The first Battle of Bolivar
By Jim Masilak
December 6, 2006
BOLIVAR, Tenn. -- The lunchtime rush is over, and the mid-afternoon coffee crew has yet to arrive at Joe's Restaurant, the social epicenter of Bolivar's historic Court Square.
That means Lisa Hodge, who has owned and operated Joe's for the past two years, can spare a moment to talk about this West Tennessee town's two favorite sons.
Hodge is tired -- she rises each morning before sunrise in order to feed the good burghers of Bolivar -- but she lights up when talk turns to a pair of first-year college basketball players.
Then again, it's difficult to find anyone in this town of about 5,800, located 70 miles east of Memphis on U.S. Hwy. 64, who doesn't break into a smile upon hearing the names Willie Kemp and Wayne Chism.
"We've supported Willie for a long time. He used to come up here and eat a lot because Miss Lisa was paying," Hodge said. "He'd get pancakes, bacon and eggs. And Okra -- he loved okra. Breakfast was his main thing when he came in.
"And Wayne, he's a good person too. Everyone here loves them. Everyone's so proud of them."
A freshman point guard for the University of Memphis, Kemp is Bolivar's favorite son; Chism, a freshman forward for Tennessee who moved to Bolivar from Jackson, its favorite surrogate son.
Together, they helped Bolivar Central High School win the 2005 TSSAA Class AA state championship. As two of the top 100 recruits in the country last year, they brought national attention to Hardeman County.
But when Memphis and Tennessee meet tonight in Knoxville, they'll be on opposite sides.
And all of Bolivar will be watching.
Wayne Chism has listened to the voicemail, read the text messages and deleted the e-mail.
In the days leading up to tonight's showdown between the Vols and Tigers at Thompson-Boling Arena, the 6-9, 230-pound Chism has been inundated with messages from the folks back home in Bolivar.
By and large, the gist of each is the same.
"Either that Willie's gonna do this to us or that we're gonna lose. Or both," Chism says with a sigh. "They like Willie. I transferred. I'm from Jackson. They showed me a lot of love, and Bolivar's like a second home to me ... but Willie's a born native."
Chism played his first two years of high school basketball at Jackson South Side before moving to Bolivar ahead of his junior season.
While Chism became -- and remains -- wildly popular in Bolivar, the locals' greatest affection is reserved for Kemp, a homegrown talent who led the Tigers to back-to-back state titles in 2004 and '05.
"People in Bolivar love Wayne, but he was only down there for a couple of years," Kemp said. "I know they're gonna support me more than they're gonna support him."
John Vickers, the owner of AJ's Sports & Awards on W. Market St. in Bolivar, isn't so sure that will be the case.
"I think they'll pull for both of them," Vickers said. "It's not every day two players from the same high school are fixin' to face up against each other in a game this big."
When Kemp and Chism were playing at BCHS, Vickers couldn't keep up with demand for T-shirts bearing their names and numbers.
That hasn't changed much now that they're in college.
In advance of tonight's game, Vickers received a number of orders for half-blue, half-orange T-shirts, with Kemp's picture on one side and Chism's on the other.
"You hear a lot of people talking about them. They're turning the television on and getting the paper to see what Willie and Wayne are doing," Vickers said. "People want to see both of them succeed, no matter which team they pull for."
BCHS basketball coach Rick Rudesill, who coached both players, said the desire to see the hometown players thrive has led fans to reassess their loyalties.
"It's kind of neat to see people you know are longtime UT fans pulling for Memphis, and vice versa," Rudesill said. "That normally wouldn't happen."
In his office inside the Hardeman County Courthouse, a stately red-brick building adjacent to Joe's, Jerry Armstrong points to a picture on the wall above his desk.
There's Chism and Kemp alongside Armstrong's son, Dylan, who played basketball with them at BCHS, and Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.
The photo was taken during a recruiting visit to Knoxville, before Kemp cast his lot with the Tigers.
Jerry Armstrong would prefer a Tennessee victory, "but it's going to be a win either way."
"I hope they both have good games. I hope Wayne and Willie each get about 20 (points) apiece," Armstrong said. "It's gonna be really big for Bolivar."
Rarely has a group of high school students been so happy to see their principal.
But when Fred Kessler walked into the BCHS gym Monday afternoon before basketball practice, the Tigers descended upon him in excitement.
Kessler was collecting money for the charter bus that will take the team, some faculty members and other assorted fans to Knoxville to watch tonight's game.
Due to leave at 11 a.m., the bus won't get back to Bolivar until about 5 a.m. Thursday morning.
Kessler has stipulated that everyone who makes the trip be back at school a few hours later, but that's just fine with senior Presley Griggs.
"It's gonna be very exciting to see my former teammates go at it. The whole team is looking forward to it," Griggs said. "It's good to see they're making something with their lives."
Rudesill, who can't bear to watch Kemp and Chism live on TV -- he watches their games on tape -- approved the trip despite the Tigers having three games this week. That included a grudge match Tuesday night with arch-rival Middleton and a game Friday against defending Class AA state champion Jackson Liberty Magnet.
"It's gonna be a rough week," Rudesill said, "but that's how important we think it is for us to support Willie and Wayne."
Kessler, meanwhile, thinks the excursion will serve to inspire his current students.
"Last month Wayne was at Madison Square Garden and Willie was in Hawaii," Kessler said. "Those opportunities don't come along too often for Bolivar kids."
Kessler only wishes the game were in nearby Memphis instead of Knoxville.
"If it was in Memphis, we'd have as many as Memphis would let us bring," he said. "This is one of those once in a lifetime-type things."
Kemp and Chism, it turns out, are looking forward to the matchup as much as anyone.
Asked if he planned to make his presence known to the 6-2, 165-pound Kemp, Chism said, "It could happen that way. We'll let each other know what's up. It'll be a good thing for me to hit him a couple times."
Replied Kemp, "I'm gonna be on the lookout for that."
The players were so competitive in high school that Rudesill couldn't let them play on opposite sides in practice for more than a few minutes at a time.
"We were very close growing up," Kemp said. "But on the court, it's a different story."
As game day approached, Kemp spent time canvassing his hometown for support.
He promised game tickets to Hodge during a Thanksgiving week visit to Joe's, but she plans to root for the Vols.
"I hate to say it," she said, "but I'm probably gonna be for Tennessee. If Memphis State wins, I'll be happy too. I never liked Memphis State 'til Willie went there."
Kemp's luck with his old principal was only slightly better.
"I've always been a Tennessee fan, but I'm a Memphis fan, too," said Kessler, who attended both schools. "Willie asked who I was gonna be cheering for and I said, 'I'm gonna cheer for both of you. I'm gonna root for Willie Kemp and Wayne Chism.'"
-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311