Basketball has always been a central part of Tariq Coard's life. He grew up as the son of a coach and watched his brother flourish on the court and play in college. Now Coard is building his own path in the sport, but it wasn't a simple journey.
You'd think Coard's first love in the world of sports was basketball. His mom was former Scott's Branch High School girls basketball head coach Ruth Lee "Cuyke" Coard, after all. However, the first time Coard played an organized sport, it was football. He watched his older brother, Adrian, win a state championship with the Eagles and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
"My first sport actually was football. It started in third grade, I played recreation for the Clarendon Summerton Eagles. Ever since then, it was football," Coard said. "Then watching my brother play in high school and winning a state championship at this same school, it made me love football."
Of course, basketball was a pillar of the Coard household. Young Tariq spent hours in the gym at Scott's Branch, trying to help whenever he could as his mom ran practices. He loved football, but basketball was deep in his soul.
"It all started here in this same gym (Joseph Jones Gymnasium at Scott's Branch). My mother, she actually was the basketball coach, so every day after school I would come here and watch the girls practice. Just seeing that made me want to get involved," Coard said. "If they had an extra ball or an extra goal just for me, I would practice.
"I really enjoyed it a lot, because even though I was younger, any way I could help out, even if it was getting them water, helping with a drill, passing them the ball when they shoot in shoot-arounds. I had no problem with it because I was just happy to be there."
Coard's mother played into his love of sports across the board. Cuyke wasn't just the girls basketball head coach for Scott's Branch. She also coached volleyball and was even an assistant coach with the football team. Seeing his mom help coach a male-dominated sport taught Coard a crucial lessons at a young age, as Cuyke wasn't the kind of person that took kindly to being told she couldn't do something.
"My mom was not a girly girl at all. She was tomboyish. One thing about my mom is she felt like nothing was a male thing or a woman thing, but especially a male thing. She felt like girls could do the same thing as guys did," Coard said. "She even preached that to her basketball team. When you're on the court, you're not a girl, you're a basketball player. When the boys play, you're not a boy, you're a basketball player. You're the same as them. You're a different gender, but that doesn't matter. Talent is talent."
Coard said it wasn't always easy to practice what his mom preached, but as he got older, he learned why she fought so hard to teach him to work hard.
"That mentality, that's what I want to preach to my kids too, because she was never wrong," Coard said. "Most times, when you're young, you think your parents are being too hard, but when you grow up, you understand what they were talking about. There were many times I wanted to cry because I felt like she was being hard on me, but growing up I was like, 'She's right, I need to have the same mentality she has because she never gave up and always wored hard for what she wanted.' "
Coard learned to love the sport of basketball watching his mom coach, but he found his competitive spirit from watching Adrian. Adrian is 12 years older than Tariq, and for the longest time the younger Coard wanted to grow up to be like his brother. He quickly developed a need to surpass him.
"Everyone as a younger sibling, especially if you are the same gender, you always say 'I wanna be like him, I wanna be like my big brother.' As I grew older, I said I wanted to be better than him," Coard said. "My whole mindset at first was being just like him, then it was being better than him. I always strive to be better than him now."
Tariq was always close with Adrian and his sister, Jessica, but those relationships became even more important in January of 2012.
On New Year's Day, Coard lost his father. On January 26, he was in the car with his mom. They were leaving a game she had coached at East Clarendon to watch Adrian play at Morris College. What followed was the most traumatic experience of Coard's life.
On the way to Morris College, their car struck an animal and the vehicle crashed. Tariq survived, but Cuykie didn't.
"Being young, you're always going to take death hard, especially when you're old enough to understand it. That's not something I wish on anybody," Coard said. "When I lost my dad, I thought I'd always have my mom or I'd have her for longer than I did, but it was a couple weeks, 25 days after my dad. My dad was New Year's Day, my mom was January 26, 2012. It was sad. I felt like nothing, like I had no one."
It's one thing to lose someone you're close to, but it's even more difficult to comprehend when you witness it and manage to survive yourself.
"Seeing it firsthand, you're the first person to see her when she's dead and the last person to see her when she was alive. Seeing the car struck and I see my mom and she's not breathing, I'm trying to shake her and wake her up, crying at the top of my lungs," Coard said. "To be honest, I didn't want to live no more."
Coard was in a world of pain, but he found solace with his family. After going to the hospital, he had a long talk with Adrian, Jessica and their grandmother, Jessie. They found a way to move forward, as the three each played a role in raising the youngest Coard.
"Seeing my family and them telling me to keep going, like they've got me and they'll always have me, that brought us even closer. We were already close, but that kind of brought us closer," Coard said. "Once we got home, we had a deep talk. My brother always told me, my sister always told me, my grandma always told me - because I live with my grandma - so she said, 'I'm going to always have you.' I'm her grandson, so she was gonna treat me like I was hers now. My brother said ,"I'm gonna be your father figure.' My sister said, 'I'm gonna be your mother figure.'"
Coard now had new surrogate parents in his brother and sister. Both siblings are more than a decade older than Coard, which helped Adrian and Jessica fit into those roles.
"Them not being too much older than me, they understood where I was coming from, but the age gap, they're wiser than me, so they always taught me something," Coard said. "And they knew my mom longer than I did, so if there was something I didn't know about her, they would preach the same thing to me like she was there. Lessons that she taught them, they were able to teach me."
After tragically losing both of his parents, Coard could've easily lost his love for basketball. Instead, he went the other direction.
"After that, it made me go harder. Now I have something to prove. Even though that brought us together, why stop," Coard said. "Even though she's gone, going on and playing basketball would make her proud because that's what she always wanted me to do, keep going no matter the situation. If you want to do something, keep going."
Of course, it's difficult to move on from your mother's death when you're surrounded by people who revere her.
"It was different. When she wasn't here, I felt her not here. Her spirit was here, but her not being here physically always changed me. People would always recognize me and be like, 'You're Miss Cuyke's son. I know you're going to be something one day,' " Coard said. "I didn't want to let them down, I didn't want to let her down. I wanted to continue to make the whole community proud."
Coard said he continued to play basketball because he loved the sport, not because he felt pressure to follow in his mom's footsteps.
"I wouldn't say it was pressure, because this is what I wanted," Coard said. "I'm not going to let anyone influence me to do what I love. I always wanted to be the best at it because I love competing. I want to win. I'm a winner, I'm not a loser. She always preached that to me too. 'You're not a loser, so whatever you want, go do it. This is your opportunity; you can't live for nobody else and nobody else can do it for you.'"
Originally, Coard decided to follow that path away from Scott's Branch. In his sophomore season, Coard decided to move in with his sister in Georgia so he could get away from Clarendon County for at least a little while.
"I thought it was time for a new change. This was actually my sophomore year, so I thought it was time for a change, something better, something bigger," Coard said. "Just to see the world, because there's not much in Clarendon County, especially being from around here when you know every cut and corner, what's going on. If something happens, the whole county will know."
Coard stayed in Georgia for a year, but eventually decided to move back. While he loved living in Georgia, it was a major adjustment to go from a small, tight-knit community at Scott's Branch to a big school in Georgia.
"When I left, the transition was from a 1A school to a 5A school. I'd never seen nothing that big, I'd never witnessed an upstairs in a school. I just wasn't comfortable," Coard said. "I was happy I was in a better living situation, but when it came to sports and friends, it wasn't what I wanted. I was uncomfortable. I just didn't feel like I was me anymore. Coming back, that's what helped me get myself together and find myself again."
So after a year, Coard came back to Scott's Branch for his junior year in 2019. He came back at the perfect moment. The Eagles were starting to put together a special group and Coard pushed them over the line. Scott's Branch had an electric season and earned a spot in the 1A boys basketball state championship game for the first time in Coard's lifetime. The Eagles lost a dramatic game to Great Falls, 73-71, but Coard was validated for his decision to come back to Clarendon County.
"When I left, (Adrian and Jessica) didn't really want me to leave, they thought Georgia was the best thing for me, but I came to the decision myself for coming back," Coard said. "When I came back and made it as far as we did, they told me they were proud of me. I came back and my GPA (grade-point average) went up, I did better athletically, academically. They told me they were proud of me and I know she would be proud of me. She had better seats up in heaven. I know she watched it, because I felt her yelling at me sometimes."
The success of Coard's junior season was immediately followed by another downturn, as the world soon shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily, Coard was able to play a full football season with the Eagles, but basketball season didn't go as smoothly.
After playing in a preseason tournament, Scott's Branch played just one game against Manning High before their season was put on hold due to a positive COVID-19 case on the Manning basketball team. Coard was suddenly left wondering if he'd have a chance to complete his senior season and find somewhere to continue his basketball career.
"There was actually times when I went into my room and broke down because what's next? I don't have a for-sure home, I don't know where I'm going yet, but I know this is what I want to do," Coard said. "I wouldn't mind being a walk-on, but that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to have a scholarship, because I'm worthy of that. I have the talent to show somebody why they recruited me. With the pandemic, no one was really looking at me and I wasn't too sure."
Eventually the Eagles got the news that their season would resume. While Scott's Branch was sidelined, they moved to No. 1 in the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association 1A rankings, putting a target on the Eagles as they returned to action. For the rest of the season, they looked worthy of that ranking, as they returned to the 1A state championship game for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, they had the same result.
"For this year, we were like, 'We can't lose two (championship games) in a row.' We knew we were getting there, but that was our mindset. We're going there, but we can't lose two in a row," Coard said. "Everything happens for a reason and 6-(foot)10(-inches), you can't really do nothing with that. I'm not taking nothing away from him, fundamentals, he was good, he had talent. They were a good team, but we didn't want to lose like that."
The Eagles ran into a buzzsaw when they faced Southside Christian for the 1A crown. The biggest hurdle was Ian Thomson, the Sabres' 6-10 center. Scott's Branch couldn't get its offense going around the big man, falling 66-45.
After the loss, Coard turned to his No. 1 fans, his surrogate mom and dad. They were there to console him, but Adrian also issued a challenge.
"A normal child or somebody else might run to their mom or dad, but I don't have that, so I went to my mother figure and father figure, my brother and sister and my grandma wasn't too far away," Coard said. "They told me they were proud of me and I remember my brother telling me, 'What's next? You can't get this game back, so what's next?' So I kept that same mentality of what's next."
Coard still had to figure out what was next. He began searching for a place to play in college, while also playing baseball and running track in the spring. A week before graduation, he announced his next destination - Erskine College. Coard accepted a scholarship, but the road to get there was difficult. Despite playing in back-to-back state title games, it was tough to be recruited as a 1A player.
"Just being overlooked. Nobody really knows of Summerton or Scott's Branch. If you're from the area and played Scott's Branch you do, but no one really knows about Scott's Branch," Coard said. "We never really have recruiters coming down here to see what we can do, because there's talent here, there's always talent here. We just don't have the resources to reach out or we're overlooked because what does a 1A school have to offer?"
Now Coard is continuing in his brother's footsteps, playing college basketball. While Adrian fills a father figure role for the former Eagle, Tariq still pokes fun at his brother and plans to surpass the elder Coard on the court.
"I still treat him like my brother, I just respect him more. He does stuff for me that my own father couldn't do. He's my father figure now, so I'm going to respect him and act like he's my dad, but at the end of the day he's still my brother and we're going to compete," Coard said. "I'm not going to let him push me around, and he's going to have to show me why you're better than me."
Adrian and Tariq are also following down the path Cuyke set for them, as both are pursuing a career in coaching. Adrian started first, coaching AAU basketball in Clarendon County. He's also giving Tariq a chance to get his feet wet coaching AAU ball himself.
"He told me when his career was over he wanted to coach and that's what I want to do too," Coard said. "I thank him a lot because he gave me a jumpstart on my coaching career. When I started off it wasn't bad, I actually got some wins. We've got some losses too, but I'm a young coach and still have a lot to learn about teaching younger people and especially people my age because they feel like they know the same as me."
Coard said he wants to get into coaching full time once his playing days are done because he never wants to be done with the sport of basketball. It also gives him a chance to give back to his community in Summerton.
"Being from the same community, you want to help them reach the same goals. In a couple of years or even next year, I want to see them signing and doing what they want," Coard said. "If you have a dream, go chase it."
But for now, Coard is focused on heading to Erskine. He has big dreams, but he's determined to make them his reality.
"I'm trying to keep my career going as far as it can," Coard said. "I'm trying to make it to the League (National Basketball Association), there's no if, ands or buts about it. Even if it's not the NBA, you have other leagues, you have semi-pro. I wanna go bigger than that though. After my playing career is over, I wanna be in the coaches hall of fame."
He'll be trying to reach those goals with a great support system on his side and watching him from above.
"With them, I think that I can never be steered in the wrong direction," Coard said. "The love there is always to do the best and to do the right thing and keep going. Be you, but be the best you can be."
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