of-state superteams like Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and St. John’s Prep in Washington, D.C., and ripped through them all.
But the biggest game on the schedule was their rivalry with Northeast — essentially the city’s own Alabama-Auburn game, played annually at the 9,000-seat Macon Coliseum. Southwest swept all four meetings, including a 69-60 triumph in the biggest high school basketball game in Georgia history between the top-two ranked teams in the state.
As Southwest’s undefeated run continued, at least one opponent even sought to protect it. Eichenberger says two of Southwest’s best three players came down with the flu just days before a game against powerhouse Atlanta Christian. After Richardson broke the news, Atlanta Christian Coach Jackie Bradford postponed the game rather than likely beating a shorthanded Southwest team. “Bradford knew what an undefeated season for Southwest would mean for the state of Georgia,” Eichenberger says.
What it meant was that high school basketball in the South finally earned some respect, at a time when most of the national powerhouse basketball schools came from New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Scouts started spending more time down South, meaning that future prep phenoms across the region could get their due — even if they weren’t fortunate enough to play for “Black Hitler.”
- James Simpson, OZY AuthorContact James Simpson