By Trey Williams
Science Hill basketball won three state championships and three Arby’s Classic titles in the 1990s with guards such as Shane Williams, Rob Williams and Nathaniel Bailey, who were as fearless as they were talented thanks to battle-tested roots at Carver Rec.
Another exceptional guard, Demetric Stevens, came in on the tail end of that flurry of Division I backcourt signees, and the long-armed, 6-foot giant-killer made sure the decade went out in silky-smooth style.
Stevens, who signed with Buzz Peterson at Appalachian State following his senior season in the spring of 2000, was a two-time first team All-State selection.
North Carolina State women’s assistant coach Houston Fancher was Peterson’s assistant at App State. Fancher, who spent time as the men’s head coach at App State and Charlotte and was an assistant at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, still vividly recalls watching Stevens play while recruiting him.
“We were thrilled to get Demetric from Science Hill,” Fancher said Tuesday. “Those Science Hill teams were absolutely relentless. He was a sensational combo guard that could play on both ends of the floor. He was a great scorer and had an incredible ability to anticipate the next play. He had extremely quick hands and feet and didn’t mind mixing it up with anybody of any size.”
Stevens’ game flowed like a snaking river. He had cat-quick hands, a cross-over dribble that delighted neutral spectators and a long-range jump-shot that he could release from high above his head without sacrificing accuracy. And his court smarts could be concealed by his straight-talking swagger.
“He talked a lot on the floor, man, especially at the free throw line,” said UNC Asheville head coach Michael Morrell, a 1,000-point scorer at Elizabethton and Milligan College during Stevens’ era.
Morrell, whose high school teammates included Jason Witten, has coached at Clemson, VCU and Texas.
“I remember when we were giving them a good game at Science Hill one night,” Morrell said, “probably our last year there when we had the best Elizabethton team from when I was in high school, and he was saying something like, ‘You guys really thought you were gonna come over here and win didn’t ya?’ It was at the end of the game when you’re fouling to stop the clock and it’s obviously in the bag, because he didn’t miss free throws. He’d probably make eight in the fourth quarter and it was usually me and Jason (Witten) at the free throw line and he’s like, ‘You guys really thought you were gonna come over here and win tonight?’”
Stevens’ confidence was a product of his environment. His father, Melvin, was the Carver Rec director, and his older brother Corbin was a point guard that played an invaluable role in Science Hill’s state title run in 1990.
Stevens’ mental toughness was gained the hard way. Melvin died while playing pickup basketball in 1991 at Carver when Demetric was eight years old.
You pictured Melvin’s big smile seven years later when Demetric made the All-Arby’s Classic team as a junior after helping the ‘Toppers finish runner-up to Eddie Starks-led Miami Northwest Christian Academy.
Stevens was named the Arby’s MVP as a senior when he led Science Hill to its third title in seven years. He opened the Arby’s title run with 25 points and seven steals in a win against Dorman (Spartanburg) and beat Dobyns-Bennett in the quarterfinals with a coast-to-coast drive for a 3-pointer from the left corner with 0.3 seconds remaining. He added two technical free throws to seal the 74-69 victory. (D-B was assessed a technical for calling a timeout it didn’t have.)
Science Hill beat the most talented team in the ’99 Arby’s field, Gainesville (Fla.), in the semifinals. Gainesville, ranked No. 7 in the nation by USA Today, had Orien Greene (Florida, NBA) and Jerald Fields (ETSU Hall of Fame) and Florida football signee Ian Scott, who played in the NFL.
The ‘Toppers won 79-74 to get to their sixth Arby’s championship game. Stevens’ stick-back gave it the lead for good (72-70) with 2:45 remaining against Gainesville.
Following the game, Stevens said a Louisville assistant had begun talking to him. Moments later, he was asked if there was any pressure to not finish runner-up for a second straight year.
“We don’t feel pressure at Science Hill,” he said. “We just play.”
Sure enough, in the Arby’s championship the following day, he outscored Georgia Tech signee Halston Lane, 22-20, in a 67-62 overtime win against Oak Ridge. Stevens also had seven rebounds and his crowd-pleasing scoop gave the ‘Toppers a 57-56 lead with 2:04 left.
Nathaniel Bailey had delivered the game-winning assist for Jovann Johnson’s buzzer-beater when Science Hill beat B.J. McKie-led Irmo (S.C.) to win the Hilltoppers’ first Arby’s title six years earlier. Bailey initially signed with Bill Foster at Virginia Tech, was Rick Barnes’ first signee at Texas while in junior college and eventually started at New Orleans.
“I loved Demetric,” Bailey said. “I loved Demetric’s game. Demetric has us in him. And I think Demetric – he might’ve been better than us. You know, he might’ve been better than us. Some people say he is, some people say I was.
“I can’t argue with nobody’s opinion. He played with us at a young age and he held his own.”
Stevens and fellow seniors B.J. Hairston and Jermaine Love told an otherwise relatively young team prior to the Arby’s championship game that a second straight runner-up was unacceptable.
“Me and Jermaine and B.J. let all the younger ones know before the game that we got this far last year,” Stevens said, “and that we didn’t want to go home again without this trophy.”
Science Hill might’ve won the state tournament trophy that year had Love not suffered an injury late in the season.
The ‘Toppers still managed a return to the state tournament – Stevens’ fourth straight trip. Science Hill won the sectional championship with an 80-77 defeat of Oak Ridge in overtime. Stevens gave the ‘Toppers the lead for good when Hairston found him on a backdoor cut with 51.9 seconds left.
“The bigger the game, the better Demetric was,” said Mike Poe, who succeeded George Pitts prior to Stevens’ senior season. “When we played that Gainesville team in the Arby’s semifinals we were undersized at every position and Demetric wasn’t gonna lose. It was a packed house. I mean there wasn’t a seat in the place. And there was just no way Demetric was gonna lose.”
“They didn’t have anybody that could defend him. He was three or four inches shorter than those guys that went on to play major college basketball or major college football – just tremendous athletes – and it was just like Demetric hit another level. He had that knack.”
Morrell still chuckles while recollecting Stevens’ talent and court charisma.
“It sure did feel like it was a good time for basketball around that area,” Morrell said, “and Dee (Demetric) was obviously the best player. It wasn’t even close. He was so good at getting his hands on balls. He had an unbelievable knack to score the basketball.”
Morrell was in attendance at Freedom Hall when Science Hill hosted the nation’s eighth-ranked team, George Washington-Danville, during Stevens’ freshman season. Stevens was inserted into the game with four seconds left and drew a charge on 6-5, 280-pound Tyrone Robertson, who was running the baseline guarding the in-bounder. Stevens went to the line and made the first foul shot and missed the second intentionally, though GW got the rebound and held on to win.
“I just vividly remember sitting in the stands watching,” Morrell said, “and thinking, ‘Holy crap. This kid’s in the ninth grade. I’m playing on the freshman team and he’s out here playing against high-level players.’ … He was by far the best player on this side of the state – probably all the way to Nashville there for a couple of years.
“I just remember how I always felt like Demetric just glided across the floor, whether it was with the ball or when he was running one down or on defense,” Morrell said. “Everybody else was running and I just kind of felt like he glided. And he was so long for his height. He was a special, special player. … He was by far the best player on this side of the state – probably all the way to Nashville there for a couple of years.”
Stevens scored 1,906 career points at Science Hill, which was third behind Jovann Johnson (2,188) and Shane Williams (1,967) at the time.
He scored 17 points as a sophomore in a 65-52 win against defending state champion Cleveland. The Blue Raiders were led by 6-foot-7 senior Vincent Yarbrough, who scored 1,737 points at Tennessee and played in the NBA. Yarbrough had 11 points and seven rebounds against the Hilltoppers that night in Freedom Hall.
“Demetric was just a supreme, supreme talent,” Morrell said. “I don’t know much about the basketball around that area since I’ve been gone, but I wouldn’t hesitate a bit to say he’s definitely in the conversation as one of the best that’s ever come out of our area.
“They brought in all these great teams at Arby’s and Demetric was just giving it to everybody. He was the best player in the tournament. It wasn’t even close. … It almost felt like Science Hill was unbeatable, because every year they had a Nookie (Bailey) or a Demetric or a Shane (Williams).”
Stevens also made the King of the Bluegrass All-Tournament team as a sophomore, a season that ended with Science Hill losing 49-44 to White Station (30-5) in the state quarterfinals. The Hilltoppers led 43-42 with 2:25 left. Stevens hit a 3-pointer to beat the third quarter buzzer to get the ‘Toppers within 39-36.
As a junior, Stevens scored what was then a career-high 33 in an 82-72 title game win against Cathederal Prep (Ontario) in a tournament in Hamilton, Ontario. He was the tourney MVP in an event that included 6-6 Penn State signee Phil Martin and 6-10 Coastal Carolina signee Mihai Raducanu.
Later in December of ’98 he had 22 points and eight rebounds in a 75-68 win over a good Clinton team that had guards Jermaine Shepherd (23 points) and Dedrick Dye (16 points), the latter of whom scored 1,349 points at Wagner, which played Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament during Dye’s career.
Also that December prior to the Arby’s Classic, Stevens made two free throws, got a steal and made two more free throws in the final 8.5 seconds for an 80-78 win over Oakland at White County High School. He finished with 26 points (9-for-15) and five steals. And he scored 24 points and hit four 3-pointers in a 112-48 win against Cherokee on a night when ETSU signee Ryan Lawson had 12 points for the Chiefs.
Poe was an assistant who also coached the freshman team when Stevens scored “40 or 50” in a freshman game against Elizabethton, which had Morrell and Jason Witten.
“The next morning,” Poe said, “George and I are sitting in the office and he said, ‘I must be a stupid coach. We’ve got a kid that can score 50 points in a game and we’re not playing him some on the varsity.’”
Pitts asked Poe to bring Stevens to his office that afternoon.
“I kind of prepped Demetric and said, ‘If George asks you this I want you to say this,’” Poe said. “Demetric comes in and there’s George – he’s sitting there in the chair leaned back with arms folded, and he says, ‘Demetric, do you understand white and black?’ That was the presses that we ran. And Demetric didn’t break expression or nothing and he said, ‘Don’t have to. If I can score 50 I don’t have to play any defense.’
“Well, George, you know – it just stunned him. And George, finally, he shook his head and he said, ‘You’re right.’ It was hilarious the way Demetric played it up.”
Of course, Stevens became a lethal defender at the top of Science Hill’s presses.
“I’ve said this several times: he’s the best I’ve had at the front of the press,” Pitts said. “He was so quick. He was long. He could get his hands on so much stuff.”
Poe recalled Stevens having to play in the post against Dobyns-Bennett when Jermaine Love was out with a broken hand.
“We had to play Dobyns-Bennett and South – two good teams – back to back without Jermaine,” Poe said. “(Dobyns-Bennett) had (Gerald) Sensabaugh and (Jesse) McMillan. And we played Demetric in the post at 6-foot-1 and Dobyns-Bennett couldn’t do anything with him. He could go to any position that you wanted him to play and be successful in that position. … He had such great savvy about how to play basketball. It was uncanny.
“I believe he scored 36 points against South that night playing in the post. It was kind of reminiscent of Magic Johnson playing the center position in the NBA that time. It was crazy, but he was that type of player.”
Tennessee High coach Michael McMeans was an honorable mention All-State player at Sullivan South that season.
“I remember when we first started playing that group from Johnson City,” McMeans said. “It was Demetric, BJ Hairston, Jermaine and Jamar Love. They always played on the Boys Club team and we had our team from Kingsport. It started as 9-10-year-olds. We would go over to Carver and play the tournaments they had there and it always was us and them that played for the championship.
“Demetric was always the guy who led their teams. … We had fierce battles where on any given night one or both of us were going for 30-plus. That’s what made it fun. It was always such a great respect and it was a testament to Demetric to always push me to be the best I could be. We would compete but then hug after the game.”
Stevens was compassionate and friendly, but hounded by a chemical imbalance that cost him a collegiate career. He was a week shy of his 27th birthday when he died in November of 2008.
After signing with Appalachian State, Stevens’ brief stops in college included Walters State, Lee University, King University and Lees-McRae. Veteran Walters State coach Bill Carlyle, who coached at ETSU under Madison Brooks when Skeeter Swift led it to a win at Duke in the late ‘60s, said he was as excited about Stevens as any guard he’d had in a long time. He also said Stevens complained about bipolar medicine making him sluggish.
“Yea, he told me that,” said Morrell, who was a second-year assistant at King University under Pitts when Stevens tried one final comeback. “We tried to get him to where he could play at that level. He just never really got back there, honestly. He was just older and wasn’t in great shape, but man, you could still see he could play. His mind thought it.”
Morrell would drive Stevens from Johnson City to Bristol for workouts.
“I enjoyed being around him just because I really looked up to him as a player in high school because he was the best – and again, it wasn’t even close,” Morrell said. “In the day and age of Twitter, Demetric Stevens would’ve been a Power Five (conference) basketball player. There’s no question in my mind. …
“I really respected him as a person and as a player. I still think about him a lot. He was a good dude.”
Jamar Love played at Science Hill with Stevens. Love was the athlete of the year at the University of Incarnate Word in 2002.
“Demetric was always giggling or being silly about something, but he was probably the most fierce competitor I’ve known,” Love said. “Demetric was very skilled and athletic, which made it tough to guard him or figure his game out. When I think of a player that reminds me of Demetric I think of Kobe Bryant. He had that killer instinct.”
That killer instinct popped in Pitts’ mind when he invited Stevens to King for that last-gasp opportunity in 2006.
“I went to King and he still had some eligibility and he came over there,” Pitts said. “He really worked hard, just could never get back to where he was. He’d been out of it a while. …
“I remember Demetric when he came to camp when he was five or six years old – a little ole bitty thing. He would still try to shoot it from the 3-point line slinging it up there. … It’s just unfortunate what happened. Demetric was good. He was very good – and a great kid.”
The short time Stevens was in Fancher’s life left a lasting impression.
“He had the heart of a lion but was one of the sweetest kids you would ever meet,” Fancher said. “In short, he was a winner.”
Poe said Stevens is among Science Hill’s all-time greats.
“It’s hard to compare,” Poe said. “But out of all the people that ever played there, if you had to have a big shot you’d want Demetric Stevens to take it, because he was not afraid of the moment. It never bothered him, whether he missed it or made it. … He wasn’t scared of the moment – ever, ever. Whether it was the state tournament or the Arby’s Classic or the region final – it didn’t matter – he wanted to take that shot.”
And Stevens commendably punctuated Science Hill basketball’s last shot of its greatest decade.
“He grew up during that time of watching Shane and Corbin and Jovann and Damon (Johnson) and Brad Fields and Nookie (Bailey) and Rob Williams,” Poe said. “He was the little kid sitting over there on the sideline dribbling the ball absorbing everything that’s happening. … And they were all proud of little Demetric. It was like they all felt like they were part of his development as a player, which was important back then.
“He had charisma. He had the ‘it’ factor. Nothing fazed him. You don’t coach those things. Those type people are not coached into being that guy that wants the ball in that situation. They are born.”