CLEMSON—Gerald Purnell says if you know his older brother, if you know the man behind the stoic exterior at all, you know the idea of impossibility fails to resonate.
Everywhere Oliver Purnell has been, he’s heard he couldn’t win, yet he does.
In his seventh season as Clemson’s head coach, Purnell leads the Tigers into this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament coming off their third straight winning season in ACC play and fourth straight 20-win season. Both marks are program firsts.
Born in 1953, Purnell was raised in a 600-square-foot home without indoor plumbing in the segregated town of Berlin (population 3,000) on Maryland’s eastern shore, known for its coastal resorts and fishing hamlets.
The austere home produced Oliver, a Division I basketball coach, and Gerald, Maryland’s first African-American district judge. Their sister, Angela Wickham, has been a housing director, and their brother Dwayne, the youngest, was a school administrator before his death last year.
The individual successes are remarkable considering the overt racism and opportunity gap of the 1960s.
The credit goes to a strong-willed, loving mother and father who had a simple recipe: homework, church and discipline.
“My parents were uncompromising about certain things: you were going to get good grades, go to church every Sunday and you were going to do well at everything you did,” Oliver Purnell said. “Growing up in the civil rights age, you could easily use discrimination as an excuse, but they made it clear that it is not an excuse. You have to be better.”
The Purnells wanted better for their kids.
Their father, Oliver Sr., worked as a third-shift truck driver and chicken catcher. Their mother, Phyllis, juggled multiple jobs.
Oliver—a Boy Scout and honor student—and Gerald admired the hard work.
But they wanted something different.
“Growing up the way we did,” Gerald Purnell said, “it has a lot to do with where we are today. I think if you change a person’s experiences, their environment, you get different results.
“You are a sum of your experiences.”
First major challenge
For the Purnells, there was no safety net, but there was hope.
The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Martin Luther King marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Integration was sweeping the country.
Oliver’s friend, Larry Waples, had been the first African-American to integrate Decatur High School in 1964. As seventh grader in 1965, Oliver Purnell had a choice to make: attend the all-black high school across town or join a half-dozen other classmates and integrate for access to the best teachers, best books—and equality.
Purnell and his friend Pat Henry, an artist who shares Purnell’s passion for cooking, opted to take on their first major challenge.
“All of the circumstances of life came together at that particular time,” Henry said. “We were at the right place and it is was the right time to go through this tunnel.”
Phyllis Purnell, always trying to immerse her children in other cultures, supported the decision. But on that first day, that late summer day in 1965, she waited anxiously around the phone, hoping it wouldn’t ring.
“No one had gone through that before,” Phyllis said. “That was really tough. Parents were afraid for them, afraid they wouldn’t be up to it. Afraid some might fail.
“They just went on with it.”
There were racial slurs.
There were cold shoulders.
But Purnell knew it was an opportunity and calls it a “watershed” moment in his life.
“It was scary,” Oliver Purnell said. “You were going from an environment you were totally comfortable with to an environment that was totally foreign.”
Albin “Hondo” Handy, a friend and high school teammate of Purnell’s, said they all battled doubt.
“I think we probably all said ‘Look, can we do it? Or can’t we?’ ” Handy said. “I went home and said to my mom ‘I don’t know.’ And she said ‘I know, but you made that decision and that is where you are going to school.’ “
Phyllis said this is when Oliver began to show signs of what was to come.
“When the area first started (integrating), kids weren’t too welcome in town, at the library or outside the community,” she said. “But Oliver would go. He would just go.”
Purnell was a leader on the high school basketball court, the game he learned on the dirt courts of Berlin.
It was Purnell who brought the ball up and placed the team in its offense.
“Oliver’s demeanor was just different,” Henry said. “He wasn’t prone to extremes as far as emotion.
“He’s gained a lot of admirers. They cannot get over his composure as a coach. You know how Gary Williams is.”
Purnell was always composed.
He was always serious, his mother said.
He helped lead the school to three straight state championship appearances, a run that united the town. White kids that had once tossed racial slurs befriended Purnell and came to respect what he and the others that integrated had done.
“I got to know people in a different way and they got to know me in a different way,” Purnell said. “It brought a lot of people together who were apprehensive about each other. You discovered we are not a whole lot different.
“We all like to win.”
Purnell was among the first to integrate, the first to unite, and the first of his family to attend college.
Purnell starred and won at Old Dominion just as he had in high school. He was the captain and co-MVP of the 1975 team that won the Division II national title.
His dream was to play in the NBA, and Purnell was drafted that spring by Milwaukee in the sixth round. He was cut in camp, and had a choice to make: chase the pro game to Europe or coach.