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Rowan Legends: Basketball allowed McCullough to see the world

Bryan McCullough

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

GREENSBORO — Bryan McCullough lives now in Greensboro, the city where he closed his high school basketball career with 13 points for the victorious West squad that put up 104 in the 2001 East-West All-Star Game.

But while McCullough resides only 50 miles or so from his old stomping grounds in Salisbury, East Spencer and Spencer, the 36-year-old North Rowan graduate got to see a sizable chunk of the world. When you’re as good as McCullough was in his heyday, basketball is a free plane ticket to faraway places with strange-sounding names.

Getting paid to hoop is the stuff of dreams. It’s a goal realized by a small percentage of the population. McCullough did it for a long time.

“Sometimes when I wake up, it’s like it all was a dream, and it’s hard to believe it happened to me,” McCullough said. “It’s hard to convey to people all the things I had a chance to experience.”

As a pro, the 6-foot-6 McCullough drilled jump shots in Germany, Romania, Hungary, Chile and Canada. He rained a high percentage of his buckets in Romania, where he was a tough pro league’s top scorer in 2006-07 with 24.5 points per game and the No. 2 scorer the following season with 22.8.

“Romania is where I had the green light every night,” McCullough said. “I had a coach that put the ball in my hands.”

McCullough was the leading scorer his junior and senior seasons for Division I UNC Asheville. He tasted the thrill of March Madness with the miracle Bulldogs of 2003.

Before UNC Asheville, McCullough played on a storied high school team at North Rowan, a squad that produced one of the most dominant runs in program history, but also suffered the most stinging defeat.

In other words, McCullough’s basketball life was never boring.

It all started with Bryan’s father, Kevin, who was North’s leading scorer in the 1978-79 season. That season included 20 victories and a Christmas tournament title. As a senior, Kevin poured in 29 points against Davie County and 24 against Lexington. Bryan was born in the summer of 1983. Kevin was still a strong player when Bryan became old enough to tag along behind him for games at Royal Giants Park.

“I was that kid on the sideline, that kid who was always bouncing a ball,” McCullough said with a laugh. “My dad had press clippings. I naturally wanted to be like him.”

McCullough was encouraged by several youth coaches who saw he had a chance to be special. He shined in the Junior Hornets program.

A phenomenal group was coming along at North. Andre Byrd, Marcus Reddick and McCullough were the same age. They were together from elementary school through high school.

In seventh grade, Marcus Lawing joined them at North Middle when he arrived from Concord.

“We didn’t lose in middle school,” McCullough said. “In the ninth grade, we played jayvee ball for North because you had to wait your turn. I remember a jayvee game with West Rowan where we were down about 15 points at halftime. But we came back and won by 15. After that, there was no stopping us.”

As sophomores, McCullough, Byrd, Reddick and Lawing joined junior Mario Sturdivant in the starting lineup. Transfer Chris Phillips, another sophomore, joined the Cavaliers that season. North went 16-13 with that youthful team under first-year varsity coach Kelly Everhart, but it was obvious much bigger things were on the horizon.

The games between North Rowan, which added Graham Hosch to an already potent mix, and West Rowan over the next several years were epic and bordered on legendary. The 1999-2000 season was McDonald’s All-American Sco0ter Sherrill’s senior year at West. Early that season, West beat North twice, including a wild 82-81 affair in which Sherrill scored 32 and Donte Minter had 21 for the Falcons. Those two were the No. 1 and No. 2 all-time scorers in Rowan County, and they were teammates. North was good enough to go toe-to-toe with them.

“The game we lost by one, we fouled Scooter with one second left,” McCullough said.

The third meeting of coach Mike Gurley’s Falcons and Everhart’s Cavaliers, in a Christmas tournament semifinal, would prove to be a turning point for North and McCullough. McCullough scored a career-high 27 to pace a 73-64 victory over a vaunted West team that had been undefeated.

“About 24 of those 27 points came on  jumpers,” McCullough said. “Frankie (Williams) was giving me the shot from the short corner. It was like they wanted me to shoot it. I think what I remember most from that game is that it was the first time I didn’t care how many points I had or how many rebounds I got. I just wanted to win so badly that winning was the only thing that mattered. When you have that mindset, that’s when the points come.”

Buoyed by the win over West, North went 12-0 in the 2A Central Carolina Conference. McCullough topped 20 points three times in CCC games and averaged 14.0 points for the season. Byrd, a point guard with devastating quickness, averaged 17.2. North lost in the second round of the playoffs but finished 20-5 and had everyone except Sturdivant coming back for the 2000-01 season.

North wasn’t exceptionally big. McCullough was the tallest Cavalier, by far, so he played in the post, with Lawing providing the muscle as a 6-foot-2 power forward. Reddick was a scorer. No one could stay in front of Byrd. Phillips’ role was defensive stopper. Hosch was a dynamic sixth man.

The summer between their junior and senior seasons was confidence-building for North’s players. They competed in the AAU state tournament against big names such as future Duke Blue Devil Shavlik Randolph and UNC recruit Rashad McCants.

“We finished third and shocked a lot of people who didn’t know anything about North Rowan basketball,” McCullough said. “Then we went to the AAU nationals at Disney World, and we went up against Amare Stoudemire (who would be an NBA all-star at age 22). He put us in the consolation bracket, but we still made a run there and finished second. That summer gave us a lot of confidence going into our senior year.”

North football was strong and reached the third round of the 2A playoffs in the fall of 2000. Lawing, Byrd, Phillips, Hosch and key reserves Eric Davis and James House were football players.

“Our football guys lost to Newton-Conover, and then they were on the basketball court against A.L. Brown just a few days later,” McCullough said. “It took our guys a while to get their basketball legs, but we were still winning.”

McCullough carried the load in the early going. He scored 20-plus in six of North’s first seven games as his teammates settled in. North beat West 60-56 in the first showdown of the powerhouses, and then rolled 70-55 at West.

“I remember Dre Byrd saying it was the quietest the West gym had ever been,” McCullough said.

North’s third meeting with the Minter-led Falcons was a 71-66 North victory in the Christmas tournament title game. All five North starters scored in double figures. West was really tall and really good, and the Cavaliers swept them three straight. It seemed unlikely anyone in 2A would be able to deal with North, but that tournament championship game proved to be Byrd’s final contest. He wasn’t eligible for the second semester. That was a blow.

“That changed things,” McCullough said. “Phillips always had focused on defense, but then he had to take on more of a point guard role. Hosch had been coming off the bench, and now he was starting.”

Even without Byrd, North ran the table in the CCC for the second straight season. North overwhelmed Salisbury 97-49 and 83-57. North battered competent High Point Central and Ledford squads. The only close call was at Lexington, where North pulled out a 72-71 victory. North mauled Lexington in the meeting in Spencer.

In the CCC tournament, North demolished Lexington 83-60 in the championship game, with McCullough and Reddick combining for 42 points.

The sectionals in Hickory were no contest. North won by 29 in the sectional semifinals, and romped by 29 again in the sectional finals. North stood 26-0. The first unbeaten season in school history loomed as a very real possibility.

North returned to Hickory for the Western Regional and wiped out Shelby, 84-65, in the regional semifinal. McCullough scored 20. Phillips had 12 assists. Omar Witherspoon came off the bench to block four shots.

“We won by a lot, so I don’t remember much about that game, don’t even remember any of the Shelby players,” McCullough said. “I do remember someone saying we should’ve saved something.”

North expected to play West Caldwell in the regional final, but Lexington upset West Caldwell, 58-56. It was only the second loss for West Caldwell.

That appeared to be good news. North had beaten Lexington, its CCC neighbor, three times already and the last two meetings hadn’t been close. Lexington had lost 12 games, while North was unbeaten, but the night of March 3, 2001, brought a perfect storm of frustration to Hickory. If it could go wrong, it did go wrong for the Cavaliers. North wanted a game in the 70s. Lexington made it a game that was still in the 50s at the end of regulation.

“A lot of times, we got momentum by pressing, but it was a bigger court, so we didn’t press,” McCullough said. “Lexington sat back in a zone, dared us to shoot and we were cold. And they got hot. It was a night they couldn’t miss. We’d never seen them shoot like that.”

McCullough, who scored 19, and Phillips fouled out in overtime. Lexington won 66-62 in a monumental upset. North got out-rebounded badly. Lexington’s Marquis Carroll made six 3-pointers and scored 27 points.

North became the seventh Rowan boys team to have its dreams die in a regional championship game in Hickory.

“The night it happened it was hard to understand it, but the more ball I played, the better I understood it,” McCullough said. “Things can happen when you’re playing a team for the third or fourth time. Things that aren’t supposed to happen, they can happen.”

North settled for 27-1.

McCullough and Reddick finished their high school careers together on the winning side in the East-West All-Star game. McCullough, who averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds, was the Rowan County and Central Carolina Conference Player of the Year.

McCullough attracted recruiting love from colleges as a senior — Applachian State, Elon, The Citadel, Charleston Southern — but it really boiled down to Winthrop, where people expected him to go, and UNC Asheville, his surprise choice.

“Winthrop was in Rock Hill, and I could get down there from home in 45 minutes,” McCullough said. “Winthrop was comfortable. I knew all the players, hung out with them a lot. But then when I visited UNC Asheville, the mountains were beautiful. It was so different. It wasn’t nearly as close as Winthrop, but it wasn’t too far away.”

McCullough made the transition from post to shooting guard/small forward as a college freshman for head coach Eddie Biedenbach, who had starred at N.C. State in the 1960s. He played a lot off the bench as a freshman.

“It was eye-opening, adjusting to the D-I level,” McCullough said. “I played behind a senior that first year.”

He started the next three.

Teamwise, his fondest memories are from the surreal 2002-03 season, his sophomore year, when UNC Asheville’s Bulldogs shocked the world.

The Bulldogs had dropped their last four games of the regular season, but they got hot at the perfect time in the Big South Tournament.

UNC Asheville might have been eliminated quickly in the quarterfinals, but McCullough had 13 points, seven rebounds and six steals against Elon. In the semifinals, McCullough made four 3-pointers and scored 18 points to sink his buddies at Winthrop. After McCullough scored 16 points in the championship game against Radford, UNC Asheville owned a stunning tournament title and put on its dancing shoes.

McCullough made the all-tournament team.

“I remember the night before that championship game we didn’t sleep,” McCullough said. “We were too excited to sleep. We talked all night.”

UNC Asheville was a modest 14-16, but it headed to Dayton, Ohio, to take on Texas Southern in the NCAA tournament’s play-in game. UNC Asheville, which had faced Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Connecticut, had won only one road game all season and was the only team in the NCAA field with a losing record.

But the Bulldogs handled Texas Southern. McCullough scored 15 points.

The reward was a meeting with the University of Texas in Birmingham, Ala. —  and an 82-61 loss.

“You see the ESPN cameras start rolling in, and it’s a little different,” McCullough said. “The lights were bright. We had big eyes. Texas had a super-fast guard, T.J. Ford, and we got down a lot (24-8) early. Once we settled down, it was a respectable game, but it was too late.”

McCullough averaged double figures as a sophomore.

He led UNC Asheville in scoring as a junior (10.1 per game) and senior (13.5). He also led the team in assists as a junior.

There was a night against Montreat when McCullough nearly had a triple double with 21 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

He was second team All-Big South as a senior, but he never again got to experience the elation of March Madness.

In his college career, McCullough totaled 1,186 points, 300 assists, 147 steals and 125 3-pointers.

“You always wish you could have done more, scored more points, got more rebounds, but I had a pretty solid career,” McCullough said. “College basketball was a positive experience. I made a lot of friends. Over the years, I’ve stayed in contact with my coaches and teammates.”

McCullough always got a lot of steals. There were several games in which he had seven.

“I liked to study film and pick up on the tendencies of opponents,” McCullough said. “That’s how you get steals.”

The pro game overseas was next for McCullough. American players were expected to carry the scoring load for their teams.

McCullough was happy to do that. Most places he fit right in.

“You could usually tell after a game or two how a whole season was going to go,” McCullough said. “I was on a team in Germany where I could see the situation just wasn’t going to work out, but most of the countries I played in things went smoothly.”

Communication wasn’t as much of an obstacle as he anticipated.

“In a country like Romania, it could be a struggle to communicate with the people who were 50, but the young people spoke English,” McCullough said. “Most of my career, we played only on the weekends, so there was a lot of free time. Besides the countries where I played, I had a chance to travel to places like Italy and Spain. The nicest place I ever played was Chile. We were on the Pacific Ocean and played in a resort with a casino. The toughest place was Canada. It was cold.”

As far as communicating through the universal language of basketball, McCullough always thrived. There were a lot of swished jumpers.

His pro odyssey started in Germany in 2005 and lasted until 2012.

“I just got tired of living out of a bag,” McCullough said.

McCullough represented North in the summer Throwback all-star games that Scooter Sherrill staged. Just a few years ago, McCullough suited up for the Rowan Bulls minor league team.

McCullough works in High Point for a company called Thomas Built Buses that manufactures school buses. He got married 3 1/2 years ago. He and his wife, Sequilla, live in Greensboro.

“I’m doing well and I can still play a little bit,” McCullough said. “The worst injury I ever had was a twisted ankle. Basketball was always a blessing.”

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