Bronson’s Rivers bound for Savannah

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By Jenna McKenna

James Rivers was one of Bronson basketball's Super Sophs, the little team that could, the squad of sleepers that came out of nowhere to storm all the way to the Class 2A Sweet Sixteen in 2007. This is the team that " remember? - in the first week of November suddenly found out the starting five that was going to take them through the region was out. Suddenly, then-head coach Kelly Beckham was looking at starting a pair of sophomores at the point and small forward " two guys who lit up JV last year, yeah, but were they ready to deal with Oak Hall, Mayo and Hawthorne? Amazingly, they were. Rocking a sub-.500 record from a string of first half losses, the Eagles picked up enough steam in the second half to win the district championship, knock out their district quarterfinal foe and roll up into the Sweet 16 before being drummed out by eventual state champs Arlington Country Day. The very same group of overachievers was district runner-up the following year, going to the regional quarterfinal before again running into ACD. Rivers was one of the defining players of that team, a versatile swingman with soft hands and a sweet shot from any part of the floor. Through his junior and senior year, Rivers was a team leader, the quietest man on the floor who put on the loudest example with his play. “Coach Beckham would always tell me before the game, 'James, I need you to have a good game tonight,'” Rivers recalls. “He wanted me to set the tempo of the game, that way the rest of the team would get fired up.” There has always been someone around who wanted Rivers to do something for his team. His aunt Catherine Smith, who adopted him when he was 8, talked him into trying out for basketball when he was in sixth grade. “I didn't like it at first,” he says. “I didn't know if I could be any good.” Rivers came back and tried again in seventh grade, this time after practicing a lot on his own. “I just played a lot, at the park, by myself. I wanted to get better.” He did get better, playing only one year on the middle school team and moving up to JV in eighth grade. “Coach Kenny Thomas saw me and said I had to move up,” he explained. After ninth grade, it happened again. “Coach Beckham wanted me to come up to varsity. I decided it would be just as hard to stay down on JV and get used to a whole new team, and I wanted to get better.” That kind of work fit in great with the varsity teams Rivers was part of. “The guys we lost that year " they were a lot better shooters than we were,” he recalls. “We didn't have to worry about rebounding as much with them. But after they were gone, we had to work for every rebound, because our shots didn't fall as often. We had to get back fast and hustle.” Rivers credits Beckham's help in teaching him how to see the game better. “He gave me different ways of looking at game situations " like, don't just look for the man to be open; sometimes you have to make the play yourself. He counted on me a lot to keep the team working together.” Now the next play is up to him. As the weeks of summer run away, he's getting ready to move on to the next stage of his life, one he hopes will still include basketball. Next month, Rivers will head up to Savannah, Ga. to attend Savannah State University, one of Georgia's Historic Black Universities. Rivers was considering another of the South's great HBCUs, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, but decided on Savannah State because it is a public school and because he has several sisters in the area. One sister, Kizzy McCray, just finished a degree in nursing at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, and Rivers says she has always inspired him with her hunger to learn and succeed. “Kizzy helped me find Savannah State,” Rivers said. “I wanted to go to one of the black colleges, and I was thinking about BCC, but I really wanted to be near family.” Rivers is ready to do whatever it takes to make his future work out. He wants to be a sports physician, and math and science have always been his best subjects. He wants to keep playing basketball, and would consider all avenues, including playing overseas, if that's what it takes. “I talked to (fomer UF basketball player) Walter Hodge about his going to play in Spain,” Rivers says. “I would do that.” “He's never been one to stay in a crowd,” says Catherine, proudly. “Even his teachers noticed. They'd say, 'James is different.'” True. And maybe James Rivers will go to Spain, or Italy, or even Russia to play basketball. But first, Savannah beckons.