Commentary

Johnston native Harvey Heartley changed lives

June 25, 2014 

  • Harvey Heartley Sr.

    Heartley is a member of the CIAA Hall of Fame, the Saint Augustine’s University Hall of Fame and the N.C. Central University Hall of Fame.

    The funeral will be Friday, June 27, 2014, at First Baptist Church on 101 South Wilmington Street in Raleigh at noon. The viewing will be at 11 a.m. The funeral home is Barnes Funeral Home on 325 Camel Street in Clayton.

People smile when they remember Harvey Heartley Sr., the former St. Augustine’s University men’s basketball coach and athletic director.

Everybody who knew him seems to have a story about him.

My favorite story came in 1977, when his Falcons qualified for the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City.

The team didn’t play well and was thumped pretty solidly in the first round. Heartley summed the trip by comparing it to a Dr. Pepper soft drink, whose slogan at that time was “10, 2 and 4.”

“We were up at 10, played at 2 and headed home at 4,” said Heartley, recalling that the team’s bags were packed and waiting by the time the club returned to the hotel.

He once explained why one of his clubs wilted under playoff pressure.

“You’ve got this great furnace,” he said. “It has done a tremendous job for years. Kept you warm in the winter. It is a great furnace. But something happens and the pressure starts building and building and suddenly one of the pipes burst. The pipe was a good pipe. It had served you well, but the pressure was too much for it.”

A life filled with success

Heartley, who died Monday at age 79 after a long bout with cancer, lived a life that spanned eras.

He played in Smithfield at Johnston County Training School in a segregated school system. His coach was Reginald “Hawk” Ennis, a World War II veteran who Heartley remembered standing on the stage at one end of the gymnasium and peering down like a god on Mount Olympus.

Heartley said no one at any time had ever worked him as hard as Ennis, a man Heartley loved and feared. “He was the toughest man that I ever knew,” Heartley said.

John B. McLendon, one of college basketball’s greatest coaches, started recruiting Heartley when he was a 14 years old. North Carolina College, as N.C. Central University was known then, was one of the premier basketball programs in the country under McClendon, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

“It was the highest program that a black man could aspire for,” Heartley said years later.

Growing up, he wanted to play for State College, now N.C. State. That wasn’t possible at the time, but Heartley’s younger brother Al played for State in 1967.

Heartley played alongside Sam Jones, later an NBA star for the Boston Celtics, at Central and was an all-CIAA selection in 1955. Heartley began his coaching career at Cooper High in Clayton and later built an N.C. High School Athletic Conference power at Ligon High.

He made another crosstown trip to become the head coach at St. Augustine’s, where he won 371 games.

George Williams, the St. Augustine’s athletic director and track coach, was Heartley’s assistant and remembers their recruiting trips.

They were once stopped by police in Alabama for no apparent reason and were asked what they were doing there. By the time Heartley finished talking to the officer, he gave them a police escort in a quest to find the prospect’s home, Williams said.

Heartley loved to tell the story of a meal in Jacksonville, Fla., while on the recruiting trail. “Harvey was very particular about his food and we had this great meal, tremendous service,” Williams recalled. “The waitress was a white lady, and she was outstanding and Harvey left a big tip for those days, maybe $5.

“She picked it up and exclaimed, ‘Five dollars. Thank you Diamond Jim.” Harvey wore a little ring with a diamond in those days.”

Heartley was realistic about his recruiting.

“He’d ask a young man about playing for St. Aug’s and the player would say he was going to Duke, State or Carolina,” Williams recalled. “Harvey would grin big and say, ‘Give me a call two weeks before school starts.’ 

Heartley considered himself a historian. He wrote books, and one of his goals was to compile the definitive history of the NCHSAC. It took years to find out the simplest things, such as the names of the state champions. NCHSAC schools often received little attention from most media outlets and the association’s records were destroyed.

Former Broughton High coach Ed McLean often talked of his friendship with Heartley and how the two men shared a dream that one day integrated high school teams would become the norm. They had integrated summer camps.

“The teams that Ligon was playing in those days were absolutely as good as anybody we played at Brougton,” said McLean, who went to Broughton in 1966 and coached Pete Maravich. “People just didn’t know.”

Heartley never forgot his past, and boys from families that didn’t have much material wealth were his passion.

‘Made me feel special’

One young fellow often walked past St. Aug’s gym on his way to the Boys Club. Heartley spotted him and told him to come to basketball camp the next week. The boy, 9 or 10 years old, played with players outside his neighborhood for the first time and found out he was a good player. He proudly wore a yellow camp T-shirt that had a picture of a basketball court and St. Augustine’s written on it.

The young fellow was named the camper of the week and received a poster of Magic Johnson shooting a jump shot over Kevin Grevey. The boy also got a coupon for a pair of Converse sneakers.

The poster still hangs in the home of N.C. Central basketball coach LeVelle Moton. He still has his yellow camp T-shirt.

“He made me fell special,” Moton said. “He showed me I could be somebody. There was no way my mother could afford to send me to a basketball camp. That was impossible.

“But Coach Heartley changed my life.”

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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