The sound of the two rubber basketballs hitting the blacktop rings through the summer mugginess. The pitches of the bounces are different, like an adult and a child’s voice, because one basketball is official size and the other is miniature. They hit the ground at the same time, every time, in a rhythmic pulsing: ping-ping-ping. The boy handling both balls stares up at his coach, waiting for instructions.
“Cross ‘em!” the young coach instructs, looking down at the ground as he absentmindedly paws the baseline with his foot. The boy switches both balls to the opposite hands without breaking the cadence.
After being at the top of the Kentucky high school basketball universe just three years ago, this is Richard Gatewood’s coaching world these days. The boy he is instructing is his 7-year-old son, Cooper, who is still wearing his soccer jersey from a game earlier in the evening.
They are not in the Taylor County High School gymnasium, where Gatewood last coached in the state, but at a park in his hometown of Louisville.
A rapid rise
In the spring of 2016, Gatewood was perhaps the fastest-rising coaching star in Kentucky. Four years prior, at the age of 27, he had been named the head coach at Moore Traditional High School in Louisville.
After a successful 23-8 record in his opening campaign at Moore, Gatewood accepted the head job at Taylor County High School. When he arrived in Campbellsville in the fall of 2013, the Cardinals had notched a record of 16-15.
“It is a school and a community with a ton of basketball tradition, but they hadn’t had a 25-win season in a long time and hadn’t won a regional championship in 32 years,” Gatewood said. “We came in and changed the way we conditioned, changed the way we trained and changed the way we lifted.”
Behind sophomore Quentin Goodin and freshmen David Sloan and Ezra Oliver, the Cardinals bolted to a 27-6 record in Gatewood’s first season, falling in the semifinals of the region tournament.
With that team’s nucleus returning, Taylor County went 28-5 in 2014-15. The Cardinals claimed their first berth in the Sweet 16 since the 1980s.
“We became everyone’s Super Bowl,” Gatewood said. “It made us work even harder.”
Before the 2015-2016 season, Goodin’s senior season, Taylor County was rated as the preseason No. 1 team in the state by most major publications. The Cardinals earned a second-consecutive trip to Rupp Arena, reaching the second round before losing to Doss.
“He’s a really good X’s and O’s guy,” said Chris Goodin, one of Gatewood’s assistants at Taylor County and Quentin’s father. “He is also probably one of the best scouting coaches that I know. We scouted everybody. We would play a game, and the other team would call out a set and we would know exactly what was going on with those guys.”
At just 31 years old, Gatewood’s stock was high. He was invited to coach the Kentucky team in the annual Kentucky-Ohio All-Star game. He was fielding frequent calls about potential jobs.
One particular opportunity stood out to him: coaching an up-and-coming prep program near Anderson County, S.C., called 22 Feet Academy.
In June 2016, Gatewood — after going 79-21 in three seasons at Taylor County — announced that he was leaving Taylor County for 22 Feet.
“I talked to a lot of people, including a lot of college coaches, about (the 22-Feet Academy opportunity),” Gatewood said, “and they said if you can make it work at the prep level, then it is easier to make the jump to college.”
Mike Rawson, the owner of 22 Feet Academy, had made Gatewood a generous offer that included perks such as spots for all three of his children at a local private school and top-tier health insurance. He showed Gatewood blueprints for a planned dormitory for the 22 Feet Academy players.
The coach was sold, but it wasn’t long after Gatewood arrived in South Carolina that he knew he had made a mistake.
Gatewood’s first inkling that something wasn’t right came when he wasn’t reimbursed for his expenses on initial recruiting trips Rawson sent him on.
It only got worse.