PIEDMONT – The crowd was on its feet as Woodmont High’s boys basketball team was about to take the court Tuesday night. The cheerleaders formed a tunnel. There was great anticipation.
One player, Nick Jones, emerged from the group, ran through the tunnel and approached the Wildcats’ bench.
Jones carried the blue No. 33 jersey of the late Justin Oliver, a Woodmont sophomore who was killed in an automobile crash Friday afternoon. Blue was Justin’s favorite color.
Jones wrapped the jersey around the first chair on the Wildcats’ bench and then made his way back through the tunnel to rejoin his teammates.
The team took the court wearing T-shirts with the words “You will always be with us” on the front and “OLIVER” and “33” on the back, along with 10/25/99-12/4/15. Many among the crowd — a huge crowd, students were admitted for free — were wearing the shirts as well.
“It’s real tough,” said senior Jaquan Williams, a teammate in basketball and football who had known Justin practically his whole life. “It tore me apart when I first heard it. I didn’t know if it was real, if it was a dream and stuff like that. But God has a plan for everything.”
“The kids have a resolve that I don’t have,” Woodmont coach Tim Morris said before his team took care of business and beat Mauldin 80-69. “I’m a very emotional person. But I think when it comes time to play, they put things together.
“They’ve had all kinds of ideas. ‘Coach, can we do this?’ I don’t want to put any limits on them, because they’re grieving. Some of them went to school with this kid since elementary school. Some of them played on his AAU team. So it’s various ways of knowing him besides just being on this team with him.”
Morris had his own unique connection with Justin, long before he ever coached him. The first player Morris ever took to a college tryout was Larry Oliver, Justin’s father.
It was Morris’ first year as a high school basketball coach. He was an assistant at Belton-Honea Path, and he took Larry to a tryout at Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill.
“His dad reminded me of that when Justin came out this year,” Morris said.
Larry Oliver was an all-state basketball player at BHP. Morris said Larry had a sister who was all-region in track and a brother who was all-state in football.
“There were five kids,” Morris said. “I remember they had a gospel singing group. Their mother played piano and those five kids would sing.”
Morris said their mother had cancer and died 16 years ago on Dec. 4 — the same day Justin died.
“He was a good kid, loved to joke around a lot,” Morris said. “He had a lot of his dad’s genes in him. I could tell he was a good basketball player.
“We had three sophomores and two freshmen on the varsity. I was looking at those five together for the next two years. He played a lot (Thursday) night in the game against Berea, and I felt real good about how he played.”
That was Justin’s last game.
He and teammate Julius Jones, a senior, were involved in the accident. Julius remains hospitalized.
“It’s been a very emotional time for us,” said Williams. “We’ve been coming closer and closer as a family. We’ve been here for each other and also here for Julius and Justin’s parents and their families.”
The next game for Woodmont was Tuesday’s against Mauldin. The Wildcats, as the home team, were supposed to wear white. Mauldin coach Jeff Harrelson gladly obliged when Morris asked if his team could wear blue.
While the teams were warming up, Larry Oliver and his wife, Stacey, a Woodmont graduate, entered Ben Abrams Gymnasium to a standing ovation. Several family members attended the game.
Before doing the pregame introductions, Woodmont athletic director Chris Carter gave a tribute to Justin and then asked for a moment of silence that lasted 33 seconds – Justin’s jersey number.
The Woodmont players presented Justin’s parents with a signed football and basketball and each member of the team embraced them.
Carter announced the starters for each team and then the reserves, capping the Woodmont substitutes with “No. 33, Justin Oliver!”
Williams said he would remember Justin’s smile.
“That joker had a great smile,” Williams said. “He laughed all the time. And his competitiveness. As soon as we stepped on the field or the court, he got serious and became a competitor.”
Justin Oliver didn’t step on the court Tuesday night during Woodmont’s victory. His seat was empty. But his presence was felt.