By Trey Williams
Shane Williams and Damon Johnson were teammates in 1989-90 on the first of George Pitts’ three state championship teams at Science Hill. They were starting teammates at Tennessee under Kevin O’Neill.
Now, Batman and Robin, as they were referred to in the ‘90s, are essentially teaming up to try and create more quality opportunities for high school basketball players in Northeast Tennessee.
Johnson is in his second season coaching at Providence Academy. Williams is in his first year at Tri-Cities Christian Academy.
Johnson played professionally 16 years in Europe. Williams, who still holds the Volunteers’ season high for minutes per game, has coached at King University and Carson-Newman, as well as Salem High School in Virginia.
Their teams met for two games this season, and adding to their hoops odyssey’s full-circle vibe is the fact that Pitts is in his first year as athletic director at Providence Academy.
“I’m happy for both of them,” Pitts said. “I’m really glad that Damon’s at Providence coaching boys and girls. I’m happy and proud of Shane that he’s getting his opportunity at Tri-Cities. They’re in the process of starting to build a new school there – probably 2-3 years down the road.
“I think the location for him (near Exit 56 on I-81) will probably invite people from the Kingsport area and the Sullivan County area to possibly go to school there. Both of them are really good basketball coaches. They are similar in some ways, but their coaching style is different. But I think both of them are going to do really well.”
Providence Academy will apply for TSSAA membership this coming fall with the intention of beginning play in the fall of 2022.
Williams said TCCA, which moved under the leadership of Lakeway Christian Schools last year, intends to join the TSSAA as well. He said the new campus will strongly resemble Lakeway Christian’s impressive spread off Exit 4 on I-81, which includes the caliber of athletics facilities more commonly seen at colleges.
“It’s a vision to help kids build a Christ-based life, and as far as basketball, helping these kids reach their goals and having a good basketball team along with that,” Williams said. “You want to teach them to compete and get what they want out of life.”
Williams used basketball to grow a life from roots devoid of privilege.
“It’s been a long haul,” Williams said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Coach Pitts for four years (at King University), winning some championships, going to national tournaments. I was at Carson-Newman for nine years with Chuck (Benson), another guy that I learned tons from. It’s what we’re basing our program on a little bit right now.
“Everybody would wanna get where they’re at in life a lot sooner, but I’ve been super-blessed to make it this far and to get an opportunity to come back and coach at Tri-Cities Christian Academy and be back home.”
Pitts and Johnson have each described Williams as a coach on the court during his playing days. The lasting image Johnson sees while describing Williams is a fearless, skinny young teenager guarding men such as Davey Bowling, Andrel Anderson, James Mock, Houston Scruggs and Melvin Stevens at Carver Rec. “Shane probably wasn’t a buck-twenty-five wet back then,” Johnson said. “Maybe he was a little more than that, but he was a little guy. And the way he guarded those bigger, older guys – I knew early that his IQ was incredible. That stood out and that carried on through high school and through Tennessee. And still today, with his coaching ability, it’s pretty much unmatched.
“(Tennessee coach) Kevin O’Neill loved him because he was a coach on the floor. He didn’t have to tell him anything. He was a step ahead of the coach half the time. His IQ was super-high. O’Neill was asking him, ‘How do we guard this, Shane? How do we guard pick-and-roll?’ He was asking Shane stuff like that. So it was super-cool to have a point guard like that, but not only the point guard, but one of your best friends.”
Johnson was a “late bloomer” at Science Hill that went on to become a junior college All-American at Hiwassee. He became what was essentially the Michael Jordan of Iceland, where he had dual citizenship and helped propel a silver-medal showing in the small country Olympics. He was 6-3 when he graduated at Science Hill and 6-4 1/2 his senior year at UT.
“He kept growing and growing, and shoot, ended up going overseas and playing,” Williams said. “He’s a good dude and has got the kids’ interest at heart. That’s what we’re in it for. We’ve done played and had our names in the paper and done all of that. So it ain’t about us anymore.”
Then again, despite the talents of players such as TCCA’s high-scoring guard Jamar Livingston and Providence backcourt mates/twin brothers James and Jacob Reese, area greats like Josh Odem, Rob Williams, Jaylen Allen and Keilan Livingston probably wouldn’t have attended a Providence Academy-TCCA game if not for Williams and Johnson. Last week, they got to watch Providence defeat the Eagles for the second time this season.
“Damon’s got a better team than I have right now, and it’s a credit to those guys,” Williams said. “But I would play them every day if I could, because it’s gonna get us better and sharpen us up. I really like being the underdog anyway. So it’s really a fun thing for us.”
Any day Williams is in a gym is fun.
“Just getting a job back here was crazy surreal in itself,” Williams said. “But then to go over there and Damon’s got his own team and Coach Pitts is over there as the athletic director – I know they’re gonna be detailed and they’re gonna play hard. They ain’t gonna leave no stone uncovered. So it’s just fun to see if I can make them sweat just a little bit.”
Williams is confident that players won’t get shortchanged by either him or Johnson.
“You’re gonna get what you get with Damon,” Williams said. “It’s gonna be hard-nosed. He’s gonna be in your face. He’s not gonna budge. He’s gonna be solid as a rock and you’re gonna be in for a fight. He loves to compete.
“And now he’s in a position where he can help kids out. He’s not gonna do anything but get better and keep growing. Everybody better watch out. I’m just thankful that he’s my buddy and we can bounce ideas off each other, and still not be afraid to scrimmage and play each other.”
Williams has significantly more coaching experience than Johnson. Pitts has considerably more than their combined totals. He coached for 44 years prior to this season, and you wonder how badly he’s missing it when he jots down observations on a notepad during the Providence-TCCA game.
“I take notes, and then if Damon says, ‘Hey, what do you think I need to do?’ I’ve got things written down there,” Pitts said. “I’m not gonna start thinking off the top of my head. And there may be a player that says, ‘Hey, Coach, what do you think I need to work on?’ And I’ve got it written down and I can say something to ‘em. I would rather be overprepared then have to think back and go off the top of my head.”
Pitts said he likes what he’s seen from Johnson.
“I think the first thing as a coach is you’ve gotta have your kids respecting you,” Pitts said. “And I don’t think there’s any question about that. The second thing is you’ve gotta get your kids to play hard, and our guys play hard. If you’ve got a team that doesn’t play hard, then instead of coaching your team, you’re trying to figure out how to get them to play hard. And at times in my career I’ve had that. And it’s miserable to sit over there and have kids that don’t want to play hard.
“So when you’ve got kids that want to play hard, it makes it so much easier to coach them. And I think Damon’s in that situation.”
Johnson said Pitts doesn’t cast a shadow, in terms of critiquing, and he certainly doesn’t micromanage.
“I do ask him questions from time to time,” Johnson said. “He came to practice and helped with the ‘black’ (press). He’s going to get used a lot. There ain’t no sense in having a legend over there and not using him.
“I’ve got a lot to learn. He sits back, but he’s my eyes and ears outside the court. He’s helping me become a better coach, and it’s not just X’s and O’s. It’s dealing with referees, dealing with my players, having stuff prepared. From A to Z, he’s helping me. And he doesn’t come and force anything down my throat. I have to go ask him. We’ve got a good relationship.”
Williams and Johnson wouldn’t tell you they have a great relationship with their alma mater, a program they helped Pitts put on the national map for much of the 1990s. Science Hill declined to play Providence when their brackets intersected in a holiday tournament at Sullivan East.
Some Northeast Tennessee schools are basically boycotting Providence and TCCA. Pitts, Johnson and Williams wonder if that’s a move being done with the players’ best interest at heart.
“They can do what they want to do,” Pitts said. “They have that right, whether I like it or not. My thinking is, as a coach, I want to play the best people I can for our team to be the best it can be. That’s what I want to do. And as an athletic director, I want the same.
“Now, if we have teams that just can’t compete, then I don’t want ‘em playing teams where they’re gonna get beat 50 points. But I want them to compete against the best people they can. If somebody doesn’t want to play us, then okay, we’ll find someone else. I’m not gonna be concerned about that.”
Williams said athletes want the best fit, and now they have another size to consider trying on. Pitts agrees.
“I feel like we have some really good coaches at Providence, and I think that’s evident in some of the kids we’ve got there in certain sports,” Pitts said. “I think most kids come to Providence because of the Christ-centered atmosphere and the academics. But a lot are starting to come now not only because of those two things, but also because of athletics.”