Wiedmer: Jimmy Braddock would still make Dean Smith proud

Wiedmer: Jimmy Braddock would still make Dean Smith proud

July 23rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Jimmy Braddock works on ball handling skills with 8- to 14-year-olds during a baseketball camp at Grace Academy.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

A few minutes after noon last Friday, Grace Academy athletic director Les Compton scanned his eyes across his school's basketball court filled with dozens of boys and girls of all ages, all of them sporting happy faces.

"See those kids out there," Compton said with a general wave of his hand. "Jimmy knows the names of every one of them, and 19 years from now he'll still know them. He'll call me sometimes and ask about a kid who was in his camp 12 or 14 years ago. And he doesn't just know a name, he knows where the kid ended up going to school, what he wanted to be, stuff like that. It's amazing."

Jimmy is Jimmy Braddock, who remains one of the five best basketball players ever produced in the Scenic City some 35 years after he graduated from Baylor School in 1979 and went on to win a national championship ring at North Carolina in 1982.

Along with former Tyner product Michael Bradley (UConn, 2011), he's believed to be the only other Chattanooga native to have been a member of an NCAA Division I title team.

But his only direct association with basketball these days is his Jimmy Braddock Camp at Grace, which just wrapped up its 19th summer teaching kids the proper way to shoot, pass and dribble.

"I kind of reached an unhealthy stress level," said the 53-year-old of the reason he retired from the Hammond School in Columbia, S.C., in 2009. "I've always hated to lose more than I've liked to win. And we weren't winning as much as we used to (when Hammond won a state title under Braddock's watch)."

So he runs a couple of tax preparation stores, plays a lot of golf -- "I've got a 4.5 handicap now and naturally want to get it to scratch (zero)," he laughed -- and lives as relaxed an existence as any golf nut can.

"I'm enjoying life," he said. "I've got a great relationship with a wonderful woman I've been dating for a long time. I really enjoy working one-on-one with people in the tax business. I work with a lot of lower income people and if I can help find them money, if I can share some knowledge with them to make their lives better, that's a joy to me."

It's probably not the life we expected of him when he burst onto the local prep scene as a precocious ninth grader in the late fall of 1975. Back then he was this undersized basketball savant, a scrawny, floppy haired kid who looked like actor Scott Baio during his "Happy Days" run as Chachi Arcola and played like Hall of Famer Bob Cousy.

The ball in Braddock's hands was a thing of beauty, seemingly tethered to his fingers, a yo-yo that always made its way back to him, though often after no-look passes and outrageous jump shots.

To watch him in those days -- he averaged 35.4 ppg his senior year at Baylor, scoring 58 at Soddy-Daisy without the benefit of a 3-point line -- was to expect the same NBA greatness later realized by the likes of Steve Nash and John Stockton.

Especially after he rejected both Kentucky (Kyle Macy showed him around Lexington on his official visit) and Tennessee in favor of UNC.

"I really liked both Kentucky and Tennessee," Braddock said a few years ago. "But how can you say no to Dean Smith?"

No one says much of anything to Smith these days, the 83-year-old Hall of Famer in a losing battle with dementia.

"I haven't spoken to Coach Smith since 2007," he said. "It's a sad situation. Such a great man."

But Smith wasn't the only star in Chapel Hill when Braddock arrived. There would soon be superstar players such as Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy, and pass-first point guard in Jimmy Black. Jimmy had to wait his turn. And wait. And wait.

Though he played in all 10 of the Tar Heels' NCAA tourney games during their Final Four run in 1981 and national title season the following year, he never started until the 1983 season, when he averaged 9.3 ppg. 4.1 assists and hit over 46 percent of his 3-pointers taken beyond the Atlantic Coast Conference's experimental 3-point line.

It may not have gotten him to the NBA -- Braddock played several seasons overseas and in South America -- but it did earn him a ranking of No. 96 on one UNC fans website of the top 100 Tar Heels of the ACC era (since 1954).

Yet there's also something to be said for what you do with your life when it doesn't go the way everyone else planned it.

Ever the natural athlete, Braddock didn't take up tennis until he was 25 but was ranked in the top 10 of Florida's open division before he was 33. After being a club pro for awhile, he got into coaching at St. Matthews Catholic School in Jacksonville, where he was quickly put in charge of the soccer program.

"I knew nothing," he said with a grimace. "I knew you needed 10 players and a goalie and I probably had to look that up. It was pretty horrible."

But then came the job offer at Hammond School, where his former Baylor headmaster Herb Barks was running the show. A state title arrived. Then disillusionment.

Yet the magic returns to his eyes and his step each summer at Grace.

Asked if he'd noticed the 10-year-old Millirons twins at his camp, Braddock replied, "You mean Emory and Harrison? Great boys. Great attitudes."

Pointing to Jordan Rawls -- whose father Keith was once a pretty fair talent at Brainerd -- Braddock said, "You need to watch him. He could be special."

Not long after that he was signing camp T-shirts, handing out trophies and saying good-bye for another summer.

Yet he's also considering returning to his roots. His mother, Mary Braddock Carter, is now 86. Family ties tug at him. As well as chance to open his own tax service operation here.

And then there are all those kids who flock to Grace Academy each summer to the camp where the head counselor always knows their names.

"I think I'll always want to do camps in the summer," Braddock said. "Especially here. I just really like helping these kids."

Dean Smith, who always put his players first, couldn't ask for anything more.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.