Science Hill basketball has been Northeast Tennessee’s premier high school program over the last 50 years.
Narrowing down five decades worth of players into a top 10 wasn’t an easy task for the panel.
One of the Hilltoppers’ standouts said the school has been blessed with guys who could flat out play the game.
“Great talent has come through Science Hill,” said 1980s star Albert Sams. “I think we were all honored just to be on the All-Decade teams.”
The Hilltoppers have been to the state tournament 20 times since the 1970s. They earned three state titles and a state runner-up finish.
Three coaches have earned over 400 wins on The Hill along the way: Elvin Little passed the mark in the late 1970s, George Pitts got there in the late 1990s, and Ken Cutlip moved into the exclusive group in 2018.
Each of those coaches have worked with some of the best basketball players to ever dribble, shoot and score in the Hilltoppers’ old and new gymnasiums.
For the last 10-plus years, Johnson has been involved in something that surpasses his tremendous accomplishments in the maroon and gold. He is a member of the United States Navy.
But Johnson hasn’t lost touch with the glory days on The Hill, which included back-to-back Class AAA state titles in 1994-95.
“Playing with my friends who I literally grew up with in a place, the ’Topper Palace, where I dreamed of playing for the maroon and gold, it doesn’t get any better than that — playing in a packed gym with hundreds of fans cheering and screaming,” Johnson said. “And I could always spot my mom out of the crowd, or hear her voice amongst hundreds of people.”
Johnson is the younger brother of All-Half Century team member Damon Johnson.
Sharing his knowledge of the game, Williams operates The Drill Factory in East Tennessee. It is dedicated to helping young athletes reach their potential on and off the court.
Williams also works at Lakeway Christian Academy as head junior varsity coach and varsity assistant.
He said he was fortunate to play at Science Hill.
“Situations like that don’t come around a lot,” said Williams. “The community backed it and encouraged it.
“And we got to play with all of our friends. There was one one high school and we got to play together. I’m thankful for the fun I had with those guys.”
Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner said he remembered being in middle school and watching Carter play.
“He was one of the best,” said Turner. “He still may be the best athlete that has ever been through Science Hill.”
Carter was a terrific baseball player and many thought he had professional-level potential in that sport.
“Jeff Aldridge is about Gary’s age, and he said Gary was phenomenal,” Turner said. “Jeff said Gary could have played anything he wanted to play.”
Carter’s basketball career went all the way to the NBA draft. He was a fifth-round selection of the San Diego Clippers in 1982, and he played in the Continental Basketball Association — one season with the Montana Golden Nuggets under head coach George Karl. The next season Carter played with the Wisconsin Flyers, averaging 12.3 points per game.
Because of the pandemic, Wattad hasn’t settled into his new position as head basketball coach at Lander University. But he said he will head to South Carolina soon.
The Hilltoppers’ all-time leading scorer said he holds great high school memories.
“It was everything, growing up watching some of the greats,” he said. “I was able to watch Jerome Odem, Nick Bradley and other guys. Obviously, I’ve got the mythical figures in my mind, like Shane Williams, Jovann Johnson, Damon Johnson and Demetric Stevens. There’s this rich tradition that I wanted to be a part of so badly.”
Before he got into high school, Wattad developed a list of guys he wanted to move past on the depth chart.
“I remember going into eighth grade, I had a list of 15 guys I thought would be ahead of me making the varsity team. I kept picking names off that list. That was a real goal for me as a 14-year-old boy. All I wanted to do was to play varsity for Science Hill basketball.
“I was fortunate to learn from those great players and to have them pass the torch to me as a sophomore. I wanted to live up to their expectations. Rocking the Maroon and Gold meant everything to me, those were the some of the best times to me.”
For the last 27 years, Sams has worked for Coca-Cola, and he said, “I love my job.” He also dabbles in real estate and “buys a couple of houses here and there.”
Being part of the Hilltoppers’ family has stayed with him.
“It really was an honor,” Sams said. “I played with a great bunch of guys, like Herbie Bullock, Billy Patton, Jimmy Street and Tommy Little. It was fun, a great time and a great team. That’s what I remember the most.”
These days, Bailey holds events for a company in Charlotte.
He said winning was a big part of his positive memories from his days at Science Hill.
“The good things were winning championships with people I grew up with in the Carver projects,” Bailey said. “We were kids who grew up competing with each other in every aspect of life, and through basketball we won championships.”
Counting by threes throughout his basketball career might have been an indicator Good was exceptional at math. These days he is a high school match teacher at Unicoi County, and coaches basketball with his dad, John Good.
He said he fondly remembers his playing days with the Hilltoppers.
“My time at Science Hill was special,” he said. “Growing up in Johnson City, I saw the tradition firsthand. Our teams carried on the tradition, and it is a blessing to be able to add some history from my four years at The Hill.”
Good also said he was glad to experience both gyms at the school. He played in ‘Topper Palace until The New Gym opened his senior year.
Still involved with high school basketball, Johnson is the head coach at Providence Academy. He also works with the RISE UP! after-school program in Johnson City.
Johnson said his playing days at Science Hill were fun.
“Our team with the camaraderie we had, it was more fun than anything,” he said. “The competitive nature of practice we brought and the chemistry we had made it special.”
And he said the players learned a lot.
“Shane and I used to talk about this at Tennessee,” Johnson said. “A lot of things we were taught in high school, some of the best players in the country didn’t know. We were taught basketball at a high level and we didn’t know it at the time.
“A lot of the kids didn’t know the terminology the coaches used. I would laugh at how some of the top players in the country didn’t know how to play help side like us. It was second nature, things we learned in eighth and ninth grade.”
Cutlip said Odem was “the most talented player he has ever coached.”
Hilltoppers’ athletic director Keith Turner said Odem’s athleticism was off the charts.
“He’s probably one of the best athletes I’ve seen since I’ve been at Science Hill,” Turner said. “He had a skill level to pass, shoot and rebound — he could do it all — and he did it effortlessly.”
Odem’s skills translated to the college game. From 2009-2011, he averaged 7.2 points per game at Division I Chattanooga.
Science Hill could flood the court with small quick players in 1990s, and the Hilltoppers used that advantage to dominate teams with their fullcourt pressure.
But the 6-foot-5 Fields gave the Hilltoppers perimeter size while also having no trouble fitting into the quickness scheme.
Fields was so impressive that he caught the eye of a well-known college coach, who was in town to look at other Hilltoppers’ players. Louisville’s Denny Crum inquired about Fields, only to find he was a junior.
“I would take him right now,” said Crum.