Smile. Laugh. Tell a story. Answer a question. Smile some more.
That’s largely how Harthorne Wingo spent the better part of an hour Friday morning at Tryon Elementary School. It’s largely how he’s spent most of the past few days.
The only Polk County native to ever play in the NBA has enjoyed a hero’s welcome this week in his first trip home in more than 30 years. Since arriving on Wednesday, Wingo has been visiting old haunts and meeting a number of friends and former classmates and teammates, many of which helped organize the visit and the events connected to it.
It has, to no surprise, been a homecoming filled with emotion.
“This has been wonderful,” Wingo said. “I’m so glad I came.”
Wingo graduated in 1965 from Tryon High School, spending his senior year there as part of the school’s first integrated class. That campus is now Tryon Elementary School, and Wingo set foot there Friday morning for the first time since his graduation to talk with students in the school auditorium.
With former Tryon teammates Bill Metcalf, Bill Brock and Rick Gosnell in attendance, Wingo answered questions from the gathered third, fourth and fifth graders. Students asked Wingo how long he played in the NBA, how much money he made, what positions he played and whether he was ever worried about making the journey from dirt courts in Polk County to some of the most famous venues in the world.
“When I left here in 1965, I wasn’t nervous at all, because I had some certain things I wanted to do in life,” he said. “I got on the Grayhound bus, and 800 miles I went to New York.
“I didn’t really have any problems because no one knew me. So they would say, when I was playing ball in the park, who are you? What’s your name? And I would always say, my name’s Harthorne Wingo, and I’m from Tryon, North Carolina. Every place I went, that was my approach, and I didn’t really have any problems because I had an open mind, I was very friendly and I was a good player.”
As the hour-long session ended, students flocked to the auditorium stage to shake Wingo’s hand. Some asked for autographs, some asked more questions.
Wingo smiled, answered and signed all – save for the one student who wanted an arm signed.
It has already been a memorable return for Wingo, who played four seasons with the New York Knicks, including being part of the 1973 NBA championship team, before continuing his professional career in Europe and South America. Reaching the NBA capped an unlikely journey from the gyms of Tryon to the playgrounds of New York City to the NBA, where Wingo had the opportunity to play alongside legends such as Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Jerry Lucas and Bill Bradley.
Polk County has embraced Wingo, including during a stop Thursday evening at the Tryon Historical Society.
“Yesterday was very touching,” Wingo said of that appearance. “I almost broke down, I felt so good about myself in that situation. There were people there who knew me, who knew my father and my mother. Everyone was so nice. I almost broke down, and people said not to worry about it, they wanted to cry with me.
“I came up here through my old neighborhood, where I used to run the streets, ripping and running. There are so many wonderful memories here.”
Metcalf and the others in the group of former teammates each wore “Wingo 43” hats, referring to the number the former Tryon standout wore in his four season with the Knicks. The group has spent almost two years organizing and planning the events of the week, which will be capped Sunday with an appearance by the Harlem Wizards, the touring basketball group that helped give Wingo his professional start in New York. The Wizards will face a team of local players coached by Metcalf and Wingo at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Landrum High School.
Wingo will then head back to New York City next week with a heart bursting with memories and emotion.
“Everything has been beautiful,” he said with a large smile. “I’m so at peace. I’ve just been sitting back and thinking about all the times when I grew up here. This has brought back a lot of good memories.
“I can’t think of anything bad that ever happened in Tryon. It’s always been a wonderful place.”