A Father Goes to Extremes When His Son Loses His Place on Pearce High's Basketball Team

A Father Goes to Extremes When His Son Loses His Place on Pearce High's Basketball TeamEXPAND
Dallas Observer illustration/source photo Shutterstock

On a chill night four days after Christmas, Steve Baxter settled into the molded plastic bleachers in The Colony High School gymnasium and beamed as his younger son, Andrew, took the court for his fifth straight game as the Richardson Pearce Mustangs’ starting point guard.

Baxter had ample reason to be proud. Andrew was Pearce High School royalty — reigning class favorite; co-president of Young Life, the evangelical ministry and in-crowd social hub; and leader of the Wranglers, the prestigious and irreverent spirit group that oversees pep rallies. He’s modestly handsome, wearing his light red hair swept into a loose pompadour, and he navigates the school’s hallways and social hierarchy with easy confidence.

In much of this, Andrew takes after his father, who cut a similar figure at Richardson High School as a mop-haired teenager at the close of the 1960s. Baxter, too, was a Young Life leader and reached the apex of high-school popularity when he was named Mr. RHS as a senior. If anything, Andrew is even more of a stud than his father. Later, at an end-of-year drill-team banquet, Baxter would watch in awe as Andrew brought down the house with his silky Michael Jackson moonwalk.

For all that, a prominent role on the basketball team is what father and son both coveted. Andrew’s older brother Brennan had been Pearce’s starting point guard the previous season, guiding the team to a playoff berth; Steve was a key member of an RHS team that won back-to-back district titles, an accomplishment that still swells him with pride. Securing the starting job was the continuation of the Baxter family tradition.

Andrew and his dad felt the starting job should have been his from the outset. Slim and 5-foot-7, with middling athleticism and an errant shot, Andrew wasn’t cut out for stardom, but he was a hard worker and had managed, through countless hours in the gym and occasional guidance from private coaches, to will himself into a capable ball-handler and passable defender, good enough for a team that was as stacked with talent as any Mustang squad in recent memory. Senior Grant Lair was on pace to become the school’s all-time leading scorer while sharpshooter and fellow senior Peyton Harris was about to set the school mark for made three-pointers. Joining the veterans would be 6-foot-8-inch wunderkind Drew Timme, who was just a freshman but was already getting looks from top-flight colleges.

That Andrew was even in contention to be a starter on the team was reason enough to be proud, which may have added to the bitterness that came later.

At the start of the season, Andrew was confident that he’d beat out his rival, a fellow senior named Matt Hilinski. Hilinski had been a standout when the two had played on junior varsity two years earlier but had since gained weight and lost much of the quickness he’d relied upon to get past defenders. Coach Marc Johnson seemed to acknowledge that Andrew had eclipsed Hilinski, typically sending him out with the first team when they ran drills or scrimmaged. “It could have been me just being blind, but I thought I should have been starting,” Andrew says.

It came as a surprise, then, when opening night rolled around and Hilinski took the floor with the starting unit. Baxter shrugged it off. “Johnson’s just going to do that because Andrew’s his favorite kid and [he wants to] let Matt prove that he can’t do it,” he reasoned to himself.

As the season progressed and Andrew continued to ride the bench, Baxter grew increasingly agitated. Matt was a skillful enough dribbler standing still, but he was, Baxter felt, too plodding for his jukes and crossovers to get him anywhere.

Baxter took to calling Matt “the samurai,” a derisive if ethnically incorrect reference to the Egyptian swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark whose showy display of swordsmanship proves no match for Indiana Jones’ gun. (Baxter is being ungenerous. Andrew and Matt were comparable ball-handlers, and Matt had a more consistent shot.)

A few games into the season, Baxter sat down with Andrew to dispense some fatherly advice. “Look,” he told him. “You’re better than he is.” Johnson was the coach and could play whomever he chose, but that didn’t mean Andrew had to take it. “If you want to quit, that’s fine with me. Because if you think you’re better and you sit on the bench, that’s humiliating.”

Instead, Andrew went to Johnson’s office and told him, man-to-man, that he felt like he deserved to start. “I don’t want to be a cheerleader. I want to be a player.” Johnson told him to prove himself. When Hilinski went down with a minor injury just before Christmas break, Andrew did.

Pearce rolled with Andrew in the starting lineup. It skated past Carrollton Newman Smith in its final game before Christmas break, then dispatched Leander, Prosper and a formidable Flower Mound squad to reach the finals of The Colony’s annual holiday tournament.

So Baxter was exuberant as Andrew cradled the ball after Pearce controlled the opening tip against Hebron, surveying the court confidently before dribbling forward to initiate the offense.

That was going to be the high point of a season which went sour with the appearance of an unexpected rival for Andrew.

As always, Andrew played slow and steady. He couldn’t beat people with speed, but he crouched low to the ground and used his body as a shield. His passes were crisp and on target. His defensive stance was textbook — back straight, thighs almost parallel to the ground, feet shuffling like he was auditioning for a role in Hoosiers.

But slow and steady wasn’t going to be enough against Hebron. The Hawks had a stout defense, and Pearce whipped the ball impotently around the perimeter, struggling to find daylight. Patience won them decent shots on the first four trips down the floor but the offense stalled on the fifth until Andrew slipped his defender and cut along the baseline to the left corner, where he caught the ball, set his feet and fired off a three-pointer.

It was an air ball, and it fell softly into the waiting hands of a Hebron forward who fired it up court to a sprinting teammate for an easy fast-break layup.

Johnson, pacing anxiously on the sideline, paused long enough to call down the bench to a player who, for all the attention Baxter had paid to the Pearce roster, had scarcely registered on his consciousness.

RJ Johnson (no relation to the coach) was a freshman, short and rail-thin, with a youthful face that easily could have passed for a sixth-grader’s. He’d transferred to Pearce a few weeks earlier and had played sparingly.

Until tonight. RJ finished the first quarter and played the bulk of the second. He started the third and fourth. Andrew hardly made it off the bench until garbage time, when the game was thoroughly out of reach. It was only one game, but as Andrew watched RJ promptly nail a baseline jumper, then knife to the basket for a couple of quick assists, he got the sickening feeling that he’d just been replaced. “After that, I really didn’t play a lot,” he would say later.

Baxter, too, could sense his son’s season slipping away. As the buzzer sounded and the teams lined up to shake hands. Baxter’s eyes narrowed as he spotted Johnson draping his arm around RJ in a fatherly manner, which struck Baxter as strangely familiar for a kid who had arrived so recently and not at all becoming of a high-school basketball coach.

“That’s just weird,” Baxter told himself. “It’s like he’s comforting him that they lost. Something doesn’t make sense here.”

The scene nagged at him like an open scab as he drove home from The Colony. Andrew, after pouring his soul into Pearce basketball for four years, had just been cast aside like a soiled gym towel. It was an injustice, plain and simple, and as he turned it over in his mind he decided that it was his duty to set things right.

With that, Baxter began a crusade that would last for five months, rope in superintendents, lawyers and a state senator, and roil Pearce’s typically sleepy basketball program.

Steve Baxter (right) enlisted the help of longtime friend and local criminal defense attorney Craig Glickman (left) as he attested wrongdoing at Pearce High School.EXPAND
Steve Baxter (right) enlisted the help of longtime friend and local criminal defense attorney Craig Glickman (left) as he attested wrongdoing at Pearce High School.
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Baxter lives with Andrew in a spacious home in Far North Dallas, two blocks from his ex-wife. His girlfriend, who is from Venezuela, calls him gatita linda, which translates as pretty kitten. “My nickname is Cat Daddy,” he explains. His freshman year of high school, during the random but character-building trials of off-season football, the coaches tasked him with wrestling a hulking teammate named Spike.

Rather than squaring off to grapple, which would bring certain defeat, Baxter raised his hands over his head and snarled in the manner of Bearcat Wright, a professional wrestling heel. The rest of the team laughed and took to calling him Bearcat, which would eventually morph into Cat Daddy, which Baxter still prints on the back of his business card.

He half-jokingly calls his house “the bachelor pad.” In early May, strings of Christmas lights hung in shallow parabolas above his recessed living room, relics of a January party. His ex-wife, who, like Baxter is upset that Andrew lost his starting job, interjects as he explains the origin of the lights. The question, she says, isn’t When was the party? but When isn’t there a party?

In any event, Andrew’s friends have a standing invitation from Baxter to hang out at his house and raid his refrigerator. Baxter would sometimes drop in and quiz them about RJ, building on the intelligence Andrew had already provided. From this, Baxter knew well before Christmas that RJ’s transfer to Pearce had been,
at a minimum, curious.

RJ had come from Allen High School. Several of Andrew’s teammates could recall seeing him playing for one of Allen’s school-affiliated teams in the summer Metrocrest league. He had enrolled at Pearce on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the same day the basketball team left for a season-opening tournament outside of Houston.

Though Richardson schools were already out for fall break, the team returned to campus on Monday for an early practice. Andrew and his teammates were somewhat startled to be joined by RJ. “The general consensus is, like, what the hell’s going on? Who is this?” Andrew recalled later.

The consensus held the following day when RJ, who as a transfer couldn’t play for 15 days and was thus wearing street clothes, traveled for the team’s game against Frisco Independence and took a seat on the bench near coach Johnson. The team was even more puzzled when RJ’s dad showed up to watch practice, which just wasn’t something that parents did.

In Baxter’s experience, when a new kid shows up at school wanting to play sports, he has to prove himself before winning a spot on the team. By contrast, RJ had rocketed onto the varsity squad, almost as if he’d been promised a spot. When Baxter learned later that RJ played on the same elite, Nike-sponsored Amateur Athletic Union team as fellow freshman Drew Timme, his suspicion that Johnson had somehow been recruited to Pearce to play basketball hardened into certainty. (RJ’s family declined through an attorney to be interviewed for this story.) After Andrew was benched for most of the second half against Hebron, Baxter decided to do something about it.

Before the game, Baxter had only a glancing familiarity with the University Interscholastic League. The organization, officially an arm of the University of Texas at Austin but functionally a standalone state agency, is the central nervous system of high-school sports in Texas. It regulates when and how often teams can practice, which schools have to play one another and how state champions are determined.

The UIL also decides which students are allowed to play sports in the first place. Nineteen-year-olds are out. So are athletes who live outside a school’s attendance zone. Also barred from play are students who were recruited to a campus to play sports, or who weren’t recruited but “changed schools for athletic purposes,” regardless of where they currently live. Because a star player or two can be the difference between mediocrity and championship contention, and because Texans care deeply about high-school sports, the subject of athletic eligibility is a source of endless controversy.

After the Hebron game, Baxter studied up on the UIL and its porous system for regulating athletic transfers. He read about Troy Causey, the 18-year-old killed in a fight outside the Southeast Dallas home where he was staying, 20 miles from the rest of his family, so he could play basketball at Wilmer-Hutchins High School. He read how Plano West won the 2014-2015 state title by assembling a roster studded with talented transfers who all happened to play for the Texas Titans, a powerhouse AAU program bankrolled by Dallas billionaire Kenny Troutt. He read of and talked to exasperated coaches who described improper athletic transfers as an epidemic.

Baxter also began digging up what information he could about RJ’s family, searching for evidence that he’d transferred illegally. He learned that the family had moved to the Dallas area from outside Kansas City, that the mom, Nickhelle Johnson, worked as a human resources executive for a medical staffing company. He learned the dad still lived in Allen with RJ’s sister, who continued to attend Allen High School.

On Nickhelle Johnson’s Facebook page, Baxter found what he took to be a tacit admission of guilt. Pearce had just come out with a new promotional photo, showing 11 varsity basketball players standing shoulder-to-shoulder, straining to look tough. RJ, the only African American in the photo, stands in front, spinning a ball on his finger.

“Ummm, he should transfer lol,” one of Johnson’s Facebook friends wrote in the comments. “He’s looking like Jackie Robinson down there lol.”

Andrew, who was still on friendly terms with RJ, found the post innocuous, but Baxter seized upon it as evidence. “Using the word transfer — he transferred down to play basketball,” Baxter says. “And I think everybody knows it.” Baxter still keeps a photo of the Facebook post on his phone.

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Losing his starting spot stung Andrew deeply. He continued to make an effort to be friendly to RJ, but his resentment spilled out on the basketball court. He no longer had any interest in leading the cheering section. Instead, he would catch his dad’s eye from the bench and make a pinching motion with his fingers. It was their inside joke, code for “I’m bored. Can you get me some Twizzlers?”

In practice, Andrew sulked from his leadership role into the background. He’d sit on the bench or wander into the training room while the rest of the team ran through drills. “I acted like I didn’t give a shit,” he says. The coaches mostly let him be, which wasn’t like them and isn’t how high-school sports is supposed to work. “It was like they were afraid to call me out.” It struck him as evidence of a guilty conscience.

Once, Chad Lawson, Johnson’s assistant coach, approached Andrew while he was shooting free-throws after practice. He was almost apologetic. “If I was 18 years old and I was in your shoes, I don’t know how I’d be handling it,” Andrew says he told him. But Johnson was going to play who he thought was best, Lawson says, and told Andrew he should be proud of making it as far as he did given his natural athletic limitations. The talk did little to soothe Andrew’s resentment.

All the same, Andrew didn’t share in his father’s investigative zeal. “I just didn’t really want to hear it,” he says. “I just wanted it to go away, and I wanted life to continue after basketball.”

But just as Andrew hadn’t quit the basketball team despite his father’s entreaties, neither did Baxter listen to his son’s entreaties to let things lie.

“I’ve been through enough counseling myself to know that by the time he’s 35, it’s all gonna come up, all this unresolved stuff,” Baxter says. “He’s going to take it out on his wife or whatever if he doesn’t deal with it now. This is his one chance to at least get some resolution.”

It was all very cloak-and-dagger at first. District play, which determines who makes the playoffs, was just getting underway, and Baxter worried that Andrew would have his playing time further reduced, or possibly worse, if it became known that his dad was lobbying to have RJ declared ineligible. To conceal his involvement, Baxter enlisted the help of a longtime friend and local criminal defense attorney Craig Glickman.

Glickman is four years older than Baxter. His basketball career at Dallas’ Thomas Jefferson High School was just wrapping up as Baxter was preparing for his freshman year at Richardson. The two connected soon after through Young Life, where Glickman was a college-age volunteer while Baxter was helping lead the Richardson High School branch.

Their paths crossed a few years later at Dallas Theological Seminary, when Baxter was a student and Glickman a newly minted professor, where their mutual admiration continued to develop. Both later settled on endeavors more lucrative than theology, with Glickman joining the defense bar and Baxter starting a real estate company. They stayed close, however, and when Baxter’s sons started playing high-school basketball, Glickman was a fixture at their games. He shared Baxter’s conviction that RJ had transferred illegally. He, too, was indignant.

“It wouldn’t bother me if a freshman beat out a senior. That’s going to happen, it’s just the nature of the game,” Glickman says. “What bothered me was the cheating part, or what I perceived to be the cheating part.”

Glickman called one of Baxter’s fellow parents hoping they could discuss the situation frankly. Soon after, word that someone was questioning RJ’s transfer filtered back to coach Johnson, who assured parents that he’d seen to the paperwork and that RJ’s transfer was in compliance with UIL rules.

Indeed, RJ’s transfer had been handled by the books. His family had completed a previous athletic participation form, or PAPF, as required by the UIL. The basketball coach at Allen High School had signed off on it, declaring he had no reason to suspect that RJ had been recruited or was “changing schools for athletic purposes,” as the UIL phrases it.

The paperwork was reviewed by Pearce’s local District Executive Committee, a panel of coaches and administrators from a school and its closest rivals that functions as the bottommost rung in the UIL bureaucracy. Notwithstanding RJ’s disclosure that he had played AAU with Drew Timme, a minor red flag, the 10-6A District Executive Committee ruled that RJ was eligible to play basketball at Pearce.

Baxter felt the system had failed. If the District Executive Committee had been more diligent, it would
have dug up evidence of an illegal transfer. At the very least it could have exercised its power to bring RJ and his mother in for a hearing, a Kafkaesque affair in which committee members interrogate an athlete’s family, probing into their personal lives to better decide whether the teenager should be allowed to play varsity sports. Baxter vowed to press on.

In early January, he and Glickman enlisted the help of another of Baxter’s longtime friends, a Lake Highlands pastor, to further obscure Baxter’s involvement. “My client is a senior pastor at a prominent church which serves a number of parishioners in the Richardson Independent School District,” Glickman wrote in a January 7 letter to UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt.

The pastor, Glickman continued, wished to remain anonymous. He had a son who played sports at another school in the district and feared retaliation. However, his conscience was troubled by RJ Johnson’s mid-November transfer from Allen to Pearce High School, which he believed to have occurred “solely for athletic purposes.” Though the pastor didn’t have a direct interest in RJ’s transfer, “he is definite in his desire to see a fair athletic program in the entire district.”

Glickman went back and forth with UIL’s legal counsel for several weeks, but the UIL’s position was that headquarters only weighed in on disputes that couldn’t be settled at the local level.

Glickman sought meetings with Richardson ISD Superintendent Kay Waggoner and Highland Park ISD Superintendent Tom Trigg (Highland Park High School is one of Pearce’s district rivals) in hopes that they would launch an investigation into RJ’s transfer, but he was rebuffed. Richardson ISD did initiate an inquiry into RJ’s transfer, interviewing his mother and investigating Glickman’s assertion that she had lied about being divorced. (She hadn’t; the case was filed in Missouri.)

The season was quickly rushing past, and Baxter was growing increasingly frustrated that RJ was continuing to play. In his mind, RJ was still too raw to start. He turned the ball over too much and had a predilection for pull-up shots that far exceeded his ability to make them. After the season, Baxter could quote RJ’s statistics from memory — 12 percent from the three-point line, 23 percent overall. “And he was shooting more than Lair or Peyton!” he would say in disbelief.

In early February, only a handful of games until the playoffs, Baxter began to reveal himself. He’d buttonhole other parents and mention his suspicions about RJ’s transfer. He scheduled a February 9 meeting with state Senator Van Taylor, an old business contact. He harangued Mesquite athletic director Steve Bragg, the chair of the 10-6A District Executive Committee, demanding that the body reconsider RJ’s eligibility.

Some of the parents he talked to expressed sympathy for his cause, others shrugged him off. None joined his crusade. Bragg sent an exasperated letter asking Baxter and Glickman to let the matter drop.

“Subjective statements of ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ in relation to this athlete have been made but to date no definitive evidence has been produced,” Bragg wrote. Bragg and RISD had both looked into the matter and “found no evidence that the athlete transferred for an athletic purpose. We have done our due diligence and consider this ruling to be final.”

Baxter and Glickman remained undeterred. All they had to do to have RJ’s eligibility revoked was to produce fresh evidence that he had transferred to Pearce to play basketball. They continued to dig into RJ’s family background but were running short of avenues for investigation when Nickhelle Johnson hired an attorney who sent Baxter a cease-and-desist letter on February 19, three days before Pearce met Dallas Skyline in the opening round of the playoffs.

“Your unprofessional, unprincipled and offensive behavior has already caused the Johnson family to spend significant time and resources defending made-up, defamatory claims aimed at tarnishing the name and reputation of RJ, a high school student, as well as his mother,” the attorney, Janice Parker, wrote. “You are aware of the favorable rulings regarding RJ’s eligibility to play varsity basketball at JJ Pearce in Richardson, yet you persist in attempting to draw others into your efforts to discredit this family.”

If Baxter continued his crusade, Parker wrote, it could result in “serious legal implications,” up to and including a lawsuit.

Baxter and Glickman were giddy at the prospect of being sued. If they were forced to defend themselves in court, they would be able to interrogate RJ and his mother at a deposition and subpoena their cell phone records. They might finally find a smoking gun.

So, they upped the ante. “I’m assuming that you believe that your clients are telling you the truth that the transfer was not made for athletic purposes and [RJ] was not recruited to play at Pearce,” Glickman wrote in a letter on February 22. “If you are convinced of that, then I hereby make an offer to your clients. We will pay for Mr. and Ms. Johnson and [RJ] to take polygraph exams to measure their truthfulness. Whether they pass or fail, we will also pay them $1,000 for their time in total, which may be about two hours each at most.”

Parker responded indignantly to the “unconscionable” suggestion that the family submit to a lie detector test. “Of course, we decline such a derisory request.”

Baxter and Glickman sweetened the pot, upping the payment to $5,000 on the condition that they passed their polygraphs. “Surely you can see that if they receive the $5,000, then they would get the last laugh in this dispute?” Glickman wrote. “Where is the insult in that?”

When Parker didn’t respond, Baxter increased the offer to $25,000. He and Glickman considered this to be a foolproof experiment. If RJ’s transfer was legitimate, the family would pass the lie detector and take the money. Anything else they took as evidence of guilt. They dismissed out of hand the notion that pride or resentment at having their lives picked apart could have motivated them to turn down such a large sum of money.

By then it was March, and basketball season was over. Andrew had watched from the bench as Skyline thrashed the Mustangs in the opening round. RJ was clearly overmatched, but, then again, so was the rest of the team. Andrew greeted the final buzzer with relief. His high-school basketball career was finally, mercifully done.

Baxter eventually brought his son around to his point of view. “He just kept bringing more and more facts to light,” Andrew said one evening as he sat with his dad at their kitchen table. “I was like, hey, they really did… ”

Baxter interjects. “… fuck you?” he suggests.

Andrew shrugs. “Whether he [his father] did it for him or for me — which I think he’s doing it more for him at this point — they screwed me over.”

On a warm afternoon in May, long after the basketball season was over, Pearce basketball coach Marc Johnson reclines in his cavernous cinderblock office in a far corner of the school. He’s ostentatiously muscular, with a tight-fitting Bodybuilding.com shirt stretched almost to its limit. The shaggy salt-and-pepper that peeks from beneath a sweat-stained baseball cap and the coating of stubble on his chin gives him the slightly grizzled look of a country heartthrob. A portrait of Larry Bird, his boyhood idol, is propped next to the enormous flat-screen TV he uses to break down game film.

Baxter has made his life frustrating for the past several months. “The biggest issue I have with Steve: When all this happened, he never once stepped into this office … Not a phone call, not a meeting, nothing.”

It wasn’t as if they were strangers. Johnson had been coaching Baxter’s sons for several years. If he would have dropped in for a visit, or if he had picked up the phone and called, Johnson would have explained the situation honestly. But he didn’t, and now Johnson was having to explain himself to a reporter instead.

Johnson admits that he knew of RJ’s abilities before he enrolled. His son, a freshman at Pearce, plays AAU basketball in the offseason. His son has rarely played against RJ, but the local club basketball circuit is small enough and RJ’s Nike ProSkills team is prominent enough that Johnson had ample opportunity to see him play.

Over the summer, RJ showed up for one of Pearce’s open gym sessions. While RJ played in a pickup game, his father, Richard, quizzed Johnson about Pearce basketball. “His dad asked me about my program, and I told him,” Johnson says.

This happens a lot. Parents call Johnson and pick his brain on his coaching philosophy and team culture, generally trying to get a sense of whether Pearce basketball would be a good fit for their kid. Johnson answers honestly and politely but is careful not to turn the conversation into a sales pitch, which in his mind would put him on the wrong side of the ill-defined boundary between providing information and recruiting.

Johnson didn’t think about RJ again until he got a call from his son while the team was in the Houston area for its pre-Thanksgiving tournament.

“Hey, RJ’s at school,” his son said.

“That’s great,” Johnson replied.

Later, he heard from the coach who had run the junior varsity practice. “One trip down and I knew he was the best point guard we had in the gym,” the coach told him. “The second time, I knew he was the best player.”

Johnson wasn’t overly concerned about why RJ had showed up in his gym. He finds the UIL’s transfer rules arbitrary and unfair. He doesn’t see why, for example, a budding chemist should be allowed to freely move to a school with a better chemistry program while a talented basketball player is prevented from doing the same. “Parents are always going to do what they think is best for their kid,” he says.

So Johnson takes a pragmatic approach toward player transfers. If an athlete moves into Pearce’s attendance zone, if the front office allows him to enroll, and if the District Executive Committee clears him to play, that’s good enough for Johnson. “I’ll play a sixth-grade girl if she’s eligible and she can help us win.”

Johnson was particularly eager to coach RJ. He was raw, but he was a clear upgrade at point guard, which was a soft spot on an otherwise solid roster. The decision to have him start over Andrew wasn’t close.

In early January, Johnson heard from parents that someone was pushing the story that he’d recruited RJ to play basketball at Pearce. The accusation rankled. He prides himself on running a “high-character” program. Winning is important, but not so important that it justifies bending the rules. He considered the whisper campaign as borderline slander.

He learned of Baxter’s involvement when he received a letter from Glickman requesting that he take a lie detector test. He showed the letter to a lawyer friend of his, who told him that Glickman’s use of a Gmail address spoke to a lack of professionalism and advised him not to respond. Johnson took the advice. “I’m not going to take a lie detector test from a Gmail-account lawyer.”

Johnson hoped the end of the season would put the matter to rest, but it didn’t. Now, he’s become convinced that it will continue to fester, with Baxter dredging it up whenever there’s a new crop of parents to tell it to.

For Andrew, life continued after basketball.

At the end of April, he took a five-day trip to Disney World with Stamped, Pearce’s country-western dance team. Baxter tagged along as a chaperone and proudly brought back footage showing him being randomly called onto stage at Universal Studios, where he delighted the crowd with an enthusiastic but unsightly old-man dance.

After that, Andrew’s calendar was crowded with end-of-year banquets and senior sendoffs. He coasted through the final weeks of class, his mind already racing ahead to the fall when he’d join his older brother at Texas Tech.

Even so, the basketball season had left a bitter aftertaste. He felt he’d built a solid relationship with coach Johnson, had believed his rhetoric about character and sacrifice and teamwork. Now, he viewed Johnson as a charlatan and hypocrite.

“Whenever the RJ thing happened, I finally saw through his bullshit,” Andrew would say later. “I could tell it’s all an act because he only cares about winning. He doesn’t care about any of us.”

May bled into June. On the Friday night before the end of school, Andrew was hanging out on his back porch with Grant Lair and Peyton Harris, Pearce basketball’s senior standouts. When Baxter retreated to his bedroom, the three of them were playing poker. A few minutes later, Andrew poked his head in.

“Dad, do you have some matches or a lighter?” he asked.

Curious, Baxter peered onto the back porch and watched as Andrew dumped his Pearce basketball gear into his barbecue grill. Grant doused the pile of fabric with lighter fluid and Andrew set it ablaze.

Baxter joined the teenagers on the porch, and they all watched as the flames tickled, warped and then finally engulfed the red Mustang that galloped across the last of the jerseys. 

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