NORTH LITTLE ROCK BASKETBALL | Johnny Rice’s wild ride

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North Little Rock basketball coach Johny Rice at last week’s All-Star game. (Photo by Kelly Brown)

As July 1 approaches, North Little Rock head basketball coach Johnny Rice can’t help but reflect on how his life has changed since last July 1.

That’s when the North Little Rock School district hired Rice to take over the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats’ basketball team.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Rice said.

Rice has used “whirlwind” to describe his first year on North Little Rock’s bench more than once.

That whirlwind hand gobbled up honors in it’s wake including a Miami Heat-esque 27-game winning streak, an undefeated record in the 7A/6A-East, a state championship, Coach of the Year and last Thursday Rice coached two of his players as the head coach of the East All-Stars.

“It was the cherry on top for sure,” Rice said of his All-star week experience.

All from a coach that wasn’t hired at North Little Rock without an interim tag attached to his title, a tag that Rice admitted nagged at him a little bit.

“People would ask me about it,” Rice said, “and it was hard not to think about.”

Rice engulfed himself in his work, and in his faith.

“We just went about the day to day operations of this basketball team,” Rice said.

That operation resulted in history. The only game the Charging Wildcats fell short was during Thanksgiving weekend against Charleston, Mo. Any other time they took the floor before or after that, they walked out winners.

They won tournaments like Jamming for Jackets, and the Coke Classic in Fort Smith. They beat numerous teams more than once including Fayetteville in Jamming for Jackets and ultimately for the state title.

Did Rice worry about what would happen to him after the season? That’s where his faith came in.

“It was just the will of God,” Rice, who played and graduated from Ouachita Baptist University.

Rice said under previous circumstances, he wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity. The previous Athletic department policy was any head coach at North Little Rock had to have previous head coaching experience. Also because of the segregation lawsuit that previously hung over the district’s head, it was believed that North Little Rock must hire a black coach.

Through all of it, Rice took his opportunity and ran with it. The result was enough honors and accomplishments to fill a career. But Rice stops short of his own credit.

“I got to coach the most talented group of players in this school’s history,” Rice said.

Dayshawn Watkins was named MVP of the game and Thomas Alexander garnered Outstanding Player of the Camp.

Watkins scored 16 points in two and a half minutes of a 98-50 blowout.

“I love North Little Rock,” Rice said. “I’ve coached in through this system.”

It worked out better than anyone in Rice’s position could have hoped. No matter how long Rice’s tenure lasts, it will be hard to top year one.

But it will certainly be fun trying.

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