Motley

Greg Motley will depart after 20 years at Orange High. 

It may have set the record for the longest net cutting in basketball history.

After the students rushed the floor after Orange’s 60-57 victory over Vance High School on January 31, 1989, everyone wanted a souvenir to mark the occasion at OHS Gym. Only one problem.

No one had clippers. Or sharp scissors.

My classmate in the class of 1991, Leslie Petty, did have a Swiss Army knife. So a group of seniors holstered her up to the basket while she went to work. Orange didn’t cut down the nets that night, they sliced them down.

And why not? There was every reason to celebrate.

The Orange boys basketball team had just ended a 39-game losing streak.

The previous year, Orange had gone 0-26. From March 5, 1987 to January 31, 1989, Orange basketball didn’t win a game.

The funny part was the surroundings were in place for a winning basketball team. There was a loyal fan following (dubbed by then-principal Dr. Stephen Halkiotis as “Brown’s Bleacher Bums,” in honor of then-coach Andy Brown), the entertaining Charles Watters on the public address system ready to start a “Fire it Up” chant at a moment’s notice, and lots of good-to-great players. The only problem with those players was that they were on the opposing team, the most prominent of which was Rodney Rogers from Hillside, who would go on to play with Wake Forest before a 12-year NBA career.

All that Orange lacked were those players that could make a good team. From 1988-1997, they didn’t have a winning season. In five of those nine years, they didn’t have double-digit victories.

When Greg Motley took over in the fall of 1997 as varsity head coach, Orange had won 19 games the previous three years combined. In Motley’s first season, they went 16-8 and defeated Lee County in the 2nd round of the state playoffs.

Two weeks ago, Motley resigned as head coach of Orange after 20 years. When I read the news on his Facebook account, there was a mixture of emotions. Perhaps in a different era, it would have sparked an outcry from the community. This reaction was a little more subdued than I expected, but not when it came to Motley’s former players, who reached out through Twitter and Facebook with various tributes.

I also couldn’t help but think how much things have changed between the two original senior high schools in Orange County.

In the 80s, Chapel Hill High felt like the high school version of the neighboring UNC basketball factory run by Dean Smith. The Tigers were coached by Ken Miller, who led them to two 4A state championships, in 1981 and 1987. He won 289 games and lost 76. His overall career coaching record was 401-184, a stunning winning percentage just under 70 percent. Just like at UNC, every Tiger starter who left the floor was greeted with a standing ovation from his reserve teammates. There was tradition and a fan following you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the high school game.

Yet in 1990, midway through my senior year at Orange, Miller abruptly left Chapel Hill for Lee County. The details why are well known to some longtime local residents. Without rehashing them, let’s just say in high school sports, one person can make a difference. Sometimes, too much.

During Motley’s 20 years as head coach, Chapel Hill went through eight coaches. None of them have replicated Miller’s success, and none of they rivaled Motley’s either.

By comparison, from 2013-2017, Motley’s teams went 83-30 with a Big 8 regular season championship and a Big 8 Tournament Championship in 2016.

That’s a long way from a 39-game losing streak.  

Not to say there weren’t disappointing years. There was, because no coach is immune to them. All the while, Motley did it his way. He was emotional without being boisterous. He is a man of God. With every interview I conducted with him, win or lose, he always ended with “I appreciate you, Jeff.”

Orange captured its only state championship in basketball in 1969 as a 3A team coached by Ken Mayer. I can’t say that was the best Orange team because it was before my time. However, I can say the best Orange boys basketball player I’ve ever seen was Connor Crabtree, who will start playing with Tulane next November.

Crabtree scored the game-winning basket with 2.5 seconds remaining when Orange defeated Southern Durham 80-79 on January 27, 2017, which all but guaranteed a Big 8 regular season title. That was Orange’s only championship that year (aside from the Eastern Guilford Holiday Tournament Championship), but it still feels like it could have been more.

The kids didn’t cut the nets down, but they did storm the floor for a raucous celebration.

In the 3A state playoffs, Orange easily disposed of Gray’s Creek and Southern Guilford before a 3rd round game with Triton. If there was a way for a team to come out more dominant than Orange that night, I’ve yet to see it. The Panthers led 28-3 at the end of the first quarter. Crabtree was throwing off the backboard dunks to Logan Vosburg, who finished with 22 points. For ten minutes, it appeared Orange was the best team in the state.

Then it all shattered to pieces after one rebound. Crabtree went up after a missed shot by the Hawks and came down on one leg. He broke his ankle and never played for Orange again. The entire offense ran through Crabtree, who was a 6’5” point guard that had the upper body to finish with power. With only 48 hours to prepare a game plan without its playmaker, Orange’s dream season ended in the state quarterfinals against Northern Guilford.

A chance to win a state championship in a sport as competitive as boys basketball doesn’t come along often. There are some years a team can contend for a conference championship, but only so often do you get a player valuable enough to make it feel like you’re driving a Cadillac that can take a squad to the next level. That year, Orange was driving a Bentley, only to have it sideswiped.

Yet Motley refused to make excuses after losing to the Nighthawks. He praised Northern Guilford and praised his own team. His team – they refused to make excuses too. Even during the most excruciating loss, Greg Motley remained himself, and his indelible mark upon his team was obvious.

That’s what Orange basketball is losing.

Motley will remain a teacher at Orange while he tends to his new duties as the postgraduate coach at Mt. Zion in Durham. Theoretically, it possible Orange can find a better basketball coach.

It’s impossible to think they can find a better man.