Paying it forward
All you have to do is walk into Larry Ross' office at Cool Springs Gymnasium to learn that basketball is his passion.
Ross' walls are covered in newspaper clippings, his floor is covered with tear-away pants and warm-up jerseys and a 10-foot long shelf is full of photos from past teams. Ross even refuses to take a photo without wearing his East Rutherford basketball hat.
Ross, 52, is the girl's basketball coach at East Rutherford High School as well as the main coach and contact for the local AAU basketball program, the Forest City Heat.
Ross' love for basketball started at a young age. After the passing of his father when he was a young boy, Ross found a new father figure in Howard White.
"Howard was over parks and rec here in Forest City and pretty much took me and my brothers in as his sons," Ross said. "He even taught me how to drive and get my permit. He helped my mom out to get me my first car."
White groomed Ross as a basketball player and as a young man.
"He would take us to high school games, college games and several other basketball events throughout the country to compete," said Ross. " Everything I have going on for me goes back to Howard White. Everything I saw him do with us as youngsters I try to do with our kids today."
White's influence on Ross has influenced him to become a man of similar qualities.
"Since I got to do that as a kid I wanted to be able to do the same for some of the kids here in Forest City who wouldn't normally get the chance to get out of Rutherford County," Ross explained. "That's when I got involved with the AAU so I could take them out and compete at events."
Then the Forest City Heat was born. The success was immediate.
"In 1996 Howard Hamilton and I used to take our sons to Hickory to play on AAU teams. We did that for a couple years before we started the Forest City Heat in 1998," said Ross. "We were able to win a state championship with local kids in our first year and compete in Orlando. We finished the summer as the No. 2 team in the country."
That was only the first of many titles and honors for the Heat. As Ross and his coaches coached the youth of Forest City, it only made them better when the reached the high school level.
"That success led to the success at East," said Ross. "When those kids had that success at a younger age, playing for state championships and big games seemed normal to them. They had been built for that kind of atmosphere."
In 1998 there was just one team in the Forest City Heat family, the second it grew to four and now it consists of ten teams.
If anyone has benefited from the AAU programs and the coaching the kids receive, it's East Rutherford head coach Brad Levine who boasts three of the Heats star players on this year's East Rutherford varsity roster in Devonte Boykins, Travis Waldroup-Rodriguez and Larry's son, Roddric.
The AAU program has also had star players from R-S Central, Chase and Thomas Jefferson.
"Here in these gyms in where it all starts," Ross said. "Levine is a great coach and a great guy who's done a great job at East. We've worked really well together from my AAU programs to the high school programs."
Ross joined the coaching staff at his alma mater, East Rutherford, in 2000 as a varsity assistant and the JV head coach. It wasn't before he took over the girl's program.
"In 2002-03 we lost our girl's coach and the principal at the time asked if i would take over, and I accepted," Ross said. "In the first year we went to the regional final with a very good group of girls. The following year we went to the state championship game and lost to a very good Southwest Edgecombe team."
Since Ross has taken over the program, the Lady Cavs have earned 20 wins in every season except for one when they finished with 18 in 2008-09.
"The program has just took off," Ross said. "The 2004-05 team really sticks out in my mind. Those girls are the ones I started with in AAU and had the chance to coach them in high school for their sophomore and junior years was just awesome."
Those teams that Ross vividly remember s were lead by some of his favorite players, most notably, Brittany Boyce.
"Brittany may be the best girls player to ever come through here," Ross said. "She was like a daughter to me. Everybody in the community till thinks she's my daughter because I would bring her with me everywhere."
Ross has certainly made his mark on the Rutherford County basketball scene, one that he grew up in and watched evolve for over 40 years, but he realizes that he couldn't have done this by himself. And like Ross said, it all starts in the local gyms.
"To be raised me up in Callison Gym and then grow up to get a job in parks and recs and be a father figure to these AAU kids means the world. Words can't explain what it means to me to be part of parks and rec," Ross said. "Chuck Summey and Jody Wright think enough of me to let me operate this. Without them this wouldn't be possible. Without the freedom to have these facilities open seven days a week the success we've had wouldn't be possible."