By BILLY W. HOBBS
Bill McNair remembers the first time he ever set foot inside a gymnasium.
The 55-year-old McNair remembers that day like it was yesterday, in fact.
“As a little kid, who was always used to playing basketball outside with other neighborhood kids, I never knew the game was actually played inside, too, by kids just like me,” recalled McNair during a recent interview with The Union-Recorder.
Back in those days, he and his friends were used to playing sandlot basketball.
“We didn’t have any paved courts to play on; they were just all sand,” McNair said.
He said one of his best friends growing up was “Ropey,” whose parents were a little more well off than most of his friends’ parents and had erected a basketball goal in their yard.
“We went over there and played all the time,” said McNair, who became an immediate basketball star from the time he made a long range shot.
“I was always really, really athletic,” said McNair. “As a young kid, I could run real fast.”
At the time, he really wasn’t into basketball as much as he was football.
“In those days, it was like the end of the Jim Brown days, and the beginning of the days of O.J. ‘The Juice’ Simpson,” said McNair. “Although it wouldn’t be a good nickname today, my nickname back then was ‘The Juice.’ That’s what everybody called me because I could run fast.”
As a youngster, McNair said he didn’t know anything about the recreation department and didn’t play with an organized league in basketball or football.
Back then there were student bus drivers throughout the state of North Carolina. And Dunn was no exception.
“I’m 9-years-old and one day I’m going home on the bus,” said McNair. “And we passed this placed called the Dunn Armory, like a military place. I said, ‘What is that place over there?’”
Some of his friends on the bus told him that kids played basketball inside the armory, which was like a gymnasium with inside basketball goals.
His friends told him that the kids who played there were members of a recreational basketball league.
“I remember saying, ‘Get out of here,’” said McNair, noting he couldn’t believe it. “So, I jump off the bus, which is not what you should ever do. And I ran over there. I saw the bikes outside, and I walk up to these doors. And the doors looked like I had just went to see the wizard, because they were just so big.”
McNair said when he opened up the doors, he immediately saw a bunch of kids his age shooting basketball.
The recreation director at that time was Red Lambert.
He later inquired as to what he needed to do to sign up to play recreation basketball.
“They told me I needed to go and talk with Mr. Red and that’s what I did,” said McNair. “He said I needed to sign up and that it would cost $3.”
The cost supposedly paid for insurance in the event a child was injured, he explained.
There was only one big problem.
McNair didn’t have $3.
He didn’t let that deter him, though.
Instead, he ran home from the gym.
“I went around asking everybody for the money, because I wanted to play basketball in the gym so badly,” said McNair. “Finally, my mom came up with the $3.”
McNair said he ran back to the gym.
Unfortunately his age group already had finished playing that day. But determined to play that day, McNair said he told officials he was 11 when he was really just 9.
“So they put me in the league that night with 11- and 12-year-olds,” McNair said.
A classmate later indicated to officials what McNair’s real age was and suddenly he was pulled off the playing floor and forced to wait until the next day when he was teamed up with his actual age group.
“I finally got on a team,” said McNair, noting he played football after the basketball season, but he had to do with it without his grandmother’s knowledge because she didn’t want him playing that sport, hiding his football uniform, helmet, and shoulder pads underneath the small house where he lived with his grandmother at the time.
McNair was injured and ended up becoming solely a basketball player from that point on through middle and his high school days.
McNair’s game continued improving, and the next year, at age 10, he scored more than 60 points in a game.
In high school, he was a starter on the freshman team and later a starter all three years on varsity.
During his junior year, McNair was highly recruited to play at several major colleges, including North Carolina, North Carolina State, and several other prestigious basketball power schools.
He went elsewhere, though, because of academics.
“I should have studied a lot more than I did to be honest about it,” said McNair.
McNair and Perry Hudson, now retired from the recreation department in Dunn, went on to play together for two years at East Carolina. The duo later transferred to Georgia Southern where they finished out their college playing careers.
McNair buckled down and learned that he needed to apply himself in the classroom as much as he did on the basketball court. It eventually paid him big dividends in life.
Little did McNair know that his unscheduled visit to that gymnasium in Dunn, N.C. when he was 9 would someday impact him or the profession he eventually chose in life to provide for him and his family.
McNair was raised by his paternal grandmother, whom he affectionately called “Ma Bessie.” Bessie McLean-Bilbry passed away in 1986 without ever seeing her grandson graduate from college or to realize that he would someday become most successful in life.
As it turned out, however, their shared aspirations became a reality.
“My grandmother taught me so many things about life and about being a good person, as opposed to becoming a bad person in life,” said McNair, who later became director of the Baldwin County Recreation Department. “We were very close.”
It’s a job he has held for 20-plus years.
McNair said life was much different for him when his Ma Bessie died, but that he was determined to continue his education at Georgia Southern in Statesboro, where he was a standout basketball player for the Eagles.
“My mom had me very young and back then that was a no-no,” said McNair. “She actually had my sister real young, too. My mom was only 16 when she had me. And she was 14 when she had my sister.”
McNair said his grandmother raised him from the time he was 4 and that she had already been raising his sister, Evelin McNeal, who still lives in Dunn and today works for a publishing company.
Up until the eighth grade, McNair described himself as a selfish child who didn’t do so well academically.
“I didn’t make good grades in school,” admitted McNair.
McNair remembers that it all came crashing in on him eventually.
“I was, I’m sure that year, the best player on the middle school basketball team,” said McNair. “I went to a school called Harnett Middle School in Harnett County, N.C.”
After graduating from college, McNair applied for a teaching and coaching position with the Bulloch County Board of Education in Statesboro for the dual role at Portal High School.
Once two years had come and gone, McNair was anxious to see what else life had to offer him.
“I just so happened to have a friend, Coach Lee Hill, who is today the head basketball coach at Statesboro High School, who knew at that time that I was looking to transfer to another school, if possible,” said McNair, noting that his wife at the time had transferred from Portal to Milledgeville with her job at Kmart.
McNair said he knew right away that he wanted to move to Milledgeville, because it was a great place and it was where Coach James Lunsford was the head boys’ basketball coach at Baldwin High School.
“My dream at that time was to move to Milledgeville and become Coach Lunsford’s assistant,” said McNair. “So, I called Coach Lunsford and the night I called him to asked him about the job, his wife, Joann answered the phone. And let me tell you, it was the nicest conversation that I could have had with anybody. She basically sold me on Milledgeville, even though I’d never met her or husband before in my life.”
McNair later moved to Milledgeville. As it turned out, his dream of becoming an assistant coach under Lunsford didn’t materialize because there weren’t any openings on the coaching staff.
At that time, Bill Gibbs was at the Baldwin County Recreation Department, and Oscar Davis was chairman of the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners. McNair said Lunsford told him about a vacancy as assistant recreation director, and he immediately acted trying to nail the job down.
“That’s basically how I became part of the Baldwin County Recreation Department family,” said McNair.
He was hired as the county recreation assistant director in 1988 a far cry from humble beginnings in North Carolina. He recalled that he, like so many of his childhood friends, was not as fortunate as other youngsters growing up in Dunn, N.C.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of money at all,” McNair said. “Nobody probably did back in that day.”
McNair said his Ma Bessie basically supported him and his sister off her social security check.
“I always tell the story that my grandmother didn’t have to do any of it,” said McNair. “She sacrificed so much in order to support us. We lived in a really small house that was on Greenwood Street. It was basically just three little rooms with no indoor bathroom.”
He also credits his mother, Rebecca Gillis, and a woman he refers to as his “white mama,” Polly Purdie, who also lived in Dunn, with helping him to get where he is in life today.
“I owe both of them a great deal,” McNair said, noting that he considered his brother to be a blonde haired, blue-eyed white boy, named Ted. “He was Mrs. Purdie’s son.
McNair has now held the director’s position for more than 20 years.
“I always knew that I was going to be a teacher/coach or work in a recreation department someday.”