At 72, Steve Joyner still going strong at Johnson C. Smith

Johnson C. Smith University men’s head basketball coach and athletic director Stephen Joyner, Sr. on Thursday, February 9, 2023.

Johnson C. Smith University men’s head basketball coach and athletic director Stephen Joyner, Sr. on Thursday, February 9, 2023.

In 1978, Jimmy Carter was president, “Laverne and Shirley” was the No. 1 show on television and the movie “Grease” debuted in theaters.

In other news that year, a 27-year-old basketball coach named Steve Joyner came back to Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University, anxious to start a new job at his alma mater.

He’s been there ever since.

Now 72, Joyner has been coaching at Charlotte’s historically Black university in one form or another for the past 45 years. He’s been the JCSU men’s head basketball coach since 1987 and is closing in on 600 wins as the school prepares for the CIAA tournament, which begins Tuesday in Baltimore.

If you want to talk about Black History Month at J.C. Smith, you can’t have the conversation without including Joyner in the first few sentences. The coach doesn’t just brim with institutional knowledge. He’s an institution himself on the campus on Beatties Ford Road, a mile outside of uptown Charlotte, much like the man Joyner used to deliver the newspaper to in Winston-Salem every morning and afternoon as a child.

“I was once the paper boy for ‘Big House’ Gaines,” Joyner said.

Gaines was a groundbreaking coach who directed the men’s basketball program at Winston-Salem State, the well-known HBCU in Joyner’s hometown, for 47 years. Gaines retired in 1993 after winning 882 games and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Joyner didn’t play for Gaines, although as a high school basketball star in the late 1960s he certainly could have. “I wanted to get away from home,” Joyner said.

But it was Gaines, who died in 2005, who Joyner often thought about when he had opportunities to leave Charlotte and J.C. Smith through the years.

“When I look at Clarence ‘Big House’ Gaines up in Winston-Salem and what he has meant to the city, the impact he had. … That was my role model,” Joyner said. “And I’m hoping I’ve had somewhat of a (similar) legacy here in Charlotte.”

Johnson C. Smith University men’s head basketball coach and athletic director Stephen Joyner, Sr. on Thursday, February 9, 2023. JEFF SINER

It’s fair to say that he has. The gold and navy blue basketball court inside Brayboy Gym is named for Joyner. He’s involved in the lives of not only his men’s basketball program but every athlete in the school’s 15 sports, which all compete in Division II for the historically Black private university of 1,093 students.

At the moment, as he has off and on several times during his career, Joyner is serving as the Golden Bulls’ athletic director as well as the men’s basketball coach. He’s doing those two jobs at the same time, which means he’s thinking not just about the best way to make a run in the CIAA tournament but also about transportation for the softball team.

Still, he’s managing to get it all done. “Coach’s energy level is exactly the same as when I played for him,” said Trevin Parks, now an assistant coach at J.C. Smith but previously one of the school’s best all-time scorers from 2010-13. “He’s never too high. Never too low. Cool, calm and collected. Never gets rattled.”

“He was the guy who could cuss you out without using curse words,” said Steve Joyner Jr., the oldest of Steve Joyner’s three children and a standout point guard for his father at JCSU during the team’s run to the Division II Elite Eight in 2001. “He’s always been stern but fair.”

“He’s not a yeller or a screamer,” said Mark Sherrill, a longtime Golden Bulls assistant who also once starred for Smith. “He’s more of a teacher, trying to guide you through basketball and through life.”

The retirement question

Any coach who is still doing the job into his 60s and 70s is asked the “When do you plan to retire?” question during his or her final seasons. It happened to Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Summitt and Bob McKillop in their final years at the helm, and now it happens to Joyner, too.

“Every year,” Joyner said, “I sit down and I ask myself, ‘Are you still capable of doing what you need to do?’ It’s a conversation I have with the (JCSU) president every year. … Right now, I don’t entertain that. It’s not fair to the student-athletes that we’re dealing with. But certainly, it’s a year-to-year question.”

Those close to Joyner say they would be surprised to see him step away from the game after this season, though.

Johnson C. Smith University men’s head basketball coach and athletic director Stephen Joyner, Sr. on Thursday, February 9, 2023. JEFF SINER

Said Joyner Jr., the coach’s oldest son, until recently the school’s women’s basketball coach and now the athletic director at West Charlotte: “People always ask me, ‘How’s your dad doing?’ I say, ‘Is Smith still open? Because as long as Smith is open, then he’s OK.’ If there was ever a day when Smith was not open, then I would wonder what he would do with his time.”

When Joyner enrolled at Johnson C. Smith for the first time in 1969 to be a student-athlete, Brayboy Gym was only 8 years old. “It felt practically new,” said Joyner, who would later coach the school’s women’s team in the 1980s before taking the men’s head job.

Now the 1,360-seat gym that Sports Illustrated once named one of America’s loudest gyms has started to creak. It’s 62 years old and can still be loud for a big home game, but parts of it are also dated.

For example: I covered the end of a weird game in Brayboy in 2014 that started on a Wednesday night and ended 40 hours later, on a Friday afternoon.

The low-hanging lights in Brayboy are only about 20 feet above the gym floor and are ripe to get blasted by a full-court heave. That happened on that Wednesday night, sending glass showering onto the court and sending a 70-pound light fixture swinging almost to the ground after a J.C. Smith player tried unsuccessfully to make a last-second basket from 80 feet.

The game was tied at the end of regulation at the time of the incident, and there was some conversation around whether they should just declare it a tie. But neither team wanted that, nor a coin flip, which was also proposed at one point. So 40 hours later, Winston-Salem State came back and played a five-minute overtime that began at 2 p.m. and had J.C. Smith students rushing the court by 2:14 p.m.

So Smith won the OT with a very hot shooting stretch. In fact, you might say they shot the lights out twice in the same contest.

“That was the longest game ever,” Joyner said that afternoon, “and the shortest game ever.”

Johnson C. Smith University men’s head basketball coach and athletic director Stephen Joyner, Sr. on Thursday, February 9, 2023. JEFF SINER

Looking forward at JCSU

That was just one of the hundreds of memories Joyner has had in a gym has been heavily used for decades, as it hosts both men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, intramurals and social events.

Daydreaming about a new facility and its potential name, Joyner said: “I’m not opposed to a Jack S. Brayboy 2, or a Steve Joyner 1.” He paused. “That’s a joke.”

Getting a new facility to relieve some of the stress on Brayboy isn’t a joke, though. Joyner would like to make it happen. And he’d like his team to win more, too. This year’s young J.C. Smith team is only 9-15 and in the bottom half of the CIAA standings. Brayboy includes three banners from the CIAA championships that Joyner and J.C. Smith won in 2001, 2008 and 2009, but it’s been quite a while since the Golden Bulls have added another tourney championship on the men’s side.

“The talent level is not where it should be right now,” Sherrill, Joyner’s top assistant coach, said. “We’re working hard on that.”

COVID issues also affected HBCUs, sometimes severely. Joyner thinks his basketball team is still suffering from a post-COVID malaise in which, for a year, players largely had little coaching or opportunity to build team camaraderie. Johnson C. Smith’s enrollment also dropped during that time, Joyner said, and the school would like to add several hundred more students to get its enrollment back to around 1,500.

J.C. Smith guard Christian Kirchman, left, and Golden Bulls coach Steve Joyner talk strategy in 2017. Benjamin Robson

In the meantime, though, J.C. Smith will try to pull a series of upsets and win the 2023 CIAA tournament.

The Golden Bulls will be led by Ezekiel Cannedy, a freshman guard from Kings Mountain who is averaging a team-high 15.6 points per game and who Joyner thinks will be the conference’s rookie of the year.

Joyner’s eyes light up when he talks about Cannedy’s future. He sounds more like a coach looking forward than one looking back. Joyner has three kids, four grandkids and, he said, “more toys at my house than I know what to do with.”

One day, he’ll go home for good and play with those grandkids full-time. But today is not that day. There are more games to win, and more young men to guide.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has earned 18 national APSE writing awards and hosted The Observer’s podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.” His new podcast and online series is called “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” and features 1-on-1 interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
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