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Nate Olson: Final season proof of why North Little Rock’s Johnny Rice is one of the greats

Rice's sixth state championship might have been his finest hour.

By Nate Olson | Photo by Tommy Land 

There are many who would look at North Little Rock’s talented boys basketball roster and think this was probably the easiest title of Johnny Rice’s six state championships he won in 10 years at the school.

That would be wrong. In a year where he had the most talent, Rice, who announced his retirement Thursday, did his best coaching job to ensure his team would live up to the excellence and hype that media in Arkansas and nationwide had bestowed upon his team starting in October. 

October is also when adversity struck the program and talented Sylvan Hills transfer Nick Smith Jr. was briefly ruled ineligible. During that brief period of uncertainty, Rice told me he was worried for both Smith and his other players. 

Smith continued to practice with the team, but Rice was forging a plan for life without Smith so that his team would still be able to defend its state championship without one of the nation’s top prep players.

The constant during that ordeal for Smith was the adamance of his innocence in the matter and his determination to play at North Little Rock. He could have played for any high school or prep school in the country, but he wanted to play locally where his family and University of Arkansas fans could see him play.

To hear Rice and Smith tell it, Smith jelled with his teammates almost as soon as he began working out with them in July. But that is also a credit to Smith’s demeanor. When he realized that many students at NLR were expecting him to be cocky and aloof, he was eager to get to know them and show them “he was a laid-back, chill guy.” That’s something his Charging Wildcats teammates already knew before school started.

But if the group wasn’t already close by October, the events regarding Smith’s eventual eligibility at the school only galvanized the bond. Rice’s leadership during the entire preseason was key, too. When a group is going through a trying time, they look to the leader. Rice was calm, cool and collected as all the uncertainty all but disappeared after Smith was ruled eligible.

The Xs and Os for this group were far from simple. Some naïve fans think coaching a talented team is as simple as rolling out the ball. That’s why I can’t stand it when some refuse to give credit to former Chicago Bulls coach Phi Jackson for the brilliant job he did in guiding the 1996 Bulls to 72 wins and an NBA title with the trio of stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Jackson had to pull a lot of strings on that team. 

Rice had to do the same with Smith and 7-foot Oregon commit Kel’el Ware and swingman Corey Washington, who transferred with Smith from Sylvan Hills.

The year before, Ware had been one of the key contributors on a state championship team. All of those three players could have easily averaged 25 points a game if they were the focal point of the system. Instead, they all bought into their roles and Smith became the leading scorer and go-to scorer, but also a facilitator. Ware and Washington were the recipients of many passes from Smith on the break that led to spectacular dunks. Smith got his shots but kept everyone happy as directed by Rice. The system seemed to create a lot of opportunities for everyone.

My first of several times seeing them play in person was at the King Cotton Classic in late December. NLR won the King Bracket of the King Cotton Classic. North Little Rock looked like a well-oiled machine, running the floor and clamping down on defense. They had little trouble taking care of Beaumont (Texas) United in the title game. United lost only twice the rest of the season and won the Class 5A Texas state championship.

Beaumont was just one of many opponents that North Little Rock played that was highly regarded nationally. At the prestigious City of Palms Tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., NLR beat Dr. Phillips (Orlando, Fla.) 63-62 and then dropped a game to prestigious IMG Academy (80-59), beat Chicago’s Whitney Young (74-69) and lost to Fort Lauderdale’s Calvary Christian (64-55).

That stretch alone was probably more competitive than any other nonconference slate in Arkansas history, but that doesn’t even include a road game with Richardson, Texas, or the King Cotton Classic.

Rice’s tutelage to navigate that schedule early was big. NLR didn’t play a home game in the month of December and lost to Jonesboro on its home court during a tournament it hosted early in the month. Without the right leadership, that month could have derailed the entire season.

Instead, it put the country on notice that North Little Rock, and Arkansas in general, was to be reckoned with in basketball. It also heightened the individual profiles of Smith and Ware, who became only the second duo from the same school to earn McDonald’s All-American bids in the same season

After winning the tournament in Pine Bluff, it seemed certain the Charging Wildcats wouldn’t lose another game to an in-state opponent. I told several people the game that would test them the most would be a conference game at Bryant in late Januaruy.

Bryant featured a couple of talented players and boasts a solid student section comprised of its four-time state championship football players.

Sure enough, NLR struggled in that game. They appeared to be sleepwalking a bit. However, the Charging Wildcats were awoken by a cranky Rice, who gave them a spirited pep talk in the locker room at halftime. Tested into the fourth quarter, NLR pulled out a 73-65 win.

The lesson that night was: great teams win games even when they aren’t playing their best. Washington came up with some big put-back buckets down the stretch that sealed the win.

A few weeks later, I was waiting on practice to end to visit with Ware for a story. I got a glimpse of how a Rice-led practice was run. It was intense in short bursts and organized. 

The opponent the next night was Bryant, and after seeing how Rice had run the team through its defensive strategy to limit the Hornets' Khasen Robinson, who scored more than 30 points in the first game, I knew the second meeting wouldn’t be close. The Charging Wildcats ran to a 72-41 win in the rematch without Ware, who was nursing a sore wrist.

The preparation and focus displayed in the time I was there was lock down. I was also impressed with Smith. Some future NBA draft picks could cruise through a high school practice. Not Smith. He gave full effort in every drill and was attentive. That says a lot about him — and about Rice, that Smith respected his coach and his knowledge. 

After that practice, I grabbed Smith for a quick interview regarding Ware before I sat down with the big man. While we were talking, a visibly irritated media member questioned Rice before interrupting, saying she had an appointment with Smith. Smith coolly assured her he was almost done. It was the second national outlet that had requested time with Smith that week.

Rice oversaw all of those requests — an extra responsibility on top of everything else. Whatever time SBLive staffers asked for, Rice was always super generous. When he took over the head-coaching job 10 years ago, I was leaving full-time sports coverage, so it was great to get to know him better again. He has raised two sons, like I am now, so we compared a few notes on what that’s like dividing and conquering. He gave his wife a lot of credit for shuttling his sons to baseball while the basketball season was winding down.

Rice’s knowledge, character and leadership were all on display during the greatest prep basketball season we’ve seen in Arkansas. If it wasn’t already known, he proved he’s among the best coaches of all-time, even in just 10 seasons as a head coach.