James Hartry owes everything he has to basketball. Don’t believe it? The proof is right there in his family tree.
“Trace the Hartrys out of Milledgeville. Five brothers, all five of us went to school on basketball scholarships,” he recounts. “I’ve got a father with a third-grade education. My mother with a fifth. They couldn’t afford for us to go to school. Basketball is all we knew. We just ate, slept and breathed basketball 24/7.”
Coming from that hoops-crazed household, Hartry played the game as long he could before making the switch over to coaching. Since 2001, he has roamed the sidelines at Tucker High School, leading the Tigers to countless state tournament appearances and a state championship victory back in 2007.
Still, in all his years around the game, Hartry never experienced something like what happened to his team on March 9 in the Macon Coliseum. The Tigers, led by senior star Nate Ogbu, were competing for the AAAAAA state title against a talented Tri-Cities team. With the game tied at 43 and the clock ticking down, Tri-Cities Da’Marcus Johnson hit a game-winning three-point heave, abruptly ending Tucker’s championship quest. It was a shot that left Tiger fans crushed, but not their coach.
“Nothing you can do,” Hartry says. “[In a tied game] a guy shoots one from half-court and beats you. Tip your hat, go to the house, say, ‘Hey, hope to see you next year.’”
Just days after that championship loss, Hartry is back in his element, carrying out his day job as a health teacher at Tucker High. To watch him interacting with students, you would never know the disappointment he and his team had just encountered. It makes sense, though; Hartry says the biggest reason he’s stayed in this field and at this school for so long is the kids.
“To get a phone call that says, ‘Coach Hartry, I’m graduating in May. Will you come to my graduation?’ I live for that. That’s everything,” Hartry explains. “I thought I was proud when my two daughters graduated from college, but these boys are like my sons.”
One of those sons, and perhaps the sharpest to have matriculated under Coach Hartry, is the 6’8” Ogbu. The soft-spoken forward has spent his four years in high school balancing books and basketball. That led to a recruiting process that drew phone calls from heralded programs in the SEC and Big 12. But it was a call he got from Dartmouth College that helped to solidify his college plans.
“When I see an opportunity like this to go to the Ivy League, there’s no question that I’m going to take that chance,” Ogbu says.
The son of a civil engineer, Ogbu says he’s more inclined toward math and physics. That has him aiming for a post-basketball career in electrical engineering. Coach Hartry says those lofty goals – and his 4.2 grade point average – are a credit to the hard work of the student, his parents and the quality of education being offered at Tucker High.
“Nate didn’t come to Tucker to play basketball. Nate came to Tucker to be in the IB program,” Hartry recalls. “His daddy made it clear: ‘Basketball’s fine. We’ll play basketball. It’s good, but I really want Nate to be in that IB program.’
“It’s an honor to have your kids go to school, to go off and go to college, but to have one to go to Dartmouth, to have one to go to an Ivy League school, that says your program is concentrating on academics as well as athletics.”
While Hartry has every intention of staying involved in the life of Nate Ogbu the person, he’s exhausted the eligibility of Nate Ogbu the basketball player. That means the coach who came just one desperation shot from another state championship title must look to the future. And that’s fine by him.
“I have a program. I don’t have basketball teams. Programs keep going,” Hartry explains. “Still, you can’t live off last year. You’ve got to get in the gym, you’ve got to work and you’ve got to compete.”
There’s no question the Tigers will miss their veteran leadership next fall, but the one constant in the program will be there; the basketball lifer, the man with a unique understanding of the interdependence of hoops and education, will be on the sideline pushing his young team toward another date in Macon.