HICKORY — Mention Larry Bird’s name in this basketball-crazed state and it won’t take long for many to conjure thoughts of short shorts and Boston Celtics shamrock green. But it was Bird’s African-American coach, K.C. Jones – who won 11 championships as a player and then coach for the famed organization – that left an indelible mark on one African-American teen growing up in South Carolina in the 1980s.
“I remember that to this day,” said Everick Sullivan, the second-year coach of the Lenoir-Rhyne men’s basketball team. “That’s what you want to see. You want to see somebody else doing something that you may dream about. You want to have that opportunity and be looked at fairly.”
Sports opened similar doors for Sullivan, who grew up in a stable household surrounded by loving family in Simpsonville, S.C., just outside of Greenville. But coming of age in the South on the backside of the civil rights movement opened his eyes to the disadvantages that people of color still faced.
“I saw very sensitive matters,” Sullivan said. “Not that many years past segregation. Minorities were often getting treated wrongly. Equality wasn’t there for everybody. I saw that. I sensed that. One of my dreams was to see the world and see what other opportunities were there.”
Basketball was the vessel that allowed Sullivan to achieve his dreams.
Following his career at Hillcrest High School, he went on to star at the University of Louisville under Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum. He played in three NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance his freshman year. And to this day, his name is still spread throughout the pages of the program’s record book.
After graduating, he returned home to play for the Greenville Spinners in the short-lived Global Basketball Association. But his journey took him out of the States once that league folded.
He spent eight seasons playing abroad, honing his skill in Finland, Portugal, Cyprus, Slovenia, Poland, Lebanon, Puerto Rico and Qatar. Those experiences shaped him not just on the court, but also in his personal life.
“Me having an opportunity to play overseas opened my mind up even more to not only how you’re thought of as an African-American male in the U.S., but how people of different nationalities are looked at in different countries,” Sullivan said. “It gives you an appreciation for what you have here in America. It really opened my eyes. It really changed how I perceived things. It made me more appreciative, more empathetic, in terms of my views.”
That has carried over into his coaching career. Starting out at the high school ranks before moving to junior college, Sullivan quickly became more than just a coach for his players.
Often, he serves as a mentor, a role model, even a father figure – whatever they need from him.
“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Sullivan said.
Basketball has also allowed Sullivan to be a trailblazer of his own. At three different head coaching stops – including Lenoir-Rhyne – he has been the first African-American coach in the program’s history.
“I’ve had to go navigate and open up some doors and probably take some criticism underneath the breath or behind the scenes,” Sullivan said. “But it’s not going to stop me from doing what I think is right or taking every opportunity as a blessing.”
“I hired Everick before I ever started here,” added Kim Pate, who is in her second year as Lenoir-Rhyne’s athletic director. “So I didn’t have the history of all of our coaches. Although that’s a nice gesture, and I think it’s important for us to be intentional about diversity and making sure that’s something we strive for to enhance the diversity of our athletic department, I also would tell you that the reason we hired Everick was because he was the absolute best candidate for the job. He’s the right guy."
Like K.C. Jones and others did for him, Sullivan knows that young African-American kids, such as his 5-year-old daughter, may look to him as a role model. And he has filled that role admirably in the hopes that someday, there will be fewer doors needing to be kicked down and fewer universities without a black head coach in their history.
“If you think about Black History Month and you see civil rights leaders and freedom fighters – Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Senator John Lewis – who all had to open doors for others to have the opportunity; I’m thankful for those guys,” Sullivan said. “That’s what Black History Month means for me, that you’re paying tribute to the trailblazers who opened doors and allowed us the opportunities to take away the bias because of your race, color, ethnicity or whatever it may be.”