One team, one goal, one heartbeat

  • Basketball coach Ricardo Priester gives 11-year-old Tyquan Isaac some pointers at the Fuller Park Court where Priester first played basketball as a youth. Priester coached Gamecock and SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell at Lancaster High School.

A basketball makes a special sound as it is bounced, its rhythm changing with the pace of the athlete and the texture of the floor surface. It doesn’t foretell greatness. It just responds to its handler.

The sound of the dribble seems loud to an 11-year-old alone on the courts of Fuller Park but is easily drowned out by the cheers of University of South Carolina fans at the Final Four.

With each bounce is a heartbeat. “One team, one goal, one heartbeat” is the motto of Ricardo Priester who shot baskets for hours at Fuller Park as a youth with his buddies from Barnwell Arms Apartments. It gained rhythm at Guinyard-Butler Middle School under the guidance of Everett Jenkins and Barnwell High School under the late Chip Atkins.

During his last semester of tenth grade, Priester’s parents, Willie James and Rhonda Priester, made the tough decision to send their only child to Camden Military Academy. “I was slacking off in school work. My parents saw an opportunity. It was tough at the time but, looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Priester.

Camden Military Academy gave Priester the opportunity to concentrate and “lock-in” both academically and as an athlete. Eric Boland worked with Priester on his attitude and skills.

Priester excelled. He earned All-State honors, was named Conference Player of the Year both in 1992-93 and 1993-94, was 1st Team All-Conference two years in a row and named the S.C. Independent School Player of the Year in 1993.

He earned full basketball scholarship to Wingate University in Wingate, N.C. More practice, more shots, more guidance, more dedication, more opportunity. It was there under coach Jeff Reynolds that he learned that basketball is a brotherhood, a family. “He taught me that there are two things in life you can control – your attitude and your effort. I learned to compete but never settle for less than my best. To fall short of your best is a tragedy.”

“I wanted respect,” said Priester, but learned that respect had to be earned. “I first learned that from my grandmother and my parents; then, from my coaches and teachers.”

It was also at Wingate that he took a class under a softball coach who made her students come up with a coaching philosophy. “She made me put it all together,” Priester said. “Before then, I had never planned on being a coach. It opened doors for me.”

One team, one goal, one heartbeat.

After college Priester would attend workouts with the Charlotte Hornets, play with the Union County Slamm with XBA in Charlotte and then play pro ball in Bonn, Germany and Bydgoszcz, Poland.

While the sound of bouncing balls was never distant thunder, Priester also enhanced his education, finishing both undergraduate and grad school. “Education is a life-long journey,” said Priester last week. “It gave me opportunities as a student athlete and as a teacher.”

Yes, teacher.

Priester, 41, is the Literacy Arts and Life Skills teacher as well as head basketball coach at Lancaster High School although he started as a second grade teacher. He’s been there since 2005 and is considered to be one of the top basketball coaches in South Carolina.

It is at Lancaster that Priester is able to take all the love and guidance from his family, coaches and teachers and funnel them into young athletes.

One such athlete is Sindarius Thornwell.

Thornwell arrived late on the first day of practice. He had an attitude of superiority and cockiness about him. “He was good but we weren’t going to tell him that,” recalled Priester.

Priester sent him back to the locker room to take off his jersey and go home. Thornwell hadn’t earned his right to be on the team.

The next day Thornwell returned and asked to play. He worked to earn his place on the team.

“He is an outstanding young man but very competitive. We’d bump heads because of his competitiveness.”

Priester coached Thornwell for three years, teaching him about what it means to be a part of one team, to have one goal, to feel one heartbeat. Thornwell transferred to Oak Hill Academy his senior year and then went to the University of South Carolina.

As a junior, Thornwell was arrested for simple possession of marijuana and was suspended from the Gamecock squad.

“Adversity brings out the best in you,” said Priester. “It’s not all about the mistakes you make. It’s about your response.”

Thornwell apologized to his teammates, his coaches and fans. He worked to earn his place back on the team. Then he worked to earn back their respect.

That work shaped an athlete that became an integral part of the USC men’s basketball team, averaging 21.4 points per game and 7.1 rebound points per game.

Last month at the Sweet 16 playoffs, Thornwell contributed 24 points. At the Elite 8, he scored 26 points. At the Final Four, he contributed 15 points.

And even though the Gamecocks were eliminated by Gonzaga in the Final Four, Thornwell would be selected as the SEC Player of the Year.

For Priester, it was special. One team, one goal, one heartbeat. He felt it.

He also knows Thornwell is a great student who has earned SEC All-Academic honors four years in a row with a high GPA.

Thornwell isn’t the only great athlete Priester has guided as a large number of his students have gone on to get scholarships and some have even had a chance to play pro ball.

But for Priester, the goal is not only athleticism, but education.

“There are a lot of great players who never get the chance to play in the Final Four. “Everyone can achieve an education. That is the great equalizer. I’m living proof of that.”

“I want to keep making a difference in the lives of others. It’s not only what they achieve. I want to see what kind of husbands and fathers they become,” said Priester.

That’s something Priester will find out soon for himself. In May, Priester and Renee Meyrose expect the birth of their son, Ricardo Marquis Priester II. A new heartbeat.

They came from their home in Charlotte to Barnwell just before Easter to see family and friends, to reconnect.

For Ricardo Priester, Barnwell is a place where he will always find one team, one goal and one heartbeat.

It’s home.