Sherlin’s story, which he told during a Lebanon Noon Rotary Club meeting Tuesday, started with a childhood love of basketball that developed when he watched his uncle play at a tournament in Nashville.
After he watched the tournament, he became enamored by the sport and wanted to spend all of his time playing it.
During his childhood, in the 1960s, he would sometimes walk through a mostly black neighborhood to go to and from school. This is where he met Bill Ligon.
“There was a group of them playing basketball, and I knew I shouldn’t be there, but I asked if I could play,” Sherlin said. “My dad was old fashioned. He’d whip me to pieces. But I had to play basketball. They told me I could play if I could shoot. I could shoot; it was the only thing I did.”
Sherlin said he “wore them out” on the basketball court, and he and the children he played against developed a mutual respect.
Sherlin and Ligon, one of the boys he played against, became fast friends and played basketball regularly for a few years until Sherlin’s family moved “out in the country,” and the two friends would only be able to keep up with each other’s high school basketball playing careers through snippets in the local newspaper.
“When I lived just a block over from him, I could walk over there anytime I wanted, but when we moved, I couldn’t see him,” Sherlin said.
Sherlin would go on to play high school basketball at Gallatin High School, which was a white high school at the time, and Ligon played at Gallatin Union, the city’s black high school.
“Sumner County was the last to integrate,” Sherlin said. “That was in 1970. I know [Wilson County] did it before then.”
The two schools never played each other in any sport. Though Gallatin Union wanted to play their in-town rivals, Gallatin High School would not compete against them, until 1970, when the desegregation of the schools was imminent, and Gallatin Union would be forced to close its doors and its students transfer to Gallatin High School.
“It was the first chance they would get to play us, and the last,” Sherlin said.
The two schools were in the same district tournament for the first time. The tournament was played in Springfield.
“[Gallatin Union’s basketball players] were awesome; they were undefeated and their entire starting five played college basketball,” Sherlin said. “They were the one seed and we were the two seed. They kept winning, we kept winning, and the tension in Gallatin kept building. There was a buzz in that town like you wouldn’t believe.”
It all led up to the championship game between the two teams. Sherlin said the gymnasium was packed, and as many as 200 people were turned away at the doors when the building was at capacity, and they had to listen outside on the radio.
The game was competitive, with Gallatin High’s starting center going down with an injury early as Gallatin Union tried to set a tone of physicality, Sherlin said. At halftime, it was tied.
“I’m always the last one out of the locker room in the second half,” Sherlin said. “When I come out, and I’m the last one, I said to God, ‘you gotta help me do something. You gotta let me hit some shots. We gotta win this game. I gotta do it.’ So we come out and I shoot. I make everything from everywhere.”
Sherlin scored 17 points in the third quarter alone, which gave Gallatin High School a 14-point lead. They would hold on to the lead and win the game.
After the game, the all-tournament team was announced, and each player walked to center court. Fresh off a victory, Sherlin said, he was in tears.
“I cry, win or lose, because it’s everything to me; no matter what I played, it’s everything,” he said. “I’m out there crying because we just won the championship, not because we beat Union. I was just thinking about winning the championship. Then they call my buddy out, my friend, Bill Ligon … he’s crying because he knows it’s over. It was Union’s first and last chance to ever play us, and they didn’t do it, and it kills him.”
Sherlin said he remembered seeing Ligon slowly make his way toward center court.
“As a friend, you know, if your friend is hurting, you’re gonna hurt,” Sherlin said. “Nobody knows if we’re gonna touch each other because, you know, you didn’t mix then. All through the ’60s, you didn’t do that. He’s coming out, and as he’s coming to me, I open my arms and I grabbed him and we hugged each other, and we cried on each other’s shoulders for what seemed like forever.”
In that moment, Sherlin said, the gymnasium was completely silent. After the two friends hugged, those in attendance erupted in applause.
“You could see black and white hugging and shaking hands, and all that tension left the building,” Sherlin said. “My principal said ‘the greatest thing you ever did for Gallatin was that night in Springfield.’”
Ligon would go on to play college basketball at Vanderbilt University, and Sherlin would go on to be drafted out of high school by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“We’re still friends to this day,” Sherlin said.
Author Ken Abraham adapted the story into a New York Times bestselling book titled “More Than Rivals.” A movie adaptation is also in the works, Sherlin said.