MURRELL COLUMN: Coach who lived Summitt’s dream gave me my break

Published 11:31 pm Thursday, June 30, 2016

Looking through the state high school record book, the category labeled “Six-Girl Basketball” caught my eye.

I asked Barbara Gilliam-Harris about this, and I couldn’t make sense of the rules, although they sounded simple enough. Three forwards were allowed to shoot from the offensive end of the court, with three guards trying to stop them but only on the defensive end. No player could cross the timeline, so the guards had to pass the ball across it to the forwards.

Five-on-five basketball for girls was unheard of. They couldn’t handle that, the powers that be believed.

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By 1980, girls teams in the state finally transitioned to 5-on-5.

Harris later coached at Drew Central High, a campus built on land that it rents from the university she and I attended. The school district basically serves students who lived in rural areas of the county and isn’t quite a mile away from the high school.

In 1984, a year after the school district and the university renewed its lease for 99 years, a sparkling new gymnasium was unveiled. I sometimes think it was built just for Harris, who arrived in town that year and went by coach Gilliam at the time.

She had yet to truly leave her mark on the program. The school was coming off back-to-back state championships in boys basketball and nearly won an overall state tournament, where all the class champions competed.

Three years later, Coach G and the Lady Pirates won their first title and made the overall final. The legend was just beginning.

A few hundred miles to the east, Pat Summitt was coaching her first national championship team at Tennessee.

My first memory of coach Gilliam came in 1992, when I was a seventh-grader. She was filling in as Drew Central’s seventh-grade boys coach, and her team took on mine. We won by maybe five points, with all of our players just coming off a measly 0-2 football season. (We played mostly intrasquad games when I could have played a season in the youth league.)

More than four years later, Drew Central was still a powerhouse in Class AA girls hoops and made it to the state semifinals. Coach Gilliam became the face of the game in our area while steadily climbing the victory charts in the state.

Visiting the Barbara-dome, banner after banner from basketball to tennis to track hung from the rafters. Many of the tennis banners also came as a result of Coach G’s tutelage.

I made the 10-minute or so walk from my dorm room in 2000 just to ask her for a season schedule so I could cover the team. Without a vehicle and really needing money, I asked if I could ride with her team to away games.

She was cool with it. I needed to keep up my professional career, which had only amounted to little league baseball and high school football, and they wanted coverage in the midst of the city high school’s football success.

That season, I covered career victory No. 750. Two seasons later, No. 800. She retired with 817 wins and ranks third all-time in the state.

Anybody in sports who claims not to measure a coach by his or her victory count is lying. It’s just a measuring stick we journalists use to break down the greatness of someone in his or her skill.

But, no tool can measure one’s greatness away from basketball. I’m lucky enough to celebrate Summitt’s life through the power of media, but luckier to be impacted personally by Harris.

Both played a large part in transforming women’s basketball from a game of limits to a game of excellence. Their fan bases went on to surpass those of their male counterparts. And the ladies they molded have become successful mothers and career-oriented women.

The victories we witnessed are just added radiance to the legacies Pat and Barbara left.

I.C. Murrell can be reached at 721-2435 or at On Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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