Coach shares life experience after tragic death of Tiquon Taylor, leading to state title

Photo courtesy of Gray Collegiate head basketball coach Dion Bethea

WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) -- Less than 24 hours after winning the Lower State 2A Championship, Gray Collegiate's world was flipped upside down. Freshman guard Tiquon Taylor, a 14-year-old member of the War Eagles' JV team was shot and killed.

"It was a bad situation for us. He was like a brother to us," explained junior forward Juwan Gray. "He came to practice everyday (and) always had a big smile on his face like freshmen do."

The next day Gray Collegiate boys head baseball coach Dion Bethea held a team meeting. But unlike any other meeting he had been part of before in his 19 years of coaching, he opened up and shared a personal story. In 1997, Bethea was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer that affects less than 200,000 people each year.

"Any form of cancer is tough to deal with. And I had never been through anything like that," said Bethea, who's kept this secret from many close to him for years.

"I went into my senior year with a port in my chest and started the treatment. (I) did it for six months and it ran over into my basketball season at Allen."

Bethea convinced his family that he would be okay, and was cleared to play. Instead of redshirting, he returned to play for Patric Simon, who was entering his first-year as the men's head basketball coach at Allen University.

"He was getting treatment just about everyday. We practiced at 4 o'clock in the morning and he never missed a practice," explained Simon, who's team had to practice at Benedict College early with Allen not having a basketball court of its own. "He never missed a practice (for) the whole season."

While being treated for a disease he knew little about, Bethea admitted he felt hopeless at times as less than a year prior he lost his best friend Darrick Hart who was unaware that he was living as a diabetic.

"He slipped into a coma and he couldn't recover," explained an emotional Bethea. That was the day we ended up losing him. It was real tough for me because he wasn't just my best friend, he was like a brother to me too."

With the support of his family, teammates and coach Simon, Bethea went on to beat cancer while earning all-conference honors. Allen would go on to win their first Capital City Classic Championship that season in nearly a decade.

"We all rallied around him and each other because all the kids (on the team) had problems too," said Simon, who coached just one season at Allen. "But we're a family. This is just your problem (while another player) this is just your problem. How can we make it all work? And we did."

"It was a situation for me to not only beat the cancer but to be successful while doing it as well and I did that," said Bethea.

Opening up to his Gray Collegaite players about his personal struggles, Bethea told them that they would get through this together. As the team became closer than ever before just days before the 2A State Championship.

"We had that mindset that we have to play for Tiquon," explained Gary, who said the team has become more open since. "You never know - someone in our family might die the next day. Playing basketball, that one-second on the court may be the best thing in your life."

"I wanted to give them some encouraging words. 'Hey, we're here anytime you want to talk but don't let this be a roadblock to stop us from the ultimate goal because we can still do it for (Taylor).'"

Five days after the death of Taylor, the War Eagles went on to win their first state championship in school history.

"Those things that happened off the court were much bigger than basketball," said assistant Gray coach and former South Carolina basketball star Brandon Wallace. "From them to be able sill process and focus and still eventually win a state championship is amazing. They amaze me."

"The ultimate goal is us winning a state championship. So what would be more sweeter than putting our emotions into everything and winning it for Tiquon? And we did that."

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