By Trey Williams
The late Elvin Little often tiptoed right up to the edge of saying that James “Percy” Hairston was the best basketball player he ever coached.
Two years after winning a state title at Lenoir City in 1958, Little began a 20-year career at Science Hill, where he coached the likes of Gary Carter, Steve Spurrier, Charlie and Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart and Hairston.
Carter might have been the most awe-inspiring player, Spurrier was perhaps the best with the game on the line and Dee Dee Stuart was a “gamer” like no other. But the long-armed, 6-foot-3 Hairston, Little would say, was at least second to none.
“Percy was one of the most complete basketball players I ever coached,” Little said. “He was a terrific outside shooter, a great defensive player and an excellent rebounder. Percy had tremendous hands. They were huge.
“He had quickness and size. He was probably 6-3, but had good arm length that made him more like 6-5. He was something on the wing of our 1-3-1 zonetrap. He probably could’ve made it in the pros.”
Hairston was named the state tournament MVP after helping Science Hill finish runner-up to Richard Fuqua-led Chattanooga Riverside in Memphis in 1968. Hairston had a double-double against Riverside after impressively tallying 20 points and 10 rebounds when the Hilltoppers knocked off a tall, talented Memphis Carver team in the semifinals despite a hostile environment in the Mid-South Coliseum.
Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner let Little know what he thought of Hairston.
“Probably the best thing I could say about Percy is to repeat what Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner said at the state tournament after we beat Carver,” Little said. “Skinner said, ‘I guess you know you’ve got something special. (Hairston) is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.’ ”
Hairston had also tallied 25 points and 16 rebounds in a win against Oak Ridge.
In the twilight of a hard life in 2007 (he died in 2011), Hairston wasn’t eager to tout his accomplishments during a lengthy conversation. But he did perk up when asked about receiving the MVP award.
“They couldn’t have given it to anybody else,” he said with a chuckle.
Hairston thrived for two seasons at Martin Junior College (now Martin Methodist) in Pulaski. He averaged 22.0 points per game and 21.2 points per game for a team that was ranked in the Top 5 nationally and was one of 44 players invited by the U.S. Olympic Committee to a training camp at the Air Force Academy in July of ’70.
Hairston’s coach his first year at Martin, Donnie Newman, became an assistant at Middle Tennessee State during Hairston’s sophomore season. So Hairston followed a year later, but didn’t see eye to eye with MTSU coach Jimmy Earle and left mid-semester of his junior year. Hairston said it didn’t help matters that Newman had returned to Pulaski to take a general manager job with Coca-Cola by the time Hairston was enrolled.
“My mom got really bad off my first year,” Hairston said. “And I didn’t get along with Coach Earle. He had his own players.”
Charlie Bailey was a senior on Science Hill’s state semifinalist during Hairston’s junior season. He went on to play at ETSU and was an assistant under Little and Dennis Greenwell at Science Hill in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
“Percy, in my opinion, was probably the best basketball player that’s ever played up there,” Bailey said. “I never could understand why ETSU didn’t recruit Dee Dee and Percy. I mean I played with the folks out there, and Percy and Dee Dee – they could’ve played there, no question.”
Stuart went on to Bluefield State, where he made the Hall of Fame for basketball and football.
“I went to Dunbar and Percy went to Douglas (in elementary school),” Stuart said. “Percy and I played against each other in the sixth grade – I’ll never forget it – and we beat them, 21-11. Percy scored nine of the 11 they had and I scored nine of the 21 points that we had. That’s where I first kind of like met him at, and after that we sort of, like, started playing together. And we always played together.”
Stuart and Hairston were in the final freshman class at Langston (1964-65) before integration closed it down. They were crushed when they found out they wouldn’t have a chance to follow in the footsteps of legends such as Kenny Hamilton and Johnny Russaw.
“Johnny Russaw and Kenny Hamilton – those two were my idols,” Hairston said. “And I played against them quite a few times. It helped get me on their level. Johnny’s brother Gene was a good ballplayer.”
Stuart and Hairston would also work with ETSU standout Harley “Skeeter” Swift, who helped the Bucs past Dave Cowens-led Florida State into the Sweet 16 the same year the Stuart-Hairston tandem propelled Science Hill to its runner-up finish in Memphis.
“I always used to ask Skeeter – we would always ask him which one he thought was best between me and him,” Stuart said. “And he would always say that he thought I was the best all-around athlete. Percy was more or less what I call a surgeon. He had huge hands like Dr. J, and he could play down low. If they had a big man on him he’d go outside, and people just didn’t know how to guard him.”
One of Science Hill’s most impressive wins during Hairston’s senior season was a romp at Clinton in a matchup of ranked teams. Clinton was coached by Jay Nidiffer, who later assisted Sonny Smith at Auburn and Alan Leforce at ETSU.
“I never liked to get beat, but sometimes it was just fun to see a real athlete like Percy doing his thing,” Nidiffer said. “When Percy got it going he was like a racecar.”
Hairston said he could trigger a break after makes or misses with long passes, usually to Stuart or Steve Seward.
Stuart finished his career with 1,293 points and Hairston had 1,279. They only played two seasons, being relegated to the junior-varsity as sophomores, almost certainly due to what even Little all but conceded years later was the pressure of those times.
“Nobody ever did any more on the court for Science Hill than Percy did,” Little said. “A player from the runner-up team hasn’t been voted MVP very often, and Riverside’s Richard Fuqua was 6-foot-6 and went on to be an All-American at Oral Roberts.
“Percy’s jersey, whether it was during practice or during games, was always ringing wet. He loved to play the game. I won’t rate him as the best I ever coached, but he was as good as any I ever coached.”