By Matthew Stanmyre
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 15, 2008
RICHMOND, March 14 -- Five years ago, Bryant Stith thought he was through with basketball.
In college he had become the all-time leading scorer at the University of Virginia, and he had enjoyed 10 largely productive seasons in the NBA. Basketball had put millions of dollars in his bank account, and made him an icon in his home state of Virginia.
But Stith thought his professional career ended prematurely when two franchises discarded him in favor of younger players. When he retired in 2003, he retreated with his family to his home town of Lawrenceville, a place with one stoplight in south-central Virginia, about 20 miles from the North Carolina border.
For almost 18 months, he could not watch basketball on television or read about it in the newspaper.
"It was a very painful time," Stith said. "I had kind of lost that passion for the game. Basketball had taken so much out of me that I didn't know if I wanted to be around it any longer."
Stith's love for the game was soon rekindled by a group of teenagers. Despite having no coaching experience at any level, Stith was asked in 2006 to become the boys' basketball coach at Brunswick High, the Lawrenceville school he led to Virginia AA championships in 1987 and 1988.
Last season, in his first as head coach, Stith guided the Bulldogs to the AA title game, where they lost to William Fleming of Roanoke. Saturday at 9, Brunswick will play its second AA title game in Stith's brief tenure when it faces No. 6 Millbrook at Siegel Center.
"Brunswick's not that big, so to have an NBA player, it's just like having a big role model," Brunswick senior forward Antonio Epps said. "He's just like a big role model to all the little kids."
Coaching, Stith says, has renewed his love for basketball and helped him discover that teaching the game to young people, while nurturing them through their teenage years, was a hidden passion. "These kids have helped me just as much as I've helped them," Stith said.
After an NBA career that included stops in Denver, Boston, Cleveland and with the Los Angeles Clippers, Stith returned to Lawrenceville and its slower pace of life. He fished in the same lakes where he dropped lines nearly 15 years earlier, and he took his four children to the same two-screen movie theaters that he and his wife, Barbara, went to when they began dating as eighth-graders.
"I think I was just burned out at the time," Stith said. "I was trying to get my life together so that I could enjoy life after basketball."
Lawrenceville bubbled with excitement upon the return of its favorite son. The valedictorian of his high school class, Stith had gone on to a sparkling career at U-Va., where he led the Cavaliers to three NCAA tournament appearances and was a three-time all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection. He scored a school-record 2,516 points and finished second on U-Va.'s all-time list with 859 rebounds before Denver picked him with the 13th selection in the 1992 NBA draft.
Once returning home in retirement, he built recreation centers and athletic fields, established a car detailing business and started a non-profit organization focused on children in southern Virginia.
Today, when Stith is spotted around Lawrenceville, "It's almost like [seeing] the pope walking down the street," Brunswick Athletic Director Mike Barmoy said. "Everyone wants to get a glimpse."
Everyone also seems to want to play basketball. Lawrenceville does not have any bowling alleys, skating rinks or public swimming pools, but down nearly every street there are basketball hoops. Most young people growing up in Brunswick County dream of playing for the Bulldogs, who have won three state titles and been to the championship game seven times. Stith's two teams have been loaded with talented players.
"I really believe this is the best time he's had in his life -- NBA, college and all," Barbara Stith said. "Just being able to coach those kids and teach them something that they will never get anywhere else."