By Alvin Richardson
With basketball season looming right around the corner and the recent success of the two programs, it seemed fitting to reprint a series of two articles written in 2007 by the old ball coach himself, Alvin Richardson. He has been writing for the Citizen for a number of years and this one was a history lesson from a history teacher that equals some of his best sports writings. The following is Part One with Part Two coming next week.
In an era when Morgan County High School’s football teams were getting all the headlines, there was another dynasty silently carving out their own niche in the sports history of Morgan County. The Pearl Street High School Tigers put together a legendary run from 1959 through 1970 that should have insured their place in the annals of local sports lore. Sadly, their efforts went largely unnoticed.
In the decade prior to school integration Pearl’s Tigers racked up season after season in which they won nearly all of their games, competed for championships, and became known as one of the top basketball programs in Georgia. They were coached by Lenion Bonhart, who later went on to be an assistant principal at Morgan County High School until his retirement in 1989. This is part of their story.
Lenion Bonhart came to the Morgan County school system in 1959 fresh out of college where he played basketball at Albany State. He was hired as a teacher and was given the additional responsibility of starting a basketball program. It was a project that would have daunted many because there was not even a gym to practice in or a place to play home games. Coach Bonhart made a basketball court outside of the area that was then the vocational building. Using poles and plywood he built goals to use for play and practice and from that humble beginning built a program that would rival any other in the state.
In an interview with Coach Bonhart he was asked to recall some of the biggest wins of the period. “In 1968 we were the first team to ever beat Alto at their place. They always had college age players and some of the best high school age players in the state. Once we beat them, our kids felt like they could beat anyone.” He was also asked about his best teams of the era. “The 1968 and 1969 teams were probably the best, but the first class to play in our new gym in 1964 and 1965 were nearly as good. The 1968 team was fourth in the state and the 1969 team had everyone back and could have won the state championship, but we were disqualified in the playoffs because of a scorebook error.
Coach Bonhart also talked about the region rivalries that were always tough matchups. “Hancock had good teams every year as well as Monroe, Eatonton, Monticello, and Greene County. Their coaches always did a good job. I coached against Arthur Daniels (Hancock), Coach Asbury (Greene), Lester Davis (Monticello), Coach Lynch (Monroe), and Herbert Stokes for a long time and they were not only good coaches, but good people.”
As the interview continued Coach Bonhart talked about the ups and downs of the profession. “Before we got the new gym, there wasn’t as much enthusiasm for organized basketball, but once the gym got built and Mrs. Martin (Marie Bass Martin) became principal, everything got much better. Mrs. Martin wanted the kids to have sports as part of their school life and she was a big influence. Once those two things were in place, our program was in good shape.”
As with any successful program there were good athletes and Coach Bonhart certainly had his share. Many of these men still live in Morgan County. Players like James Allen, Donald Harris (recently retired MCHS basketball coach), Asbury Williams, James Parks (now Doctor James Parks) Ulysses Fitch, Carl McCray, Barry Currington, and Ronnie Berry, all played key roles in making Pearl Street a top flight program. Then there were the most prolific players of that era. Brothers Melvin and Grayson Wade, Henry (Bimp) Russell, Walter Davis, and Tommy Smith were all college caliber players who left a legacy for other young men with basketball aspirations to follow.
Morgan County fans have watched over a generation of basketball talent grace the floor since the 1960’s. We have watched the state runner up team in 1990 and we have witnessed the ascent of B.J. Elder from high school to fame at Georgia Tech. Little did most people know that they were simply watching the continuing saga of a foundation built by the guys in blue and gold. We can now remember the Pearl Street High School Tigers.