Hillside’s Pony Express still fighting for recognition

The Hillside Hornets team photo for the 1965-66 season, the year they became the Pony Express. (On floor: John Lucas (ball boy). Front row, from left: Michael Hayes, William “June” Harris, John “The Goat” Bullock, George Outlaw, Gregory Monroe, and head coach Carl L. Easterling. Middle row, from left: James Paisley, Daniel McLaurin III, Larry Crawford, Hollis Vines, Alphonso Rigel. Top row, from left: trainer Silas Mayfield, Jimmy Mercer, Harrison McMillan, Marshall Hill, and statistician Eric Moore.)

The 1981-82 Denver Nuggets

The 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions

The 2013 Denver Broncos

All of these teams have one thing in common: each is the greatest offensive team in its respective league’s history.

But before those teams came along, there was the 1965-66 Hillside High School Hornets, also known as the “Pony Express.”

“No one else was playing ball like we were in the mid-’60s. Nobody,” said Daniel McLaurin III, Hillside forward from 1964-66. “You just couldn’t stop us.”

The cover of Daniel McLaurin III’s 2009 book “32 Minutes of Greatness: Special Edition.”

McLaurin has written two books on his former basketball team. He published “32 Minutes of Greatness” in 2003, along with a special edition in 2009. McLaurin says his book’s first version had no breaks so it could give the reader a sense of what it was like to play against the Pony Express.

Hillside was a member of the historically black North Carolina High School Athletic Conference (NCHSAC) until the conference disbanded and merged with the historically white North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) in 1969. While McLaurin was there, the team was a powerhouse.

The 1964-65 season saw the Hornets eclipse 100 points seven times en route to an NCHSAC 4A state championship in what would be the school’s first — and last — state title. In the championship game against West Charlotte High School, Hillside came back from a 35-16 second-quarter deficit to win, 80-78, in overtime.

“People started leaving; they started walking out,” said McLaurin said of the title game. “When the second half came around, I think that’s when we really became the Pony Express.”

Hornets head coach Carl L. Easterling had waited years for a team to come along that was talented, fast and fit enough to run a game plan he had gleaned from the mind of Hall of Fame coach John McLendon, said McLaurin. It was built around a smothering press, ballhawk defense, and extraordinary quickness. Agility and stamina were crucial, hence the team’s horse-like nickname.

Hillside took that game plan to another stratosphere in the year following its championship run, the season in which the Pony Express wrote its legacy.

“He had us in such great shape that nobody could keep up with us, nobody could run with us,” McLaurin said. “Fourth quarter, we’re getting stronger, because, with everybody else, we ran their tongues out.”

In 1965-66, the Hornets put up what could be considered otherworldly statistics. The team hit the century mark 14 times, doubling their seven 100-point games from the year prior, a still-standing state record. Not only that, but the team averaged 108 points per game (105 including playoffs), another state record that still stands. 

On February 4, 1966, Hillside scored a single-game state record 147 points, beating Rocky Mount’s Booker T. Washington High School by 90 points, 147-57. 

To put those numbers into perspective, the high-scoring Hornets came before the addition of the three-point line and the shot clock, and all of its 100-point games came without the benefit of overtime. Some of the team’s single-game point totals included 147, 139, 138 and 130, all in just 32 minutes.

The team would go on to lose by 30 points in their second-straight state championship game appearance against West Charlotte, but its mark had been left.

Its on-court dominance is only one part of the Pony Express’ story. 

The 1960s featured racial segregation, the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of black leaders such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

“In 1966, there was a lot of stuff going on. We were out there fighting for our freedom, as well as trying to play basketball, as well as going to school,” McLaurin said. “When we got on the basketball court, we didn’t have to think about anything else. We didn’t have to think about how they were treating us in the streets or in society.”

Despite being the highest-scoring team in North Carolina history, not a single member of the Pony Express received a scholarship offer from a major Division I basketball program — or white school, as McLaurin calls them. Not John “The Goat” Bullock, not William “June” Harris, not George Outlaw, not Michael Hayes, not McLaurin.

“When you grow up as a black kid listening to grown-ups talk,” McLaurin said, “what they would always say is that a black kid or a black person has to be a hundred times or a thousand times better than a white person at whatever you’re doing — and even if you are, you still might not get any recognition at all.”

That lack of recognition extends to 2020, as McLaurin has worked for years to get the Pony Express recognized by both the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (NCSHOF) and the NCHSAA Hall of Fame. Neither has budged.

Both entities do not induct entire teams, but McLaurin has been vocal about them changing their bylaws. In 2011, the NCSHOF created “Great Moments in North Carolina Sports History” to recognize special moments, teams and events in the state’s past. The Pony Express has yet to be featured. In addition, no individual member of the Pony Express or Coach Easterling has been inducted.

Over five decades later, McLaurin is now 72 years old, living in Pasadena, California. There are nine surviving members of the team, including Bullock, Outlaw, Gregory Monroe, Larry Crawford, Hollis Vines, Alphonso Rigel, Harrison McMillan, Marshall Hill, and statistician Eric Moore. They are spread out across the country, but still remain in touch on occasion.

McLaurin plans to release a documentary on the Pony Express in the future, one much longer than the eight-minute feature ESPN did on the team in 2004. He’s dubbed himself a sports activist, making the recognition of his team a high priority.

“You can give us a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but you need to give it all to us. Because we earned it. And I shouldn’t be out here asking for it,” McLaurin said. “I’ve got a lot of fight left in me, young man.”

6 thoughts on “Hillside’s Pony Express still fighting for recognition

  1. Great article. An outstanding story of a historic achievement that is decades overdue. I am honored to know Daniel, and thrilled to have been chosen to publish this must-read book. (Falcon Creek Publishing Co.)

  2. Gloria McLaurin says:

    This is a reality encapsulated in a vision of Coach Carl Easterling preserved by a determined, motivated Sports Activist, Daniel Mclaurin, III. The “Pony Express” shall be inducted in North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Not only do they deserve it, through long time activism of Daniel McLaurin III, but it’s also their honorarium during the times they accomplished this in the 1960’s Civil Rights injustice.
    Revealed for the purpose: African American Author/African American heritage and Legacy.
    This is indeed a Black History Moment and Movement; triple-wise, historically, athletically and literally Black Literature.
    Being the first all-black basketball team and be successful is an unbelievable accomplishment when it is acknowledged by the city and state that it was accomplished in. There were no ACC teams recruiting this historical team’s members to integrate white schools during the Jim Crow era. I believe that some of us could have been successful in division 1 basketball. As I wrote in my book, “There was not going to be an influx of black ballplayers on white campuses in the south, they were not ready for us black players on campus yet”. I am looking for state recognition in the North Carolina Sports Hall Of Fame. After all, we are the only team to average 105 points a ball game back in 1966, the ACC college teams were not scoring like we were. The Hall is my goal for the “Fabulous Pony Express” all-black basketball team.
    Still reigning and ready for the “Pony Express” and Coach Carl Easterling induction in the “Hall of Fame,”

  3. This is a story that should be told. Daniel McLaurin III is seeking justice and recognition for the accomplishments of the coach and all who played on the team. Daniel’s determination will yield a documentary soon on the effort this team put forth back in the Jim Crow days. Thank you Daniel for keeping the ball rolling.


    Thank you Durham voice for publishing this article Gregory Monroe #34 Pony Express Hillside

    • Larry Crowder says:

      This story is historical and deserved to be told. Somebody, somewhere had the fortitude to preserve this part of history. History can’t be repeated but it can be told. Keep on pushing , Brother McLaurin

  5. Laurie Trachta says:

    Daniel, you are a man of extreme perseverance! Don’y stop. Maybe now is the time! I wish you well.

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