The man behind the whistle
Spears recounts 32 years at the Waynesboro YMCA
Story by Chris Graham
You just assume that John Spears was always the John Spears that we all know and love – the basketball coach who knows how to get the most out of his players, the high-school and college referee who can bring a hostile gym or arena to silence or an uproar with a single whistle.
It all started because Spears got hooked on noontime basketball at the YMCA 32 years ago.
“I was working second shift at the Howard Johnson’s, and somebody told me about noon ball at the Y. I came down, and I got hooked, and the rest is history,” said Spears, the director of youth sports at the Waynesboro YMCA.
In addition to his coaching and refereeing, Spears oversees the year-round basketball program at the Y, which currently has 225 kids in leagues for children ages 5-14. Rec-league ball is the focus right now, and in the spring and summer, it’s AAU time, with the work running the age gamut, from the elementary-school set to high-school upperclassmen.
The work builds to a crescendo in the summer with the annual Commonwealth Games in Ronaoke. The effort from the players and coaches is more than what they do on the court. “The way we get down there is fundraising,” said Spears. “Selling raffle tickets, washing cars, standing in front of Wal-Mart and hoping somebody puts a dollar in the jar. Which is great. The kids love it. They get a sense of ownership and a sense of pride working for the money. And they work hard at it.”
Summer also brings the annual Y basketball camp, where the likes of former NBA veteran and current University of Virginia radio broadcaster Cory Alexander and current Division I college players Devon Brown (Liberty) and Nick Gore (VMI) honed their skills.
“We get a lot of the kids who move on to high-school ball and college now say they want to help with the camp. Which is a tremendous thing,” Spears said. “The kids see them playing on Friday night, and they look up to them. They really look up to these kids, and that makes them work harder.”
It all started for Spears with noon ball. He volunteered as a referee for youth games on Saturdays, then got pulled in to coach a rec-league team that featured future Wilson Memorial and Marshall University star Stephanie Wine.
“Nobody else would coach the team because it had a girl. She was probably the second-best player in the league. I told them I hadn’t coached a day in my life, but if they couldn’t get anybody else, I’d do it,” Spears said.
The intense Spears from the early years has pulled back a bit in recent years.
“The ones who came though years ago tell the kids now, You’re lucky. Spears has mellowed,” Spears said, laughing. “I probably have over the years. You learn which kids need somebody to spark them, which ones need to be handled a little easier. You learn what they need, and you work with them.”