MAXTON — The arguments in Carolyn Leach’s home between Rufus Leach, his older brother Bobby Leach Jr., and their father Bobby Leach Sr., are still fresh on her mind.
“When he was coming up, he always told his brother and his father that one day he was going to be in the Hall of Fame,” Carolyn said. “They always told him, ‘No, you’ll be in the hall of shame.’”
Nearly 18 years after Rufus’ playing career ended, the former Purnell Swett basketball standout’s accomplishments at the college level have again been recognized, and Carolyn knows her youngest son won the argument.
After graduating from Purnell Swett in 1996, Rufus played two seasons at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., from 1996 to 1998. He etched his name in the school’s basketball record book before transferring to Appalachian State University for a season. On April 28, Carolyn was on hand with a large number of family members, family friends and Rufus’ former teammates as he was inducted into the Santa Fe College Athletic Hall of Fame.
“It was just a thrill for me to see his dream come true,” she said. “He has the last laugh because he made it into the Hall of Fame. That just did me all the good in the world because I can see him smiling now — he had a beautiful smile.”
She speaks of him in past tense because Rufus died in a swimming accident in Lake Watauga the summer between his junior and senior season at Appalachian State, on June 9, 2000.
“My son in Charlotte called me and told me, ‘Mama, don’t go to work, I have something to tell you,’” she said.
When she learned of his death on that Friday, she remembered that last phone call they shared on Wednesday, when Rufus told her “he wouldn’t be there” after he was asked to come talk to students at Purnell Swett that weekend. One final message came to Carolyn two days after the news of his death did.
“He had been in college for four years and he never wrote me a letter. We always talked on the phone,” she said. “That Sunday, something told me to get up out of the bed and go check the mailbox and there were two money orders from Rufus, one for me and one for his sister, and on an orange piece of paper. It said ‘I love you.’”
Rufus’ coach at Purnell Swett, Jim Adams, was at Oak Island with the boys basketball team that was at a camp in the area when he was notified late Friday night.
“It was one of those phone calls you weren’t expecting. It seems like late at night bad news travels, and it traveled that night,” Adams said. “Rufus was a big part of my life and my childrens’ lives.”
Adams said everyone who knew Rufus remembers his big smile that now can be seen in pictures in his home in Maxton, the trophy case at Purnell Swett High School and on the Rufus Leach Heart and Hustle award plaque at Santa Fe College.
“He’s very deserving of that. Rufus went and proved himself down there,” Adams said. “Rufus worked hard and was such a lovable person, with a big smile and he would look you in the face when you talk to him. He was very coachable. He could win you over and I think that’s what he did with Santa Fe.”
Rufus averaged 22 points a game for the Rams as a junior and 20 points as a senior, many of the points coming from deep.
“He had the natural touch as a shooter. Rufus was strong so his touch was very soft,” his coach said. “He was such a pure shooter and worked so hard. We could do shooting drills and watch him in a 30-second shooting drill take 25 shots and not miss one. It was pure ease.”
Leach’s senior year included an unexpected run in the postseason. Purnell Swett finished fifth in the conference and faced a win-or-go-home game each night of the conference tournament. The Rams rattled off three wins and won the league tournament to earn an automatic bid into the state playoffs.
The run continued at the state level with three wins to make the sectional finals against Lumberton. Purnell Swett topped its rivals, before falling to E.E. Smith in the regional finals.
“It’s mostly because of him. We started gelling,” Adams said. “For a team that was fifth in the conference and turned out to be sixth in the state, a lot of it was because of Rufus.”
He then headed south to Santa Fe with a goal of eventually playing at the Division I level. The one drawback was the hesitance of Carolyn, with her dread of travel.
“So I carried him to the bus station, I hugged him and I was crying,” she said, “and he turned around to look at me and said, ‘Mama, don’t worry about me. I’m on a mission.’ When he turned around and told me all that, my tears went away. That boy went and did what he had to do.
“That was his dream. That was for him. He saw part of the world he wanted to see. He did what Rufus wanted to do, but he didn’t hurt his mama.”
He finished his career for the Saints with 1,009 points, good enough for fifth on the school all-time scoring list, and 107 steals, which ranks 11th in the school’s list. Santa Fe won two Mid-Florida Conference titles during his time there.
“Thursday would’ve been his (40th) birthday and it just seems that after the Hall of Fame ceremony, I got a little closure from it. It seemed like things had been running, but we hadn’t been running together like I wanted it. Whenever they called and said they were putting Rufus in the Hall of Fame, I prayed and said that this was it, this was what I had been waiting on.”
Rufus played in Boone for coach Buzz Peterson, a member of the 1982 national championship team at the University of North Carolina. He was a knock-down shooter off the bench for the Mountaineers, and he became the leading scorer for the team during its historic 1999-2000 season.
On the second team in Appalachian State basketball history to make the NCAA tournament, Rufus scored 16 points a contest, starting with a 28-performance in his debut at Oklahoma State. He tallied 525 points in that season, 14th most in a season for the Mountaineers. His 103 3-pointers that season was the school single-season record until Donald Sims broke it 10 years later.
Carolyn’s last time seeing Rufus play basketball came that season when Appalachian State played Western Carolina in the regular season finale.
“When he was in the mountains, I did go to one game,” Carolyn said. “What was amazing for me to see is that when the game was over, there were people lining up waiting on him to come out of the locker room. I couldn’t believe they were doing that to see little Rufus. That was just amazing. They were waiting on him.”
Adams has bags of newspaper clippings and website articles on Rufus from his three years of college basketball.
“Rufus led me somewhere I had never been before to the sectionals, conference championships and Coach of the Year awards,” Adams said. “I just can’t put it in words sometimes when Rufus’ name comes up to kids who weren’t even born, that didn’t know Rufus that know who he was through the Purnell Swett community. It blows my mind. You can go to Purnell Swett tomorrow and ask someone if they know Rufus Leach and some 17-year-old kid probably will say yes.”
Others carrying the legacy of Rufus Leach in the Maxton area and at Purnell Swett are his nephews, Alan Briggs and Rufus Harris. Harris’ mother Valerie Leach was pregnant with him when her brother passed away, and Harris carries his name with pride.
“For him to have it and now me to be named after him, it means a lot,” Harris said. “(Being in the Hall of Fame) means a lot to our family and us personally because we came from something so important and it’s not just basketball.”
The retired jersey on the wall in the Purnell Swett gym is something Harris will point out to friends when given the chance.
“That’s something I will always be able to say while here is, that’s my uncle,” said Harris, a junior at Purnell Swett. “I was some kin to that man that did good things out here.”
Current Purnell Swett basketball coach Jeremy Sampson was the JV coach when Leach was on the varsity squad, He sees a lot of the same qualities that the older Rufus had in Harris now. Sampson coached Harris last season on the court, but also sees the talent he brings as an offensive lineman in football.
“He was a great kid and a great role model with an outstanding work ethic,” Sampson said of Leach. “Everybody knows (Harris) is just like his uncle. He’s popular with the teachers and with all the students and I think he can go somewhere, just like his uncle.”
Carolyn also has seen the similarities.
“I’ve got a grandson that is named after him. He was born the same year that Rufus died. He is just as humble like Rufus,” she said. “He still lives on.”
After three seasons, and 1,534 points, the “mission” that Rufus Leach embarked on when he was leaving his mother at the bus station was cut short one year with his death, but was not left incomplete. On a plaque honoring the Maxton native that sits outside of Appalachian State’s Holmes Convocation Center, where he played his home games in his final basketball season, the last two lines read, “A Young Man on a Mission … Mission Accomplished.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.