Photo by Keith Warren
By Torsheta Jackson
On April 2nd, the town of Olive Branch, a growing and energetic mix of Memphis suburb and rural north Mississippi, was thrown into the spotlight for the second time in a month. The first had been in celebration. On this night, a deadly shootout between two young men would rock the community to its core and change the lives of two stars.
Just as dusk fell in DeSoto County, 17-year-old high school junior Chavez Aldridge and Rodney Clark (age 20), got into an altercation which led to gunfire. When the smoke cleared and the bullets stopped flying, both men were dead. Calvin Temple and other friends were on the scene before the police arrived.
“We got the call about 5:30. They said they heard like 40 shots. Then about five minutes later, they said (they’d) just died,” Temple says. “We knew them. They used to hang out around us.”
The scene was as poignant as it was tragic. Temple knew a positive change needed to happen for the community, and had some ideas. But it was not something he could do alone. He called upon a fellow star to help.
One month prior to the shooting, D.J. Jeffries, the senior Olive Branch star, removes his jersey for the last time.
Holding the sweat-covered uniform like a dish towel over his long limbs, he pushes through the crowd that has overflowed onto the court to find Temple, the player who just ended his high school career, to shake hands and embrace.
The duo hugs as Jeffries shouts into his ear over the drum of the crowd. A lone photographer captures the moment, right before the two exchange a last nod and head back to join their teammates. For Jeffries and Temple, it was the picture of a lifelong friendship.
The two, whose parents had been acquaintances in the growing community of Olive Branch, met in the 3rd grade and bonded immediately over basketball.
“We met when we were seven,” Temple says. “Like real little, and our parents had us playing on the same AAU team (The Memphis Runners) together. We already knew each other, and we just clicked.”
They would attend different middle schools but their friendship grew as quickly as Jeffries’ frame. When the two were reunited at Olive Branch high school, varsity coach Eric Rombaugh saw the impact of their connection immediately.
“Just the chemistry that they had…is something that is built over time. They knew where each other were and where each other needed the ball. They just meshed so well together and it helped the team because their chemistry rubbed off,” Rombaugh recalls.”I could definitely tell right away that they both had a chance to be really special,” he says.
Rombaugh was more prescient than he imagined. Jeffries and Temple started as freshman. As sophomores, they averaged more than 30 points a game combined.
But just as their on-court connection blossomed, their paths split again. Temple transferred to ASPIRE Basketball Academy in Kentucky, where he honed his skills against some of the nation’s best prep school talent.
Meanwhile, Jeffries evolved into Mississippi’s best high school basketball player. The 6’8”, 220 lb. swingman led the Conquistadors to a 26-8 record and the 5A state championship his junior season (2017), earning both the state’s Mr. Basketball award and USA Today’s Player of the Year.
He headed into his senior year with plans to add “back-to-back state champion” to his already long list of accolades. Temple had plans, too.He returned to Olive Branch, but would attend Center Hill High School, formed in 2006 and situated in the same town just seven miles up the road.
Olive Branch has been a powerhouse in Mississippi since the 1980s. Center Hill played its first official basketball season in class 4A in 2007 and went 4-13. By 2018, they were challenging for a 5A state championship. But they hadn’t beaten neighbor Olive Branch. Ever.
Temple turning up at the Hill gave Mustangs fans new hope, and suddenly pitted him against his good friend in a rivalry that would crescendo around their starring roles.
The first two matchups of the 2018-19 season sold out, but both games ended with the same result: the Conquistadors celebrating at center court. The teams met for a third time in the district final, and with .3 seconds left on the clock, Center Hill inbounded the ball and hit the shot for a one-point win. Controversy ensued over whether the shot happened in time, and Olive Branch appealed in vain to the MHSAA.
Quistor fans started sporting “.3” shirts, hats and signs, a reference to the questionable time count. Olive Branch remained the higher ranked team throughout the playoffs. Mustang nation was as emboldened as they were offended. They had gotten the win, but not their due respect.
By the time the teams faced each other for a fourth time in the 5A state championship game, both fan bases were at a boil.
For Jeffries and Temple, it was Hollywood stuff: on the court together for the last time, against each other, with a state title on the line. Jeffries had won it a season earlier and enjoyed the spotlight as the state’s best player. But it was Temple who stole the show.
The Center Hill senior had 24 points and 8 rebounds to lead the Mustangs to a 75-73 win for the first state championship in the history of the Hill.
“It’s the stuff you dream about when you’re little. You do it and it’s like all your hard work is right in your face. You see everything pay off,” says Temple.
The young men that had been lifelong friends embraced at the center of the Mississippi Coliseum with a hug, a smile, and an exhale. The season, and their high school careers, was over. But so was the rivalry.
“I told him ‘Congratulations. You made history. You were the first one to bring one to Center Hill.’ I told him I was proud of him,” Jeffries says. “We told each other that we were going to do something special and put our city on the map, and I think we did that.”
Three weeks later the shooting of Clark and Aldridge happened. Seeing their peers lie dead in a pool of blood on the street struck a final cord, and sparked a fire, in Temple and Jeffries.
The pair of rivals had one more mark left to leave on the city, a legacy beyond the trophy case.
“We were texting one day and (Calvin) said’ ‘We should do something for the community.’ I asked him what and he gave me some ideas and then we came up with the basketball courts,” Jeffries says. “We actually thought about it before (they) got killed, but when that happened we said, “Yeah, we really need to do this.”
Temple and Jeffries started publicly raising funds through a gofundme.com account to build free local basketball courts for the Olive Branch community.
Residents are largely in support of the effort. According to Temple, OB police chief Dom Gammage, whose son was their teammate at Olive Branch, has agreed to help secure land near the police precinct. Seattle Seahawks linebacker KJ Wright, an Olive Branch alum, has offered to cover the cost of two courts.
“There is not a lot to do here to do at all,” Jeffries says. “I want to give kids – like my little brother or little cousin – something to do to keep them out of trouble so they won’t fall into that same thing.”
The proposed courts have a ways to go for finalization and construction. But both Jeffries and Temple believe that their own example of crossing boundaries for a cause can already help inspire positive change.
“With us being rivals and close friends, we think it will bring everyone together and stop the hate,” Temple says. “We can come together and do something good for the community.”
Once again their basketball paths will diverge – this time, likely for good. Jeffries will attend nearby University of Memphis. Temple will play at Indiana University – Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI).
Temple hopes the pair will have at least one more opportunity to share a court together – even as opponents.
“My sophomore or junior year, my coach said we are going to come down here and play Memphis because that’s where I’m from so we will get to play each other again,” Temple says. “Well, if he doesn’t go pro.”
No matter what happens from here, they’ve already left a legacy on the courts they’ve shared, battled, and teamed together to create.