North Georgia All-Star Classic
When: 3-point shootout, 1 p.m.
Slam dunk contest, 2 p.m.
Girls game, 3 p.m.
Boys game, immediately following girls
Where: Gainesville High gym
Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for students and free for children 5 and under
As Seth Vining wrapped up the final practice before his East Hall boys basketball team’s 2002-03 season opener, Brody Langston played one of his usual pranks.
The sophomore stood behind his coach and began tickling the hairs on the back of his neck in hopes of producing a laugh from his teammates. Vining thought it was a fly at first, but he turned in time to catch Langston innocently raising his hands in the air.
“I was trying to get your attention,” Langston playfully lied.
“Then let’s work on communication,” Vining replied.
So the Vikings ran sprints for an extra 20 or so minutes after an already grueling and up-tempo practice, a staple of the legendary Vining’s tenure at East Hall. Langston ended up drawing the ire of his teammates rather than their laughter, but such antics weren’t uncommon for a group that was so tight-knit it would do just about anything to keep playing basketball together.
“We would do things and goof off not to get in trouble, but to extend practices,” Langston said. “We’d maybe miss shots on purpose and have nobody score so we’d have to keep playing.”
On Saturday, they’ll reunite on the court for the first time in more than a decade.
The 2001, 2003 and 2005 East Hall boys basketball state championship teams will be honored during the North Georgia All-Star Classic at Gainesville High. Members of those Vikings squads will be recognized at halftime of the boys game, which is set to begin immediately following the girls game at 3 p.m.
“It’ll be exciting,” said current Vikings coach Joe Dix, an eight-year assistant on Vining’s staff before taking the full-time job in 2004-05. “Some of those young men from 2001 team, I still haven’t seen since then. There are several guys from all those teams I have not seen in years.”
The teams that turned East Hall into an early 2000s powerhouse were all built around the same things, coaches and players agreed — depth, defense predicated on pressure and a sense of family that bred selflessness.
For the Vikings, that bonding came from countless hours in the gym together outside of practice. Before and after school and during the summer, players spent their free time engaging in pickup games, dunk contests and 3-point shootouts.
“What made (winning state championships) so much easier was we were family,” Langston said. “It wasn’t just at school or at practice, but we just played in our leisure time.”
“They were always together,” Dix said. “We had to run them out of there sometimes just so they could rest.”
The 2001 squad took it one step further. Members of the team who weren’t playing football in the fall ran cross country until basketball season started. On top of helping foster team chemistry, it ensured everyone was in shape come the opening tip-off.
“I think we finished third place in region that year, just a bunch of us basketball players,” Mark Causey, a senior in 2001, recalled with a laugh.
Ultimately, that helped the Vikings finish first in the state on the hardwood.
A year after making its first-ever state championship game appearance in 2000, when it lost to nationally-ranked Mitchell-Baker, East Hall ended its 44-year boys basketball title drought with a 78-67 win against Calhoun in Class AA.
The Vikings finished the year with a 30-2 record, and their only two losses came at the hands of eventual Class AAAAA state champion Berkmar. Causey and his fellow seniors accounted for 62 of East Hall’s points in the state championship game, but he insisted the team achieved its ultimate goal because of a balanced roster from top to bottom.
That created a culture that directly led to two more state championships over the next four seasons.
“We didn’t care who scored, who had the stats or numbers,” Langston said. “We cheered for each other as if we were the ones doing the scoring. We enjoyed each other. We cheered on whomever played the best. We lacked selfishness on our team.”
He played a role on both the 2003 and 2005 title teams, first when the 31-1 Vikings crushed Hart County 81-47 in Class AAA.
“We had a lot of outstanding players, which made the depth of our team one thing that really set us apart,” Vining said. “But they were unselfish. Most of them understood their roles and played within their roles. We had a lot of guys that could have been our leading scorer.”
Frank Davis, East Hall’s top offensive producer in as a junior 2005, knew that all too well.
The Vikings advanced to their third straight state championship game with a 75-60 win against Dublin in the semifinals, in which Davis — who now serves as an assistant coach at Tennessee Tech after a standout playing career there — scored just two points.
“Guys were calling me ‘Deuce’ for next 24 hours,” Davis said with a chuckle. “But we still won that game. It was next-guy-up kind of thing. Our mentality was we would wear you down.”
It was a mission statement East Hall carried out even after Vining left the school following its loss to West Laurens in the 2004 Class AAA title game. The Vikings experienced a smooth transition when Dix took over in 2004-05, enjoying perhaps their most dominant season on the way to their third championship in five years.
East Hall (31-1) averaged 95 points per game during the playoffs, which culminated with a resounding 99-67 win against Greenville. The team won its five tournament games by an average of almost 29 points, handing Dix a state championship in his first year as head coach.
The coach fondly remembers that year’s team winning the prestigious Roundball Classic when Davis, just a junior, hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Seton Hall Prep, then ranked No. 2 nationally. Dix said he still gets calls from coaches wanting East Hall to participate in tournaments because of its performance in 2005.
“Those guys embraced me,” he said. “They could have made it difficult. They embraced and respected me and really worked to do the things I wanted them to do. That made it really sweet.”
It’s a feeling shared by all those East Hall champions who will be assembled at Gainesville High on Saturday to reflect on their achievements.
“Winning state was a special moment, especially being a senior and going out as a champion,” said Causey, the 2001 Class AA Player of the Year who then walked on at Duke. “It’s one of those moments in life that you look back on and you wouldn’t trade it for much. The relationships go on forever when you do that.”
The reunion, however, will be bittersweet for members of the latter two championship teams.
Jamie Evans, a guard who graduated in 2005, died of a brain aneurysm in October 2015.
“He was one of my best friends,” Langston said.
Evans started on the 2003 state championship team as a sophomore but had a role off the bench in 2005, a shining example of the selflessness that defined those East Hall squads. Dix remembered him as a staunch defender, and the team now gives out a yearly award in Evans’ honor to the player who exhibits the most “enthusiasm and sacrifice.”
“He was one of those glue guys. He was our spirit,” Dix said. “ Stuff he did didn’t show up in the stat sheets. He drew chargers, he was our best defender, he made sure everybody else was locked in. He was loved. His passing was a rough time for everybody.”
The Vikings will reconvene in happier spirits Saturday, ready to be recognized for their accomplishments and to reminisce on the bonds that made them all possible.
For those who haven’t kept in touch over the years, it’ll be a family reunion of sorts back in the city that rallied to their side more than a decade ago.
Emphasis on family.
“Those were brothers,” Dix said. “They carried themselves that way and were always looking out for each other. That made them fun to coach.
“There was never a dull moment with those guys.”